Adult Radio Was Once the Butt of Jokes. Now It’s the Hottest Radio Format
Despite the “adult” label, more millennials are tuning in, and the format is increasingly important for breaking pop acts
During the first half of 2018, Adult Contemporary radio was the most-listened-to format in 50 U.S. markets.
On a warm, hazy Monday in August, tucked away in a nondescript office park in Milford, Connecticut, Keith Dakin, Kevin Begley and Allan Lamberti were deciding the sound of Star 99.9, a radio station that plays what’s known as “Hot Adult Contemporary.”
Each week, Dakin and his team examine what’s being streamed and Shazam’d in their town, neighboring towns and the whole country; they also consult a custom-made panel of “nine Hot AC stations, all owned by different companies, five alternative stations that lean female, and five Top 40 stations that are successful.” The trio comb through this data in search of songs that are likely to resonate with their target audience: “A mid-30s mom, a working mom that brings her kids to school, likes to listen to relevant music, doesn’t like sleepy-time songs,” Dakin explains.
Dakin is gregarious, emphatic, charismatic. He likes to describe a positive reception using the term “bananas,” as in, “if this [new U2 single] were on Zooropa, people would be bananas for it.” He moves the meeting along with a series of wisecracks. On Imagine Dragons: “They’re the Foreigner of this decade.” On the ideal records promotions person: “If you’re just a normal whacko, that’s what I’m looking for.”
He’s not shy about his opinions — “I thought it was garbage,” he says of the Macklemore and Kesha single “Good Old Days” — or about admitting when those opinions do not reflect the tastes of his listeners: Star is playing “Good Old Days” a lot. (“Way to resurrect your career, Macklemore.”) After listening to a variety of songs, Dakin, Begley and Lamberti agreed on a series of small tweaks to their rotation. Post Malone’s “Better Now,” already a massive Top 40 single, was making the jump to Hot AC. Bebe Rexha’s long-running hit “Meant to Be” was moved to “recurrent” status, making room for a new song to move up. The Backstreet Boys’ latest comeback single earned a few more spins that week.
For nearly every pop artist of note, as well as alternative rock and country acts with mainstream hopes, the decisions made by Dakin and his fellow programmers are of crucial importance. In July, Nielsen reported that, “in the 50 biggest markets by population, adult contemporary ranked as the most-listened-to music format overall.” It’s probably not a coincidence that Star 99.9 recently hit Number One in its market. “We hi-fived, we had a party, there was pizza,” Dakin quips. “It was great.”
Adult contemporary radio is easily the least-covered airwave format outside of radio trade publications. It doesn’t have 100 million listeners like Top 40, doesn’t respond to viral sensations like Urban, doesn’t make people dance like Rhythmic, doesn’t keep commercial rock’s hopes alive like Alternative, doesn’t have the liberal-arts cachet of Triple A. Several artists historically associated with the format, like Michael Bolton, are the butt of jokes in popular films (Bolton famously in Office Space) — the “cool factor” here is low.
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But AC’s popularity remains undeniable, and its importance seems to be growing.
The adult space actually encompasses two formats, Hot AC and mainstream AC. Hot AC plays more new music and cuts off the oldies sometime this millennium — Star 99, for example, has 36 “currents” and doesn’t play music released before 2000. In contrast, Chuck Knight, Program Director for Philadelphia’s mainstream AC station WBEB, plays “just a few” currents, drawing largely from a pool of music released between 1980 and 2018.
Every radio format was designed with a target audience in mind; AC’s is adult women. (Most of the program directors are men, in this format as in every other.) “It’s the demographic that the Macys of the world all want: women 25 to 54,” says Rob Roberts, Vice President of Hot AC programming for WRQX. “If you have to narrow it down a little tighter, it’s probably the 30-40 year old woman that we’re talking to on a daily basis.”
Size isn’t everything, but it’s important: “The Top 5 records at Adult are reaching anywhere between 30 and 45 million people a week,” says Pete Cosenza, Columbia Records’ SVP of Promotion for Adult Radio. “That’s a significant amount of audience that helps develop our artists and keep them in the game.” For comparison’s sake, “an Urban [the radio format that plays rap and R&B] Top 5 reaches 25 to 30 million listeners, so it’s about the same or a little bit bigger on the Adult pop side.” That means the biggest hip-hop and R&B hits that don’t cross over to pop — and many don’t — are reaching roughly as many listeners as a big AC hit from, say, Jason Mraz.
That audience is just one of the many benefits of getting into regular rotation on AC. Today, a number of Top 40 hits require help from these stations — especially Hot AC stations, since they play more new music — to make a song a genuine smash. “It’s so hard to break records at radio across the board today,” says Mitch Mills, an Adult format-focused SVP of Promotion for Warner Music Group’s Roadrunner Records. “You need two formats to help break a song. If Hot is playing records a lot and appealing to a similar demographic that pop is and that familiarity rises, that’s how you get a big record.” This has been important for .Fun, Paramore, 21 Pilots, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, Lauv, Maroon 5 and even Taylor Swift’s “Delicate.”
