By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

I don’t know yet what “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles is going to be in six to eight weeks for Mainstream CHR. At this writing, “Sign of the Times” is No. 16 after about ten days, and programmers are enthusiastic. And no matter what, it will probably be in the lower reaches of the top 10 before they have any inkling whether it’s a real hit, as has been the case with several recent songs that weren’t.

For myself, I won’t know, until the audience decides, if “Sign of the Times” is “One More Try” by George Michael, the real hit that just happened to be a stately five minute ballad, or “Praying for Time,” the less enduring ballad of serious intent that radio dutifully played because it led off the next album. If I were a day-to-day CHR PD, I’d be playing “Sign of the Times” now because of its event status. But in a tempo-driven format with a tempo crisis, I’d be watching carefully for ratification.

But if I were programming Mainstream AC on a day-to-day basis, I’d have no problem playing a “Sign of the Times” now. AC is supposed to be glacial on anything besides Adele, but Styles is already a familiar voice on two other AC hits; the song is texturally appropriate; the initial buzz at other formats is promising. If you already know “Sign of the Times” will be something, shouldn’t you deal with it now?

Apparently not. As of Monday (24), there was only one Nielsen BDSRadio AC reporter with “Sign of the Times” in significant rotation. In Mediabase, there’s not even that. There’s one station that gave it four spins last week. By comparison, there are 21 spins for “Sign of the Times” at Triple-A. Those are mostly from mainstream-minded KGSR Austin, Texas, but Mediabase finds as much non-comm Triple-A play for Harry Styles as it does Mainstream AC play for that song.

Then there was the winding road to AC radio for former Styles bandmate Niall Horan’s “This Town.” That one sounded like a Mainstream AC hit, too. But it’s only reaching the top 10 at AC now after 14 weeks, and after having already moved to recurrent at Mainstream CHR. Horan had to wait in the queue behind DJ Snake/Justin Bieber and Chainsmokers’ “Closer.” Nobody is quite sure yet whether EDM trap pop is really adult friendly, even at the “single huge record with adult women” level. But those songs have more CHR acceptance than Horan and are somehow considered safer for AC PDs seeking proven hits.

In wondering why AC hasn’t grabbed “Sign of the Times” or “This Town” (or brought home Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons” or Train’s “Play That Song”) faster, I’m making an assumption that might no longer be true: that ballads are inherently a natural for Mainstream AC. Three months ago, a Mainstream AC programmer noted that his station was consistently more uptempo than its CHR competition. Because CHR was at the mercy of available product; AC could power “Cake by the Ocean” as long as they wanted to, and play “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” next, if they felt like it.

But there’s another assumption here that seems to be holding, and I’m not sure it should. The truism has always been that “adults know what they like, and like what they know.” But, as previously discussed in these pages, what they know and when they know it has changed significantly because of CHR’s mother/daughter coalition, something that didn’t exist in the same way when the structure of AC playlists took shape more than 25 years ago.

The current AC paradigm on currents goes back to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Mainstream ACs that had a full boat of currents were competing with supersoft ACs that played none. And the songs handed down from CHR were starting to turn extreme. And soon, CHR would lack enough influence to hand any music down. The mother/daughter coalition that might have existed in 1984 had turned to “Poison” in 1990. And it was about then, if I recall, that KOST Los Angeles, which had once cheerfully found its own records, went to one rotation of nine currents. All that’s changed since is that those nine currents are often one year old, or more. Or they’re seven currents. Or fewer.

Stations that play 7-9 currents don’t typically feel the need to research them. Adult-targeted stations that more aggressively play currents often end up drifting from AC to Hot AC reporting status. And after the last six months of CHR product, the mother/daughter coalition might be weakening a little, anyway (although I feel pretty good about the last few weeks of songs getting in position for the summer).

The other issue here is that labels are unlikely to force the issue, because it works better for them to have their future AC hits start somewhere else, lest they be tagged as “AC records.” Worldwide hits of the sort that AC should embrace immediately often go to Triple-A first, because that format breaks more songs than AC and bestows hipper credentials. I’ve often reminded readers that even Hanson’s “MMMbop” went to Alternative first. That song didn’t get traction there, but “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia did. Two decades later, there’s no question about what that song was.

The irony is that we have three pop formats—Mainstream AC, Hot AC/Adult CHR, and Mainstream CHR—that have decided to differentiate themselves from each other more in timing than texture. Mainstream CHR has been left with the burden of choosing the hits for everybody. If AC had embraced, say, Niall Horan more quickly, “This Town” would have had more lateral support and probably been a bigger record for all three adult formats. And the sonic claustrophobia of pop radio might be better.