Intriguing Stations Of 2016, Pt. I

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By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)

Sean Ross Intriguing Stations 2016The best format story of 2016 happened largely off the radar of most of the industry. The numbers for SBS’ WRMA (Ritmo 95.7) Miami weren’t even cleared for use by the trades by Nielsen until early this year. And even if you knew that it’d grown past a four share with a limited signal between August and December, you’re probably not ready to launch a “Cubatón y más” format in your market. (I’m not going to completely dismiss it as a station that couldn’t happen outside South Florida, though. Reggaeton existed mostly on the radio in Puerto Rico for its first decade.)

Ritmo 95.7 beat the odds in a few ways. There was a time when even the idea of a specialty show devoted to Cuban music was shouted off the radio in Miami. (The Miami Herald characterized the format change as taking the genre “from blacklist to blockbuster.”) But it’s also good news for those who thought there would never be another new format based in an emerging genre. And it means that reggaetón, whose own durability was the subject of much speculation more than a decade ago, has endured long enough for a spinoff. (The “Latino and Proud” slogan that went with the format and caused as much buzz at the time perseveres as well, recently surfacing on WZOL Washington, D.C.)

The other key (but low-key) development happened this summer, when more gold from the ‘00s and late ‘90s began showing up on WHTZ (Z100) New York. With tempo and pop/rock both in short supply at Top 40, it was possible to hear “We Are Young” into Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” in middays (and hear “Hollaback Girl” a few songs later). Z100 is a station that, during other product cycles, has been more than capable of guiding the rest of the format to get the music it needs. When it went digging in the crates for melody and variety, it meant something.

At this writing, it feels like Z100 has backed off the older titles a little, but there was still disconcerting news for CHR as 2017 began with the flip of CBS’ KKHH (Hot 95.7) Houston and WZMP (Amp 96.5) Philadelphia. The last time CBS walked away from CHR in Philadelphia was when WCAU-FM became WOGL in 1987, one of several changes that officially signaled the end of the mid-‘80s CHR boom. And as Radioinsight’s Lance Venta notes, much of the format shifting as 2016 became 2017 was to Soft AC, Mainstream AC, or some form of Adult or Classic Hits.

It wasn’t that long ago that it looked like AC might disappear from (or become unrecognizably hot in) some major markets. But iHeart Media didn’t let that happen in Dallas. And in the markets where one Mainstream AC was doing well by dint of having a franchise to itself, it was an inevitability of the PPM-era chessboard that there would be competitors (as happened frequently with Urban in 2015-16).

Yet, it’s hard to deny the new AC and soft AC stations in looking at the Most Intriguing Stations of 2016 — the stations that weren’t just ratings successes, but represented (or defied) format trends. As usual, I find myself encouraged by an inability to cover everybody in one week. Here’s Part I of our annual look at stations that you may or may not have followed:

KISQ (The Breeze) San Francisco 

KOSF (iHeart Radio ‘80s) San Francisco – The squeeze play against AC KOIT is what got the attention, but it should not be overlooked that:

  • Supersoft AC the Breeze debuted with significant TV marketing as part of its big opening — proof that if broadcasters were really concerned with “telling their own story,” marketing was the way. (It was also good news that TV spots could still move the needle in an on-demand era.)
  • KOSF, the market’s only Classic Hits station at the time, gave up that franchise and a local identity in favor of branding itself as iHeart Radio ‘80s. In a top five market, it was a significant salvo in the radio networking of America. Also, for that matter, in the evolution of Classic Hits to largely an ‘80s format anyway.

Sean Ross Intriguing Stations 2016

KXSN (Sunny 98.1) San Diego – “Before you wreck your old home, be sure about the new,” warns a Bill Withers lyric. But the former Easy 98.1 traded supersoft AC for a gold-based AC format reminiscent of what AC sounded like in most markets a decade ago, and kept its position at or near the top of 6-plus in the market.

Sean Ross Intriguing Stations 2016WRME (Me-TV-FM) Chicago – Supersoft AC has already developed its own rules, most of which Me-TV-FM cheerfully discarded. (It’s playing Spanky & Our Gang, “Like to Get to Know You” as I write this.) And instead of streaming the signal, it created a parallel service with AccuRadio.com. Look for a separate article in the next few weeks on stations doing Soft Oldies or holding on to the traditional version of the Oldies (not Classic Hits) format.

KTWV (The Wave) Los Angeles – It’s not exactly the successor to Jammin’ Oldies in the market, because it played currents from Zayn and Nathan Graham from the Wanted. It’s not the Smooth Jazz station it used to be, although instrumental jazz covers still pop up from time to time. If anything, it often recalls KACE, which was playing a mix of jazz and progressive R&B back when 94.7 FM was still AOR KMET.

WLIF (Today’s 101.9) Baltimore – Blurring the edges of Adult Contemporary isn’t news these days, but the former Lite FM was as bright as a bright AC could be this year. (Coincidentally, after a decade of pushing the edges of Hot AC, sister WWMX [Mix 106.5] has finally become a CHR reporter in some trades.) And it sounded good, not forced. Now, sister WZMP is trying the “today’s” position against WBEB (101.1 More FM) Philadelphia, which has been redefining bright AC itself for years.

Sean Ross Intriguing Stations 2016WSM-FM (Nash Icon) Nashville – While Nashvillle’s two contemporary Country stations slugged it out, WSM led the field with yesterday-and-today Country. At year’s end, the other stations were tracking upward, while iHeart Radio had launched a similar format on a translator. But still a key development as PDs ponder the state of hot Country.

WMGC (105.1 the Bounce) Detroit – In six weeks, it topped one of America’s greatest and most competitive radio markets with an eight share, eclipsing the 7.8 share with which rocker WLLZ galvanized the market decades ago. Then it tapered off to the more realistic place at which throwback Hip-Hop/R&B stations eventually land. A nice coda for Greater Media, an empire built on Mainstream AC, which finally ventured into R&B/Hip-Hop just in time to help start the throwback Hip-Hop boom at WBQT (Hot 96.9) Boston.

KWEE (We 96.3) Portland, Ore. –The inevitable response to throwback Hip-Hop (in this case on yesterday-and-today rival KXJM), the “no throwbacks” station. And in Minneapolis, which got two throwback outlets, we got a slightly different take.

Sean Ross Intriguing Stations 2016KZGO (Go 95.3) Minneapolis 

WHPB (95.3 The Wire) Orlando – The overall Urban radio building boom also brought us progressive Hip-Hop/R&B in two very different packages. By becoming the Hip-Hop sibling of KTWN (Go 96.3), KZGO also made strides for the long-overdue concept of brand extension. At year’s end, it appeared to be adding a little more R&B. WHPB is a community-minded low-power FM whose excitement, among other things, involved putting veteran Paul Porter back on the radio.

Next week, part II of “Intriguing Stations of 2016 including CHR, Classic Dance, Rock, and your suggestions here.

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