Why Did CHR’s Mid-‘80s Hot Streak End?

posted in: by Sean Ross | 15

By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)

madonna CHR sean rossIt 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.

15 Responses

  1. Um … what about bags of cocaine and the Parade of Stiffs ruining CHR at its most delicate time … late 1986? Yeah, you had Power 96 and Power 106 and Hot 103 signing on and taking people away from Y-100, KIIS and both Power 95 and Z100. I was one of them. But by 1987 the format’s splintering was very pronounced and as a middle-school kid so were my listening habits in New York. I listened less to Z100 and more to WQHT, and to WLIR when I could pick it up. By 1988 we got Debbie Gibson and Tiffany as MTV had “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue as their No. 1 video for about five months, and powered the hair bands. Over at Hot 103 I could get my fix of Noel and Cover Girls and Stevie B. When tuned to WLIR I could hear “Suedehead” by Morrissey. Where was Z100? Giving me more Bon Jovi and T’Pau while struggling with stiffs like “Jacob’s Ladder” . Lastly, you had an industry that focused more on stars than legit hits. As a resident of Madrid in July 1989, the top 3 songs played every 90 minutes on Los 40 Principales were “I Want it All” by Queen, “My Brave Face” by Paul McCartney, and “The Look” by Roxette. Why Queen and Paul McCartney? Not because they were legit hits but because they were “superstars.” That programming philosophy had to go, and good riddance to it. But, that — along with the “powder for play” — is the fault of no one but PDs who cared little about the listener in an era when Coke was it.

  2. Frank G.

    Nice theory but you’re giving Power much too much credit. It’s MTV that is the real “power” behind the shift in music style in the mid to late 80s that by 1990 results in the total collapse of quality Top 40 radio leading to the rise of the Alternative format where great music could still be found. MTV’s promotion of black artist and programs like Yo! MTV Raps changed everything. From the music programmed on Top 40 stations, to the way teens behaved and interacted with each other and the way they dated; it was all driven by what was seen and heard on MTV. The rise of the trophy black boyfriend from the ghetto for young white gils was a MTV induced phenomena. As both a radio and high-profile nightclub music programmer, I can assure you that MTV was the biggest influence in music in the 1980s.

  3. To me the biggest problem was the move away from play based on local record sales to focus groups in an effort to more closely define listener demographics for selling more national ads. There’s a big difference between what people will tell you they like and what they’ll actually pull out their wallets and buy. Radio turned into background Muzak and that killed American pop music.

    • Charles Everett

      Record sales collapsed with the disco crash of ’79, then when the industry recovered it concentrated on superstar albums that sold umpteen millions and were milked for radio play without end. It’s why very little 80’s Pop gets heard on terrestrial radio to this day.

  4. The other problem was that comedy and disco had destroyed the local music venues where young artists had learned to be great during the ’60s and ’70s.

  5. Bill Shane

    This is where the Music Director and/or Program Director need to learn how to shine. Most stations I worked at had categories of current songs broken down by their activity on national charts and/or sales at local stores. Music categories inside the station should have been broken down by tempo. This would be used to control how many down tempo songs were on the air in any given hour. It would have also been a time to increase re-currents and if necessary, bump up the number of oldies. MD’s and PD’s should also have been telling the record reps to get their artist cranked up. As mentioned by others, MTV had influence as did the “Power” stations.

  6. Steve King

    This may be a generalization, but growing up, I always wondered why my CHR stations that I listened to in the 80s would play “Islands in the Stream” and “Hungry like the Wolf” in the same hour. One song resonated with me, the other with my Mom. As I later researched it (and as I learned more in radio), sure they were popular, but the 25-54 audience was where the money lived. The problem: 12-24s were virtually disregarded. That audience found other places to get their music, like the advent of Alternative, Hip-Hop/R&B, Active Rock and “Young” Country. The cumulative effect of these disenfranchised listeners lead to the growth of CDs, file sharing, streaming radio Pandora, Spotify, etc.

