CHR – Where Making Connections
Helps Ratings

| November 12, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

LOS ANGELESFrom Maroon 5 to Black Eyed Peas to Pink to Chris Brown and other musical hues in between, today’s contemporary hit music paints with broad strokes on a welcoming radio canvas to reflect the tastes of a discriminating, yet ever-changing palate.

A different set of ears in 2012 likes its music “Gangnam Style” from those partial to the mid-1990s “Macarena.”

Whatever the fad or fancy, Lady Gaga or “Lady Marmalade,” Justin Bieber or the Backstreet Boys, or to the delight of some and the disdain of others – disco – it becomes mainstream contemporary hit radio’s domain.

Not all #1 or top five smash hits however can be accurately prognosticated.  Some songs that ignite listeners’ hot buttons come from nowhere or they are performed by artists not instantly perceived as format-compatible.

Programmers, often times themselves out of the bulls-eye of the target demo, are challenged to keep centered so they may bond with their audience to satisfy listeners’ wants and needs.

Over the next several days, RadioInfo will spotlight CHR’s past, present, and future through the collective eyes and minds of a stellar panel of experts.

This is our first overview of one of the most vibrant, omnipresent formats in radio history.  Other similar long-form features will be forthcoming so do not be offended if your favorites are not addressed here over the next week.  It simply would be unrealistic to consider even momentarily that every set of pertinent Top 40/CHR call letters can be included; all relevant on-air talent will be mentioned; or that each top-tier programmer’s name will be referenced.  Trailblazers such as Bill Drake, Todd Storz, Gordon McLendon, Paul Drew, Ron Jacobs, Rick Sklar, Chuck Blore and others are so much more worthy than occasional citations.

To paraphrase radio’s most legendary, preeminent consultant – Bill Drake – from the epic “History of Rock & Roll,” our multi-part series on contemporary hit music radio salutes the format that typifies the “soundtrack of our lives.”

Two of this industry’s upper-echelon programmers have graciously consented to set the tone for this inaugural, multi-part special feature article.

Level of respect each of these individuals command throughout radio is monumental.

Boss format

Once he discovered “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow) on New York City powerhouse top 40 WABC, it instilled a passion for radio to the then-13-year-old Guy Zapoleon. British Invasion artists of the early- to mid-1960s made it effortless for him to become enthralled with the medium.

Opportunity for Zapoleon to hear Bill Drake-consulted “Boss Radio” on KHJ resulted when his family relocated to Los Angeles and he was treated to what was perhaps the greatest on-air staff ever assembled in radio.

Incontrovertible is the fact that the Drake approach of personalities, promotions, production and forward momentum dramatically altered radio – for the better.  Seven seconds, for example, was generally all the time needed for the consummate contemporary music talent – The Real Don Steele – to deliver his message with such intensely frenetic energy that more than 15 years after his untimely passing in 1997 at the age of 61, he still represents the ultimate standard for others to emulate.

By the time Zapoleon reached his 17th birthday, he was a KHJ “Maverick-A-Day” contest winner (car trivia experts know the Ford Maverick was discontinued in 1977) and he scored his first radio opportunity in 1973 at Los Angeles’ KRTH (“K-Earth 101”), eventually becoming music director under “brilliant” program director Bob Hamilton.  A 1977-1978 KRLA stint enabled Zapoleon to work with iconic Los Angeles programmer/air personality Art Laboe.

As years passed, the former national program director for Nationwide Communications would rack up stellar programming credentials and in 1993, launched Zapoleon Media Strategies, where he became one of radio’s most renowned, trusted radio consultants.

Contemporary hit radio’s chances to thrive are critically dependent on available music product and Nashville native Zapoleon – who since October 2011 has been senior vice president/programming for Clear Channel – opines that today’s pop music continues to be on fire.  “Over the past 10 years, it has been more pervasive in pop culture than at any time since a 1980s stretch after Bob Pittman created MTV in 1981,” Zapoleon remarks.  “At that point, it provided CHR radio with a gigantic ocean of pop, rock, and r&b music.  The music itself has been at its zenith the past several years.  There has probably never been a period when pop artists have been as hot – they are everywhere in the media.”

With pop music being prominent around such “buzz,” it is a common scenario to have two mainstream CHR facilities in large and medium markets.  “Pop artists are at the top of the food chain,” Zapoleon comments.  “They are appearing in television and movies.”

Phase the music

Ardent, dedicated music historian Zapoleon explains that, beginning in the mid-1950s, an “ever-repeating series of three phases” have occurred.

