While classic hits radio loves the ‘80s, in order to consistently maintain a forward-thinking evolution, the format must consider the next generation of music to choose from. The ‘60s and even the early ‘70s, for the most part, are non-existent on today’s classic hits stations. So is it perhaps time to introduce the ‘90s to the playlist?
“When you look at the top 500 songs, there are only seven songs from the ‘90s or newer,” says Cumulus Media VP/Classic Hits Programming and WLS-FM (94.7) Chicago PD Brian Thomas.
Adds Jim Ryan, Entercom Classic Hits format captain and WCBS-FM (101.1) New York PD: “We dabble a little bit in the ‘90s—which sadly was such an awful decade for music. You have to cherry pick the songs because we don’t want to play a bunch of sappy ballads and we don’t want to play a lot of rap.”
If music from the ‘90s doesn’t bode well for classic hits stations, where will the format turn to as it eventually finds it must move forward musically? “I think you’ll see the next move is people jumping into the 2000s,” Thomas says. “In ‘93, stations went all ‘70s and then in the early 2000s they went all ‘80s. Each time it was back two decades. If you look at it like that, we’re not too far away from 2020—then you can say classic hits stations will be really entrenched in the 2000s.”
Ryan agrees: “I think that the early 2000s will probably be the next major expansion for classic hits,” he says. “I don’t think the ‘90s are ever going to be a dominant decade for classic hits, because the music was so all over the place.”
Thomas continues, “I can see the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s being the next jump of the format. Oddly enough, the ‘80s and the 2000s would be the two biggest decades of the music.”
Ryan says he believes that ‘90s hits are “dabbling a little bit” within the company’s classic hits stations. “The way to work them in is to play songs like ‘Drift Away’ by Uncle Kracker, or ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Counting Crows, because obviously there is a big portion of the audience who knows the songs.”
Beasley Media Group VP/Programming Buzz Knight adds to the discussion: “We know how tastes evolve and we shift a bit depending on how the music is a part of pop culture, too. The ‘90s don’t provide as many opportunities as we would like, but there’s not a ton of opportunity within the 2000s either,” he suggests. “Maybe some of that will change and it potentially opens up a little within each category, but I think we have a ways to go on that.”
While classic hits thrives, its evolution does, in fact, walk a similar line with it primary competitor, classic rock. “The real point of difference ends up being musically,” Knight says of the two formats. “That’s where the female appeal comes in” for classic hits stations.
“You don’t want to rock too hard, but songs that may have been considered very loud at one point in time aren’t loud anymore,” Ryan offers. “We play ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses on WCBS-FM. That’s not a loud song for somebody who was in high school in the late ‘80s when that song was out. They’re right now in our core demo.”
Adds Knight of the two formats, “Presentation wise, they are very different. There are classic hits stations that utilize production values almost from the way top 40 was back in a period of time.”