Should a station be switching out of or into Top 40 now?
There are contradictory answers in three September format changes.
- Cox’s WPOI (Hot 101.5) Tampa, Fla., the most successful of the second CHRs from the late-’00s/early-’10s format boom, got out of the format altogether, becoming Urban AC WTBV (The Vibe 101.5).
- Cumulus’s Top 40 WQQO (Q105.5) Toledo, Ohio, was the latest CHR convert to a ’90s-and-2K format, pitting it against HD/FM translator combo Party 103.3, and following the lead of sister KLIF (Hot 93.3) Dallas.
- Summit’s WPYA (Mix 97.3) Birmingham, Ala., made a rare move in the other direction, finishing a Hot AC-to-CHR transition as “Today’s Hits 97.3.” The new station does play some ’00s and ’10s gold, but often it’s current-after-current in a way that’s unusual to hear at Top 40 now.
Going CHR now is provocative when there’s so much traffic in the other direction. There’s neither a CHR hole nor a big target in Birmingham. iHeart’s WQEN (Q103.7), which returned Top 40 to the market in 1998, was off 4.3-3.9 in July. During the mid-’90s doldrums, that might have been enough to drive a station out of the format; in the cluster age, most four-share CHRs are able to stay put.
So why would a station make the move to CHR at this moment, rather than trying to flank WQEN with throwbacks, something to which a Hot AC could have easily segued? One likely answer is that Mix 97.3 was at the “nothing to lose” place where a station might consider CHR now — down 1.1-0.8 in the same monthly ratings. Having been an adult-friendly Top 40 even before it was a heritage CHR, Q103.7 might prove easier to flank from the other side.
Another consideration is that WPYA owner Summit Media has been one of the most aggressive groups for new music in most of its formats. That includes Country, where Summit stations (and their former Cox Media sister outlets) were devoting significant spins to new product at a time when few Country stations were as optimistic about it as they are now.
It’s also worth noting that ’90s/’00s CHR throwbacks as a standalone format haven’t been an obvious or sustained magic bullet for anybody, yet. Some of that is a function of those songs’ sudden ubiquity. Not only is Backstreet back, but everybody’s got them.
- New “throwback” stations are often approaching the format as yesterday-and-today outlets, playing at least some currents, and sometimes a 50/50 mix. That makes them more easily flanked as …
- Existing CHRs continue to lean more heavily on throwbacks, even without changing their positioning. As I wrote this story, word came that WZFT (Z104.3) Baltimore had shifted to more of a 50/50 mix.
The net result is that it’s harder for the new stations to really differentiate themselves. That said, Q105.5 had at least 1-2 songs that I actually hadn’t come across on the radio recently. Middayer Rachel Ryan was also doing something I don’t always hear — talking about local events and news stories (e.g., schools planning to close for next year’s solar eclipse) and not celebrity news.
Here’s Q105.5 at 1 p.m., Sept. 13:
- Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
- Ja Rule f/Ashanti, “Always on Time”
- Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”
- Chris Brown, “Forever”
- Backstreet Boys, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”
- Elton John & Dua Lipa, “Cold Heart”
- Shakira, “Whenever, Wherever”
- Britney Spears, “Circus”
- Taylor Swift, “Cruel Summer”
- Crazy Town, “Butterfly”
- Shaggy f/Rik Rok, “It Wasn’t Me”
- Nicky Youre f/Dazy, “Sunroof”
Here’s “Today’s Hits 97.3” just after 10 a.m., Sept. 12 with middayer Kayla:
- Rihanna, “Umbrella”
- Nicki Minaj w/Aqua & Ice Spice, “Barbie World”
- Taylor Swift, “Cruel Summer”
- Dua Lipa, “Dance the Night”
- Bille Eilish, “What Was I Made For”
- SZA, “Snooze”
- Olivia Rodrigo, “Vampire”
- Bruno Mars, “When I Was Your Man”
- The Weeknd f/Playboy Carti & Madonna, “Popular”
- Fifty Fifty, “Cupid”
- Olivia Rodrigo, “Bad Idea Right?”
- The Weeknd, “Die 4 U”
Personally, I think this could be a good time for CHR to flex.
- With new TV and movies running out, all new music has a renewed opportunity to fill an entertainment void.
- There is, for the first time in several months, a steady stream of worthwhile new Friday releases (and this week, the Wednesday release of Sia’s “Gimme Love”).
- There is more uptempo mainstream crossover R&B and Hip-Hop. Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red” has made headlines for being the first Hip-Hop song to top the Hot 100 in over a year, but “Barbie World” has been a breakthrough also. So has having Dochii and Lil Durk right behind.
- There has been a recent gift to CHR in the release of Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS. I’m on the record as not wanting to hear the same artist every 20 minutes, but I’m also in favor of CHR finding some way to accommodate “Vampire,” “Bad Idea Right?” and “Get Him Back!” as soon as possible.
- There are projects not yet surfaced at American CHR from both Canada’s Charlotte Cardin and the UK’s Maisie Peters that tick a lot of the same boxes as Rodrigo without sounding anything like her.
I’ve written the “cautiously optimistic about the music story” several times in the last four years. It could certainly be the case that CHR has so many other issues — repatriating younger listeners, recapturing urgency at a time when urgent is not in the station budget — that music alone won’t fix it. I’ve always said that I would rather hear a better CHR format anyway while we wait to find that out.
I can now add that Country’s fortunes seem to be improving, largely from a change in the music. Country has core artists, when many CHR artists aren’t even releasing follow-ups to major hits. Those core artists are now touring again and playing station events, while CHR stations have cancelled summer shows. Country also has a better flow of product, a better label/station relationship, and enough streaming success stories to create more hits without metrics entirely replacing programmer judgment.
Streaming means that Country radio hasn’t entirely fixed its glacial chart issues, but it has been better able to triage the hits faster. CHR is still working on its timing. One key would be figuring out how to refresh power rotation more often. Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” only went to power for many stations two weeks ago. Mike Castellucci, whose Power Indicator Score computes a song’s strength based on available metrics, showed that song as possibly power-ready by late July, a week after Barbie opened. (And maybe PDs should have just done it in opening week anyway.)
Without being in any way unaware of the optimism required here, I believe that Top 40 can be rebuilt because listeners still want new music, and haven’t been able to generate quite enough of it on their own. That certainly might be because I still want new hit music from all genres. But part of the move to throwbacks is reminiscent of when CHR stations panicked about Hip-Hop crossovers in the early ’90s, ultimately alienating both the existing listeners who didn’t like Hip-Hop and those who did. With the flood of throwbacks, we have to consider that while some new music listeners may not be keepable by broadcast radio, some have stayed and are now being chased away.