For years, the rule of thumb about gold at Top 40 radio was that it should be roughly from the previous three years, that there should be an emphasis on titles by current core artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders), and that it should pass the “would this song be a hit today?” test.
Because CHR’s 1980s heyday started with those “Hot Hits” stations that were all current, with subsequent new stations opting for a slightly less extreme version, what you tended to hear during those years was more focused on the last 18 months, with exceptions for only the biggest stars (e.g., “In the Air Tonight,” more prominent as gold than as a current in 1981, during Phil Collins’ mid-’80s superstardom).
I loved those stations that still used “oh wow” oldies creatively, although not many stations felt the need to do so when CHR was flourishing. KKBQ (93Q) Houston and the other stations consulted on music by John Hartman were exceptions. Even after KKBQ moved from AM to FM, it was possible to hear a complete rule-breaker such as “Seasons in the Sun” in between the MTV and R&B crossovers, at least until rival KRBE really took hold.
Whenever gold has become a major part of Top 40 over the years, it has usually been an acknowledgement that the current music was weak. WKRZ Wilkes-Barre, Pa., survived the early ’90s doldrums by continuing to play “More Than a Feeling.” WKTU New York, one of the key comeback stations, relied heavily on older rhythmic gold. Stations such as KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas played “Brick House” and “When Doves Cry” until they didn’t have to. Even after CHR’s resurgence, Kiss’s Ed Lambert launched the then-Q100 Atlanta with many of those same songs to get attention.
We are now at least three years into a throwback boom at Mainstream and Adult Top 40, compounded by a glut of reworkings and interpolations of older songs. Some CHRs are switching formats outright. Others are just covering their bases more. WFLC (Hits 97.3) Miami went to a yesterday-and-today CHR two years ago. Now, rival WPOW (Power 96) has scaled back its currents, shortly after sister WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago’s move to a yesterday-and-today format itself.
When used well, throwbacks provide the tempo and energy that have largely been missing from CHR in recent years. At worse, they confuse things. Recently, I encountered “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” by Jennifer Lopez on CHR. Not only is that song not better than any possible current hit, there’s also the possibility that it will play while your Mainstream AC rival is playing Post Malone. Cool throwbacks can give moms and daughters something to enjoy together. But a 16-year-old thinking “this sucks” before going back under the earbuds is a very real possibility, too.
So here are some thoughts on how to play throwbacks:
Not every library title is a throwback. For me, the throwback stager carries the implication that the song to follow will be tasty and interesting, and something that went away for at least a while. “Sorry” by Justin Bieber is eight years old now, but is there any surprise or delight in hearing it?
Using “throwback” as a synonym for all gold will diminish the value of throwbacks. There is definitely no surprise and delight in hearing “Closer” or “Eastside” or “New Rules” again. In fact, one of the things that throwbacks can do for us now is let us play “Eastside” and “Closer” and the sludgy sound of late ’10s CHR a little less.
There is going to be a law of diminishing returns. As contemporary radio relies more on throwbacks, there will be less surprise and delight in hearing “Toxic” as well (if there is indeed still any). The second tier is going to get ruined faster than the G.O.A.T. songs like “Toxic.”
Spike carefully. As the second tier of throwbacks becomes diminished from overuse, there is room for an occasional true oh-wow. Those songs should be spiked, not left in rotation where they will overschedule because they are tempo songs from one-hit-wonders. They should also be songs that you are sure a 28-year-old actually remembers as a current. I could pull off “Good Girls Go Bad” by Cobra Starship occasionally, but I know how I would want it to be played (between smashes) and when (not often).
Fostering new music is more important than ever. As noted a few weeks ago, if we believe that Top 40’s future is to become a younger version of Lite-FM, then we are saying that Top 40 has no future. The current reliance on throwbacks is not a permanent solution. We are still looking to find songs that are better than “No Scrubs” or “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” or “Umbrella.” We are looking to have enough of them that they are not destroyed by six months of power rotation.