What Happens When Pop/Alternative Radio Runs Out of Alternatives?

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Nathan Willett of the band Cold War Kids performs at Century Park on August 15, 2015 in Century City, California.

Why has the pop/alternative format been so elusive for radio programmers?

When KLCK (Click 98.9) Seattle switched format on March 16, becoming KVRQ (Rock 98-9), it was the second high-profile attempt at combining pop and alternative to do so recently. After nearly three years of straddling the formats, CKUL (Radio 96.5) Halifax, Nova Scotia, finally segued to adult top 40, becoming Mix 96.5 in late February.

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In its five years history, Click 98.9 had variously leaned more pop and, briefly, rock enough to be reclassified as alternative on some charts. At the end, its most played songs ranged from Cold War Kids' "First" and Vance Joy's "Fire and the Flood" to DNCE's "Cake by the Ocean" and Daya's "Hide Away." It was a mix that extended from the Strumbellas to Shawn Mendes

At its peak, Click had engaged heritage modern rocker KNDD (the End) in a seesaw battle. In its final month, Click had a 1.6 share 6-plus to the End's 3.7 share. Now, it's targeting KNDD's sister station, active rock KISW's 4.7 share instead. 

The pop/alternative hybrid goes back almost as far as the alternative format itself -- more than 30 years. It has not been without its successes, but even those have ultimately listed to one side or the other. WHTZ (Z100) New York in 1993 was a truly exciting radio station that could go from OMD to Onyx before going almost entirely alternative and then back to mainstream top 40. KTCZ (Cities 97.3) Minneapolis successfully played acts like Family of the Year with CHR-pop rotations, punctuated by an occasional Pink or Bruno Mars record, until one day the Adult Top 40 music became dominant.

In between, there was the Modern AC format of the mid-to-late '90s, successful enough to create its own chart and station panel for a while. Modern AC successfully cherry-picked alternative, which reacted by becoming a much harder format. When the Lilith Fair artists of that era ran their course, many of those stations followed the music back to a Hot AC mainstream that first included Shania Twain and Faith Hill and, ultimately, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake.

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Pop/Alternative has never suffered from a shortage of interest from smart programmers. It is one of those formats where everybody feels there ought to be something there, especially now. The Alternative chart has spent the last five years dominated by well-liked music that is more pop than rock, music that is never fully accommodated by Mainstream or even Adult Top 40.

So for every "Ex's & Oh's" by Elle King or "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots that crosses to Mainstream Top 40 eventually, there are others like X Ambassadors' "Renegades" or Borns' "Electric Love" that need a lengthy gestation period and can still get no further than midchart. Empire of the Sun's "Walking on a Dream" anticipated the sound of today's pop music when originally released in 2008. A recent Honda Civic commercial forced its U.S. re-release, finally making it an alternative hit, but without enough topspin to break through at mainstream CHR. 

So why has a pop/alternative hybrid proved so daunting for so many programmers? Why does it often sound compromised to alternative fans, but still inaccessible to top 40 listeners? 

Programmers Can't Decide What To Play: Should they be looking at the Alternative chart? The Triple-A chart? Those two are pretty close these days, with worthy contenders like Cold War Kids' "First" that do well at both, but there are still significant differences in style and texture. 

Programmers Can't Decide What Not To Play: If Lorde, Ellie Goulding, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez are all making similar-sounding records and adult women like all of them, do you really use artist image to draw the line? Would you play Ed Sheeran? Then why not an Ed Sheeran song that just happens to be sung by Justin Bieber? Many PDs have assumed a pop/alt hybrid means no hip-hop or R&B. But how can you deny the hip credentials of the Weeknd or Kendrick Lamar at this moment?

Core Artists Don't Stay Core: Even the poppiest alternative artists are inconsistent. Eventually, some tilt entirely to the pop side (No Doubt, Maroon 5) while others try to reclaim their alternative cred. Invest too heavily in Lorde because of "Royals" and "Team" and you will eventually find yourself wondering what the hell to do about "Yellow Flicker Beat."

Mix Tapes Are Highly Individual: I have often found myself listening to pop/alternative stations overseen by programmers of undeniable achievement and thinking "they're doing it all wrong." But what if there is no right way? The "all-types-of-music" format is even more elusive and it's usually because nobody's random playlist makes sense to anybody but them. 

The Presentation is Daunting: Pop/Alt stations often take their cues from alternative's "anti-radio" feel. Because they are the niche stations in their cluster, they also often end up being jockless. That means pop listeners are left alone to negotiate unfamiliar music with a mildly foreboding presentation that increases the "otherness" of the format, instead of emphasizing the accessibility of great pop songs like "Walking on a Dream." 

Pop Radio Doesn't Recognize the Need: When pop/alternative works, it's usually as pop radio with extra alternative product, rather than vice-versa. (Cities 97 was the exception.) Hipper pop is easier to sell than a compromised alternative station. But Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Mainstream AC are all happily crowded around a similar body of hits now. It would be hard to sell a pop station to corporate that plays 7-9 alternative songs with no pop track record, yet. 

When I began writing this article, I was also willing to concede that maybe the music on the alternative and triple-A charts wasn't quite accessible enough. Maybe there was a reason that Lorde crossed over and Chvrches did not. But I'm looking at the alternative chart again, looking at Miike Snow's "Genghis Khan," Cage the Elephant's "Mess Around," Panic! At The Disco's "Victorious" and the next Twenty One Pilots song, "Ride," and feeling like there's no shortage of alternative songs that could be pop. Some will get there eventually. Some will get caught between formats. 

And somebody will try pop/alternative again. For it to take hold, there will have to be at least two or three success stories in a sustained period. And the demise of Click may mean waiting awhile for the next attempt.


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