    Something that has held true over time is the economy’s effect on CHR and the format’s move from youth to adult. While it is good to have 25-54s enjoying CHR, as it helps the demographics for ratings, but focusing ONLY on them was a bit of a drag on the format.

    Over the past 30+ years, we saw new CHRs launch and, as we would expect, the younger demos come in first. This in turn would allow for stations with nothing to lose play the obvious hits and partner them with newer songs that may never make it to recurrent, all because they were making a statement that they were where the new hits were happening (or to separate themselves as different…or position the competition as old). In many cases, it forced the heritage CHR to pull back and lean on artistry, not song strength. Depending on the market make-up, that is the smarter position.

    However, what I have observed is that over time, successful CHRs in the 80s (again in the 90s) moved their music to be have a wider age appeal. This would water the station down (in turn, becoming more adult) because the upper side of 18-34 (25-34) didn’t churn as much as the younger end (18-24), opening the door to target 25-54 numbers…a magic bullet for CHR revenue. This would move a Mainstream CHR to an upper ended CHR (Hot AC). I experienced this a couple of times, as the GMs, SMs and companies became very happy, as they were being allowed to get bigger dollars from agencies, but you could lose the younger end slowly. You would see artists like Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Phil Collins, et al become “CORE” for CHR. Their songs were, as you mentioned, came same albums (as song plays meant album sales) and took up a lot of chart real estate. When these same artists had new songs, they eventually resonated with 25-54 because of name recognition, they still had a hip-ness (even if it was just the MTV Factor) for the 12-24s and 18-34s. As a result, you had radio sales departments walking around with a station “one sheet” with the names of these artists, It had the potential of making the CHR station competitive against the AC station that was playing the same artists when presented in a sales presentation.

    Many of those stations, while they did survive the doldrums, in some cases, had a harder time getting the younger 12-24 audiences to stay, come back, or even come in for the first time. We, as an industry, we showed little interest in bringing in the younger audiences, so we could chase after the 25-54 CHR listener and their money. (who could blame anyone, as this is a money making business). Unfortunately, this set our industry up for some hard times which would eventually correct itself slightly, as there were times when some major markets didn’t have a true CHR (or one at all) for a period of time, like Dallas after KEGL went Rock and before Kiss FM came on. Other markets only had a Hot AC playing like a CHR, like Atlanta with Star 94, before Q100 came on.

    Conversely, I have enjoyed seeing, and occasionally, being part of the CHR resurgence in recent decades, as I am seeing the 12-24s embraced a bit more as the future P1, the 18-34s not disregarded as kids and a number of companies are viewing the 25-54 CHR listener as gravy for ratings and revenue. After all, you would be hard pressed to find an 18-34 who views themselves as a “kid”.

  7. Sean Ross

    Frank – Good point. I think MTV’s impact in terms of making hip-hop the ONLY music that mattered to any self-respecting 16-year-old was a year or so away (and 2-3 years from its biggest impact). This was a transition period and although Power-style rhythmic radio wasn’t everywhere in the country, it did (at the very least) start a movement away from the pop center.

    • Frankie G.

      Sean, You are right. It was 1991 that Hip Hop finally took over the culture. But the seeds were planted when MTV began playing Rap and Hip Hop, and with the popularity of Yo! MTV Raps. In the clubs you really get to SEE how music impacts culture much more directly than what radio programmers can detect through research and gut instinct. The advantage comes from being able to be witness to the evolution of change in the dynamics of social interaction and the response to the music being programmed in clubs. These dynamics are a direct reflection of what is happening in the culture. Radio programmers of what passes for Top 40 today should spend much more time in the clubs dissecting the trends rather than sitting in their offices behind their computers.

      I have always been amazed at the contrast between what’s popular in the clubs and what’s being programmed on the radio. The differences are now greater than ever as Millennials have little interest in broadcast radio and get their music from streaming services, youtube, and facebook.

