By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
When Lisa-Lisa & Cult Jam’s “I Wonder if I Take You Home” was a current in 1985, WPLJ New York was mainstream CHR, acquitting itself surprisingly well in combat with rival WHTZ (Z100). That song, never a national CHR smash, was bigger in New York than elsewhere, and it was shortly thereafter that WPLJ pulled off its surprise one-book upset of Z100.
When Lisette Melendez’s “Together Forever” was a current in 1991, New York’s CHR battle was becoming a war of attrition. That song was really owned by new rhythmic rival WQHT (Hot 97), but Z100 and WPLJ were still slugging it out over not just freestyle but hair-band crossovers and any other reaction records.
When Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” was a hit in 1994, WPLJ had famously fled the CHR battle and become a successful gold-based Hot AC built around the promise of “no rap” under Scott Shannon and Tom Cuddy. For several years, WPLJ was the showplace for “life after CHR,” and ‘80s pop/rock was its calling card.
When Nicki French’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was a hit in 1995, WPLJ was on the verge of being confronted by a new crosstown challenger in the relaunched WKTU. That station didn’t play Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. It played ‘70s and ‘80s dance between current rhythmic pop hits, and redefined what adult top 40 was in New York.
When Britney Spears’ “Baby, One More Time” was a hit in 1998, both WPLJ and WKTU had been upstaged by a resurgent Z100, now at the very peak of the mid-to-late ‘80s CHR resurgence. CHR wasn’t as mom-friendly as it is today, and there would be a hiccup in the early ‘00s, but eventually Z100’s Elvis Duran would inspire the sort of loyalty among 32-year-old women that WPLJ’s Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill had at WPLJ’s heyday.
All of those songs played on WPLJ last week. So did a lot of gold titles of the sort that would have always played on the station—Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”; Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”; Matchbox 20’s “Push.” But it’s the rhythmic titles that have prompted the most discussions with friends, co-workers and readers lately about a station that hasn’t prompted discussion for a while. “Whatta Man” is now recognizable as a last burst of sweetness just as hip-hop was getting serious. But in the early ‘90s, any rap was the thing adults could not abide and, thus, the thing that WPLJ did not play.
The other thing that’s been noticeable on WPLJ is a decent amount of teen-pop music—‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera–from the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. Some ACs and Hot ACs have found a place for a title or two. WPLJ is playing three Backstreet Boys titles, and one of them is “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Programmers have been wondering when those songs would resurface for years; if you spend a decent amount of time with WPLJ you’ll hear them.
Depending on how you choose to interpret it, this is either “what WPLJ didn’t do” or “exactly what WPLJ did” in its heyday. If you do the math, this generation’s WPLJ should, of course, be playing the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Besides, the pop/rock ‘80s that were WPLJ’s calling card have moved on to WLTW (Lite FM) and WCBS-FM, and the latter has Scott Shannon.
WPLJ had actually broken the rhythmic-pop barrier a while ago. After one last run at reclaiming the pop/rock ‘80s several years ago, it had been camped out in that area between Adult and Mainstream CHR with a lot of recent rhythmic gold and recurrents, not unlike other Cumulus CHRs of the time. But you were more likely to hear Ne-Yo than ‘N Sync. I first came across “Baby, One More Time” in late spring, but things seem to have further taken shape since the arrival of PD (and contemporary format captain) Rick Gillette in July. And in recent months, WPLJ is up 2.3 – 2.5 – 2.8 6-plus since July.
Gillette is reclaiming another part of WPLJ’s legacy as well. That station always had some Bob- and Jack-FM like elements before they were readily identifiable as such. (When the Adult Hits boom did come along in the mid-‘00s, Shannon and Cuddy briefly opened up the vaults and began playing ‘70s and ‘80s again.) Now, there are listener drops thanking WPLJ for the oh-wow songs, and a top-of-the-hour ID tells listeners, “It’s okay. We don’t know what’s coming next either.”
For its part, WKTU has been covering freestyle and other ‘90s titles (including “Baby, One More Time”) for more than a year now, ever since the initial success of throwback hip-hop/R&B station WBQT (Hot 97.7) Boston. No station has followed WBQT’s lead into that format altogether, despite the success of Cumulus throwback hip-hop/R&B stations in markets as unlikely as Indianapolis and Erie, Pa., but you can now tune across the NYC dial and hear multiple mentions of throwbacks—always a good radio moment.
Here’s WPLJ just before noon on Monday (21):
Taylor Swift, “Style”
Backstreet Boys, “As Long as You Love Me”
Katy Perry, “Dark Horse” (with the Juicy J rap)
Rachel Platten, “Fight Song”
Seal, “Kiss From a Rose”
Pitbull, “Time of My Life”
Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”
X Ambassadors, “Renegade”
Ace of Base, “The Sign”
Christina Perri, “Jar of Hearts”
Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye”
Avril Lavigne, “Complicated”
Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven”
Britney Spears “Baby, One More Time”
Andy Grammer, “Honey, I’m Good”
Fray, “How to Save a Life”
Taylor Swift, “Bad Blood”
David Guetta f/Usher, “Without You”