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  1. #1

    Default Finding More R&B At Classic Hits

    From Radio Insight:

    When “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon came out in late 1980, it was a big deal among my rock friends at University of Michigan. It was an edgy ballad, perfect for friends brooding over a breakup. It was the beginning of Hi-Infidelity becoming one of the biggest albums of the year. It was the record that both Rock and AC radio could agree on at the time they were setting the agenda for what was left of Top 40 radio during the “disco backlash,” even if “Celebration” was on the radio at the same time.
    Then came “Take It on the Run.” It was almost the same song as “Keep On Lovin’ You,” but without the same edge and without the shock of the new. It was the next single, even though other songs on the album were more interesting (and readily available on rock radio). And it came as Top 40 was continuing its descent in spring 1981. (The lyric didn’t quite scan either: “I think you’re cheating on me. I know you would never cheat on me, so I’m standing by you. But if you are cheating, I’m kicking you out.”)*
    I’ve been listening to even more Classic Hits radio than usual recently for work reasons. Recently, somebody I follow tweeted, “When can we agree to just stop playing ‘Don’t Stop Believin?’” I’m sure I heard that song a few times a day in the course of my listening, but that wasn’t the one I noticed. It was hearing “Keep On Lovin’ You” every day that stood out. In the year of “Arthur’s Theme” and “The One That You Love,” it was the best of the available balladry. When things started to improve at Top 40 and the format rebounded, its job was, to some extent, done.*
    But I hear a lot of corporate rock at Classic Hits radio now — some from the doldrums (REO, Journey); some after the format diversified and improved (Bryan Adams); some by bands from the corporate era but now associated with the hair-band era (Bon Jovi, Def Leppard); and one holdover that was 1987, but could have as easily been from 1981 (Cutting Crew). “Take It on the Run” was the one that stuck out — a likable enough trifle that hardly seemed to occupy the same place in the firmament as “Summer of ‘69” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “I Love Rock & Roll.”
    Then reader Steve Reggie responded to my column about musical frame of reference and how I stuck with R&B and pop in the late ‘70s when most self-respecting kids switched to Album Rock. Reggie wrote that he had listened to it all. Now he wondered why nobody was playing it all. Reggie hears Classic Hits stations as “Michael Jackson, Prince, and not much else” from R&B. “I’m not sure what the theory is? When we were in our teens and 20s, we listened to Top 40 stations with a 50%-rhythmic playlist. But in our 40s and 50s, we want no dance music at all?” He goes on to ask if it’s the influence of former listeners to AOR in its narrowest period? “But then, wouldn’t they be listening to Classic Rock?”
    R&B, as it happened, placed 28 songs in Billboard’s Top 100 of 1984 — considered the peak year of the CHR boom. That doesn’t count another handful of pop songs that R&B radio played (Madonna, Hall & Oates, Dan Hartman). Now there are eight songs among the top 100 most played songs at Classic Hits, according to BDSradio. That might seem more like the doldrum years, but even in 1981, there were 16 R&B titles in the year-end Top 100.
    I’ve already spent 2,000 words telling you about my personal taste as “The Kid Who Would Not Rock”, and I have to avoid projecting it on listeners who seem very satisfied with a very successful radio format. But I do have some thoughts on how it happened:
    Classic Rock Does Play a Role: I’ve noted for a while, especially in the last two years of calculating the Lost Factor of former hits — and the endurance of others — that the most-played late-’70s and ’80s songs are those that play on Classic Hits, Classic Rock, and Adult Hits. Those songs are more easily able to get a quorum. Adult Hits, with its emphasis on Classic Rock and ‘80s New Wave, had a lot to do with what songs endured from that era and in setting the agenda for Classic Hits as those formats moved more closely together.
    Increasingly, AC Plays a Role: Those songs that don’t come from the Classic Rock/Adult Hits side tend to come from AC, which has helped reinforce songs like “Hungry Eyes” and “Break My Stride” at Classic Hits. As they did in 1981, AC stations also reinforce those records at the rock/AC intersection — “(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” etc. It should be noted that some rhythmic titles, such as “Straight Up” or “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” do better at AC as well.
    Less ’70s: One of the ironies of the early ’00s was the success of Disco at AC and then Classic Hits (and even Adult Hits, which tended to use it for shock effect). Then those formats pushed forward out of the ’70s. That said, even now at Classic Hits, the top 100 most-played includes “September” (No. 56), “Stayin’ Alive” (64, not counted here as one of the eight R&B titles, although it was an R&B hit as well), and “I Will Survive” (78). In addition, some of the R&B that was part of rock radio in the ’70s (“Superstition” and “Low Rider” in particular) is also less heard now.
    Less ’70s and ’80s at Adult R&B:* Adult R&B and R&B Oldies stations have always been about 10 years ahead of other comparable formats. Adult R&B is more centered in the ’90s than the ‘80s now. (As New Edition and its related acts become center-lane, I have seen more of those songs start to show through for some pop stations.) There were also a lot of soft R&B early ’80s titles — “Just the Two of Us,” “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” — that were offloaded from Adult R&B to Smooth Jazz, then became less heard when Smooth Jazz disappeared. Some of those titles are back on the new crop of Soft ACs, however.
    Focus on a Relative Handful of Artists: Because both Michael Jackson and Prince are so much deeper than any other R&B artists at Classic Hits, the airplay for any given title is diluted, meaning those songs are less likely to make the Top 100 most-played. (The only title, besides Jackson, Prince, and the aforementioned disco, is Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody [Who Loves Me.]”
    Focus on Listeners Who Weren’t There: As listeners continue to move through the demographic window, we are increasingly playing the ’80s for listeners who weren’t there. If you were there, you notice that “Oh Sheila” and “Word Up” are missing. If you weren’t there, you have a better chance of learning those songs that are already on the radio. Then again, I noticed recently that “I Like” by Guy was having a TikTok comeback. That song didn’t even cross over in 1988. I’d be surprised if it could pick up enough critical mass to test old now, but I’d certainly want to test it and find out.
    This will change. As Classic Hits Pushes Into the ’90s, R&B and Hip-Hop Are Harder to Deny. Alternative, the first format where any ’90s music tested, will help set the agenda. But already, it’s possible to see inroads for “U Can’t Touch This,” “Poison,” “This Is How We Do It,” “No Diggity,” and, as noted recently on KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles, “California Love.” As the format moves further into the late ’90s/early ’00s, we’ll hear “Family Affair” and even “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Ooops!),” because we’ve already seen those records work for those Mainstream ACs that will test them.
    In the meantime, there are a few Classic Hits stations where ’80s R&B and dance have more of a presence:

