As CHR programmers increasingly lean on the likes of YouTube and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora to influence programming decisions, a more polarizing format is bringing its shares down. In fact—along with a lack of tempo and a shortage of bona fide hits—Nielsen says that the perennially popular CHR format has declined nearly two full share points since the beginning of 2016.
But what amounts to CHR’s loss may be working to the advantage of both hot AC and AC. With an increased focus on mainstream current pop fare, are these formats the new top 40?
“In many markets, we are finding that there’s not much difference” between hot AC and AC, perhaps creating a further drain on CHR, says Tracy Johnson, founder of radio consultancy Tracy Johnson Media Group. “That’s fine for hot AC when the music is strong enough to support it, but when current music is weaker, it opens the door for familiar AC. And look at what’s happening: AC is killing it with a familiar, uptempo playlist.”
Indeed, those radio formats that were once considered older and less current than CHR are capitalizing on CHR’s adoption of music that is polarizing its historic audience of daughters and their wanna-be hip moms. “Hot AC is playing so close to CHR of late, and so far is still its own lane. If it’s done right, it will pull cume from CHR and AC,” says Kurt Johnson, Townsquare Media’s senior VP, Programming. Meanwhile, “AC has found a solid place after suffering an identity crisis for a few years. Like hot AC, AC depends on strong spinoffs from CHR, and when CHR is down it’s usually difficult. But AC is filling a variety role right now. Even though it’s not as dependent on currents, the format continues to play the best new pop as it always has.”
Adds Alan Burns & Associates founder and namesake, “CHR’s target is still moms and daughters and I imagine it always will be—but hot AC is encroaching on the moms and AC is getting more contemporary. Hot AC has almost become mainstream CHR. And CHR is cooperating when it plays more hip-hop and doesn’t have as much appeal to adults. The format can’t just live on the daughters.”
CHR listeners now share their radio listening time more with hot AC than with any other format, according to statistics provided to Inside Radio by Nielsen, growing from 37% of shared listeners in 2017, compared to only 33% in 2012. AC is next, proving its shared playlist appeal, at 35%, consistent with its 2012 percentage.
Dom Theodore, founder of RadioAnimal, offers, “If CHR is 18-34, hot AC is 25-49. The pop-rock side of CHR is very hot AC-friendly, in a cycle where CHR leans on both Post Malone and Imagine Dragons. So you're seeing rhythmic stations perform well leaning on Post Malone, and hot AC succeeding by leaning on Imagine Dragons.” Meanwhile, “The pop middle sound is empty right now.”
AC has rebranded itself, not only as an at-work listening destination, but a substitute for CHR. Cumulus Media VP/Contemporary Music Cat Thomas says, “AC is agreeable and they have solved their tempo issues. In the past ACs were more sleepy and slow. They have done a great job of recognizing hits from Bruno Mars and Luis Fonsi that add tempo and flavor while still appealing to a large female audience.”
And so today, hot AC is more like CHR, while “ACs today sound more like hot ACs 10 years ago,” Thomas adds. For instance, where is Celine Dion? “The soft ACs seem to be gone and you will now hear Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and ‘Despacito’ on all three. They have become more complementary of each other vs. totally different formats.”
Thomas believes that—yes, the two formats are bleeding into CHR territory: “Hot AC has become CHR without the edgy songs. The good news is the edgy songs seem to have an audience with 25-34 females.”
AC’s persona has swiped some of CHR’s older demo, agrees Jeremy Rice, PD of Cox Media Group CHR WBLI Long Island (106.1) and the company's Top 40 Format Leader. “Moms are just cooler today,” he suggests. “There are no more Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion currents or such artists to take up the AC slots. Instead they like current pop. But once an AC does an ‘80s feature or digs into the early ‘00s and ‘90s, they are clearly an AC and not a top 40.” As a result, he says, “There is room for both formats.”
Calling All Moms & Daughters
So with the bleed between CHR and its hot AC and AC kin, is top 40 still meant to be a destination for moms and daughters, as has been its calling card for decades? Not only is the answer yes, but, according to Mike McVay, executive VP/Content & Programming at Cumulus Media and Westwood One, “Today’s 35-44 year-old mom is much more contemporary than her mother was.” For CHR to maintain wide appeal, “a lot depends on the mix of the music that the PD programs. The types of songs that are played can be wide and varied.”
“I think the ‘Mommy and Me’ contingent continues to be important, but can we really inspire passion in both parties the way we used to?” asks Leslie Whittle, PD of Cumulus CHR KRBE Houston. “Competition for attention is more fragmented than ever before and it’s really difficult to build a true coalition with just music—especially when CHR doesn’t have a lot of exclusive titles.”
That’s why everything around the records is so important, she stresses. “Every station should identify their core listener. Give her an identity with likes, dislikes and aspirations. That’s who you talk to through your music, personality and promotion.”
But wait, not everyone is on board with the mom & daughter mantra. Says Theodore, “I never fully bought into CHR being a mother/daughter format. That's really what hot AC is for. Traditionally, CHR is an 18-34 female format; if daughter is 12 and mom is 35, we miss the CHR core entirely. I've always viewed CHR as a format designed for 24-year-old females at its core. The 12 year old wants to be cool like her, and the 35 or 40 year old mom wishes she was 24 again, and listens to the format to feel younger. At its best, CHR tends to be mass appeal, drawing audiences all the way up to 44-49.”
Add to the numbers the importance today of data. “Yes, CHR must stay young to remain relevant, both for the millennial audience and the older audience to feel in touch with what is happening,” begins Mark St. John, president of Zapoleon Media Strategies. “But we are processing huge amounts of digital data on listener tastes and preferences—a much larger base than we have ever had in the format—and that shows there is a wider variety of songs and artists in play than some might think. We can embrace that variety with careful curation to make sure we appeal to a wide and diverse audience. CHR loses when it over focuses on adults -- and we cannot fall into that trap.”
In any case, the consensus is that broad appeal is about more than just the music. Louie Diaz—a hot AC programming vet who now serves as Operations Manager for Cumulus Atlanta and PD of CHR “Q100” WWWQ—stresses, “Mom & Daughter targeting is still the most successful way to program a CHR, however, music and contesting alone will not get you there. The recipe is still the way we all learned it while listening to radio as a kid or learning later: music, mornings and marketing still create that strong P1 listener.”