Third of a Five-Part Special
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Five front-line programmers and a superstar panel of on-air personalities shared their insights about today’s adult contemporary in the first two installments of this weeklong AC special feature.
Now, in part three, it is time for several of the industry’s leading consultants to assess adult contemporary’s temperature; review its past history; and predict what could be on AC’s horizon.
Playing It Safe
Count Detroit-based Gary Berkowitz among those who believe adult contemporary is undergoing a challenging time, although the president of Berkowitz Broadcast Consulting hesitates to say it is in “trouble” for the simple reason that, “I do not think that is the case. Some adult contemporary stations are as huge as ever, including [New York City's] WLTW, [Philadelphia's] WBEB, [Boston's] WMJX, and [Portland's] KKCW. When CHR excels, AC has always been a bit in the corner, and the past several years have been very good musically to CHR.”
So good, in fact, that it has spawned a completely new life for hot AC. “That is a format I like to call ‘contemporary’ AC,” comments Berkowitz, whose impressive programming credits include WROR, Boston; WJR & WHYT, Detroit; and WPRO-FM, Providence. “Mainstream adult contemporary stations tend to play it safer down the middle of the road.”
Historically, that has worked quite well but as Berkowitz explains, “All of a sudden, there was so much good music. A mainstream AC plays three or four decades of great music and usually one current an hour; in the meantime, the currents are coming out like hotcakes. There is competition now within our own format, as well as from country – which has always been a big competitor for AC. CHRs and hot ACs are coming out of the woodwork. Forget about 25-54s, that entire group of women just love this music from artists such as Bruno Mars and Rihanna. As my friend [longtime consultant and Clear Channel senior vice/president programming] Guy Zapoleon would say, AC always does its best when music goes into the extremes. When CHR goes on a high, which it has been on for a few years now, it puts a lot of pressure on AC.”
Overreaction Creates “CHR Lite”
Even though some artists are strong within the format, the overwhelming majority of programmers/consultants such as Berkowitz have always considered adult contemporary song-driven.
Not exactly eligible to be categorized as ancient history, adult contemporary mainstays quite recently included Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, and Gloria Estefan, whereas its present-day attractions, in Berkowitz’s estimation, are Pink, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Adele. “I cannot remember the last piece of research I did where we were doing artist life groups, or anything like that,” he states. “It really is about the songs. I have always been very slow to move strategically unless I am sure of something. Many people have accused me that I must be from Missouri because you have to ‘Show me.’ Stations are very delicate and they can get messed up. You are not hearing Elton John or Billy Joel very much anymore on adult contemporary. It is more Sugar Ray, Nickleback, and Alicia Keys – it is much more contemporary.”
As usual, an adult contemporary programmer can find himself or herself in a quandary should they happen to overreact to CHR product. “By doing so, they become ‘CHR Lite,’” comments Berkowitz, who typically consults 15-20 adult contemporary stations at any one time.”
On the other hand, several AC programmers have a tendency to take reliance of older music product nearly to the point of excess. “It is so critical right now to find that spot right in the middle,” Berkowitz suggests. “Some programmers who have gone too much in the CHR direction have gotten hurt.”
Several stations Berkowitz consults have become diffident to move into that territory. They want to stay where they are, but Berkowitz explains if they do that, “Their station will just age-out. Getting them to move a little on the left and not too quickly on the right has been a very big challenge. The weakness in adult contemporary is the pressure being put on it by many other formats right now. Country is big. When you get out of the immediate east coast, the line heard more and more is, ‘In this market, country is AC.’”
Be Careful What You Wish For
For years, Berkowitz was hoping radio could have a ratings system in-place similar to the one in television. As a result, he is having a love/hate relationship with PPM. “I didn’t want to play the game of which radio station [diary-keepers or phone respondents] would remember,” he stresses. “The people meter is great, but it can be very mind-boggling and hard to understand. I am the type of person who always needs to know how I am doing. I never believe my good news and I don’t always believe my bad news. No matter how good you are, you get a lot of both with the meter.”
Programmers in PPM markets can witness ratings for stations that played all-Christmas music literally nose-dive on December 26. “A station’s 20-share on December 24 can go to a seven-share on December 26,” he notes.
