The ’90s have managed to repeatedly snag eager programmers—especially those who grew up with them or entered radio during that era. For the last 10 years, radio has intermittently brought En Vogue, Bell Biv Devoe and ’90s hip-hop back to a surprisingly indifferent audience. With moms and daughters in agreement about recent rhythmic pop, there was less long-term impetus to resurrect the music of only one high-school class’ life. But it was hard to believe the ’90s would stay gone any longer than the once-reviled ’70s.
WBQT (Hot 96.9) Boston may be the station that beats the ’90s jinx. It’s a rhythmic hot AC built on an AC template—the same nine-song current rotation that a mainstream AC would play, punctuating a mix that is otherwise 75% gold—but the calling card is “throwbacks” from the ’90s and ’00s. It could best be described as the greatest hits of rhythmic rival WJMN (Jam’n 94.5), especially with former WJMN programmer Cadillac Jack McCarthy and morning team Balthazar and Pebbles in tow.
Like any station that doesn’t report to the charts, Hot 96.9 faded from public view after the extensive stunting that accompanied its launch. But in August, the station was up 3.1-3.6 6-plus. Now, Seattle’s KMTT has become Hot 103.7 with a similar approach in another market with a significant heritage for rhythmic top 40–20-year rhythmic rival KUBE as well as KQMV, the original “Movin’” station, which began with ’90s-based rhythmic before evolving to top 40.
So why might Hot 96.9 be getting traction when other rhythmic hot ACs have come and gone before, including Boston’s WQSX (Star 93.7), which was more based in the ’70s and ’80s?
For starters, more time has passed. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac records that were among the strongest-testing songs for any ’90s-based station (whether specifically rhythmic or not) are fresher and less available on the radio than they were at the time. As alternative becomes more based in recent music, that will eventually become true for Pearl Jam and Sublime as well, although it’s currently hard to imagine.
There’s less competition from today’s rhythmic pop. The first Movin’ stations hit just as “SexyBack” and “The Way I Are” were infusing rhythmic pop with a new energy. Moms were vaguely amused to hear the ’90s music again, but the new music was even better and those songs worked for everybody. But if TLC’s “Creep” didn’t stand up to the beginnings of rhythmic pop, it sounds pretty good against “The Other Side” and other recent hits that are late iterations of the turbo-pop formula.
There’s almost no competition from today’s hip-hop. WJMN’s ongoing success means that hip-hop has maintained some place in the pop firmament in Boston. But those songs that find even a place in mainstream top 40’s lower reaches are few and far between. Either way, there’s more passion for even the B’s of the ’90s and early ’00s among pop listeners than there is even for today’s worthiest rap artists.
Most significantly, Hot 96.9 has less pop corniness than some other attempts at the ’90s. Without a dedicated R&B or adult R&B station, WJMN and Hot 96.9 are effectively filling those holes in Boston. Hot 96.9 plays Maroon 5 and Pitbull, but if you’re listening by default, there is less to make you feel like you’re settling. Besides, even in its early days as one of the first “urban” stations, rival WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) always had some pop content. I was dismayed when Hot 96.9 stunted with hip-hop/R&B before unveiling its “real” format—could Boston really never have an R&B station again except as a hoax? But the passionate response to the short-lived stunt format now seems to inform the real one.
Here is Hot 96.9 just after 11 a.m. on Sept. 4:
Robin Thicke feat. Pharrell and T.I., “Blurred Lines”
Fatman Scoop, “Be Faithful”
LL Cool J feat. Boyz II Men, “Hey Lover”
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky”
Jermaine Dupri & Ludacris, “Welcome to Atlanta”
Santana feat. the Product G&B, “Maria, Maria”
Ariana Grande feat. Mac Miller, “The Way”
Next, “Too Close”
Jay Z & Kanye West, “N***az in Paris”
The Notorious B.I.G., “Big Poppa”