Adult contemporary music (frequently abbreviated AC) is a broad style of popular music that ranges from lush 1960s, vocal-based music to predominantly ballad-heavy music with varying degrees of rock influence". AC radio plays mainstream music excluding hip hop, hard rock, youth orientated RnB, some teen pop music and rhythmic dance tracks (though since the 2000s, some of these have begun to be included), which is intended for a more adult audience. Radio stations playing this format will often target 25-54 year-olds, the group most valued by advertisers. Over the years AC has spawned several sub-genres: "hot AC", "soft AC" (also known as "lite AC"), "urban AC", "rhythmic AC", "smooth AC" (i.e., smooth jazz), and "Christian AC" (i.e., a softer type of Contemporary Christian music). Some radio stations play only hot AC; some play only soft AC; and some play both. Thus it is not usually considered a specific genre of music, since it is merely an assembly of selected tracks of musicians of many different genres.
Hot adult contemporary or hot AC, is a format given to various radio stations. It is often referred to as a balanced variety of music from the early 1960s to today's hits, although most radio stations include more classic hits with a minority of new songs.
In the 1990s, these stations stopped playing 1960s music, and later in the 1990s, they stopped playing the 1970s, but these decades were later reintroduced into the format.
Today, hot AC radio stations tend towards some hard rock, such as ballads from Goo Goo Dolls, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Aerosmith, and may occasionally play dance hits, such as those by Paula Abdul, Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, and some of Madonna's more upbeat, dance-oriented songs, such as "Music" and "Ray of Light." Hot AC is now also slightly more alternative than soft AC; examples of alternative or harder-edged artists played on hot AC but unlikely to be heard on soft AC stations include Red Hot Chili Peppers, All-American Rejects, Linkin Park, Third Eye Blind, Fall Out Boy, and Pink. However, the line between hot AC and soft AC continues to blur, as alternative and rock artists such as Lifehouse ("You and Me"), Nickelback ("Far Away"), Avril Lavigne ("Complicated,"), 3 Doors Down ("Here Without You"), and The Fray ("How to Save a Life"), have all released singles which got substantial soft AC airplay, and somewhat blurred the line between the formats.
Since the 2000s, some hot AC stations have begun phasing out 80s music, with some adding R&B and hip hop music to their playlists, from such artists as Akon, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, the Black Eyed Peas, Chris Brown, Fort Minor, Ne-Yo, and the Pussycat Dolls, to compete with top-40 stations. This has occurred more in metropolitan areas with a highly concentrated African American population. The strategy of challenging Top 40 stations has not been proven to be successful. For example, Canada's Virgin Radio stations in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are hot AC formatted, while mixing in rhythmic content.
Hot AC is reasonably successful in the United States, but in Canada, it is the most-listened-to radio format. WPLJ in New York City, KBIG in Los Angeles, KHMX in Houston, and WTMX in Chicago are four of the best-known hot AC stations in the US.
Hot AC channels on satellite radio include Sirius XM Radio's The Pulse and XM's Mix, even though Mix is only heard on the American XM service. Prior to the Sirius/XM channel merger, The Pulse was formerly known as Flight 26 on XM, and the old Pulse was on channel 9 on the Sirius side, as it had a 1990s/hot AC hybrid. The old Pulse was replaced by The 90s on 9, whereas Flight 26 was added to channel 12 on Sirius and took The Pulse branding (formerly channel 9) that time.
A more adult-oriented version of AC, called "soft AC" was born in the late 70s and grew in the early 80s. Greater Media introduced "Magic" as an AC format name at WMGK in Philadelphia in 1975. WEEI-FM in Boston was the first station to use the term "soft rock," with ad slogans such as, "Fleetwood Mac...without the yack" and "Joni...without the baloney". The longest-running AC format in the top ten markets in America is "103.7 Lite FM" KVIL in Dallas-Fort Worth. "KVIL" in DFW first went on the air in 1962, and adopted its current format in 1969. In 1982, Magic 106.7 in Boston made its debut with a soft adult contemporary format. The following year, the "Lite" format made its debut in New York WLTW, Chicago WLIT, and many other major markets. KOST in Los Angeles also switched to soft AC that year. Other popular names for the format include "Warm," "Sunny," "Bee (or "B")" and (particularly in Canada) "EZ Rock." The format can be seen as a more contemporary successor to and combination of the middle of the road (MOR), beautiful music, easy listening and soft rock formats. A satellite radio channel on Sirius XM Radio called Sirius XM Love (formerly Sirius Love) is one of the examples of a soft AC format. Prior to the channel merger on November 12, 2008, XM Satellite Radio had a channel called The Heart.