Fortunately, most programmers are prepared for such steep declines and Berkowitz, who has come a long way from the days he was a part-timer at Fitchburg, Massachusetts’ WEIM under the name “Dave Gary,” maintains it is completely worth it to get all that listenership. “I tell those who get nervous about it or consider dropping it that they can tell advertisers what is going to happen next Christmas,” he comments. “They need to get in on it early while they can.”
Four weeks of playing all-Christmas music constitutes a healthy chunk of time so Berkowitz beams, “Doing that is my favorite programming tactic. You might be able to get some of that cume to hang in a little longer [after Christmas Day] but it is very tough. We try, even though in my heart, I know it is not going to be easy.”
Testing music before the holidays so an AC station can come back with a fresh music mix has been one attempt to retain robust “Holiday” period cume. “We have done tactical promotions to keep people, but listeners know what’s what,” Berkowitz states. “The relationship between a listener and their favorite radio station is very sacred. In one large market situation, we have been going gangbusters but the station suddenly sucks. The same station that was the king is now the pauper. Sample sizes in PPM are a little scary. When it is good, it is very good; but when it is bad – it really hurts.”
Today’s radio world has essentially been divided into PPM markets and non-PPM markets; according to Berkowitz, promotion reacts differently in the two. “I have always liked promotions on AC stations because it gives you something to talk about and it adds excitement to the station, above and beyond the music,” he remarks. “It gives you a chance to interact a little differently with your listeners. In every piece of research I have seen, women – who primarily make up adult contemporary listening – like these contests. They enjoy the chance to win things, so as long as the contesting does not take over the radio station, it is a good thing to have.”
Executives at stations in PPM-based methodology markets have learned that they must constantly look to create more occasions of listening and recycle listeners more times in the day. “Contesting can be very effective there,” the eternally cheery Berkowitz suggests. “I hear a lot of garbage on stations. When I ask why it is on the air, I always hear that it was because of sales – ‘We had to do it.’ You get a lot of that. It is still true that, with promotions, cash is still king.”
Consistently strong music geared to adult women, and a sense of companionship are among adult contemporary’s strongest calling cards. “The greatest AC stations are not personality-driven, but they sure have a personality to them,” Berkowitz opines. “Of course, women love the music that these stations play but it is more than that. It is the people. It is the presentation. It is a combination of many things. Adult contemporary might not be a woman’s number one format choice – but it certainly is when she is at work and I will totally take that. We have learned that an AC in a PPM market had better get its ratings between 8:00 am – 4:00 pm. If you don’t get them there, you are going to have some trouble. It is not 9:00 am – 5:00 pm – it is 8:00 am – 4:00 pm and your station needs to rack up some big quarter-hours there because that really is where it’s at.”
Famously-linked with adult contemporary for many years as president of McVay Media, Mike McVay remains directly involved with the format in his present capacity as Cumulus Media senior vice president of programming. It is his assessment that AC is currently in an excellent position. “For the most part across America, AC has contemporized,” he remarks.
Research to which McVay is privy reveals that 35-year-old women are very accepting of such contemporary artists as Adele, Katy Perry, Pink, John Mayer, and Train.
That has transported adult contemporary back to a point where it is once again a singer-songwriter format. “For a long time, all the singer-songwriters were on country,” the veteran AC consultant remarks. “In the early days of adult contemporary, the format had singer-songwriters with Elton John, Billy Joel, and Rod Stewart. I think we are now back to that era.”
Adult contemporary outlets share more with CHR than in the past, and McVay contends much of that is owing to CHR’s splintering into mainstream and rhythmic top 40.
It becomes a question of library classics: Adult contemporary plays more of them, a different kind of them, and its stations venture further back for them than does a typical mainstream CHR. “When it comes to currents and recurrents though,” McVay states, “AC and mainstream top 40 are very similar.”
Shades of Difference
Specific market situations dictate the number of currents a Cumulus-owned adult contemporary property plays, with McVay pointing out, “If there is not a strong top 40 in the market, we will be a little newer. If there is a strong top 40 and no station spans that gap, we may play some music from the 1970s on some of our ACs; sometimes though, we will not.”