In addition, an AC hit has a long tail. Top 40 is quick to dispose of records, because “they’re always having to grab what’s new, what’s latest, what’s shiny,” according to Roberts. Things move more slowly in the Adult space — a Hot AC station might add just one song a week. That means, “if you have a hit in the adult space your song will last for a very long time,” says Jonathan Jacobs, National Director for Pop Formats Promotion at Glassnote Records.
AC can also serve as a conduit for crossover to the Top 40 for genres that rarely get played on pop radio. That includes nearly every rock single to become a hit in the last few years — most recently, Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa.” It also includes country singles like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” which broke records in its genre, and now Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” which is the biggest hit of the duo’s career by a (country) mile.
Occasionally Hot AC even breaks new artists. Years ago, Adult radio was key in boosting a young John Mayer. It was the first pop format to play Adele’s “Chasing Cars.” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” broke out of AC before it became Hillary Clinton’s theme song. James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go” enjoyed heavy Adult support to reach Number 11 on the Hot 100.
Last but not least, AC supports a select group of older artists long after Top 40 has turned away from them. P!nk, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Daughtry; these acts no longer have pop hits. But they are Hot AC stalwarts.
Macklemore and Kesha’s new single “Good Old Days” turned out to be a dud at Top 40, but Hot AC has embraced it with open arms; the same goes for the Backstreet Boys’ “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” AC’s ability to maintain the over-30 artist makes it almost unique: Only Urban Adult Contemporary, which aids R&B singers as they age, is similarly helpful to older artists, but its total listenership is about a third as big as AC’s.
That’s not surprising, perhaps — “adult” is in the format title for a reason. But what is surprising is that “adult” is actually no longer an entirely accurate descriptor: young listeners are gravitating more and more to Adult Contemporary. Nielsen reported that among millennials, the format has risen from fifth most popular to third-most popular, behind only pop and country. “Over the course of the last four years, we’ve done much better [with young listeners],” says Knight. “In fact, typically, we’re the #1 radio station with 18-24 listeners.”
In some ways, AC’s current boom is not out of the ordinary. “Adult contemporary has always done well,” says Jim Loftus, President and CEO of WBEB, which is not only the top radio station in Philadelphia by audience size but also the reigning Adult Contemporary Station of the Year. “If you look at formats across America, it’s always one of the top three in terms of number of stations or aggregate ratings. And part of that is because we’re broad-based in our appeal.”
That broadness is inherent in the format’s mandate. Top 40, country, and mainstream urban are “constantly searching for that new artist, so you gotta kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming,” says Loftus. In contrast, a Hot AC station can “sit back and cherrypick big hits off Top 40, cherrypick big hits off of alternative,” says Erik Olesen, who helms pop promotion for the management company Crush Music. And when cherrypicking, few formats can range across decades in the way that Adult can. “Adult contemporary radio plays the widest playlist of any format in the business,” boasts Knight.
The fact that adult stations often have a utilitarian bent also helps them reach listeners. “We don’t wanna be background music, but we know the people are listening and doing other things while they’re listening,” says Dana Taylor, PD for WOMX in Orlando. “So it’s about finding the balance between what’s familiar, what you could think of easy listening because of the familiarity is there, and in keeping things feeling always really, really fresh.”
“It may not be the radio station that everybody agrees on, but it’s a radio station that everybody goes, ‘I’m okay with that,'” adds Roberts. “Generally those are your top-rated radio stations. It’s not a huge amount of passion. But the stations that become Number One often have a lot of people going, ‘I’m okay with that.'”
But the Adult Space today is not what it was in the 1990s. “Not that long ago, the Hot AC chart was like, ‘what on earth — Michael Bolton?'” says Lamberti, who helps Dakin solidify his rotation for Star 99.9. “Hot AC, 15, 18 years ago, it wasn’t super exciting,” adds Columbia’s Cosenza. “It wasn’t very contemporary; it wasn’t a place to really break new artists.”
People like Cosenza actively pushed to change this — what’s the point of a radio format that can’t help labels? “[Columbia] wanted me to take a Top 40 approach to the Adult side, and make Hot AC more like pop, in terms of how we promote our records and what we do,” Cosenza says. Mayer was one of the artists he helped break out of AC.
As a result, the Adult format — mostly on the Hot AC side — has “been moving in this direction of wanting to go younger and younger for years.” “But it’s only really kicked in in the past two years, where it’s not just the Adult format anymore,” Cosenza says. “Adult pop is appealing to 18-year-olds all the way up to 45- and 50-year-olds.”