In recent years, most "Soft Rock" or "Lite" stations, such as WMJX in Boston, WLTW in New York City, WSB-FM in Atlanta, and KOST in Los Angeles have started to mix in more hot AC songs into their playlists and have dropped the older, softer AC artists, such as Barbara Streisand and Barry Manilow, who may be perceived as campy. The majority of these stations no longer play large amounts of 1960s music, and select stations play little or no 1970s music. This is somewhat common in markets with strong Classic Hits stations, which often focus on playing 1970s, taking away the audience for traditional AC formats, especially when both are owned by the same company. One such market is Dallas, where AC KVIL shares much of the same audience as Classic Hits KLUV, which is also owned by CBS Radio. Artists such as Daughtry, Nickelback, and Kelly Clarkson, who were played exclusively on hot AC as recently as 2006, are staples on what is now known as mainstream AC. These stations often have the highest ratings among adults 25-54. Some AC stations in Canada, such as CHQM-FM Vancouver, CFQR-FM Montreal, CHFM-FM Calgary and CJMJ-FM Ottawa have mixed in hot AC to the playlist. In addition, a satellite radio channel on Sirius XM Radio called The Blend is one of the examples of a mainstream AC format. Prior to the Sirius/XM channel merger on November 12, 2008, Sirius Satellite Radio had a channel called StarLite.
During most of the 2000s, Canadian adult contemporary radio stations have been dropping in the ratings due to the recent addition of top 40 and hot AC content on the playlist. Stations such as CJEZ-FM Toronto and CFQR-FM Montreal dropped from the top spot and lost several listeners. Most recent adult contemporary stations in Canada have dropped the format entirely, including CJUK-FM in Thunder Bay (which moved to hot AC) back in 2006, and for 2007, CFLY-FM in Kingston (which also moved to hot AC, causing Corus to launch a new AC station for that market) and CJTN-FM in Trenton (which became classic rock, also causing My Broadcasting Corporation to launch another new AC station for that market). In addition, 2008 marked the flip of CKCL-FM Vancouver from adult contemporary to classic hits, leaving Vancouver as the largest Canadian market with only one adult contemporary station (which is CHQM-FM), as well as for CFQM-FM in Moncton (the market's only AC station) changing formats to classic hits for 2009. The final adult contemporary station in Canada of the 2000s to flip formats was CJEZ-FM in Toronto, which became adult hits CHBM-FM on Boxing Day 2009. CHFI-FM in Toronto remains the most-listened-to radio station in Canada despite its heritage adult contemporary format.
AC stations in the Canadian province of Quebec include the Rythme FM and RockDétente networks. The jocks are French-speaking, but English music can also be found, as on all music-based FM radio stations in Quebec. Satellite radio French AC equivalents are XM's Sur La Route and RockDétente's satellite radio counterpart on Sirius Canada called RockVelours. CFGL-FM, a Rythme FM station in Montreal is the most-listened to French-language station in North America. Sur La Route excludes English-language music from the playlist.
Urban AC is a form of AC music that is geared towards adult African-American audiences, and therefore, the artists that are played on these stations are most often African-American. A good example of an urban AC artist is Des'ree, whose album I Ain't Movin' was massively popular amongst both African American audience as well as the wider national audience. The urban AC stations are more similar to soft AC than they are to hot AC, and the music they play is predominantly R&B and soul music with little hip-hop. This is reflected in many of the urban AC radio stations' taglines, such as "Today's R&B and classic soul," "The best variety of R&B hits and oldies" and "(City/Region)'s R&B leader." Some popular nicknames for urban AC stations include "Magic" (borrowed from Soft AC), "Mix" (borrowed from hot AC), and "Kiss" (borrowed from Top-40). Urban AC's core artists include Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Kem, Whitney Houston, Regina Belle, Robin Thicke, Sade, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Brian McKnight, Teena Marie, Mary J. Blige, and Gerald Levert. Examples of urban AC stations include WBLS in New York, WHUR in Washington D.C., and KHHT in Los Angeles. Sirius XM Satellite Radio features the format on its Heart & Soul channel.
A slightly hotter variation of the urban AC is the rhythmic adult contemporary format, often branded as "MOViN". This focuses on uptempo hits such as disco, early hip-hop and R&B, and dance music, and it caters to African-American, Hispanic and white audiences. Noteworthy examples of Rhythmic AC stations include WKTU in New York, WISX in Philadelphia, and KQMV in Seattle (which pioneered the MOViN format).