An adult contemporary outlet such as Cumulus-owned WRRM in Cincinnati (“Warm 98″) is not necessarily the same as the company’s AC holdings in Providence (WWLI – “Lite Rock 105″) or Cedar Rapids, Iowa (KDAT). “Those are three very different radio stations, based on their competitive situations,” McVay underscores. “It appears that CBS Radio-owned adult contemporary stations are more contemporary and play more currents. Clear Channel is certainly more current with their ACs than they used to be, but they have a broader list and go back a little further. Their AC stations will play music from the 1980s and some iconic songs from the 1970s.”
Ability to define hot AC with a great degree of accuracy is a tricky proposition, given the “contemporizing” of stations under the adult “contemporary” banner. “Once again, the difference between AC and hot AC is about the gold, not currents or recurrents,” McVay emphasizes.
Rotations continue to be key, although the disparity might not be as dramatic as it once was. Hot ACs will tend to add currents faster and turn them over quicker. “Many successful hot ACs are really adult top 40s,” states McVay, whose pivotal career break came at age 24 when he became program director of Los Angeles’ KTNQ. “In many cases, hot AC is mildly different from AC.”
Country music can be very palatable for the typical adult contemporary listener, and particularly in the midwest, southeast, and southwest, that format provides strong opposition to AC. “The lyrics are singer-songwriter,” McVay notes. “It is just a great format that is all about life and family values.”
Designed to be positive and uplifting, “The Walk” (WWWQ HD-2) is an Atlanta station that Cumulus recently launched and McVay points out, “It plays country and contemporary Christian songs that appeal to females with family values.”
Not The Textbook Manly-Man Format
Adult contemporary still strives to be strongest 35-44 but, even today, many ACs do very well 45-54. “You have to forget Arbitron’s 35-44 cell and really look at reaching a 40-year-old female,” McVay emphasizes. “If you accomplish that, you will spill on both sides of the demo.”
Women continue to be AC’s unvarying focal point, but McVay contends that one way to attract some men to an adult contemporary is with a “great morning show.”
Nonetheless, music heard on most AC facilities is extremely female-targeted. “Even if it is up-tempo, adult contemporary music is relationship-oriented,” McVay maintains. “No man wants to sing about a woman coming into a bar looking for a fight. It is not a format that most men would call their P1. They might have it as a P2 or a P3, but it is not generally their first-choice format.
A significant number of men in the 35-54 range are listening to rock, classic rock, sports, or news and as McVay states, “You may find some on country, but even that format leans female. They are also listening to classic hits, but that is definitely 45+ – not 35-44.”
NBC-TV’s “The Voice” has helped make Adam Levine (and Maroon 5) a very strong adult contemporary artist. “You cannot ignore crossover artists like Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, The Band Perry, and with certain titles, Carrie Underwood,” McVay remarks. “Those artists are receiving an enormous amount of radio airplay because they are multi-format. Some songs such as [Lady Antebellum's] ‘Need You Now’ are iconic for the AC format. They are huge, ‘active’ songs that listeners request and they get very positive test scores.”
Market research and music research help to ascertain what listeners like, what they do not like, and perhaps most importantly – what they want. Many radio companies are cutting back budgets in those areas, although McVay is adamant in declaring, “We are very much committed to it at Cumulus. We have some national research that we utilize as well as specific local market research. Stations in the largest of our markets have ongoing research.
Programmers can easily get swept up about hype surrounding certain songs but McVay cautions that even if a song wins a Grammy or is featured in a movie, it does not necessarily mean listeners like it. “If there is buzz after the Grammys or Oscars about a certain song, we may pay attention to it but just winning does not always mean it is right for every radio station,” he remarks. “It just means that the Grammy or Oscar Academy voters liked it
Research is conducted about when songs become familiar and when they are burned out since McVay stresses, “It is just as important to know when to stop playing a song as it is to start playing one.”
Music Does the Talking
Critical for the typical adult contemporary is its targeting of the at-work listener. “You need to be streaming and to be sure the station is as portable as possible,” advises McVay.
Adult contemporary is still one of the strongest at-work formats, although in certain regions, country is getting considerable at-work listening. “AC’s strength is creating an environment that everyone in the family can listen to it,” McVay states. “A mother who is driving her kids to school can put on an AC station and not worry about them hearing bad lyrics. If an AC can afford to do television, direct-mail, outdoor, and contesting – they should [because all of these things] are still important. Regardless of format, that has not changed because it is all about top-of-mind awareness and getting people to sample your station.”
