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How The Soft AC Wars Shaped The Format

By Sean Ross

The early ‘90s were a time of massive change on the radio format landscape: the “New Rock revolution”; the growth of Hip-Hop; the rise of “New Country,” the success of Oldies on FM, and the near implosion of Top 40. But as the decade began, the most frenetic activity was in Adult Contemporary radio, driven by the near-total collapse of the Easy Listening format.

sunnyOn Feb. 15, AC KODA (Sunny 99.1) Houston will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its switch from Easy Listening to Soft AC under Dave Dillon, the first of its two PDs. (Dillon hired the current PD, Marc Sherman, a few months later.) By that time, Easy Listening stations had been flipping to Soft AC on a regular basis for 18 months, driven by ad agency resistance to upper demos. A similar bailout would be seen with Smooth Jazz in the early 2010s, with that format’s ratings already on the decline. In 1989, Easy Listening still had nearly a 7-share in Arbitron’s national format calculations.

Typically, the EZ-to-AC transition took place even if there was another Soft AC in the market, as well as a Mainstream AC. Around the same time, Hot AC was emerging as a separate format at stations like KFMB-FM (B100) San Diego and KHMX (Mix 96.5) Houston. In the mid-‘80s, it was CHR that sometimes had three to four rivals in a market. Now, there could be four AC competitors – something which set off its own series of chess moves – in turn propelling the other fast-growing formats. In Houston, KODA’s arrival ultimately sent KFMK to Hip-Hop/R&B as KBXX (the Box). In Philadelphia, WEAZ (Easy 101) (now WBEB) prompted WKSZ (Kiss 100)’s three-year evolution to Alternative.

The format wars created other ACs including WLIF Baltimore, WLYF Miami, WSHH Pittsburgh, and KOSI Denver, that remain powerhouses today. They were also one of several factors that began AC’s 30-year journey away from playing current music. In the early ‘90s, gold-based ACs that still played currents were being forced out by the rise of Oldies on FM. Other stations opted for Hot AC. That left mostly Soft AC stations which played only a handful of proven recurrents, something reflected in today’s AC chart.

“An Evolution, Not A Revolution”

bill2The EZ-to-Soft AC exodus was a big enough story to make page one of Billboard, or the front page of its radio section, at least four times in just over a two-year-period. In December 1988, I wrote that there had been a half-dozen major defections since June. Often these transitions were positioned by client-conscious radio station managers as “an evolution, not a revolution.”

In February 1990, I wrote about how the new stations were having a hard time getting traction. PDs of incumbent stations were generally dismissive of their new rivals as redundant in the market, except in Philadelphia where Easy 101 had arrived with the sort of marketing blitz that it became famous for over the years. AC, already the biggest format nationally, went from a 17.2 share in spring ’89 to an 18.7 by summer ’90. But its gains represented a small piece of Easy Listening’s 6.8 share, which dissipated to a 2.6 share in summer ’90 as 14 stations in top 50 markets changed format in less than six months.

But by February 1991, just as KODA launched, there was another story about how many of the second-generation Soft ACs were finally getting traction. The common theme at the time was that the transitioning stations began by playing Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow (and sometimes even Frank Sinatra), eventually downplaying that music for Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, Whitney Houston, etc.

Three Transitions

breeze2WJYE (Joy 96) Buffalo, N.Y., was relatively early among the format flips in late ‘88. Rather than downplaying its change, WJYE threw a client party where staffers put on a musical review for advertisers, including one song to the tune of “Mack The Knife” that began with “when the book bites.” PD Joe Chile, now back at the station in its current Soft AC incarnation as WMSX (The Breeze) recalls the Lite Favorites” station as heavy on Neil Diamond, James Taylor, the Carpenters, and Carole King at the outset. Their transition sent successful incumbent WBUF to “Mix 93,” then Smooth Jazz, then Modern AC over the course of the ‘90s.

WLYF relaunched as “Today’s Life” in July 1990, according to Rob Sidney, then-MD, later the station’s longtime PD. Life initially flipped its 3:1 instrumental-to-vocal mix to 3:1 vocals, keeping Smooth Jazz titles and some “Love Is Blue”-type easy listening classics, as well as some Sinatra and Nat King Cole-type standards. The instrumentals were gone by year’s end. The MOR went away by 1994. The transition ended with another rebranding, as Lite-FM, in 1996.

