Here’s a headline for the ages. Did you ever expect to read a story about AC with the tag: “Can Adult Contemporary Radio Figure Out Its Hip-Hop Issue?” Billboard takes on how programmers of the perpetually popular format are dancing with the idea of adding rap into rotation.
It goes without saying that “adult contemporary, which began as the Easy Listening’ chart in 1961, has historically featured far less hip-hop than top 40 radio, as well as adult top 40, both of which are more current-intensive,” the Billboard story begins, further explaining that while adult top 40 largely mixes new hits with post-2000 staples, AC focuses on familiarity, with a handful of current songs alongside tried-and-true hits from the 80s, 90s 00s and this decade, plus a dash of 70s throwbacks.
But the conundrum comes in the growing “importance to American popular music” of hip-hop, which the article says has been music’s biggest genre since 2017—primarily because of the recent inclusion of streaming in Billboard’s Hot 100 chart methodology, bypassing the traditional formula of sales and airplay. Meanwhile, on the magazine’s Streaming Songs Artists year-end list for 2018, 17 of the top 25 artists were hip-hop acts.
“As the sound of U.S. pop continues to shift, AC radio is starting to reckon with the question of its own evolution,” Billboard hypothesizes. John Peake, PD of iHeartMedia AC KOST-FM Los Angeles, says, “You’d be surprised how much time we spend [talking] internally about where hip-hop fits, what’s its role, and if we’re reflecting the audience expectations of the station.” It again comes down to streaming data: “It makes us stand up and notice it — how do we address this as a radio brand?”
Often times, AC will play versions of mainstream hits that strip out rapping—foremost the song that just broke the record for most weeks at No. 1 (at 29 weeks) at the format: Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” sans Cardi B’s rap contribution to the CHR version. Ditto for Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” in 2015, where lead Khalifa’s verses were stripped out.
Perhaps the most telling comment in the Billboard story—an answer to the question about whether AC listeners are really ready for hip-hop, comes from AC WHUD-FM Hudson Valley, NY PD Steve Petrone: “Knowing our audience and what they don’t like, that’s generally why we’ll look for an edit,” he says. “That’s the history that we’ve had with our listeners, who tend to be a little more conservative.”
Adds Wendy Goodman, Senior VP of Promotion at RCA Records, “The reason why these rap-less versions of hit singles exist is because labels still value adult contemporary radio as a gateway to different audiences after a song takes off at pop radio. These records stay on the chart for over a year, if it’s a real hit. It opens up a whole new audience, and that’s what we all want, to cast that net as wide as possible.”
Of course, like all formats, adjustments are made as audiences age. “The generation that began hip-hop is getting older,” says Cat Thomas, PD at Hubbard Radio AC WSHE-FM Chicago, “and they will evolve our format as they get older with their musical tastes. There are going to be changes, and in radio, we have to be ready for them.”