Not only is at-work listening a vital driver for adult contemporary, but as noted earlier, having a competitive morning show has its merits and McVay points out, “We are having a great deal of success with Bob & Marianne in Cincinnati – I think they do a great show [on adult contemporary 'Warm 98'].”
Superbly capable principals involved there are the highly personable 1993-2004 “Entertainment Tonight” co-anchor and game show host (“Wheel of Fortune” and “Blackout,” among others) Bob Goen and his lovely improvisation and celebrity impressionist wife, Marianne Curan. “Bob & Marianne Radio” (“BMR”) initiated “Warm 98″ 5:30 am – 10:00 am hosting duties this past October 1. Several years ago, they co-hosted a four-hour interactive internet radio game show (“GSN Radio”).
Raising a warning flag regarding too much talk on the format, the dapper McVay emphasizes that particularly after morning drive, “You still have to be a music-intensive station. Being too new and too unfamiliar is still a tune-out in AC. Many stations are cluttered – they play too many commercials and too much talk. They lose sight of the fact that the usage of the station is about letting the music do the talking for you.”
Creative Around the Rules
As far as legendary broadcaster George Johns is concerned, there have always been two types of adult contemporary stations – foreground and background. “Today though, they are trying to narrow the music so each individual station is not doing as well as back in the day,” the former station manager of Toronto’s CFTR hypothesizes. “Years ago, AC stations would have gigantic ratings, but those days are pretty much over.”
Portland’s KKCW is the first radio station Johns ever bought and he “loves the fact” that it is having such tremendous success. “I think [the Clear Channel-owned adult contemporary outlet] has been #1 in Portland longer than KVIL was #1 in Dallas,” the president-chief executive officer-founder of John’s Company states.” Some frightened people are working in radio now. There is practically an automation of AC and it is getting decent numbers.”
Radio was “great” when there was a ton of FCC rules, Johns opines, as “creative and smart” broadcasters won the ratings by figuring out a way to circumvent those restrictions. “It would be boring to watch sports if there were no rules,” he theorizes.
Heritage Dallas facility KVIL was one of America’s first mainstream adult contemporary stations and Johns recalls that, while the station was obligated to do news, “We invented a totally different way of doing it and a special version of it that got copied all over America. We did a great public service program ['Staff Meeting'] with [then-program director/morning talent] Ron Chapman, who would talk with other station personalities about things that were happening in Dallas. Would we have done that show if we did not have to? Absolutely not.”
During the time when Johns was programming in such Canadian markets as Ottawa, Sudbury, and Saskatoon, it was a regulation there that a station could only give away $5,000 a month. “I thought I just had to go to the States,” he jokes. “Of course, what you would do is give away $5,000 on the last day of the month and then another $5,000 the first day of the following month. We were complaining that was all we could give away, but programmers would love to have that today.”
Definitive Class Act
One particular thing that especially perplexes Johns is that, while promotions are a big factor for AC stations, the need for local business seems to have disappeared. “I do not know why radio has turned its back on that,” he comments. “All systems now are aimed at agencies.”
Former Fairbanks Broadcasting chief executive officer Jim Hilliard was fond of saying that a station that has the ratings and can “ring the cash register” will make all the money. “He was right then, but I am not so sure he is right today because no one is doing anything to try to ‘ring that register,’” comments Johns, who for eight years (1973-1981), was Fairbanks’ vice president of programming. “The reason stations do promotions is to motivate people or inspire them to do something you want them to do.”
Another intention of a promotion is to cause people to create a buzz about the station, as well as Johns’ ploy to enthuse the on-air staff, although he laments, “A bunch of non-radio people is running radio and I guess no one cares if the talent is excited anymore. We used greed to lure listeners into a promotion and we would have too many people show up at businesses. They would not know what to do with all of them.”
Operating “The Class” and “Classy FM” formats without the luxury of budgets, Johns points out that people would turn “junk radio stations” over to him. “I loved doing promotions and I would wander down to the sales manager’s office because I knew he had all the money. I would come up with something for listeners that I could tie into sales. You would do a promotion every quarter, but I don’t think anyone in the business even remembers that.”
