Classic hits, adult hits…what’s the difference right? Just play the oldies! (If you’re a radio programmer, that’s meant to be a joke.) The two goldies formats have plenty of musical crossover but, as Billy Joel covers in “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” they each still have a distinct persona.

“There are differences between the two formats, not necessarily because of what the two audiences like as much as what they’ve been trained to expect from the stations,” offers Edison Research VP Sean Ross. “At classic hits, one Duran Duran song is a reliable hit. Adult hits plays five, and if they’ve been built around variety as a selling point, it doesn’t matter to some PDs how the other four test.”

Still, it can be tricky to define—and refine—the format’s signature since gold-based formats must constantly evolve to pinpoint their audience sweet spots. And to make things all the more difficult, there are more than a few of those Duran Duran or “Jack and Diane”-type hits that serve both. This makes differentiating classic and adult hits risky business, although savvy players say they’ve “got this.”

“In Syracuse, I call it the Steve Miller Syndrome. You can hear ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ on no less than five radio stations in this market,” says Mimi Griswold, brand manager at Galaxy Communications. “What plays before and after that song on a classic hits station vs. an adult hits station vs. a classic rock station is what defines the station profile. It’s feel.”

Krash Kelly, PD & morning host of Emmis adult hits “103.5 Bob FM” KBPA Austin, concurs. He tells Inside Radio, “What makes the formats unique is that when one swerves to the left, the other goes right. So following a shared ‘80s cut, classic hits might play Pilot’s ‘Magic’ while adult hits may play Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know.’” Add to that proprietary content, says programming vet & Townsquare Media’s senior VP Kurt Johnson: “The way you keep the two formats distinct is by making sure there is unique content around the songs. Our classic hits and adult hits stations would never be confused with their format rivals. They’re distinct even if they do share titles.” Echoing Kelly, he adds, “Both stations might play ‘Hotel California,’ but after that, one plays ‘Blister In The Sun’ and the other plays ‘Walking on Sunshine.’”

When programmed with this kind of aplomb, Jeff Johnson, senior VP at consultancy Alan Burns & Associates, believes the two formats are absolutely their own audio animal. “Of course there will be sharing between classic hits and adult hits, but there is plenty of room for each format to have a unique essence,” he says. “It’s the outer edges that will be the point of differentiation. Adult hits can get away with some contemporary music while classic hits will have some of the ‘classic’ early ‘70s artists/titles.”

CBS Radio is certainly in the know, given format-leading classic hits station KCBS-FM and adults hits KRTH, tied for third 25-54 in Los Angeles and both top 5 12+. “The stations share a lot of ‘80s flashback titles from Blondie, The Police, Billy Idol, U2 and more,” says corporate senior VP of programming and VP of LA Programming Kevin Weatherly. “Jack leans more rock, while KRTH plays more rhythmic and pop-leaning titles. However, the real difference is the presentation of the stations.”

“The ideal situation is that a station gets to cover both franchises, like WCBS-FM (New York),” says Edison’s Ross. “The next best is that both flourish, like Cleveland—where the two are co-owned—or Pittsburgh—where they’re not. In a market with the right heritage, there’s room for both, in the same way there’s room for AC, hot AC and two CHRs playing the same hits in some markets.”

The way Townsquare Media senior VP Kurt Johnson sees it, “Classic hits has evolved into playing many of the original adult hits’ titles, but adult hits has creatively found new ways to deliver on its value proposition. Each station has done this differently. Some have added format-appropriate jocks or feature characters, some have added recurrents and even currents. Water finds its own level.”