From San Francisco To Miami, Soft AC Is Enjoying A Renaissance

MusicLinkUp Daily Insight (Global)

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There’s a refreshing Breeze blowing across the FM dial. iHeartMedia has scored runaway ratings success with a new take on the age-old soft AC format. Its “The Breeze” KISQ San Francisco, launched in April 2016 after 19 years as urban AC/rhythmic oldies “98.1 Kiss FM,” is the market’s No. 1 music station. That has inspired the media company to launch the “Breeze” brand on stations in Philadelphia (the former classic hip-hop WISX) and Sacramento (former country KBEB) and on HD side channels in Chicago, St. Louis, Orlando, Las Vegas and Houston. There is a “Breeze” branded station on the iHeartRadio streaming service as well.

Cox Media is also in the winner’s circle with the format, scoring consistent No. 1 6+ ratings with Tampa’s WDUV— which has been dominant in the market in various permutations for more than five decade – and WFEZ, which took the soft AC sound to Miami in 2010, again reaping No. 1 ratings.

While soft rock success might seem like an anomaly given numerous markets where it’s not heard on the FM band, the format’s 40+ appeal has begun to spread, with broadcast groups embracing the format’s renaissance—and finding ratings success.

Don Parker, senior VP programming for iHeart’s Northern California Region, tells Inside Radio, “We believed this format would resonate well with the Bay area audience, with its incredibly wide appeal. It’s pretty obvious from the ratings success that market reaction has been nothing short of amazing.”

Indeed: In Nielsen’s November 2018 survey, KISQ is the No. 1 music station 6+, and No. 3 overall in San Francisco behind news/talk KQED and news KCBS-AM. The outlet is also consistently top 3-4 with women 25-54, top 8 25-54 and top 10 18-34 and 18-49, Parker says.

The Breeze playlist comprises the core of what built mainstream AC, he adds, with such staples as Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Elton John, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, “along with more recent artists who complement those legends,” like Adele and Ed Sheeran.

In addition to its three “Breeze”-branded stations and a growing number of HD side channels, iHeartRadio offers “Sunny Radio,” launched in 2009. Sunny features EZ Listening artists like the Carpenters, Neil Diamond, Air Supply, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Carole King and Christopher Cross. “It is consistently one of the most listened-to stations on iHeartRadio,” says Darren Davis, president of iHeartMedia Networks Group.

Entercom has reached the top five with soft AC in Seattle on one year-old “94.1 The Sound” KSWD. Last month it launched the format in Detroit, as “98.7 The Breeze” on former CHR WDZH.

For Cox, when WDUV Tampa airs its branding moniker “Continuous Lite Favorites,” the station certainly means it. For 55 years, “105.5 The Dove” has been the region’s home for soothing sounds —evolving over time from beautiful music to easy listening to today’s playlist of pre-1990 AC hits. The outlet is consistently ranked No. 1 6+, according to Nielsen.

While the station targets 25-54, Rick Thomas, OM for Cox Media Group Tampa, says, “Our product is so charismatic that we are in the top tier of every measurable demo,” including 18-34, 18-49, 25-54 and 35-64. Explaining its formula for success, he adds, “In virtually every market, there are very few music stations that specifically target 55+, but that demographic does migrate to the station, since it contains a lot of music they listened to on AC and top 40 stations 20 and 30 years ago.”

WDUV has proved such a consistent ratings winner for Cox that it launched “Easy 93.1” WFEZ in Miami in 2010, supplanting an active rock playlist. “The format works when done and maintained properly. Cox expects us to crush it and provides us with the resources to continue to dominate,” says Thomas, also Director of Programming & Branding for both WDUV and CHR “Hot 101.5” WPOI Tampa.

Sure enough, WFEZ is also proving the renewed appeal of soft AC. In the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market, it was No. 1 6+ in Nielsen’s November survey. “As the station has evolved, so has the audience, with a wide appeal to both men and women,” notes Gary Williams, director of programming for WFEZ and the architect of the Easy 93.1 format in South Florida. WFEZ is also the market leader with women and men 25-54, 35-64 and 18-49, with a cume of over one million listeners per week, he says.

“I approached corporate leadership with my thoughts about the format hole created when market heritage AC WLYF began evolving to a more current and upbeat sound,” Williams explains. Since sister station WFLC was still in the AC arena, WFEZ launched older and softer. In 2010, the playlist consisted of titles from the, 60s, 70s and 80s, featuring such acts as Neil Diamond, James Taylor and Barry Manilow. By late spring 2011, as WFLC transitioned to CHR, and heritage AC WLYF continued moving more contemporary, WFEZ was also able to evolve, opening the gates for “artists from the 80s and 90s rarely heard on the radio these days,” including, Hall & Oates, Toto, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Billy Joel and Lionel Richie. Like iHeart’s KISQ, the Cox outlet also dabbles in contemporary AC acts Adele, Sheeran and Sam Smith.

While the 55+ audience has found a new favorite radio station in several cities across the nation, it appears that advertisers are also warming to the innate value of consumers beyond the typical 25-54 target. “Tampa is a market that recognizes Boomers as a valuable part of our population,” Thomas notes. “With our massive ratings dominance across the board, we don’t see much resistance at all from advertisers.”

Asked about iHeart’s strategy to sell to the age group, Parker says, “There’s been nothing but acceptance from advertisers. Once they’re on the station, they not only love the environment, but it works incredibly well for them. We deliver the lucrative women 35-54 audience that advertisers crave, and because of the sizable 55+ audience that also loves the station, the median age skews older than many stations in the market, even though our target demo is very focused.”

In light of the success of soft AC, Parker offers the media buying community a little constructive advice. “We deliver the Boomers demo better than any other music- and entertainment-focused station in the market. I think we all agree that Madison Avenue would be wise to put a little more focus on Boomers. In the meantime, the station delivers the most sought after demos—and advertisers get the benefit of all that added value of consumers over 55, and even 18-34.”

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