    • WOCL (105.9 Sunny FM) Orlando: Better for hearing Rhythmic Pop than its peers, but also feels like it has a more varied, more tempo-driven ’80s list than some comparable stations. It’s been an industry favorite for a while.
    • KONO-FM San Antonio: It was one of the last Classic Hits stations where you were likely to hear, say, “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” That type of song has moved to its AM, but the last three songs on KONO were “Straight Up,” “Good Times,” and “Let’s Groove.”
    • KABG (Big 98.5) Albuquerque, N.M.: On the market’s No. 1 music station, the top 100 most-played songs are still roughly 25% R&B.
    • WFEZ (Easy 93) Miami and WDUV Tampa:WFEZ’s calling-card in recent years has been ’80s R&B, but as it increasingly adds tempo, you might hear “Point of No Return” by Expose or “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz. WDUV’s recently played titles include “Let the Music Play,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and the Taylor Dayne version of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe.”
    • WNAV Annapolis, Md.:Under new owner/programmer Chris Roth, there’s still a ’70s pop component, but there’s more of a “Jammin’ Oldies” feel as well. Here’s the station as monitored in early May in p.m. drive:
      • Earth, Wind & Fire, “Fantasy”
      • Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”
      • Harold Melvin & Blue Notes, “Bad Luck”
      • Gloria Gaynor, “Never Can Say Goodbye”
      • INXS, “Need You Tonight”
      • Friends of Distinction, “Grazing in the Grass”
      • Spinners, “I’ll Be Around”
      • Kenny Loggins, “I’m Alright”
      • Mathis & Williams, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”
      • New Kids on the Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”
      • Fifth Dimension, “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing”




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