KODA’s 1991 entry was relatively late, in part because previous owner Group W had tried to save its multiple successful Easy Listening outlets with an experimental mix that included Smooth Jazz and vocals. Dillon remembers monitoring the transition format before his job interview and writing “unfamiliar instrumental” next to one title after another. Like many of its counterparts, KODA was helped by a heavy reliance on music research—three or four library tests a year at a time when that was standard for many AC and Oldies stations. Now, testing is more likely an annual occurrence.

Most of the early music logs for WLYF and KODA have been lost through decades of ownership transitions. WJYE, on the other hand, having come from Easy Listening whose syndicators were secretive about their musical formulas, actually shred its old logs. Former M Street Journal/Tom Taylor Now publisher Robert Unmacht was based in Washington, D.C., and was able to supply monitors of WGAY (Easy 99.5), one of the last stations to make the transition in December 1991.

Here’s Easy 99.5 on March 22, 1992. By that time, many of its counterparts had shed some of the softest titles seen here, but there’s still an ample dose of the soft ‘70s and ‘80s titles that have been a large part of the resurgent Soft AC format in recent years. Where stations like KODA immediately made their presentation upbeat—in part to make a statement about breaking from the Easy format—WGAY kept its four-song sets and Easy Listening presentation, Unmacht remembers. It’s now CHR WIHT (Hot 99.5).

Vogues, “My Special Angel”

Michael Johnson, “This Night Won’t Last Forever”

Dionne Warwick & Friends, “That’s What Friends Are For”

Lionel Richie, “Hello”

Melissa Manchester, “Theme From ‘Ice Castles’ (Through the Eyes of Love)”

Jim Croce, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You In A Song”

Simply Red, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”

Barry Manilow, “Weekend In New England”

Whitney Houston, “Miracle”

Tommy Edwards, “It’s All in The Game”

Cat Stevens, “Morning Has Broken”

Elton John, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It tjhe Blues”

Barbra Streisand, “Love Theme From ‘A Star Is Born’ (Evergreen)”

England Dan & John Ford Coley, “We’ll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again”

Gordon Lightfoot, “Beautiful”

Rita Coolidge, “We’re All Alone”

Phil Collins, “Do You Remember”

Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour”

Bee Gees, “Run to Me”

Air Supply, “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)”

Fifth Dimension, “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All”

Richard Marx, “Hold on To The Nights”

Neil Sedaka, “Laughter in The Rain”

An Evolution And A Revolution

It’s interesting to look at the different paths taken by the Soft ACs of the early ‘90s as the years progressed. KODA, like early Soft AC WLTW (Lite FM) New York, is more of a gold-based “bright AC” now. In many ways, those stations sound more like the early ‘80s AC stations that had a strong, uptempo oldies component, before softer outlets like WLTW arrived.

WJYE tried to follow that path, becoming WMSX (Mix 96.1) before becoming Soft AC “The Breeze,” one of several stations launched around that time for listeners who felt that bright AC had become too uptempo. In Miami, WLYF remains successful, but it’s WFEZ (Easy 93.1) that often leads the market.

Here’s Sunny 99.1 just before 11 a.m. on January 25:

Bruno Mars, “Marry You”

Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”

Prince, “When Doves Cry”

Maroon 5, “Girls Like You”

Savage Garden, “Truly Madly Deeply”

Bangles, “Walk Like An Egyptian”

Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love”

Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger”

Jonas Brothers, “Sucker”

Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone”

Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”

Mr. Mister, “Broken Wings” (first song of the new sweep)

Rihanna, “Love On The Brain”

Madonna, “Like A Prayer”

Ed Sheeran & Justin Bieber, “I Don’t Care”

Here’s WMSX (The Breeze), WJYE’s successor, at 10 a.m. on January 26:

Lifehouse, “You and Me”

Green Day, “Time of Your Life”

Roxette, “Listen To Your Heart”

Rod Stewart, “You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim)”

Whitney Houston, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”

Train, “Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me)”

Billy Joel, “Uptown Girl”

Jimmy Cliff, “I Can See Clearly Now’

Beach Boys, “Kokomo”

Elton John, “Rocket Man”

Adele, “Set Fire To The Rain”

Journey, “Open Arms”

Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”

Sean Ross is a veteran programmer, researcher, and the author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. Find him or subscribe free @RossOnRadio on Twitter. Contact him at rossonradio@comcast.net


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