Ratings generally peak for mainstream top 40 in the “birth/pop” cycle.  When in the “extremes” stage, the majority of contemporary music, Zapoleon points out, moves toward the edges, away from being pop and more rock, rhythm & blues, or both.

Under the “doldrums/pop-rock” segments, softer music styles from adult contemporary, country, and “even jazz,” he states, have “their shot” at mainstream CHR.  “Mainstream CHRs, rock, and R&B edges soften as well,” Zapoleon explains.  “Ratings dip on mainstream CHR when they overreact and do not remain a balanced, tempo-driven genre format.”

Given that music tastes are always in a state of flux, there can be credence for why the music cycle concept makes sense.  “When one style is overplayed and every format is saturated in it, people grow tired of it,” Zapoleon reasons.  “They want the music style they haven’t been hearing.  When people get too much pop and not enough rock, they want more rock; when no R&B is being played, people crave it.”

Imagine a pendulum with rock on the left, rhythm & blues on the right, and pop in the middle.  “It swings based on the ebb & flow of what is being released by the labels and what becomes popular,” Zapoleon states.  “The pendulum swings to a new position when one of these core styles is oversaturated at mainstream top 40 and gets overplayed as it crosses over to other formats.  People always want variety of music styles at top 40, hot AC and mainstream adult contemporary.  When they hear too much of one style and not enough of another genre, the music pendulum swings the other way.”

The three phases – “pop rebirth,” “extremes,” and “doldrums” – always repeat, but Zapoleon emphasizes that they never do so in precisely the same manner.  “In previous iterations of the ‘doldrums/pop rock’ phase we are in, CHR radio overreacted mainly to protect its adult numbers,” he comments.

The last time this took place was in the early-1990s when, as Zapoleon recalls, “CHR embraced all the soft rock and pop-rock boom, ignoring the other genres.”

As soon as CHR’s ratings plummeted, major researchers and consultants pronounced it was a dead format.  “Labels cooperated by delivering what radio wanted, which was even more pop-rock and ballads with very little pop or r & b,” Zapoleon remarks.  “CHR did not satisfy its youth base.  This caused lower CHR ratings in every 10-year period.  Radio wised up in the late-1990s.  Under the leadership of [WHTZ, New York programmers] Tom Poleman, Sharon Dastur, and Cubby Bryant, it brought back a balanced top 40 approach when the ‘doldrums/pop rock’ phase hit in the early-2000s.”

All types of contemporary music were played and Zapoleon states, “They created the best CHR radio on the planet with personalities, production, and promotion to surround the station’s great music mix.  With ‘Z100’ leading the way, CHR radio – and the parent companies who own CHR stations – is a lot smarter now than it was in the first 50 years of ever-repeating 10-year music cycles for CHR/top 40.”

Fun factor

Current CHR music shifts, in Zapoleon’s opinion, line right up with the 10-year music cycle.  “We are certainly sliding into the pop-rock phase; the music pendulum has swung away from total pop plus pop-rhythm focus of the pop rebirth phase we have been in the past five or six years,” he surmises.  “Many major radio stations have ballad-oriented pop-rock songs in heavy rotation from [the most recent ‘American Idol’ winner] Phillip Phillips, Jason Mraz, and Ed Sheeran.  Alternative radio is embracing more emo, pop-alternative bands such as fun., Gotye, and Neon Trees – which cross naturally to CHR.  The good news of this pop-rock phase versus the past for CHR is that the format has so many more music platforms and ways to consume music radio, including mobile and the web.”

Fully cognizant they now have supplementary outlets, record label executives are producing more and different kinds of music of all genres for what Zapoleon describes as “the widest, most diverse audience” ever.  “They are especially focused on producing a wealth of pop, rock and R&B songs by more artists than at any other time for CHR to play,” he states.  “We will continue to see great music of all types on CHR, just more pop-rock-leaning for the next year or so.”

Music is clearly always the foundation of a CHR’s “image pyramid,” acknowledges Zapoleon, however the UCLA alum with a B.A. in Psychology, stresses that the personality element is “absolutely critical” on the format.  “Radio stations that make that personal connection with its listeners through its personalities form a lasting bond, which keeps listeners loyal.”

