Pop for Adults

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(Pictured: Juice Newton.)

Last week, after I wrote about the incredible lightness of Top 40 radio in April 1981, our friend Mike Hagerty dropped some pertinent comments that I hope you saw. They help explain why ostensible “rock” stations got so soft at the dawn of the 80s:

FM, especially album rock, ate most of the males over 16 (and a good chunk of the females), disco died and the backlash hit R&B artists hard and ad budgets aimed at teens evaporated—leaving radio station GMs wanting 25-54 adults, resulting in Top 40 stations morphing into Adult Contemporary, going Country or going Talk. . . I’ve described this period as choking on Air (Supply) and drowning in Juice (Newton). 

Mike says it wouldn’t take much to turn the Radio and Records National Airplay 30 I wrote about into an adult-contemporary chart:

If I’d just parachuted into a station and needed a first-week playlist, I’d have ditched Clapton, REO Speedwagon, April Wine, Styx (“Too Much Time”), John Cougar and The Who, and played everything else (though I had to look up the John O’Banion record).

(“Love You Like I Never Loved Before” by John O’Banion, which would get to #24 on the Hot 100 in mid-May, is the sort of thing that would have gotten instant airplay in a year like 1981. Even if you’ve never heard it before, you’ve heard it before. It’s well-produced radio pop, and it’s catchy for three minutes but then disappears entirely until you hear it again three hours later.)

This discussion made me think it would be a good idea to compare the National Airplay 30 to the same week’s Pop/Adult Airplay 30, the magazine’s adult contemporary chart, to see what we can see. I made a spreadsheet if you want to take a look, but to summarize: there are 13 songs on the 4/17/81 Pop/Adult chart that weren’t on the National Airplay 30 in the same week. Some of those had certainly been there previously, or would be: “What Kind of Fool,” “Hello Again,” “Crying,” “Woman,” and “Sukiyaki.” (All were Top-10 hits on the Hot 100.)

Radio and Records also listed “New and Active” records on its Pop/Adult page, songs that were getting airplay on AC stations but not enough to chart yet. Among the songs from the current National Airplay 30 on that list are the Stars on 45 medley, “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” and “I Missed Again.” In the same section, under the subheading “Others Getting Significant Action,” there’s “I Can’t Stand It,” “Sweetheart,” “Love You Like I’ve Never Loved Before,” “Take It on the Run,” and “Just Between You and Me.” Several songs on the National Airplay 30 that aren’t on the Pop/Adult chart almost certainly either had been (like “The Best of Times”) or could have been at some point.

The National Airplay 30 page also lists “New and Active” songs on Top 40 stations (which were starting to be known this era as CHR stations, for “contemporary hit radio”). Songs coming over from the Pop/Adult side include “Blessed Are the Believers,” “I Loved ‘Em Every One,” and “Lonely Together.” “Others Getting Significant Action” lists “I Don’t Need You” and “Mister Sandman.” I’m mildly surprised not to find “Super Trouper,” but it might have been there in some other week.

Of the 13 Pop/Adult hits not on the National Airplay 30, “What’s in a Kiss” by Gilbert O’Sullivan and “Alice Doesn’t Love Here Anymore” by Bobby Goldsboro are the least likely to have made it, considering that they missed the Billboard Hot 100 entirely (although they charted on Billboard‘s AC and country charts respectively).  Like “Love You Like I Never Loved Before,” “What’s In a Kiss” will seem familiar even if you’ve never heard it, but its cloying sweetness will test your patience by the end of its 2:40 running time. You might also be tempted to throw a heavy object at the bridge: “And anytime you need a light refreshment / Baby you can count on me / I am your very own delicatessen / Well equipped to supply you with your every need.” “Alice Doesn’t Love Here Anymore,” the tale of a middle-class marriage gone cold, is gold-standard schlock. In the first four lines it rhymes “awaken” with “bacon” and “places” with “interfaces”; in the last verse, Alice abandons her husband and children while they’re at the circus.

So yeah, your average Top 40 station had clearly gone in search of the 25-to-54 audience by 1981, and a female-leaning one at that. Something on the order of 80 percent of the hit songs of April 1981 were getting at least some airplay on both Top 40 and adult-contemporary radio. Both charts were blindingly white, too, but that’s a subject for another time.

