A three-part series on future-proofing your station
As a radio programmer, sometimes your #1 job is to not break what’s working. Then there are times where the only way you can fix things is to break things.
If you program a hit music station, it’s time to start breaking things.
Scary. However, “[i]n times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these,” advised Paul Harvey.
In our next three posts, we’ll outline things you should consider breaking at your radio station in the next few years, with some guidance from radio’s past to point the way.
Today, we’ll tackle the #1 trap you’ll need to avoid when choosing your station’s music.
Avoid the “It’s a hit but it doesn’t fit” hole.
Historically, CHR’s worst ratings came during times when the format has tried in vain to balance the tastes of younger and older listeners who no longer agreed on the hits:
1991: On the cusp of Alternative and Hip Hop breaking through to become the definitive sounds of Generation X, CHR radio was playing Paula Abdul and Wilson Phillips, holding on to the promise of a new day.
1981: As MTV launched with New Wave, CHR was powering “Love On The Rocks,” “Endless Love,” and endless supplies of Air Supply.
1971: The artists we now laud as Classic Rock attracted their far-out fans to FM radio. Meanwhile on AM Top 40, it was Osmonds as far as the ear could hear.
At each of these points in history, popular music was on the cusp of passing the torch to a new generation whose tastes would determine the hits.
When this schism first emerges, following the newest cutting edge music trends among younger listeners is foolish. Richard Marx clearly had more fans than did Morrissey in 1988.
As interest in new styles grows too big to ignore, but not yet big enough to win over older listeners, CHR has dealt with this impossible balance by maintaining a sonic style—namely conservative pop—instead of playing the hits. While this strategy does stop ratings bleed in the short term, it also lulls programmers into missing the tipping point in music tastes.
Be too far ahead of the curve and you’ll go down in history as a groundbreaking station that was ahead of your time.
Be too far behind the curve, however, and you’ll not only lose younger listeners, you’ll lose your relevance to contemporary culture—that’s very difficult to regain once you lose it.
In 2021, although Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo hint at the future, we have not yet reached the critical tipping point where the musical preferences of the Homelander generation (the generation after the Millennials) are more salient than the tastes of older millennials. History suggests we will hit that mark in the middle of the decade.
In the meantime, prepare yourself by being in touch with the tastes and attitudes of teenagers. Specifically, look for songs emerging from communities that have historically not been mainstream:
- Spanish-language songs: One of the hottest songs on Spotify so far this year is Telepatía by Kali Uchis, a sultry song of long-distance love. It’s been Top 10 among Spotify’s most-streamed songs in the U.S. for weeks, reaching as high as #4. Yet outside of a handful of CHRs in heavily Hispanic markets, the song has yet (as of the publication date of this post) to have a meaningful impact mainstream radio.
- The LGBTQIA+ Community: Among the top 100 songs on Spotify is Hayloft from a 2008 album by Vancouver’s indie band Mother Mother. Seemingly out of nowhere, Mother Mother’s music has become a connection point for nonbinary and genderqueer teens who have TikToked the band out of obscurity. Meanwhile, Sweater Weather by The Neighbourhood routinely appears among the most played songs on Spotify as bisexual young people have adopted it as an anthem. The less popular but more overt songs by Norwegian indie act Girl In Red have become code for lesbian teens.
- K-Pop: BTS finally brought the genre a mainstream hit in the United States (beyond that YouTube novelty you’ve been trying to forget.) Could more Seoul based acts follow?
In our next post, we discuss programming elements beyond your playlist that will require your future-proofing attention.