      Club DJs are now much more popular than radio DJs and make a great deal more money; as they always have. In fact, the money was the reason I left radio. My first club job paid FOUR TIMES what my radio job was paying; and that was in the 1970s. Now, many no-name club DJs are making thousands per night, and named DJs, as I’m certain you are aware, are making hundreds of thousands per night at clubs in Vegas and around the world. Hakkasan in Vegas pays up to $450K per night for a set by names like Calvin Harris. And most often, these acts are pressing play and only pretending to actually work the room. I have watched both Tiesto and Guetta insert a flash drive and never touch the boards doing sets that payed at least a half-million; it’s a very good time to be a big-name club DJ.

      Back to the music. Something’s gotta give. The sound of Top 40 radio has not changed in 20 years, in fact, it’s devolved into a sad never ending presentation of the same old beats. The same can be said for EDM and Serius/XM’s BPM. The sound never changes. Programmers are killing the industry by playing it safe. Think of the evolution of music from 1962 – 69. Or 1972 -82. Or 82 – 92. And then with Hip Hop, Top 40 just stagnates and the music gets worse with each passing year; this despite the fact that there is no shortage of really good music. But let’s be honest, the system is corrupt and is no longer about programming the best music.

      OK, it’s back to work. My rant is over.

      • Club DJs can at least see the response to a record. Live gigs teach young performers how to write and arrange great songs. They get to refine their own songs to the point that they stand up to the covers they play.

  8. John H Kier III

    We hear about the two golden ages of Top 40. I assume one is 1964-1970 or early ’70’s and the other is mid 1982 through 1985. I would love to hear a format combining those two eras. I want to point out an interesting development, too. On your topic about how great 1983 was, I wrote in to say that it was clearly my favorite year of the ’80’s and I cited the ratings and presence of so many CHR’s in LA and how KIIS scored a 10 share and alternative KROQ had its ’80’s peak with a 4.6 share. I mentioned that 1964-74 was my favorite era, but still listen sometimes to First Wave on Sirius/XM. Within a day of that, First Wave altered its music mix (circa March 1st) to a really awful mix of music. Gone is the emphasis on 1982-85 and a more CHR new waveish lean to more of an obscure, AORish lean, featuring songs with no melody and more on the late ’80’s and no longer listenable. Could it be that my comment irritated someone at Sirius/XM or is just a coincidence? Sean, if you know anything about this, let us know.

  9. T. Jay Dexter

    One of the reasons why I seemed to be turned off on CHR/Top 40 Radio by the mid-late 80s was first off because a lot of music was becoming synthesized (REAL musical instruments on records was on the fast decline) with “modern technology” and thus the music was sounding too “perfect” (beats, claps, tempos were always consistent, etc…). It’s fun to use it like icing on a cake — making the whole cake icing is overkill. Using auto-tune on one’s God-given voice nowadays over an entire song is the modern day version of an “all-frosting cake”.

    Then you were entering an era where nearly every artist had to sound like Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, etc,… instead of coming up with their own “sound”. The variety of top 40 hits in 1982-83 compared to 1986-87 was like night and day.

    I also could argue that some songs were designed more around their MTV videos than their actual story-telling, well-written lyrics (if any) by the late 80s.

    With some rare exceptions, I gave up on most Top-40/CHR music by 1990. The nail in the coffin so to speak was “Everybody Dance Now” by C+C Music Factory. Why would you highly praise a 4-minute song when all the female singer did was sing the title one time into a microphone and a few lines of scat, then electronically loop that few seconds worth of vocal the rest of the time. Is that creativity? Is that real effort? Should that entitle said singer hundreds of thousands of dollars??? Puh-LEEZE!!! Give me the Beatles, Kenny Rogers, The Who and The Carpenters any day. They earned every penny of their efforts.

    • It’s called cheap production and yes, I agree it has had a very destructive effect on popular music. This isn’t just nostalgia. An ensemble of musicians is a collaboration that creates an emotional energy center the listener can feel especially if they sing along. What I call Les Paul memorial overdub parties are another dilution of that energy center.

      Another factor that isn’t mentioned often is that the Beatles flipped the market from mostly women’s dance records to men AND women listeners. And don’t even try to dance to most Beatles records. This was listening music.

      It would be interesting to know if women once again are the principal CHR listeners like they were before the Beatles.

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