The recent ROR column on the possibility of “A World Beyond Formats” prompted an email from AC WIKY Evansville, Ind., PD Mark Elliott. He wrote, “I believe the format trap was built and encouraged by the record industry.” He then added, “Weren’t stations reporting, or not reporting, because their playlist met some sort of criteria set by the record folks? At one time there were 12 charts on the R&R back page . . . Listeners don’t know ‘new country’ from ‘fresh country,’ but we in the radio biz make a great big deal about it . . . the challenge is to serve them, not some random format definition.”
There’s some truth there, especially in Elliott’s last statement. There’s also a lot of complexity in the creation and defining of format charts. Having been a part of the chart process for many years, I’ve often found myself having contentious discussions with both labels and radio stations. Those arguments were often punctuated by the other person calming down just long enough to say, “I don’t envy you having to make these decisions,” before heating up again.
New charts, like new formats, are driven by the emergence of music that doesn’t fully fit in another format. Even rhythmic top 40, the format at the center of the most chart controversy through the years, began with dance music that was acknowledged—but never fully embraced—by R&B radio, then exploded when it had its own stations. By the time rhythmic stations went more R&B, or even recently more pop, there were separate label departments and careers built around it, and staffers who didn’t want stations to move, even though it has led to a less rigid set of musical criteria for reporters.
Just as often, labels are skeptical about new charts, or divided on them. The creation of the Billboard’s Modern AC chart in the late ‘90s generated different receptions, depending on whether a label had appropriate product. There’s probably more justification for two country charts than ever. But Nashville labels have always resisted that notion, even if it could give veteran country artists the same sustained chart careers that long-running R&B acts find on the adult R&B charts. “New country” and “fresh country” might be the same thing, but it would be easy for younger and/or more gold-based versions of the format to emerge if all country reporters weren’t all taking label calls about the same songs.
At this moment, the format and chart landscape is in an unprecedented place. The controversies over the placement of an individual radio station have been defanged, somewhat, by the consolidation of label jobs. Listeners truly like “a little of everything,” but only a few current-based formats (particularly country and top 40) are thriving. Other formats, especially active rock, have fewer real hits, but no shortage of product still geared to them, something which keeps the chart needed by labels. Ten years ago, it might have been easy (musically, not politically) to merge active and alternative rock. Today, the two charts are the most clearly defined that they have been in 10 years.
Formats used to be kept in play by whether there were enough stations to sustain them. Modern AC first did so well that most adult top 40 reporters became modern AC for nearly a decade. Then those stations began to lean more pop and there weren’t many discrete modern AC stations left. Ironically, the body of available “modern AC” music is greater than it has been in the last 15 years.
Now, as national platforms emerge, the issue of whether there are enough stations for a chart has also become slightly less important. During the alternative format’s down period, that body of music was probably kept alive by a mere handful of “true.alt” stations, but particularly by the existence of SiriusXM’s Alt Nation. It was also satellite that kept dance music on the map during all of its fluctuations in the ’00s. If a handful of stations on new platforms can sell music nationally, there’s no need to get hung up over whether there are enough stations in any format.