A more elaborate form of urban AC is the rhythmic oldies format, which focuses primarily on "old school" R&B and soul hits from the 1960s to the 1990s, including Motown and disco hits. At its peak of nationwide popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the format was often referred to as "jammin'" or "groovin'" oldies. The concept of jammin' oldies was pioneered in 1997 by KCMG-FM "Mega 100" in Los Angeles (1). The format, which included white soul or disco artists such as ABBA and the Bee Gees in addition to Black artists, subsequently spread to many major markets, but has since cooled down; the decline of jammin' oldies popularity is often attributed to overly tight playlists which increased listener burnout. Rhythmic oldies stations still exist today, but usually more specifically target African-Americans as opposed to a mass audience; examples include WDMK-FM in Detroit and WWWS-AM in Buffalo, NY.
Usually embedded within the urban adult contemporary is another format called quiet storm. This format is most played during the evening beginning at 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM hours into late night. The quiet storm format is primarily a mix of the urban AC and soft AC styles of music. The music that is played is strictly ballads and slow jams, mostly but not limited to Black and Latino artists. Popular artists played on the quiet storm format are Teena Marie, Whitney Houston, Angela Bofill, Miki Howard, Regina Belle, Howard Hewett, Freddie Jackson, Johnny Gill, Anita Baker, Sade, Patti LaBelle, Tamia, Lalah Hathaway, Vanessa L. Williams, Dru Hill, Toni Braxton, and En Vogue among others.
Early radio stations played top-40 hits, theoretically regardless of genre although most were in the same genre until the mid-1970s when different forms of popular music started to target different demographic groups, such as disco vs. hard rock. This evolved into specialized radio stations that played specific genres of music, and generally following the evolution of artists in those genres.
One big impetus for the development of the AC radio format was the fact that when rock and roll music first became popular in the mid-1950s, many more conservative radio stations wanted to continue to play current hit songs while shying away from rock. These stations also frequently included older, pre-rock-era adult standards and big band titles to further appeal to adult listeners who had grown up with those songs. In those days, Middle of the road or "MOR" was the formatic term used to describe such stations, which included powerhouse broadcasters like WJR in Detroit, WGN and WBBM in Chicago, KGO in San Francisco, WNEW-AM in New York, and KMOX in St. Louis. Billboard magazine first published an adult-contemporary music chart in 1961, although it was not until 1979 that the chart took on the name "Adult Contemporary."
While most popular MOR stations were, like Top 40 stations of the day, on the AM dial, another big impetus for the evolution of the AC radio format was the popularity of easy listening or "beautiful music" stations, stations with music specifically designed to be purely ambient, listened to while at work or otherwise in the background. These stations were largely found on the FM dial alongside classical music stations because the music they played sounded better on FM. Whereas most easy listening music was instrumental, created by relatively unknown artists (except for occasional MOR vocal hits), and rarely purchased, AC was an attempt to create a similar "lite" format by choosing certain tracks (both hit singles and album cuts) of popular artists.
The growth of AC was also a natural result of the generation that first listened to the more "specialized" music of the mid-late 70s growing older and not being interested in the heavy metal, rap and hip-hop music that a new generation helped to dominate the top-40 charts (this effect has also altered the oldies format; as there are now two kinds of oldies stations, those who will not play songs from after the early 1970s vs. those who will play songs up to the early 1980s while still having occasional pre-1964 songs in rotation). Fans of harder rock music often derogatorily referred to AC stations in the early days of the format as "chicken rock."
The music video channel VH1 began as an AC version of MTV. Originally, it was strictly soft AC, as it strove to appeal to people who were in their 30s and 40s during its early years in the mid 1980s. For similar reasons as explained above with radio, in the mid 1990s, it reformed itself as something closer to hot AC, during which time it began to play videos by Hootie & The Blowfish, the Gin Blossoms, Alanis Morissette, Melissa Etheridge, the Spin Doctors, Amy Grant, Ace of Base, and some other artists that were slightly harder rock or more avant garde than they had previously played.
Mainstream AC itself has evolved in a similar fashion over the years; traditional AC artists like Barbra Streisand, the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Captain & Tennille, and Olivia Newton-John found it harder to have hits (on AC as well as top 40) as the 1980s wore on, and due to the influence of MTV, artists who were staples of the contemporary hit radio format, such as Madonna, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Tears for Fears, and Whitney Houston, began crossing over to the AC charts with greater frequency.
