Air Supply, July 14, 2018. Russell Hitchcock (left) lives now in Marietta. 

Soft pop stations making a minor comeback nationwide. Could a Peach redux make it in Atlanta?

Format is thriving in Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Tampa

Originally posted Tuesday, November 20, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Twelve years ago, right before Christmas, what was then called Clear Channel dumped Lite 94.9 in favor of country station 94.9/The Bull.

That was the last time the FM dial in Atlanta had what is called in the radio business a “soft Adult Contemporary” station. The mix of music for the station, which was renamed Lite from Peach in 2002, included the likes of Amy Grant, Celine Dion and Michael Bolton. The station format at the time was deemed too old and passive for advertisers. 

Indeed, in most markets, soft AC stations segued into a more modern sound or switched to other formats. B98.5, which competed with Peach/Lite, became far more hip in its imaging and sound in recent years and draws more total listeners of any station in the market. 

But recently, it has made a comeback in a handful of cities. New “soft AC” stations in recent weeks have popped up in Sacramento (92.5/The Breeze), Detroit (98.7/The Breeze) and Philadelphia (106.1/The Breeze). 

Soft AC stations do well in Chicago (Me-TV FM at 87.7), San Francisco (98.1 The Breeze, ranked No. 3 in the market), Seattle (year-old 94.1 The Sound is No. 4) and Tampa (105.5 WDUV-FM is No. 1).  And believe it or not, a soft AC is No. 1 in Miami (Easy 93.1) of all places.  For Sirius/XM listeners, the most comparable station is Love. 

The Breeze in Philadelphia uses the slogan, “Philly’s Relaxing Favorites” and covers music from the past five decades. The station switched from classic hip hop November 12. Here’s a sample hour.

Monday 10:04 p.m. “From a Distance” Bette Midler (1990)

10:08 p.m. “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Tina Turner (1984)

10:12 p.m. “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran (2014)

10:16 p.m. “Hold On” Wilson Phllips (1990)

10:20 p.m. “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker (1975)

10:23 p.m. “The Longest Time” Billy Joel (1984)

10:26 p.m. “Saving All My Love For  You” Whitney Houston (1985)

10:31 p.m. “Laughing in the Rain” Neil Sedaka (1974)

10:37 p.m. “Bleeding Love” Leona Lewis (2007)

10:42 p.m. “Orinoco Flow” Enya (1988)

10:45 p.m. “Fire and Rain” James Taylor (1970)

10:49 p.m. “I Could Fall in Love” Selena (1995)

10:53 p.m. “Working My Way Back to You” Spinners (1980)

10:57 p.m. “Words Get in the Way” Gloria Estefan (1986)

11:00 p.m. “Me and Mrs. Jones” Billy Paul (1972)

“It would be a unique position,” reasoned Tom Taylor, who runs a daily radio newsletter called Radio Info. “For a lot of people, it’s new music. It has melody and good writing. And we have to think about what’s going on now with stress levels. People are seeking ways to relax. This format addresses that.”

Sean Ross, who writes an industry column called Ross on Radio, recently addressed the format’s rise from the ashes and comes up with several reasons. For instance, as younger listeners leave the traditional FM dial, older-skewing formats have become more appealing. 

“The reason we are seeing this is radio is slowly learning it does better with older demos and offers them little,” said Robert Unmacht, a veteran radio consultant for RTK Media. “Boomers have money and like radio. A lot of older and well-heeled listeners went to Sirius.” He defines the format more in terms of “easy oldies” than “soft AC” but that’s just radio semantics.  

Ross also notes that yacht rock has become “cool,” so many songs by the likes of Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins aren’t so toxic anymore. (That recent Weezer cover of “Africa,” for instance, becoming a surprise hit revived interest in Toto.)

Atlanta currently does not have anything close to soft AC on the FM dial. 

It’s a heavily urban market with a gospel station and three R&B stations targeting older blacks. It has two modern Christian pop stations. B98.5 is the only pop station that plays songs from the 1980s while 97.1/The River is known as “Classic Hits” but mostly sticks to rock songs from the 1970s and 1980s.

Dennis Winslow, a former program director for Atlanta’s now defunct Z93 and Fox 97 and once an on-air personality on WQXI-FM (94Q), said for a soft AC station to really work in Atlanta, it would probably have to be on a major signal to capture that office audience.

It would have to be a station, he said, fighting in a crowded space and thinking it didn’t have a chance of winning. The most vulnerable station would be Star 94.1, which is in fourth place among four pop stations in town but management always seems determined to do better and it remains competitive in key demos. 

Star would certainly differentiate itself if it went super soft since it currently plays a lot of the same songs as B98.5, Q100 and Power 96.1. Of Star’s 40 most played songs this past week, according to Mediabase 24/7, it has five songs no other station in the market is playing by OneRepublic (“Connection”), Brynn Elliott (“Might Not Like Me”), AJR (“Burn the House Down”), Macklemore (“Good Ol’ Days”) and O.A.R. (“Miss You All the Time”). 

But would a “Breeze”-style format be able to generate more revenue than Star does now? And would it be able to take the “at work” mantle away from B? 

“I expect we will see more adoptions of the format,” Unmacht said. “But radio’s fear of older demos may slow it down some.”

Vance Dillard, a Nashville-based consultant who programmed Peach 94.9 from 1998 to 2000 and has since specialized in contemporary Christian, said he is skeptical any Atlanta station would make the flip.  And in his eyes, Fish would be a tough competitor against any soft AC format. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.