By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
How much new music do listeners want? For more than a decade, it has been grimly noted that the year’s most attention-getting new formats are usually based in older music, whether Journey and Def Leppard (Adult Hits) or Notorious B.I.G. and Blackstreet (throwback Hip-Hop/R&B). New genres find it hard to emerge. Existing genres are more gold-based (see Active Rock). And yet, as we continue our look at the Intriguing Stations of 2016, there were still signs that new music mattered.
Spotify Discover Weekly – When broadcast radio lost its monopoly on new music discovery, the new business model became helping cull a bewildering supply of new music and legitimizing the hits. For many, that first job was usurped by this weekly customized delivery, only a fraction of which was music found anywhere near mainstream radio. Over the last year, Discover Weekly become a consumer press phenomenon. It also adds nuance to any discussion of why radio has become less enterprising on new music, if a not insignificant number of listeners are waiting for a weekly delivery of 30 new songs, very few of them songs that are anywhere near being ready for mainstream radio.
KDDB (102.7 Da Bomb), KPHW (Power 104.3) Honolulu — As I write this, KDDB is playing “Lights Down Low” by Max, which is receiving more than 110 spins between Honolulu’s three Rhythmic CHRs, while getting little airplay anywhere else. That’s the kind of story that once used to be common in Honolulu radio, and there’s been more of it in recent months, especially since the format became a three-way battleground again between Da Bomb, Power 104.3 and the new KUBT (the Beat). KDDB and KPHW also went through several Bruno Mars cuts before a second single emerged, and if Bruno in Hawaii doesn’t seem particularly daring, remember that “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift never ended up on New York radio. As with San Francisco’s KMVQ/KYLD battle, it was nice to see finding your station’s own music once again regarded as a secret weapon, not a liability.
KSXY (Y100.9) Santa Rosa, Calif. – A year ago, it was the pop-leaning Mainstream Top 40 station that also made aggressive use of Country crossovers, but throttled R&B and Hip-Hop slightly. Now it is truly playing everything—Thomas Rhett and Amine on the same station. And the sort of experiment that usually lasts a few months is heading to the two-year mark.
WZDJ (DJ105.3) Jacksonville, Fla. – This was an experiment that lasted six months. And on a single-owner rimshot signal in a medium market, the format’s mortality was pretty much inevitable. But shouldn’t there be a place somewhere for a hosted, produced radio station that plays dance music from the ‘70s through today? DJ105.3 was the reason broadcasters need to find a national platform for formats that are too niche for most single markets.
WCAT Burlington, Vt. –One might also naturally wonder about the long-term prospect of a station devoted not just to pre-Beatles Oldies, but one with an emphasis on the rockabilly and jump blues of rock and roll’s beginnings. “The Big Cat” indeed went dark at the beginning of the year. But it found an immediate successor in WPLB, running the equally intriguing “Mid-Century Radio” format also heard on WKCE Knoxville, Tenn.
WCVT (101.1 The One) Burlington, Vt. — Vermont radio has never been short of sense of place, with the progressive radio heritage of rocker WIZN resurfacing in various places from time to time. “101 The One” is wide-playlist Classic Hits by day. At night, “Chill Out 101 with Mr. Mellow” is like little else on the radio now — a combination of supersoft AC, ‘70s soft rock, and instrumentals.
No Shoes Radio, Sirius XM Road Trip Radio — Stations based on usage, not musical genre, have been a calling card for online radio and an obvious opening for satellite radio, which has enough available real estate to earmark some channels for mood service. One of those mood channels was homegrown, the other was “No Shoes Radio,” which began as a Sirius XM pop-up channel, built a following on the Web, then returned home. That was a significant development, because if Kenny Chesney needed satelllite’s critical mass, then how is a smaller standalone Internet broadcaster going to be found?
AccuRadio — It now bills itself as “better radio for your workday.” Its “Workplace Moods Channels” alone include 13 uptempo “motivation” stations, 10 for focus (including one electronic-based channel called “Machines Can Do the Work”), 17 to “relax and unwind,” and 12 geared to the end of the workday. It also has five French channels and 27 offerings under “Pop Standards.” It’s the endless variety that defined music online from the beginning but with enough appropriate context to work as “radio.”
WLZR (Lazer 99.3) Springfield, Mass., WAQX (95X) Syracuse, N.Y. — When the “New Rock Revolution” was too big to deny in the mid-‘90s, it was a regular occurrence to see a heritage AOR or Active Rock station segue to Alternative. While the format isn’t the same kind of draw these days, Active Rock has bigger issues of its own. So this summer, Cumulus’ Active stations began experimenting with acts like Twenty One Pilots. But 95X kept going, putting a clever twist on an old slogan by declaring itself “Syracuse. Rock. Alternative.” “Everything That Rocks” WLZR’s library approach evolved to mostly modern gold, along the lines of the original WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia.
WXPN Philadelphia — When it makes an appearance in Ross On Radio, it’s typically because of special programming — a “worst songs” countdown or a recent “A to Z” — often with more of a pop gold component than most Triple-A’s. (I’m not sure why it played “Detroit Rock City”
by Kiss last week, but it did.) But I can generally count on hearing something of interest no matter when I listen. Other stations are still struggling with a balance between traditional anything-and-everything non-commercial radio and becoming the new, more regimented home of Triple-A. WXPN has been well-positioned between the two poles for a while.
WQLQ (Live 99.9) South Bend, Ind. — Another throwback format flip, this time to the late ‘90s when the then-Clear Channel shook up many of its heartland markets with new CHRs that leaned rhythmic and promised “all the hits, not just some of them.” That somebody would revive that playbook in South Bend, Ind., speaks well for the resurgence in Hip-Hop and R&B these days. And, as Radioinsight’s Lance Venta notes, Live 99.9 publicized its flip in advance and hit the ground running, unlike many other stations.