Listeners generally enjoy the grandness of radio station promotions such as “The Prize Catalogue” and “The Last Contest,” which Johns proclaims, “changed my radio life. It went a little far though when people who won houses went bankrupt trying to pay the taxes for it.”
Those of a certain demo might recall that Pulse was always kind to top 40 stations, while Arbitron’s diary methodology tends to favor adult-based formats. “I used to have a station in Indianapolis [MOR WIBC] that was huge because the diary loved it, but when Pulse numbers came out, we would be nothing,” Johns recollects. “For whatever reason, PPM is more like Pulse – it is very kind to CHR. It shows many moms are overhearing their teenage daughters who control the car radio. The second format PPM is very good to is AC. The scan button is a woman’s best friend – when she hears an unfamiliar song, she hits that thing.”
Disappointed that PPM is not, in his estimation, correctly measuring morning drive, Johns imagines that the big radio groups are quite happy about that since, “They don’t want to pay big morning talent anyway. No one is screaming and yelling – but they should be. It is crazy to think more people are listening between 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm or 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm than between 7:00 am – 8:00 am. It is impossible. PPM is doing a great disservice to us in that regard. Adult contemporary gets a break on that, of course, because it is a sunup to sundown format. Most of the ratings are generated mid-day through in-office listening. I liked to put on a gigantic morning show, which brought in cume like crazy.”
Skeptical Of Parity
If he were advertising on radio, Johns would naturally prefer those who were “really listening” – not “drive-by listeners,” since the latter do the clients no good. “Agencies though must not care,” he reasons. “Arbitron has always wanted all of us to have a four-share. When I was doing KVIL, five or six stations were in double-digits. There were 50 signals – five of us were happy and the rest were always complaining. Now – it is convenient for Arbitron that all stations have the same numbers, so they only have a few unhappy customers.”
Certain music texture has constantly been a major element for an adult contemporary station’s success. In the format’s early days, Johns estimates that the approximate current/oldies ratio was what today would be a startlingly high 55% current and 45% oldies.
Even at that, he states adult contemporary stations did not play anything that “sounded” like they were oldies. “I think AC has become a little too old,” the cordial Johns opines. “Adult contemporary has to become more current. Most women are pretty hip about music. A 20-year-old female and a 60-year-old female would both like [Maroon 5's] ‘Moves Like Jagger.’ There isn’t anything not to like about that song.”
Younger female listeners will know the artist, while Johns maintains, “The older ones won’t give a damn. It is all about moving along with the age of the audience; the music has to be more ‘today.’ If I were re-modeling an AC again, I would look for the James Taylor classic standard that, for whatever reason, a young girl would know; however, I would not play every James Taylor song. I would cherry pick by matching the sound of the oldies to the sound of the currents. It is pretty easy to figure out which songs go together.”
Promotions Minus Tired Presentation
No one in adult contemporary is pushing the envelope enough with talent to suit Johns’ taste and he does not anticipate that the format will produce an incarnation of Howard Stern. “On-air personalities are so nervous about working that they are all following the company line,” he states with regret. “Some people do a better job than others but it is all manufactured and it is all out of USA Today. When you go to a party, you love hanging with the live wire – not the guy pouting in the corner. Get the noisy characters who are having a great time on the air.”
A recent, extended car trip found Johns listening to the radio for what he anticipated to be a lengthy period, but it wound up that he was glad he brought along CDs. “I could usually find talent everywhere, but this was awful,” he declares. “Someone would always knock your socks off. There would be character in their voice as they did stuff. This time – nothing. Most of it was syndicated or voice-tracked, so I finally had to turn it off – and I am a radio guy. The talent might be out there, but I don’t know where the heck it is. It is not easy to find.”
Bosses can be notoriously famous for saying, “Do what you do,” but Johns points out that those such as his mentor, Jim Hilliard, always had to be sold. “If my presentation was good enough, I could do anything I wanted on the radio station,” Johns proudly explains. “If I wanted to get something on the air, I would figure out a way to sell it. I bet many AC programmers have a bunch of stuff they would like to do but they do not know how to sell it upstairs. Even when an owner doesn’t know anything about radio, they can be sold if you are logical. Jack McCoy went in and said he wanted to give away four tires. When asked why he would want to do that, he said he would put a brand new Ferrari on top of them. It is all in the presentation.”