This isn’t just the result of a label push: Radio stations found that their ratings went up when they played more new hits. Old habits die hard; “programmers, for a long time, weren’t sure that big Top 40 pop records would work on their Adult pop stations,” Cosenza says. “But a couple tried it and they saw that it worked. After a couple of stations tried it and they had success, they tried it a little bit more, and they tried it a little bit more, and now the Adult chart shares 60, 70% of its songs with the pop chart.”
The push to change the function of Hot AC turned out to be prescient, because today, pop radio plays fewer songs than ever, making it harder to get a serious hit. “A Top 40 radio station is playing five songs 120 times a week every week,” says one longtime promotions veteran, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of seeming critical of pop radio. “That’s 600 plays. All the play from those five songs is during the day; the other music, most of it is afternoons and nights. Nobody is listening at night anymore. So it’s really tough to get a new song familiar on pop radio.”
As pop became narrower, Hot AC became that much more important for breaking pop hits. There are fewer Hot AC stations than Top 40 stations, so it’s less costly to promote records to the format, and Hot AC stations can do a lot to raise a single’s familiarity in a market. Take Max, whose “Lights Down Low” was one of the top ten most-played songs of the first half of 2018 at radio. Crush Music’s Olesen describes breaking this record as a two-year process of “hand to hand combat.” “Hot AC was the connector,” he says. “It enabled it to become more familiar in the pop stations and drive it into power rotation. That’s how we get it through. Hot AC became the underbelly.”
The length of this campaign is also notable: Since Hot AC doesn’t move as fast as pop stations, “you can dig in a little bit more, spread the story around,” as Mills puts it. With Hot AC’s support, “Lights Down Low” kept inching upward at Top 40, even though it never excelled enough to earn a “most added” distinction. “We sat through four Bebe Rexha tracks,” Olesen says. “Fifth Harmony was still Fifth Harmony when we started. Camila put out two tracks on top of that. One Direction broke up, and every one of those guys put three records out. We were still going.” In the first half of 2018, “Lights Down Low” amassed 1.76 billion plays on radio. Only seven singles did better.
Labels are well aware of the new reality, and have changed their tactics accordingly. “There used to be the idea that you’d only go to pop when you have a top ten Hot AC record,” says Mills. Now, “most labels go simultaneously from the beginning.”
Over the last decade, as the gap closed between Hot AC and Top 40, a chasm opened up between pop radio and rock radio — with the exception of Imagine Dragons, “the Foreigner of this decade,” rock has almost zero mainstream currency. But because Hot AC has a wider palette and is willing to try out records that started at Alternative, it has also become exponentially more important for commercially inclined rock bands.
Mills saw this firsthand while promoting Paramore’s eponymous 2013 album. “They hadn’t crossed a record [to pop] in a while, so working ‘Still Into You’ was tough,” he recalls. “But we saw glimmers of hope each week. All of a sudden Hot AC dug in, we had nine adds one week. Then we were off to the races, went Top Ten at pop. That opened up the door for both formats to dig in right away on the next single, and then ‘Ain’t It Fun’ was Number One at Hot AC and Number Two at pop.”
Nearly every rock single that has achieved even modest crossover success in the last few years has done so with Hot AC support, including songs from Portugal. the Man, AJR, Alice Merton, Judah the Lion and Foster the People. Miller is now hoping to replicate Paramore’s path with Panic! At the Disco’s single “High Hopes.”
These shifts in the Adult radio space — especially the embrace of more Top 40 songs, which are usually beloved by young listeners — instantly raised its appeal for millennials.
In addition, programmers like Taylor and Lamberti say it’s easier than ever for them to find out what young listeners want, which may have been harder to suss out in the past. “We can look at streaming numbers, we can look at Shazam — there’s just a lot more data that’s available to us now, so we can see what young people are passionate about, and whether or not that sound fits the texture and the mood of our radio station,” Lamberti explains.
But many radio professionals also believe that Adult radio is benefitting from Top 40’s misfortunes. “We end up looking better when the Top 40 stations do worse,” Loftus says. He — and several other programmers — believe that Top 40’s downturn is due to a glut of slow music that is being released by major label pop acts. “Over the course of the last three summers, we’ve kind of chuckled about it, at this radio station: Top 40 was always the format that drives the most tempo,” Loftus adds. “But these medium tempo and ballad songs are dominating the airwaves for Top 40, so Adult Contemporary radio stations have owned the upbeat tempo. That’s kind of backwards.”
How do Adult stations get around playing all these ballads? Because they’re not required to play new music. “They can play more gold [old hits] and recurrents, so you’re able to get that tempo or find it if it’s missing,” says Jim Ryan, who helms a pair of Adult stations for SiriusXM.