However, with the combination of MTV and AC radio, adult contemporary appeared harder to define as either, established soft-rock artists of the past (who were still charting pop hits), or the mainstream radio fare from newer artist at the time, such as Madonna, Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper and Whitney Houston. In 1989, Linda Ronstadt recorded Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, described by critics as the first true adult contemporary album and featuring American soul singer Aaron Neville on four of the twelve tracks. It had duets including "Don't Know Much" (Billboard Hot 100 chart No. 2 hit) and "All My Life" (Billboard Hot 100 chart No. 11 hit), these singles were also equally long-running number 1 adult contemporary hits. With the mixture of radio friendly AC tunes with some rock and pop fare also landing on the pop charts, the album won over many critics in the need to define AC, and appeared to change the tolerance and acceptance of AC music into mainstream day to day radio play.
In recent years, VH1 has moved away from its AC format by becoming willing to play artists not traditionally seen in this format such as Destiny's Child, Eminem, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg. With this addition of popular hip-hop, rap, and R&B, VH1 (when it plays videos, which generally is on very rare occasions now) most closely resembles top 40 radio now. Led by Toronto powerhouse CHUM-FM, Canadian Hot AC radio has also taken steps towards a similarly more diverse and top 40-inclusive musical position.
Part of the reason why more and more hot AC stations are forced to change is that less and less new music fits their bill. Most new rock is too alternative for mainstream radio, including hot AC, and only gets played on modern rock radio; and most new pop is now influenced heavily by eurodance or hip hop, in an attempt to become club and rhythmic crossover hits, if not featuring guest vocals from rappers. One example is that "Look What You've Done" by Jet is played on Hot AC stations, but other tracks like "Cold Hard Bitch" are played on modern rock stations. However, soft AC, which has never minded keeping songs in high rotation literally for years in some cases, does not appear necessarily to be facing similar pressures to expand its format. Soft AC includes a larger amount of older music, especially classic R&B, soul, and 60s and 70s music, than hot AC.
However, several soft AC stations have begun to add more guitar-driven (but still relatively quiet) music into their playlists, such as "Broken" by Seether, "You And Me" by Lifehouse, "Here Without You" by 3 Doors Down, "Complicated" and "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne, "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling, "My Immortal" by Evanescence, "Home" and "It's Not Over" by Daughtry and "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" by Aerosmith, somewhat resembling the Hot AC stations of the 1990s. Stations like WSB-FM in Atlanta play songs such as "Hella Good" by No Doubt, "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba, and "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind.
In this sense, the soft AC format may soon be facing the demographic pressures that the jazz and big band formats faced in the 1960s and 1970s and that the oldies format is starting to face today, with the result that one may hear soft AC less on over-the-air radio and more on satellite radio systems in coming years. Much of the music and artists that was traditionally played on soft AC stations has been relegated to the adult standards format, which is itself disappearing because of aging demographics. Some soft AC stations have found a niche by incorporating more oldies into their playlists and are more open to playing softer songs that fit the "traditional" definition of AC. Examples include the former WLTM-FM in Atlanta (which added many oldies titles to its playlist after the death of oldies sister station WLCL) and the former WSNI in Philadelphia with soft rock station WBEB.
In the meantime, such artists as Nick Lachey and Josh Groban have become successful thanks to a ballad heavy sound. So, adult contemporary may likely not go anywhere since it is still prevalent on recording artists' albums in almost every music style including dance music. Another popular trend of remixing dance music hits into adult contemporary ballads--mostly piano ballads but sometimes keyboard ballads--is now popular, especially in the US (for example, the "Candlelight Mix" versions of "Heaven" by DJ Sammy, "Listen To Your Heart" by D.H.T., and "Everytime We Touch" by Cascada).
Much as some hot AC and modern rock artists have crossed over into each other, so too has soft AC crossed with country music, particularly among the female artists. Musicians such as Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood have had success on both charts, as have some male artists (such as Rascal Flatts, Kid Rock (primarily a rock musician, though All Summer Long has been played on rock, AC, pop and country formats), and Darius Rucker (who had pop and AC hits as lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish and is currently having a successful solo career as a country artist). This crossover has its roots in the countrypolitan/Nashville sound pop styles of years past, which ironically were popularized heavily by male artists.
Also in response to the pressure on Hot AC, a third kind of AC format has cropped up among American radio recently. The aforementioned urban adult contemporary format (a term coined by Barry Mayo) usually attracts a large number of African Americans and sometimes Caucasian listeners through playing a great deal of R&B (without any form of rapping), Gospel music, classic soul and dance music (including disco).
