Adult Contemporary – a dull and dusty music format? Not necessarily. Some ideas on how to let your AC station sound hip & happening, as well as balanced and consistent.
“Good morning, it is 7:15 and here’s another song to blow your brains out to!” Not the way to go, right? So how to create a balanced and familiar music play list, with a fresh and contemporary station sound for Adult Contemporary? And should we still play 80s classics? Ideas from AC radio programmers, heard at Radiodays Europe 2012.
“The most important thing for an AC station is balance”
Research market & test music
SBS Radio operates multiple radio stations in several different markets and has a lot of experience in designing formats and launching stations. “Research is the base”, says former Group Program Director and current Nordic Business Development Director Hans van Rijn. For a music station they conduct a strategic study and map out music styles & areas. They test the music library, design the format architecture, and finally test the current songs (depending on the type of station). “We look at the market in general. What’s going on with our competitors? Is there a big TV talent show in the market? That can also influence the music selection.”
Time CHR/AC crossovers carefully
You can use CHR stations in your market to make hits for your AC format. SBS owns an AC and a CHR station (as well as television channels) in every major Scandinavian market and is also active in Romania. Being part of a big station family not only ensures a solid foundation and market position for every member. It also helps with the music selection: “We can see when it’s the right time to pick up a song [and lift it over] from CHR to AC”.
Ensure music playlist balance
Christian Schalt is in a similar position; managing both an AC and CHR station in Berlin, one of Germany’s major radio markets and probably the most crowded. One of the 35 stations in this market is 94,3 rs2, for which he’s responsible. It has a Modern AC touch and is positioned as Der Supermix (The Very Best Mix). His radio programming mantra is: “The most important thing for an AC station is balance. It’s important to have a balance of contemporary, new music and established, catalogue-based music.” He also mentions tempo balance and style balance as factors that play a role in an AC playlist.
“AC is a best-testing format”
Schedule only top-testing songs
“When it comes to AC, I would call myself a slave”, Christian Schalt admits. Quickly adding: “In terms of research, of course. I wouldn’t play any new song that is untested; I wouldn’t play any song that has even average or just good scores. I think that AC is a best-testing format. So you have to rely on recurrents; you have to rely on hits. [Adult Contemporary] is not something that develops or breaks through hits. That’s not possible.”
Keep those 80s comin’
Session host and radio consultant Francis Currie mentions something noteworthy, based on seeing music research in several different markets. Often, half of the 100 best-testing songs in an AC music test are hits from the 1980s. But many program directors face a dilemma here. “People are still desperate for 80s songs, although they are dated now in some age groups”, Schalt says concisely.
Make distinctive musical choices
He thinks that you should be very selective what 80s songs you play. “You have to carefully decide which songs fit your station promise and station sound. In case of rs2 it’s probably the more rhythmic side of the 80s, so we’d prefer Eurythmics to Dire Straits or Madonna to Bon Jovi. But I would really recommend playing the 80s.” He adds that it’s again a matter of balance. You should counterbalance your music library of 80s songs with enough contemporary songs from the 2000s and today.
“Be slow, but don’t be somber”
Play only top 90s
This brings the conversation to another music scheduling challenge for many AC stations: how to bridge the gap between the 1980s and 2000s? Program directors and music directors often feel like there’s a lack of radio-friendly and good-testing hit songs from the 90s. “They were dominated by a lot of interesting dance acts…”, Christian Schalt recalls while smiling. His Latvian colleague Ivars Embrekts who manages Radio Skonto adds that “Firestarter is a bit tough to play on an AC…” However, the panel doesn’t really answer how to solve the issue of having a lack of playable 90s songs. Therefore, a personal suggestion:
Redefine music category timelines
You might want to play only top-testing 90s. Then you will probably find yourself having more suitable 80s than 90s songs available. You can let the 90s appear less often (like playing just one 90 for every two 80s). Option 2: redefine your music era borders, so you’ll have enough songs in each Gold category to ensure era balance and variety. You could define 4 basic categories: Gold B (1980-1994), Gold A (1995-2010), Recurrent (2011/2012) and Current (2012).
Sound positive (all day)
Radio Skonto’s format leans towards Soft AC. How do they cope with playing ballads during the morning show? Ivars Embrekts clarifies that their problem isn’t so much ballads. It’s sad ballads. “There are songs that are slow, but also have a depressing part to them – like some of the Dire Straits stuff. Tests great. But, boy – in the mornings it’s a real downer. In my talks to the music director I’ve always said: be slow, but don’t be somber; be calm, but not depressing – good morning, it is 7:15 and here’s another song to blow your brains out to! It’s probably not the best way to build up a good morning show…”
“Don’t play anything
that will dramatically polarize the audience”
Let test results prevail
What about playing music in the local language? Spanish AC station Cadena 100 basically makes no difference between music in their own language and international productions, according to Promotions Director Kevin Palmer. “We don’t have quotas; everything gets on the air by merit. In Catalonia, there is a Catalan content stipulation. But even then, songs get on if they make the grade. We’re just lucky that in the moment about 50% of the most popular songs with our target are in the Spanish language. Variety of language is a pillar of our offering.”
Lean on familiar artists
He thinks that’s one of the things that make Cadena 100 sound quite unique. “Younger stations in this market are really struggling to find Spanish-language music that is cutting through.” The best seems to have a distinctive, but also familiar music format, as Palmer says: “Most of the big Spanish artists for us are well established. They debuted at the end of the 90s or start of 2000s. Now they’re AC artists, and that works really well for us.”
Consider your entire audience
In part 1 of this AC radio format series, we’ve seen that Cadena 100 is aimed at a female target listener. Despite this female focus, they consciously think of the male listener as well: “We carefully consider the music and we don’t play anything that will dramatically polarize the audience”, Kevin Palmer explains. “We try to not put anything in there that will make men run to tune to another station. But if they do… we have a Rock station in our group, and a Talk station that does a lot of Sports.”
“The art is to know
when it’s the right time to play something”
Include some image artists
Cadena 100 does play Lady Gaga a lot. What are the boundaries for having contemporary artists on an AC station? “I think she’s up there partly for the image”, Palmer replies. “You might sell cheap 9,99 plastic watches, but you put the Rolex in the window. A very intelligent man from Radio Intelligence once said that what’s different now from 20 or 30 years ago, is the speed with which an artist goes from being out there and cool, to the middle of CHR, to suddenly being perfectly acceptable on AC.”
Trust your gut feeling
“If you were a teenager in the 80s and you came home dressed as Adam and The Ants, for example, your parents might have been a bit freaked out. If your kids come home now, dressed as Lady Gaga, well… she’s on the AC station that you listen to and it’s no problem. I think the key – the art – is to know when it’s the right time to play something that we think is edgy.” Our conclusion once again: successful music scheduling is a combination of science and art.