“Ross On Radio,” the long-running, influential column about radio programming trends and history, has returned to Billboard! The column will appear every Monday in Billboard’s “Top 40 Update” a free subscription e-mail newsletter which you can sign up for HERE. The column will post every Wednesday on Billboard.biz
What if the music you liked in high school had nothing to do with the music you like now?
For the last 30 years, it was pretty easy math for programmers of adult formats which, by definition, excluded top 40. Wait for new listeners to turn 25, or thereabouts, and bring the music they grew up with-once-edgy music which, by then, will have softened with time. It worked with “More Than a Feeling.” It worked with “I Love Rock & Roll.” It worked with “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
‘Ross on Radio’ Column Returns to Billboard
Then it was time for the hits of the late ’80s and early ’90s to get their turn. Programmers finally thought it was time for “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and “Rump Shaker” on the radio again. But a crowd never gathered around those records. And on those stations that tried to mix them with current and recurrent hits, the newer songs dominated any music research.
That was an early lesson in the power of “now.” At the time, top 40 was astounding the radio industry by showing ratings and research strength with those over age 25 for the first time in two decades. It was easy, at first, to explain lack of interest in the early ’90s, when music was polarizing and mainstream top 40 was not a shared experience. Besides, there was new rhythmic pop music that worked for both moms and daughters. So why force the older stuff?
But it was hardly the last example of the power of now. Mainstream top 40’s miraculous adult strength spread to listeners over 35, then well beyond that. Soon, it became common to see not just adult top 40 but mainstream AC music tests dominated by recent titles. During the last year, adult top 40 and even AC have found themselves being pulled toward mainstream top 40, sometimes at the cost of their uniqueness, because the strength of today’s music is too undeniable. Nobody wants to be playing the same songs as five other stations-but what choice is there?
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Country, also for the first time in decades, harnessed the power of now. It became possible to hear two currents in a row, and to find country stations promoting themselves to high-schoolers-something they hadn’t been willing to do during the format’s early-’90s explosion.
Urban didn’t have the power of now. When the format’s travails first became apparent, even before the rollout of the Portable People Meter in many markets, the reaction of many programmers was to make the format more gold- and recurrent-based. Suddenly, a format once known for its immediacy wasn’t so immediate.
Alternative might still harness the power of now. Two years ago, modern rock was the only format dominated by the ’90s. Newer music, with fewer stations to break it nationally and less opportunity to cross over, was marginalized and took longer to develop. Now, a surge of great product has emboldened PDs to a compromise-fewer ’90s and more recurrents. So what would happen if they went further?
A few weeks ago, we visited a family friend who had a very aggressive adult top 40 playing in the kitchen. The songs she responded to most were the pop/rock titles, but the busier rhythmic pop seemed to, at worst, go right by her. The telling part was when she and her husband pulled their vinyl collection out of the storage locker and encouraged me to take as much of it off their hands as possible. Much of it was classic rock with an emphasis on ’70s progressive acts-Supertramp, Yes, etc. And unless you’re willing to link that music to today’s “turbo-pop” through its emphasis on keyboards, there was nothing in the collection that would predict my friends’ current tastes.
This doesn’t imply that there’s no market for “then.” Oldies/greatest-hits stations have had as significant a resurgence as mainstream top 40. More ’90s music, like the once-reviled ’70s music before it, will eventually find a place, and some of it is minutes away from seeping into the oldies format already. And the ’80s mainstream top 40 boom, which also found adults untethered from the music of their life, ended in a period of growth for oldies stations. I remain a big believer in gold-based formats. What has changed is the symmetry with which listeners arrive or remain there.
But, for now, “now” is in demand. It’s not news that adults appreciated having music as a link to their kids. Recently, I’ve started to think it’s more than that. To an 18-year-old, the importance of partying while you still can is just a lyrical conceit. To their middle-aged parents, “for all we know/we might not get tomorrow” is far less of an abstraction. Now isn’t just powerful. It’s at a premium.
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