Another programmer, preferring to remain anonymous to discuss a contentious topic in radio circles, thinks the tempo theory is macho “bullshit.” “I hear it all the time from labels: ‘That’s going to be a Hot AC hit, but it won’t be a Top 40 hit,'” she continues. “What do you mean? It’s a great song. ‘Well, it’s a ballad.’ Oh, it doesn’t fit with your fast, zippy-zappy imagery? A bunch of dudes who are programming radio stations are after this sonic vibe. Do you really think the listener is sitting there going, ‘well, I’d listen to that radio station longer, but they played a ballad into a medium [tempo song] into a slowed-down Maroon 5?'”
Dakin has a different theory about Top 40’s troubles. “They’re afraid to play these big hip-hop streaming records when they should,” he says. “How late was Top 40 to Cardi B? ‘Bodak Yellow’ wasn’t even really a Top 40 hit. Top 40 should sit down and analyze what they’re doing. The youth of America is leaving you to go to Spotify and Apple Music and whatnot. They need to embrace these hip-hop songs and stop worrying about it. Or you’re not gonna have any 12-year-olds that are gonna listen.” In the end, fewer young people listening to pop radio is a concern for Adult radio, too. “Top 40 radio’s gotta keep ’em,” Dakin adds. “So they get to us.”
Though Adult radio may be benefitting from pop radio’s current malaise, the format is similarly unwilling to play the Cardi B’s of the world, or really any music made by non-white performers. When asked about which, if any, black performers are in rotation on SiriusXM’s Adult radio stations, Ryan says, “Maybe John Legend? I don’t think anything ever really stuck big time.”
Dakin is adding Leon Bridges into rotation. “He is a little different sound for the station,” Dakin says. “But he’s got so much buzz: Two sold-out shows at Radio City.” Cosenza has been working Bridges’ single, touting its reactivity on Shazam.
Pop radio’s unwillingness to play records by non-white artists is in part because labels do not promote some of their non-white acts to the Top 40, and the same is true at Hot AC, despite its theoretically broader playlists. Take two of the biggest R&B hits in recent years — Glassnote did not work Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” to Hot AC; Interscope is not pushing Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” to the format. (Both thrived on Mainstream Urban and Urban Adult Contemporary and did well at Top 40.) “They are not considered ‘Hot AC’ records” by the labels, says Patti Marshall, the PD for Cincinnati WKRQ.
That’s probably in part because labels don’t want to waste their time — some programmers in the Adult space seem averse to R&B and rap. Those who believe that Top 40 is on the downswing often suggest that decline is happening precisely because pop artists are trying to engage with rap and R&B, the most consumed genres of music in America. “I think when you look at somebody like Taylor Swift, in 2008, she had the happy-go-lucky, mass-appeal pop song, ‘Love Story,'” Knight explains. “And then in 2017, [she went] a little bit more medium tempo with some hip-hop influence with ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ or ‘Ready For It.’ The mega superstars get away from the formula that made them a success. They try to latch onto whatever flavor of music is doing well in the current environment.” Roberts prefers to say there is a “pretty extreme bend to the music [in the Top 40] right now.”
Marshall worries about this tendency among programmers. “Have you looked at a Top 40 chart from 20 years ago — the diversity in styles, artists, tempos?” she asks. “We’ve gotten very safe, very homogenized. I love the Killers’ ‘The Man.’ I also like Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ and Khalid. Why can’t they all live together in some sense of harmony?”
“You can’t play everything,” she acknowledges. “But we have tried to look outside of the boundaries of what our format is.”
It seems likely that, if millennials stick with Adult radio — at least Hot AC — that will make it an even more effective way for young acts to sneak into pop, raising Hot AC’s profile even further.
Lovelytheband, whom the Star 99.9 team jokingly calls “Lovely-the-Imagine-Dragons,” recently made the jump from Alternative to Hot AC with “Broken” and is now rising at Top 40. Meghan Trainor — remember her? — is relying on Hot AC to carry her latest release, “Let You Be Right.” Brynn Elliott is rising with her debut single “Might Not Like Me.” George Ezra’s “Shotgun,” a Number One hit in the U.K., is starting at Hot AC in America. Dean Lewis and Calum Scott are picking up traction here.
So it makes sense that this is where Glassnote is attempting to break their singer Jade Bird, whose “Lottery” enjoyed some Alternative play. Jacobs is now promoting Bird’s new single “Uh Huh” to Hot AC. “The Adult format made sense to go to first before Top 40,” he says. “We felt like Hot AC would give us a really good sort of launching point to take it from the Adult Alternative world and bring it to a new audience.”
“I can put it in at night,” WOMX’s Taylor says. “We’ll give it a really long time to grow. And then, who knows? Is she gonna be as big as Ed [Sheeran]? That’s how he started. I guess that’s the dream.”