7 thoughts on “Pop for Adults

  1. Scott Paton

    Ah, you’ve clearly documented many reasons why this guy, who was making his living in radio, started to stop listening to contemporary radio by the early ’80s. Aside from NPR now, I can only tolerate the flipsides of a singular coin– Alternative and Oldies (sorry, Gold!). We’ve got little of the former here in Baltimore/DC, and virtually none of the latter.

  2. Alvaro Leos

    I wonder if the closeness of the pop and AC charts was due to top 40 stations (especially AM stations) playing AC, but continuing to report as pop music. I know WABC New York, which famously switched to talk in 1982, was an AC in all but name in those last few years.

  3. mikehagerty

    JB: Cool spreadsheet! What I think is worth noting is how close the songs on both charts are, in terms of rank. Yeah, there are a few that are 10 slots apart, but not many—and they’re likely the result of one format going on the record earlier than the other.

    It’s also interesting to see that the songs that AC and CHR had in common are pretty much the ones I would have picked as a programmer, though I would have also played Phil Collins and Styx (“Best of Times”).

    I was a bit of a daredevil in my AC programming career (at age 19-24, I was probably too young to be programming AC), giving spins to songs like Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” and the Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket (I’m Special)” and justifying it by how well they blended with the British Invasion stuff in our Gold library.

    Alvaro, you’re absolutely right about CHR-in-name-only reporters adding to the situation. Looking at the songs on JB’s spreadsheet that are AC only that week, “What Kind of Fool”, “Hello Again”, “Crying” and “Sukiyaki” all got play on KFI, Los Angeles, which was reporting CHR at the time. John Lennon’s “Woman”, of course, would be a big CHR record as well.

    As for the fringier AC stuff, well…that’s why I usually started with a CHR chart before even glancing at the AC chart. There were still some MOR music directors at stations that had ostensibly morphed to AC and they’d skew the numbers.

    Also—and I’m sorry this is getting long-winded—the drawback of R&R was that they were all airplay charts. When I was young, I assumed that if KHJ, KFRC, WLS and WABC were playing it, it must be selling, but that’s just not true, and even less so with AC stations, whose audience (when they bought records) largely bought LPs.

    Credit to R&R for making it purely airplay as opposed to Billboard’s repeated efforts (which continue to this day) to fold airplay in with sales as part of the calculation. Counting airplay on a mixed chart is like Nissan getting to claim every time you see an Altima drive by as an additional sale.

  4. mikehagerty

    PS: This could have gone a different way.

    If John Sebastian had succeeded when he took KHJ, Los Angeles to an “AOR on AM” approach in 1978, the CHR charts in 1981 might not have mirrored AC at all.

    The backstory, for those who may not know it: KHJ was the #1 Top 40 station in Los Angeles within six months of its debut in the spring of 1965, and despite some back-and-forth with the previous leader, KRLA, for six years, and new challengers on FM (KKDJ, KIQQ) and AM (KTNQ), held that position.

    But in 1977, KHJ took a big fall—from mid-to-high 5s in the ratings to mid-3s. RKO (KHJ’s owner) hired the hottest young programmer in the country, John Sebastian, from KDWB, Minneapolis.

    John analyzed the market, saw that album rockers KMET and KLOS were eating KHJ’s young adult (and teen male) numbers, dumped the Shaun Cassidy and Bay City Roller records and started playing only the album versions of hit records and focusing on the acts that were selling albums.

    It wasn’t a bad strategy so far as it went—but how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve heard FM?

    John did have an up book—the first up book in years for KHJ, which had been slowly trending downward (they had a 13 in 1969) before the big dip—and then down to a 2.7 compared to the 3.5 that RKO hired him to fix.

    Despite many accomplishments in the 42 years since, John’s still living down the “Hey, you’re the guy who killed KHJ” thing.

    But—what if John had succeeded? Or what if he’d had an FM signal? What if CHR had followed that path and not become essentially a clone of AC?

    It’s possible that by 1981, Grover Washington, Sheena Easton, Juice Newton, Smokey Robinson, James Taylor, Hall and Oates, Gino Vanelli, Terri Gibbs, Kim Carnes, Ray Parker Jr., John O’Banion, Dottie West, Christopher Cross, Champaign and Stars on 45 would have been only heard on AC radio (with Juice, Terri and Dottie also getting Country play), and a lot of the power tracks in R&R’s AOR chart might have been CHR records.

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