Radio

How Alternative Radio Powered This Year's Biggest Crossover Hits

Iann Dior 24kGoldn
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Iann Dior and 24kGoldn pose ahead of the MTV EMA's 2020 on October 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

By championing genre-blurring artists this year, the format encouraged a rap-rock wave.

When Barry Weiss signed 24kGoldn to his RECORDS label in late 2018, he thought he had found a rap star in the making. That changed when Weiss heard the 20-year-old’s “City of Angels,” a single off the artist’s 2019 debut EP, Dropped Outta College. Weiss recalls the reaction he shared with his colleagues at Columbia Records, senior vp pop promotion Brady Bedard and senior vp rock formats and public radio promotion Lisa Sonkin: “We were like, ‘This is a f--king alternative record.’ ”

Indeed, the guitar-laden track became a top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart in June, as part of an ongoing trend of alternative radio powering crossover rap-rock hits. Sonkin believes it’s a direct response to the influence of younger listeners, noting that the desire for genre-blurring music is apparent in “everything from streaming data to radio research. Most programmers realize it’s in their best interest to be open-minded as the demographics of their listenership shift. Alternative was always meant to be cutting edge.”

As a result, in 2020, the format embraced artists it previously wouldn’t have recognized. Machine Gun Kelly’s rollicking “Bloody Valentine” has been a staple on alternative rock stations since the summer; the late Juice WRLD made his Alternative Airplay chart debut in October with a posthumous top 10 hit, thanks to the Marshmello-assisted “Come & Go”; and in July, 24kGoldn not only returned to Hot Rock & Alternative Songs but topped it with “Mood” (featuring iann dior), which also reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (As 10K Projects founder/CEO Elliot Grainge told Billboard earlier this year, 21-year-old Puerto Rican rapper-singer iann dior is “one of the founding fathers” of the emerging rap-rock lane.)

Mike Kaplan, Entercom senior vp programming and alternative format captain/brand manager for WNYL New York and KROQ Los Angeles — the first station to give “City of Angels” airplay — says the format has always been at its best when it represents the culture of the moment, particularly for younger, left-of-center listeners. And, as 2020 brought global protests against racial injustice, alternative program directors say they’ve had to address the representation of the artists getting played on their stations and recognize a need for change.

“We’re giving a voice to traditionally marginalized people and diversifying perspectives to amplify non-Caucasian, non-gender-specific voices,” says Kaplan. (To his second point, on the Alternative Airplay chart dated Dec. 5, Clairo, the female-fronted Cannons, Royal & The Serpent and Billie Eilish all sat within its top 10.) “The forefront of the audience is more ethnically diverse than ever before.” Yet Kaplan and Sonkin say that some stations are hesitant to evolve. “There are alternative programmers that question our game plan and think that genre-blurring music is a mistake for the format,” says Sonkin. “We see the success and are fully committed to keep trying.”

Adds Kaplan: “We have to keep one foot grounded in our history, but not get stuck in the trenches of that point in time. We’re growing and infiltrating other aspects of music — this niche format is driving popular culture.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.