Never A ‘Bad Day’ — Adult-Contemporary Radio, Where Pop Hits Live Strong

Months after they become smash singles, songs find new audiences on older-skewing stations.

Do you want to strangle little James Blunt when you hear “You’re Beautiful”? Are you, like, totally over Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten”? Does Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” make yours worse?
 
If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, then you are certainly not tuning in to your local adult-contemporary radio station.

While those songs are cringe-inducing reminders of way back when we feared the bird flu (and the Steelers!) for the typical top-40 fan, they’re current hits on the AC radio format, where “current” is a relative term.

“Unwritten” is the #1 single on Billboard‘s Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks this week, and it’s been on the chart 34 weeks. “Bad Day” is #3 after 43 weeks, followed by KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” (25 weeks). “You’re Beautiful,” at #10, has spent 63 weeks on the chart, topped only by the #9 single, Lifehouse’s “You and Me,” with 70 weeks. (Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You,” Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me” and Rob Thomas’ “Ever the Same” are also in the top 10.)

In other words, AC stations are where pop songs go to die a very long death. Or, to optimists, to get a second life. “Right now I’m starting to look at this Gnarls Barkley record, ‘Crazy,’ ” said Gary Berkowitz, a radio consultant who specializes in the adult-contemporary format. “Pop-radio people are probably sick of it, but to my wife, it’s a new song.”

For the record, “Crazy” hit the Hot 100 25 weeks ago. “I used to pride myself on picking the hits,” Berkowitz said. “Now, I don’t do that. I play the hits.”

Since the adult-contemporary format was created in the mid ’70s to appease advertisers frustrated by the teen-targeted top 40, it’s always been a chameleon format, playing what 25- to 54-year-olds would like from a variety of genres.

AC peaked in the mid ’90s with Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith Fair acts, but as Berkowitz noted, “The format [has] never been known for making its own hits. As I always say, AC listeners know what they like and they like what they know. Familiarity and comfort-ability is really important in this format, and what we’ve discovered is new music is not that important to our listeners.”

Still, other factors have influenced the staleness of the format in recent years, beginning with the decline of the boy bands at the end of the ’90s. While Backstreet Boys and ‘NSYNC crossed over, providing AC with dozens of hits, today “pop radio is all about hip-hop and R&B, or hard rock, and none of that is compatible,” Berkowitz said.

Clarkson and Lachey are exceptions, but otherwise, there’s little competition for adult-leaning acts like Rob Thomas and Lifehouse. “Over the last six years, I don’t even know if we’ve added 10 new records a year in the format,” Berkowitz said.

“There’s definitely a lack of product being released into adult contemporary,” added Steve Hunter, operations manager for several stations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including the AC format Mix 96. “I do wish the songs would move a little faster, but I also think the record companies sometimes don’t release the right singles. I mean ‘Bad Day’ wasn’t supposed to be released and look what happened to that record,” he said, referring to the song that shot to popularity after it got its shot on “American Idol” (see ” ‘Bad Day’ Singer Powter Says He Doesn’t Watch ‘American Idol’ “ ). “Michael McDonald’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ was released for that format and did well, but there are very few records that are released directly for adult-contemporary radio.”

So why don’t more record labels go after what seems to be airplay for the taking? Well, apparently a loyal AC listener doesn’t translate into a loyal fan. “Let’s put it this way,” answered Roy Trakin, senior editor at radio trade magazine Hits. “It’s a song-based format, it ain’t a personality-based format. There’s no guarantee that the next James Blunt or Daniel Powter single is going to go on right away. Probably half the people don’t even know who the artists are when they’re listening. They just know the song, and the songs are fairly indelible.”

“A lot of the artists playing on adult contemporary radio right now are one-hit wonders and it’s unfortunate,” Hunter added. “They’re not really building that bond. I don’t know if our listeners are going out and buying the album or if they’re downloading the single. My guess is that they’re downloading the single, but they’re not making that connection. Where in country, Toby Keith is going to put out another hit record, and one right after that.”

Playlists are getting tighter in all formats, however, and Trakin believes that’s just a sign of the times. “No one wants to take a chance on putting new stuff out there,” he said. “Programmers feel hamstrung, so they find something that’s successful and they beat [you] over the head [with it]. The stakes are that much higher because you have more choices. People will click away in a second. That’s the Internet mentality.”

AC programmers also back their low turnover with market research, which includes testing for “burnout,” the industry term for overplayed. At Mix 96, for instance, the station tested 100 songs and “You’re Beautiful” was the most popular.

“We spend a lot of money on research,” Hunter said. “And we tested the Fray and Snow Patrol, but it takes so long for those songs to test well. We find out what the listener wants and we give it to them. It’s not the music director’s favorite songs or the disc jockey’s favorite songs.”

For artists, there is a silver lining to the AC format, according to Berkowitz: “If your song does make it in AC radio, it’s probably going to be there forever.”