Commenting that Clear Channel CHR morning talents Ryan Seacrest of Los Angeles’ KIIS (“Kiss-FM”) and Elvis Duran on New York City’s WHTZ (“Z100”] have “big audiences on their home stations,” as well as “huge” syndication audiences, Zapoleon attributes their success to “strong loyal connections” with their listeners.  “Music services not having that connection are not radio, but rather just digital playlists or music collections,” the former program director of KZZP, Phoenix; WBZZ, Pittsburgh; and KRQQ, Tucson affirms.  “They are just jukeboxes and will not command that great loyalty going forward.”

Although clearly partial, Zapoleon nonetheless genuinely contends that is what makes something such as the more than four-year-old, Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio intriguing.  “In addition to creating your own custom music channels or playlists, it also broadcasts the best of live personality-based music radio,” he points out.  “The iHeartRadio Music Festival [this past September in Las Vegas] is the biggest radio event anywhere.  More than 14 million people watched and listened through live streams via Yahoo, Xbox and radio stations across the region.  It broke U.S records for viewership on Xbox and was the largest aggregated concert in total U.S. audience live streams for Yahoo.”

Topping the ingredients on Zapoleon’s recipe for programming a winning CHR is to provide great music and he stresses that those leading the record labels are strongly urged to “continue to cooperate” by producing it.  “Stations must find/feature great new and established personalities who connect with listeners to sell radio’s benefits,” he comments.  “Operators should market their stations to remain the brand for music entertainment and music discovery wherever its listeners go.  It is also important to continue to create promotions/events that provide great fun and prizes.  Captivating and involving all our listeners through these promotions is the fun factor that the audience expects from us.”

Positive escape vibe

Having established himself as a rising star at Rockford, Illinois’ WROK & WZOK, Greg Strassell absorbed priceless programming experience in other similar-sized, smaller markets in advance of Emmis tapping him to program Minneapolis CHR WLOL-FM in 1990.

From the Twin Cities, Strassell transitioned to Boston, where he became nothing less than a programming master at hot AC WBMX (“Mix”) and oldies WODS.

Simultaneously for a three-year, mid-1990s period, he performed corporate duties for American Radio Systems as vice president/programming & product development.

The now eight-year senior vice president/programming of CBS Radio enthusiastically states this is “the healthiest” he has witnessed the CHR format since Mike Joseph’s 1980s’ “Hot Hits” representation.  “The audience is resonating with the fun and positive vibe of what the music is about,” Strassell remarks.  “We are seeing impact hits with a strong dance vibe, along with pop rhythm from Rihanna, Pitbull, and Nicki Minaj meeting the crossover hits from such artists as Taylor Swift.  Several years of hits from Katy Perry, and new pop hits from other artists such as Ke$ha are mixed in with that.  Despite the woes of the economy in the past couple of years, CHR music – with fun, optimistic messages – has been an escape for both moms and daughters.”

Meaningful embrace

Electronic-based ratings methodology is serving to assist the format, in Strassell’s opinion.  Ability of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM) to indicate that CHR has massive adult audiences, not just 12-24s, has proven to be a tremendous boost.  “In 2012, PPM has helped reveal just how addictive and massive this format is,” he declares.  “There really is a mom/daughter coalition.  It was a theory during the diary days, but they were not always accounted for in the ratings results; PPM makes that very clear.”

Music discovery is still happening on FM and Strassell specifies the audience is enjoying, then purchasing, new music.  “There are many places to discover it,” he observes but, “Radio puts it on a center stage and millions are exposed to it.  Listeners expect CHR to do this for them.  Mainstream CHR and rhythmic CHR seem to have come closer over the past couple of years although mainstream CHR will still play the crossover hot AC hits, whereas rhythmic CHR may not ever play them.”

It is essential to build a station around the concept that listeners be passionate about it.  “Radio stations still need to be a part of their audience’s lives,” advises Strassell, who splits his time between Boston and New York City.  “Being a jukebox playing the hottest music only works for a while.  If the music cools off, the station’s air talent and local interaction must carry the ratings.”

Once a CHR obtains a big cume, Strassell stresses the necessity of converting it into daily tune-ins.  “You must do that in order to achieve big goals.  When there are several choices for similar music, the advantage still goes to the station that has the most heritage and relevancy.  Newer stations into the format must have patience to take on a station with 30 years of heritage.  Good, consistent execution and time matters to build long-lasting CHR brands.  I am a big believer in what we, as a company, do at CBS Radio: Do not just ‘dispense’ the music, ‘present and embrace’ it.  Some radio stations only go through the motions, but there are those that really are in touch – they are part of the music and lifestyle.”

20/20 Hindsight

In conjunction with taking the current temperature of contemporary hit radio and for the radio history buffs reading this, here is a 20-year rewind.

