By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
It sits among the many reader comments on CHR’s solid gold summer of 1983:
“I’ve always blamed the introduction of dance oriented CHRs like KPWR for part of the decline,” said reader Brian Craig. “That format introduced more disposable music and once those stations started being CHR reporters, it had a negative [impact]–in my opinion–on the charts. But I’d be interested in other theories as to why the second golden age of top 40 was so short lived.”
It took Power 106, more clearly a very hit-driven Urban station at the time of its early 1986 launch, about a year to be officially anointed as part of the pop charts. Creating a “Rhythmic Top 40” chart would definitely have an impact on the skew of the format, but that was later. We’ve become skilled as an industry at fitting format booms and busts into cycles: Mass-appeal music gives way to extremes, followed by doldrums. But when the trouble started, the extremes were a few years off, too.
So what are the events actually propelled the music downward in 1986-87? Top 40 radio had a good thing going—all-ages music from superstar artists. Why would programmers throw that away? In this case, maybe the doldrums came first. If disposable or extreme music was ever the problem, it began as the answer to another problem.
The return of dance music had been brewing for several years. Abandoned, at least in its most obvious forms, by CHR, it had operated at the fringes of Urban radio for several years. “Let the Music Play” by Shannon lifted the ban. Then came Madonna’s “Holiday,” then a string of hits from an album that had sat around a year without significant airplay, then the superstar-making follow-up of “Like A Virgin.”
Disco, in fact, hadn’t ever gone away. Around that time, I remember sitting in a fast-food parking lot outside Los Angeles when a car pulled up blaring an odd high-energy dance version of the ‘60s hit “When You Walk in the Room.” That sort of record still existed and somebody had found it. There just wasn’t a U.S. format devoted to it. And in 1983-84, Top 40 didn’t need more than a few dance hits to fill the quota.
By late 1985, there were signs that the music wasn’t quite as exciting as in the two years previous, although whether you saw them depended a lot on what you focused in on. 1985 was the year of Wham!, New Edition, “Oh, Sheila,” “Take on Me,” “The Power of Love,” “Sussudio” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Or it was the year of “Can’t Fight the Feeling,” “Every Time You Go Away,” “Cherish” by Kool & the Gang, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “We Are the World” and Whitney Houston ballads.
When Power 106 landed in January 1986, it was harder to just focus on the songs you liked. The songs I associate with early Power were the workhorse records of the R&B chart — “Say I’m Your Number One” by Princess; “Everybody Dance” by Ta Mara & the Seen; “Digital Display” by Ready for the World; “Private Number” by the Jets. But I’d been waiting for three years to hear those types of songs on a full-signal FM. And the competition was Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives,” or Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.” The latter might endure more to you, but to me it wasn’t close.
In Los Angeles, the results were instant. About two months after the launch, I went for a six-mile run between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles without a radio. But between passing cars and people listening on their front steps, I knew every song Power played that hour. And Power was all the more phenomenal because KIIS-FM, the 10-share CHR phenomenon of two years ago, hadn’t been broken in any obvious way.
There was nothing extreme about Power at its outset. It was, to the contrary, the most mass-appeal possible distillation of an Urban format. But Power pushed to report to the pop charts, not Urban. Gradually, without as many R&B chart priorities to consider, the dance music that had been one of its flavors instead became the center lane. And you can say that dance-pop like “For Tonight” by Nancy Martinez or dance novelties like “Don Quichotte” by Magazine 60 weren’t songs for the ages, but boy, did they sound better than what was on pop radio at that moment.
Like most incumbent CHRs in a similar position, KIIS reacted to Power, I recall, by first doing nothing, then filtering in more of Power’s music, but not reporting it. Just as WABC New York had briefly gone mostly disco for a disastrous few weeks in response to WKTU, it was suddenly possible to hear not just “Don Quichotte” but “Hot” by Roy Ayers on KIIS, although those songs were never reported to the trades.
KIIS didn’t have a lot of musical ammo of its own. As reader Bill Spradlin notes, in response to Craig’s question, a lot of the format’s superstars were starting to run out of gas. And in late ‘85/early ’86, the follow-up projects to 1983-84’s smashes were starting to arrive, and even when they were up and fun, they weren’t quite as fresh. ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag,” a hit as Power dawned, was the best example — it did nothing wrong but deliver a successful formula with slightly diminishing returns. Same with Cyndi Lauper’s “Change of Heart,” and it was that much more disappointing because we all had to wade through “True Colors.”
It was also about this time that “Say You Say Me” led off a lackluster Lionel Richie album, too. In that era, one would often hear artist offerings referred to not as “music,” but as “product.” When superstar product arrived, it was promoted with the full vigor of an industry at the height of the “whatever it takes” mentality. After Thriller, it was necessary that every superstar project have no less than four singles (and sometimes far more).
The superstar semi-hits took up real estate that could have gone to something more exciting. We waited for a new Huey Lewis & the News and we were stuck with “Stuck With You.” And “Hip to Be Square.” It was a big deal when U2 finally delivered a legitimate pop-rock classic, but the singles from The Joshua Tree didn’t exactly have the fun factor, either.
Other things that were happening to diminish the other music available to mainstream CHR:
Alternative radio, the driving force for so much of the excitement of 1983-84, had burned through its first building cycle. Most of the KROQ Los Angeles imitators were gone, and until KITS San Francisco in 1987, there wouldn’t be many stations to funnel that product into the mainstream.
Rock radio, after a few years of confusion, was becoming much more adult-focused in response to the growth of Classic Rock. Suddenly, what it was sending to Top 40 was as likely to be “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy as something that actually, well, rocked.
Callout research, a hallmark of the down cycle in hit music of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, had made a comeback. In a few years, callout would become a much more accurate judge of all types of hit records (even, or particularly, crossover Hip-Hop), but at that moment, it favored the savorless.
Power 106’s clearest impact on the landscape was creating the notion that rhythmic pop, then R&B and Hip-Hop crossover, was the only thing that mattered. But the pop/rock superstars helped with that, too. In the next article, how the “extremes” were really more within the spirit of ’83 than the few years that preceded— just for a new generation.