By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
I still like “Perfect Illusion” by Lady Gaga. I still pound the dashboard to it—maybe because you can’t really pound the dashboard to “This Town” or “Starving” or most of our current 85 BPM hits. When I’m done with that first spin, I still back it up to just before the song’s much-discussed modulation, so I can hear again the two different places where the song builds and explodes—that modulation is just the first. (The second time is at 2:36.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB94lvJbETE
But I recognized before my first spin last September was over that you might not like “Perfect Illusion.” The Facebook comments from radio friends were withering. Even my often-like-minded music buddies were, at best, tentative in sharing my enthusiasm. Even though I was happy to make the case publicly for why it should be a hit, I was never unrealistic.
And now I wonder how I would have handled “Perfect Illusion” if I had been at the helm of a CHR station last fall. The chances of it coming all the way home were already lessened by the number of PDs arrayed against it. But it wasn’t an easy record for civilians either. How many spins would have been right to invest to see if listeners could get past its initial stridency? How patient would a group PD have been? Besides, wasn’t that hourly first-day airplay enough for everybody to make up their mind?
Beyond that, if I write about “Perfect Illusion” again, or complain too many times about the sameness of today’s CHR product, are you going to think I can’t hear the hits? It’s hard these days to advocate for any song that is not yet a hit. The only time I got into a Twitter war over a song was Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” and I knew I was two weeks from vindication. But I also knew “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” was the real hit lurking on this Adele album, even when it was somehow inexplicably tagged as a Triple-A record. I didn’t need four months to hear “Cake by the Ocean,” either. But you may only remember the times I advocated for playing Ray Lamontagne at pop radio.
I knew early on in my programming education that certain songs would be my favorites only. (This was my favorite song of 1985 at the time). The first mock station “playlist” I put together for myself had 40 songs, ten extras, and pretty much coincided with what I liked at age 14. The next one I did a few years later had 22 songs total. I came to understand that songs went into three piles—the hits (regardless of what you thought about them), personal favorites, and those somewhere in between that were worth advocating for.
In that third pile sits both the magic and the risk. In his autobiography, “The Harmony of Parts,” John Garabedian writes about the buzz that WMEX Boston managed to generate in 1971 by being more aggressive than rival WRKO on the right new music. Garabedian writes about WMEX’s role in discovering “Maggie May” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and making “Nights In White Satin” a hit single after four years. And friends from Boston do remember WMEX as phenomenal at the time.
Garabedian doesn’t mention it, but during that period, WMEX also took an album cut from the “Jesus Christ Superstar” album (“King Herod’s Song”) to No. 1, also a smart move for the time. And check out WMEX surveys from around that time and you’ll find songs that didn’t become “Maggie May” or “Stairway,” two of which I actually bought as a result of discovering them years later. Even Garabedian doesn’t remember playing “Happiness” by Lodi for a few weeks. But if you call “Stairway” early, you’re allowed a few of those, especially if they’re good.
For any program director, music director, or station that went to the third pile with any regularity, the results were necessarily mixed, but all the shots taken became part of the excitement. Bill Thorman, then PD of KHOM New Orleans in the mid-‘90s, was an early supporter of “No Diggity” as a CHR hit. But he also tried to play “Suedehead” by Morrissey as a bringback. That one was never ratified, but I feel confident that at least one or two readers now are thinking, “Wow, I wish I’d gotten to hear that.” The trick is not to never play a song that won’t be a national hit; the skill is in finding the right amount of wrong.
Without the willingness to go to the third pile, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” might never have been a hit. It went into my iTunes after one listen, but it took the better part of the year to come home, and for at least half that time, it wasn’t even in U.S. radio’s consideration set. Its few early indicators included success in Canada, which most U.S. PDs weren’t aware of, and Garabedian’s advocacy on his syndicated show.
The reluctance of broadcast radio to delve into the third stack—or anything not being actively promoted—has been another ongoing concern in this column. In 2016, that got a little better. The year began with a new music war in effect between KYLD (Wild 94.9) and KMVQ (Now 99.7) San Francisco. There’s another one going on now between Hawaii’s Rhythmic CHRs, KPHW (Power 104.3) and KDDB (102.7 Da Bomb). KPHW’s former owner, Cox, has also been more aggressive in recent months at its mainstream CHRs.
WKSE (Kiss 98.5) Buffalo, N.Y., is one of several Entercom CHRs that never stopped taking shots or finding its own hits. Rihanna’s “Needed Me” is still a power on Kiss. Jake Miller’s “Overnight” is just coming out of that spin range. PD Sue O’Neil’s “playing the hits” credentials are well documented. But whenever a song makes it to my “shouldn’t CHR be playing…?” list, I usually find it playing somewhere on Kiss, just below the national consensus hits.
So it’s no surprise that Kiss knew exactly what to do with “Perfect Illusion.” The song got to only 230 spins, but 61 of them were in a single week in early October. (It helps that Buffalo has a long history of thinking for itself. WKBW, the AM top 40 giant that is Kiss’ effective predecessor, made hits of Wings and Elton John songs that quickly ran their course elsewhere.) Listeners had to decide quickly, but they didn’t have to decide in one day.
Next Month in Envision Insider: When To Take Shots