By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
When I was 18 and 19, Top 40 radio and pop music in general, went through its famously awful doldrums of the early ‘80s. I didn’t think about it that way at the time, but the reason I didn’t enjoy what was on the radio much at the time was because reaching me didn’t yet matter to broadcasters at the moment. It was radio’s first publicized bout with “25-54-itis.”
What I wanted from the radio in 1980-82 hardly seemed outrageous. A little less Air Supply and Robbie Dupree. A few more R&B and New Wave crossovers. I didn’t think I was listening to some obscure “brutal grindcore”-type sub-genre that radio could not follow (although one of those songs CHR missed was “Rapper’s Delight.”) It was hard to understand how making pop music so mushy was surgically making the radio better for somebody five years older than me.
Many of the radio stations of that era weren’t just softening their contemporary offerings. They were suddenly raiding the gold library. It was the era when gold-based AC was coming into its own on FM, while former Top 40 AMs were suddenly aging their music and repositioning with, “We’ve Grown Up, Together,” a slogan which, to my knowledge, never worked.
I was one of those 18-year-olds who liked discovering oldies, so the sudden infusion of those in the early ‘80s wasn’t a problem. Often, they were five years or a decade older than the ones I would have enjoyed hearing on the radio again—not the songs I already missed from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, but things that seemed creakier. I recently came across an aircheck of one of those former Top 40 AMs playing “How Glad I Am” by Nancy Wilson and although I appreciate that song on its own terms, it was also hard to understand how that song surgically reclaimed the radio for a 26-year-old in 1980.
The softening of pop radio in the early ‘80s ended because, as it turned out, those over 25 weren’t being super-served any more well than I was. The songs that would have seemed too young, too something a few years earlier – “Tainted Love,” “1999,” “Cum On Feel The Noize” – were actually the records that worked for 25-plus, too, for a while. I had a family friend in his 50s who hadn’t listened to pop music since college. Playing the early ‘60s didn’t get him back to the radio; (that was the music that had chased him away in the first place). But Madonna did.
When Top 40 became unlistenable again a decade later, and broadcasters began to flee the format, I was five years in to in radio’s target demo. But the songs that scared them out of the format—“Rump Shaker,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—weren’t an issue for me. And what radio thought I wanted to hear—“Club At The End of the Street” by Elton John—was off-target. It was a radio cliché of that era that “nobody wakes up on their 25th birthday and suddenly wants to hear Barry Manilow.” The artist cited always changed with the times, but the truism endured, and it’s surprising that broadcasters espoused it, but rarely took it to heart.
Top 40 in that era didn’t make anybody happy. Country’s success of the early ‘90s worked because it forged an all-ages coalition—long-time listeners who didn’t mind Randy Travis as an avatar for Classic Country and younger listeners who didn’t have any history to take into account. And when Top 40 rebounded with all ages in the late ‘90s, it was with the thing that had most scared CHR: not grunge or hip-hop but teen pop. The mother/daughter coalition it created turned out to be what reinvigorated two up periods for the format.
In an earlier generation of radio as a shared experience, there was a certain journey that broadcasters could count on. Kids of the ‘70s grew up on AM CHR, but switched to FM rock stations somewhere around age 12. (That played out again two decades later as Hip-Hop became the mass-appeal music even for top 40 fans in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s.) Radio sometimes tried to re-create this journey—gold-based AC was “yesterday’s fun, today’s soft rock”—but that ended with fragmentation
About six weeks ago, I aged out of 25-54 and began looking at the demo from the other side. This is a dangerous admission in our business. If we’re friended on Facebook, you’ve always known my real age, but I do notice that certain people who preceded me in the business by at least a few years seem to have somehow gotten younger than I am on social media. I’m happy to still be a productive member of the industry, and based on a lot of my interactions with readers who preceded me at radio, I’m not naïve about how lucky I am.
I didn’t wake up on my birthday and feel systematically disenfranchised by radio, not yet anyway. My own musical journey is too hard to re-create anywhere other than my music collection on shuffle, more because of its depth, breadth, and obscurity than because of the genres involved. I have lots of company in my eclecticism in this age of “everybody likes everything.” But the everything that everybody likes isn’t the same as my everything (or anybody else’s).
To the extent that radio was distancing itself from me, it was happening a while ago anyway. I have allegiances to music from the entire Classic Hits era, but the songs that first bonded me to radio—the best of 1967 to 1974—have been peeled off of the format for a decade now. And it’s not like “(I Wanna) Testify” by the Parliaments was ever part of the format in most places.
My generation has some leverage now. We grew up with an allegiance to radio and we contribute a lot of the quarter-hours now. But it seems unlikely that radio will act upon it. Broadcasters now understand this, as well as the buying power of 55-year-olds, but most haven’t yet reached the point where they wish to argue about it with an advertiser. If broadcasters created more ancillary products beyond their own transmitter, they could reach these listeners (or grindcore fans). But many are not waiting around for broadcast to ask for the order (or not, in most cases.)
Credit Chicago’s MeTV FM, now syndicated by Envision, for asking for the order. I wonder on an ongoing basis how much of the music anybody grows up with is peeled away from them by time, even before radio makes the decision. MeTV FM has done well for itself on the assumption that the Class of 1978 remembers all of their music, not just those deemed enduring by other broadcasters. They’ve also managed to recreate the musical journey that once powered AC radio from ‘60s oldies to ‘70s singer-songwriters to ‘80s soft rock.
If other broadcasters wanted to reclaim my quarter-hours, they could, in fact, do it by making the music better for an 18-year-old. My dismay with today’s CHR product does make me wonder if I did wake up one morning unable to relate to the hits, but the ratings show that it isn’t just me. As somebody who does music research for a living, radio’s sophistication at surgically targeting demos is better than it was in 1980, but music that unifies the demos and decreases the need to do so is even better.