Top 40 Envy
As some adult contemporary programmers attempt to ride the wave of popularity created by CHR’s strong music cycle, others are more cautious of mimicking that format. “At the moment, our biggest threat is internal in the overreaction to push stations; so, in some cases, they are too contemporary or too current,” remarks Dan Vallie, who founded Vallie-Richards-Donovan Consulting in 1988. “Doing that pushes it away from the format’s biggest strengths. AC has to be AC: Not all songs that come to the format have to be on a CHR first. In a sense, top 40 has always dealt with many disposable, trendy songs.”
By way of contrast, adult contemporary, Vallie maintains, “has been associated with more quality music that stands the test of time.”
Yet he fears many AC outlets are moving closer toward CHR.
Pointing out that particular strategy “damaged the top 40 format” for years, Vallie predicts it is capable of doing the same to adult contemporary. “It is a tough conversation in today’s climate, but it is one we have with our AC clients,” Vallie remarks. “Mike Donovan in our company calls it, ‘Top 40 envy.’ It can kill an AC brand. A station will lose its format position and another will come along to capture it.”
Addition and deletion of songs are major decisions in any format, but especially with adult contemporary, and Vallie insists that it is much more complicated than looking at a Most-Played Songs list, or setting arbitrary mathematical cutoff points. “You have to make judgment calls as to whether songs fit or not,” EZ Communications’ former vice president of programming states. “That is one place where the art of programming comes into play and it can separate a good station from a great one.”
Open for debate is the value adult contemporary on-air personalities have, at least as seen through the eyes of upper-level managers and group owners.
Regarding the coaching of that talent, however, Vallie agonizes that, “Hiring the talent and then not giving them any further direction is a big mistake.”
That holds true, regardless of market size.
A PD in one of America’s largest markets told Vallie that, if an air talent has made it “this far,” a programmer should not have to take time to direct them. “While it is true that they are a major market talent, everyone should want to keep getting better at what they do,” Vallie opines. “That should be everyone’s goal. None of us should ever be in the mindset that we have arrived – there is always more to learn. We need our talent to be coached on content, delivery, inflection, pacing, tone, attitude, complimenting/embellishing the station’s essence, station branding, and to have engrained in them their reason for being there. Too many on-air talents just lay down their voice tracks and then boast how quickly they can get their show done. If doing a ‘live’ show, they just deliver non-thinking breaks with the same tone or attitude, regardless what song they are introducing or back announcing.”
Whenever stations allow that to happen, Vallie explains, “It often unintentionally creates a culture that encourages it. I can hear it through the speakers when talent think and feel their content.”
Heart-To Heart Contact
Many would concur that one way a format can differentiate itself in the heated battle for listeners is by having quality on-air talent. “Great talent can make ‘eye contact’ with the listener and in the best case, they can make ‘heart contact,’” Vallie comments. “Relate to the listener – be a real companion. Stations benefit when on-air personalities do that. It will make the consumer listen longer and come back more often.”
Not to be mistaken with the instrumental-based “easy-listening” format, adult contemporary – when correctly programmed – is easy-to-listen to, with Vallie stating, “It is consistent, meets expectations, has a depth of music in era & style, and is mainstream. In the early days of AC, we had to shed music from the 1960s; 12-15 years later, we went through a similar process with some music of the 1970s. In recent times, Michael Bolton and Celine Dion are among those [whose titles have been trimmed from AC playlists]. Songs by those artists start to go away from the format as the audience grows into the 35-44 demo.”
Pegging hot AC’s core cell at 25-34 and a broader 25-39, Vallie believes adult contemporary’s comparable audience is centered in a 35-44 cell and a wider 35-49 demo. “Adult contemporary is doing well in diary markets, but even stronger in PPM markets because of the cume appeal,” he comments. “It is easy to let AC become too routine. There can be comfort in routine but also complacency, which can lead to not keeping the imaging fresh, not working to make it more interesting, and allowing production values to become dated. We are in an exciting industry. When I look at the future, it is so bright I have to put on my shades. What we do is fun, challenging, and rewarding.”
Part four of this special series — Corporate and Creative — is found here.
Mike Kinosian – Kinosian@RadioInfo.com (818) 985-0244.