A fourth AC format, "rhythmic AC", in addition to playing all the popular hot and soft AC music, past and present, places a heavy emphasis on disco as well as 1980s and 90s dance hits, such as those by Amber, C&C Music Factory and Black Box, and includes dance remixes of pop songs, such as the Soul Solution Mix of Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart". The format also occasionally features popular 80s and early 90s rap songs that were popular mainstream, rhythmic, or club hits. New York City's WKTU and the now-defunct WNEW-FM are examples of this evolving format. The rapidly growing MOViN format, pioneered at Seattle's KQMV and now in use at stations such as WMVN St. Louis, and KMVQ San Francisco, is another example of rhythmic AC, and has spawned imitators such as WISX in Philadelphia.
In its early years of existence, the smooth jazz format was considered to be a form of AC, although it was mainly instrumental, and related a stronger resemblance to the soft AC-styled music than it did to what purists call "real jazz." For many years, artists like George Benson, Kenny G and Dave Koz had crossover hits that were played on both smooth jazz and soft AC stations. In addition, David Sanborn had a saxophone solo on James Taylor's remake of the Marvin Gaye classic, "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)"; and Grover Washington, Jr. teamed up with Bill Withers to perform a classic hit song, entitled "Just the Two of Us". This song has gone on to become one of the most-played radio hits of all time - in particular the most acclaimed and modern cover by Regina Belle/George Duke/Steve Cole - as it frequently shows up on soft AC, urban AC and smooth jazz playlists. Anita Baker, Sade, Regina Belle, and Luther Vandross are other examples of artists who appeal to mainstream AC, urban AC and smooth jazz listeners. Some soft AC and urban AC stations like to play smooth jazz on the weekends, in cities that currently do not have a full-time smooth jazz station. Warm 98 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Majic 95.5 in Austin, Texas, WCXT in South Haven, Michigan, 103.7 Lite FM in Dallas, Texas, WMAG in Greensboro, North Carolina, KUDL in Kansas City, Missouri, and Q101.9 in San Antonio, Texas are soft AC stations that also play smooth jazz; and V101.9 in Charlotte, North Carolina and Majic 104.9 in St. Louis, Missouri, are urban AC stations that play smooth jazz on the weekends as well. (However, a new smooth jazz station had served the Cincinnati area, under the call letters WCIN-AM.) In recent years, the Smooth Jazz format has been renamed to Smooth AC, as an attempt to lure younger listeners, and some stations, like WLOQ in Orlando, Florida, have dropped the "Jazz" part from their nicknames; on the other hand, KWJZ in Seattle, Washington has completely abandoned the "Smooth Jazz" title in its branding.
Some soft AC (and a few urban AC) stations, like Sunny 99.1 in Houston, Texas and Magic 106.7 in Boston, Massachusetts, also have the smooth jazz format on their HD2 subchannels. This is far more common in recent years, as full-time smooth jazz stations are being discontinued in US markets where the format once thrived. In addition, these HD2 stations are basically expanded (24/7) versions of weekend programming as offered by their traditional FM/HD1 counterparts.
In recent years it has become common for many AC stations, particularly soft AC stations, to play primarily or exclusively Christmas music during November and December. While these tend mostly to be contemporary seasonal recordings by the same artists featured under the normal format, most stations will also air some vintage holiday tunes from older pop and adult standards artists — such as Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Carpenters, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams — whom they would never play during the rest of the year.
These Christmas music marathons typically start during the week before Thanksgiving Day (individual station practices vary) and end after Christmas Day. Afterwards, the stations usually resume their normal music fare at midnight on December 26. Several stations begin the holiday format much earlier, at the beginning of November, with a few stations (KOSY-FM in Salt Lake City being among them) having a reputation of regularly being among the "first in the nation" to change to the format. It is extremely rare for stations to change on or before Halloween; stations that do so generally receive backlash from listeners, as this is generally recognized to be well outside the accepted Christmas and holiday season, though it is common as a stunt.
The roots of this tradition can be traced all the way back to the Beautiful Music era of the 1960s and 70s. Until the early 21st century, however, radio stations typically began introducing some Christmas music into their regular playlists around Thanksgiving, and moved to an all-Christmas playlist, if at all, only in the few days immediately preceding Christmas. The practice of moving to an all-Christmas format as early as Thanksgiving became a widespread phenomenon in 2001, with many stations promoting their Christmas music marathons as a sort of musical comfort food in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Some such stations may also extend their Christmas music format as late as New Year's Day, although this is most commonly a stunt which signals that the station will relaunch in January with a different format than it held before Thanksgiving. Stations that aren't stunting may mix in some holiday songs, particularly those that don't explicitly mention Christmas (winter songs such as Let it Snow! and Jingle Bells) or that have mainstream appeal (such as Same Old Lang Syne and Better Days), into their regular format between Christmas and the new year.