By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
Which is more compelling these days? Today’s hits? Or yesterday’s favorites?
As Nielsen’s July PPM ratings rolled out, it was Classic/Greatest Hits stations that set the pace in city after city. On day 1, WCBS-FM New York and WOGL Philadelphia recaptured the lead in their markets. On day 3, as Robert Unmacht of Tom Taylor Now noted, only three out of the day’s 12 markets were not led by a gold-based station of some sort. The classic-hits success stories well overshadowed any “kids out of school” boost that once powered CHR to big boosts in the summer months.
Researchers know that one of the key music genres of Classic Hits, ‘70s and ‘80s pop/rock, was often the most-appealing music in most markets for many years. Part of a researcher’s job was often talking an owner out of crowding into a market where preference for Classic Hits or Classic Rock existed, but not a hole. In a similar way, the excitement about today’s hit music has driven the growth of third CHRs and second Hot ACs in recent years.
Each surge for older music always makes one wonder if today’s music is suddenly less potent? Or if younger fans of today’s music are contributing less listening. Which body of music is more highly rated? Which is more overcrowded?
As a way of gauging the appeal of “now” vs. “then,” I decided to look at the relative appeal in Nielsen’s top 26 PPM markets of two songs that typify the two camps. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was a song that ignited immediately across the pop radio spectrum, from Rhythmic Top 40 to Mainstream AC. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” is a mainstay of Classic Hits, Classic Rock, and Adult Hits. For a while, it also became the song that represented the changing sound of Mainstream AC.
These days, “More Than a Feeling” is more likely to be considered too old than too aggressive by the many Mainstream ACs that go back no further than 1980. Thus the 1976 hit has become a good representative of the “yesterday” camp. In fact, we found only three stations in the top 26 markets that were playing both “More Than a Feeling” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling”: ACs WMJX (Magic 106.7) Boston; WKQC (K104.7) Charlotte, and WSSH Pittsburgh. In a sign of the times, there were even a few Adult Hits stations — a format once focused on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s — playing Justin but not Boston.
As a way of judging the yesterday and today appetites (and availability) in various markets, we decided to look at the number of stations playing each song in a given market; the combined shares for the Justin and Boston camps; and the average share for stations playing each. Those three stations that played both were counted toward both tallies. (I also made the decision to include two major Classic Hits stations — WOGL Philadelphia and KONO San Antonio — that aren’t playing Boston, but are clearly significant parts of the “then” camp in their markets.)
The availability of a format in a given market isn’t always perfectly reflective of its appeal. Classic Hits never fully recovered from its near-meltdown in the years before PPM, and there are still holes in markets like Atlanta, Houston, and Washington that say as much about owners’ willingness to consider the format as its likely appeal. But the results are still intriguing.
Just based on the sheer number of stations, the choices for contemporary music fans are much more plentiful. On average, there are 4.6 stations in the top 26 markets playing “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” There are 2.9 playing “More Than a Feeling.” In Seattle, there are six monitored radio stations with publicly released ratings playing Timberlake. On Long Island, because of the availability of New York stations, there are eight. The most gold-saturated markets are the eight markets where there are four stations playing Boston (and that includes the city of Boston).
There are also more shares for those stations specializing in “now.” The average combined rating of the Justin stations is 20.4 shares. The average for Boston is 14.1. The most contemporary market is Miami, with more than 28 shares, followed by Pittsburgh with 27 shares of Justin fans. But Pittsburgh is also the classic-hits capital with a formidable 36 shares for places to hear classic rock and classic hits.
But the smaller number of stations filling the “yesterday” hole gives a slight advantage to those who do. The average rating of each station — determined by averaging in each market, then averaging nationally — is 4.8 for Boston stations and 4.5 for Justin stations. Boston stations still would have had a slight edge even had I not decided to include WOGL and KONO.
Despite this, there are actually more stations at the top of the 26 biggest markets playing Justin than Boston. Even when one counts Philadelphia and San Antonio, the top contemporary station led the top classic-hits station in 14 out of 26 markets. Often, those stations were Mainstream ACs. Only CHRs KQMV Seattle and New York’s WHTZ (Z100) in the Long Island, N.Y., book were leaders in their top 26 markets.
All of this said, neither “Can’t Stop the Feeling” or “More Than a Feeling” is likely to be hard to find on your summer road trip. While the odds of hearing a song on a station that plays its powers 20 times a week (not 120 times) are lower, three stations in a market and a relatively finite body of reliable hits means that it’s not unusual to drive through a market and hear even a classic hit twice. It’s that Active Rock current or developing Country hit that will be harder to find.