In this breakout of the top 20 markets, we get to recount the competitive landscape, as it existed two decades ago, according to Arbitron’s fall 1992 estimates.

Listed below is each CHR that ranked in the top 20 (12+) in their specific markets in Arbitron’s fall 1992 ratings book.

Over and above the rankings, it is fascinating to see which still exist as CHRs; which have transitioned to different formats; the mention of group owners that have disappeared or were absorbed through consolidation; and the growth and decline of certain locales.  One top 20 market back then for instance – Anaheim in California’s Orange County – is no longer a separately-surveyed Arbitron metro.

  • Nearly 60% of the CHRs in the top 20 markets shown here ranked somewhere in the top five in the battle for 12+ cume
  • More than four of 10 (42%) were #1 among teens
  • Just 8% scored top honors among 18-34s

This, of course, pre-dated electronic ratings measurement; thus, figures are diary-based and apply to the demos cited.

Beyond markets 1 – 20, CHRs ranking anywhere within the first 20 positions (12+) in the fall 1992 book were: #5 WFLZ and #10 WRBQ-FM (market #21 Tampa); #8 KKFR and #12 KOY-FM (#22 Phoenix); #11 WJMO-FM and #15 WENZ (#23 Cleveland); #6 KQKS (#24 Denver); #3 KKRZ (#25 Portland); #7 WLUM (#26 Milwaukee); #12 KBEQ and #19 KXXR (#27 Kansas City); #2 KSFM and #11 KWOD (#28 Sacramento); #2 KGGI and #4 KIIS AM & FM (#29 Riverside); and #5 KHQT (#30 San Jose).

In addition: #1 WPRO-FM, #11 WWKX, #14 WFHN, and #19 WZOU (market #31 Providence); #3 WKRQ (#32 Cincinnati); #6 WNVZ (#33 Norfolk); #2 WNCI and #9 WWHT (#34 Columbus); #1 KTFM (#35 San Antonio); #7 KUTQ, #8 KISN-FM, and #17 KZHT (#36 Salt Lake City); #5 WZPL and #10 WHHH (#37 Indianapolis); #4 WEZB (#38 New Orleans); #9 WCKZ and #13 WAQQ (#39 Charlotte); and #4 WTIC-FM and #7 WKSS (#40 Hartford).

Rounding out CHRs finishing in their respective top 20 (12+, fall 1992) in the 50 largest metros were: #6 WKSE (market #41 Buffalo); #7 WXXL (#42 Orlando); none in Memphis (#43); #10 WPLJ and #19 WQHT (#44 Monmouth-Ocean, NJ); #5 WYHY (#45 Nashville); #4 WPXY-FM (#46 Rochester); #4 WGTZ and #20 WDJK (#47 Dayton); #7 WOVV and #10 WPOW (#48 West Palm Beach); #8 WKSI (#49 Greensboro); and #6 WAPE (#50 Jacksonville).

It was 20 years ago today …

Continuing the 20/20 theme, these are the top 20 CHR songs readers saw 20 years ago when they looked at the Back Page chart of the November 6, 1992 edition of Radio & Records (R&R).

  • November 6, 1992 marked PM Dawn’s third successive week at #1 on CHR; the song was #17 for the second straight week at urban contemporary, but lost its bullet
  • There was a 40% duplication of CHR and AC titles within the top 20 that week, including: Heights (#2 CHR and #9 AC); Annie Lennox (#5 CHR and #6 AC); Trey Lorenz (#6 CHR and #16 AC); Jon Secada (#9 CHR and #4 AC); Eric Clapton (#11 CHR and #8 AC); Michael W. Smith (#14 CHR and #2 AC); Charles & Eddie (#16 CHR and #14 AC); and Michael Bolton (#18 CHR and #1 AC)
  • Hot AC was not an R&R format description at that time
  • TLC’s “What About Your Friends” was #1 on the urban contemporary chart
  • Incidentally, in the news that particular week, Gannett transitioned NAC KOAI to CHR under new calls (KHKS); its handle was “Hit Music 106.1 – Kiss FM.”  Not only is KHKS still in the format, Dallas’ version of “Kiss-FM” was #1 in the October 2012 monthly for the tenth successive month

Click here to read Part Two of our RadioInfo CHR special –  two more superstar programmers discuss contemporary hit radio’s rhythmic offshoot. 

Reach RadioInfo Managing Editor & West Coast Bureau Chief Mike Kinosian at or (818) 985-0244.

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Category: Features, The State of CHR