“Guys – these are Drake numbers.”
Mark Adams, vp of CHR programming for iHeartMedia Markets Group and programming director for adult pop station KIOI (San Francisco) and top 40 stations KYLD (SF) and KKRZ (Portland, Oregon), recalls using the “D” name on a recent national call with other radio programmers. Adams was mentioning the most successful streaming artist of the past decade to illustrate the viral success of the Disney smash “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – taken from the runaway hit animated film Encanto – and to explain why it was perhaps time for contemporary hit radio PDs to start paying attention.
“Top 40 and CHR is reflective of pop culture,” Adams says. “We try to be aware of everything that’s happening that our audience would care about. And the success of [Encanto] on Disney+ across the holidays – which of course in turn helped spur early performance metrics – put it on my radar really early.”
If you’ve paid any amount of attention to pop culture in 2022, chances are pretty good “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is on your radar by now. Boosted by Encanto’s brilliantly timed arrival on streaming near the end of 2021, the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned song debuted at No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated Jan. 8 of this year. Accelerated by further word of mouth and a full-bodied TikTok embrace, “Bruno” flew up the chart, hitting No. 1 just four weeks later – becoming easily the biggest breakout hit of the early year.
But despite the rapidly developed cultural ubiquity of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the one place where you might’ve missed it thus far is on radio. Despite being the No. 1 song on the Hot 100 for a second week this week, “Bruno” is still nowhere to be found on Billboard’s 50-position Radio Songs listing, with its success to this point powered almost entirely by streaming (five weeks at No. 1 on Streaming Songs) and sales (one week at No. 1 on Digital Song Sales).
It’s not hard to see why the song has gotten off to a slower start at radio. Though the ‘90s Disney boom saw major hit singles generated from the soundtracks to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, prior to Encanto, the only Hot 100 top 10 hit produced by a Disney animated film this century was Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” from Frozen (No. 5, 2014). “Bruno” also diverges wildly from the standard form of those previous big hits – mega-ballads that also worked as standalone pop songs – as a musical number more sung-spoken than belted, with a salsa-inspired shuffle rather than gated drums and dramatic strings, and seven credited performers (Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, Stephanie Beatriz and Encanto Cast) instead of the usual one or two. What’s more, it’s not a simply understood love duet or grand personal statement, but a many-voiced, plot-advancing showtune that would likely make little sense on the radio to listeners unfamiliar with the movie.
Despite those obvious obstacles to radio integration, those Drake numbers are growing harder and harder for top 40 stations to ignore. Adams tested “Bruno” out on the adult pop station KIOI at first, since that channel had found success with more recent Disney songs, like “How Far I’ll Go” or “You’re Welcome” from Moana and “Remember Me” from Coco. “I feel like some of the Disney music has, at times, been an underutilized resource – particularly for adult formats, which are so reliant upon moms and dads with kids,” he explains.
Adams’ and KIOI’s initial embrace of the song came as a pleasant surprise to Scot Finck, svp of promotion at Disney Music Group. “I joked with him, ‘We haven’t even had a chance to finish the one-sheet for our servicing!’” Finck recalls. Nonetheless, “Bruno” did well enough at KIOI – as well as at a handful of other stations that had started to test the waters with it – that Adams also eventually added the song at KYLD, which Finck calls “the ultimate format flare” in signaling the song as a potential CHR hit.
And slowly – compared to its streaming velocity, anyway – but surely, it’s catching on. This week, on the chart dated Feb. 12, “Bruno” debuts at No. 33 on Billboard’s Adult Pop Airplay listing, and at No. 38 on Pop Airplay. Though it was not initially the focus track overall from the set for Disney – that was Carlos Vives’ “Colombia, Mi Encanto,” which debuts this week at No. 100 on the Hot 100 – Finck says Disney Music Group is now “focused with the energy of a thousand suns” in pushing “Bruno” as hard to radio as possible.
“We’re presenting it as a simple equation to our radio partners: You always need audience, and this is the No. 1 song by many measures to deliver that,” he summarizes. “Furthermore, all the initial data is proving it’s that especially rare hit that appeals across EVERY demo.” (Finck also says his pitching has gotten a lot easier in the past week: “A lot of programmers are shifting quickly from “I’m not so sure” to “‘I’ll be there this coming week or next.’”)
KYLD hadn’t played a Disney song in rotation since “Let It Go” nearly a decade earlier, but Adams thought the song’s cross-platform massiveness simply demanded to be recognized. “Once in a while, you see [a Disney song that] becomes so massive that, again, it’s a pop cultural movement,” he says. “I think top 40 needs to find a way to touch and embrace [that moment].”
That can be easier said than done when it comes to a song as conspicuous as “Bruno” – which, due largely to what Adams calls its “Broadway mechanics,” doesn’t necessarily make for a seamless fit between big hits from more traditional pop radio fixtures. So Adams’ stations make a point of “staging” the song with DJ intro banter (“Hey, I’m sure you’ve seen the movie 100 times with your kids – and you probably have this already stuck in your head – let us do it for you yet again!” he gives by way of example), or by leading in with imaging that makes reference to Encanto and gives context to the song to follow.
“There’s a little bit of an artistic nuance to have it effectively staged so it’s not just crashing into The Weeknd,” he says. “But it’s still on the same playlist, because [right now] it’s just this weird moment in time when The Weeknd and Ariana Grande and the Chainsmokers and Lin-Manuel Miranda – they all have really great records.” (Adams also acknowledges the impact that the rising prominence of Latin pop and hip-hop in the CHR format might have had in making the current presence of “Bruno” less jarring: “I think its musical influences are, in some ways, very much in line with a lot of very big popular artists that we already play on the radio.”)
And while “Bruno” might not have a lot of the same obvious radio strengths as the new singles from those other top 40 fixtures, it does share perhaps their most potent weapon: a knockout hook. “That hook is great,” Adams offers, with a Tony the Tiger-style emphasis on the adjective. “And I think that kind of overcomes those other barriers of entry. [For listeners who] haven’t seen the film, and they couldn’t describe the plot, and they’re unaware of what the characters in the song are referencing – right away, they can all sing, “We don’t talk about Bruuu-noooo…” Like, it’s very, very catchy.”
The improving numbers and enthusiastic early response to “Bruno” on radio – Adams says that every time his stations play the song, he sees “people putting up their IG videos where they’re filming the radio while they’re driving to work, or kids singing in the back seat” – raises the question of if the song will soon be as unavoidable on the airwaves as it is online. Will Calder, director of branding and programming for CHR stations WPYO Orlando and WPOI Tampa, has noted similar excitement upon “Bruno” being played on his own stations – but imagines we may soon hit a natural endpoint to that excitement.
“Songs like [“Bruno”] are best suited in the moment while pop culture is excited about it – once that energy subsides, it’s probably time to put the lid on it,” he says. “While I never say never, I don’t see ‘Bruno’ ending up with thousands of spins, or in our 2022 year-end music countdowns.”
Finck, however, believes the song can outlive Encanto’s time at pop culture’s center. “This is about much more than just harnessing ‘the moment,’” he says. “Radio is recognizing this is not just a timeless Disney track, but a relevant hit for their formats.”