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Nirvana Receiving Less-Than-Spirited Airplay
Billboard - February 1st, 1992.
Most Top 40 Outlets Reserve Track For Nighttime Only
By Sean Ross
New York - Even though Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit'' is the No. 1 selling single in the country for a second week running, and even though its album has returned to the No. 1 slot on The Billboard 200, following the band's appearance on "Saturday Night Live,'' don't expect its gap between sales and airplay to close much further.
The majority of top 40 PDs playing "Teen Spirit,'' which is No. 41 on the Top 40 Airplay Monitor chart this week, are starting it at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., a few hours earlier on the weekend, and giving it two-three plays a night. Those PDs, for the most part, have no plans to expand it to other dayparts -- even though some actually report that the record is starting to test well with their increasingly emphasized adult demos. Those who want to move the record up in rotation are instead doing what KIIS Los Angeles PD Bill Richards does and giving it four plays a day between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.
A few stations -- no more than a quarter of those contacted -- are starting "Teen Spirit'' at 3 p.m. Surprisingly, those stations are more likely to be the churban stations that made the surprise decision to play "Teen Spirit'' than the rock-leaning outlets that one might expect to open it up to afternoons. Only one major-market station, KUTQ (Q99.5) Salt Lake City, plays Nirvana in undayparted heavy rotation.
In that regard, "Teen Spirit'' bears some resemblence to Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll,'' another record by a hard rock/modern rock hybrid act, which began its seven-week run at No. 1 exactly 10 years ago this week. Although it went No. 1 at a lot of stations, Jett's record never made it out of nights or afternoons for many top 40 PDs, or did so only at the very end of its run.
By the end of those seven weeks, of course, "I Love Rock & Roll'' -- like most familiar records -- did not sound nearly as harsh as it may have at the outset. But few PDs think "Teen Spirit'' will take hold in the same way.
"It's not going to catch on with 25-plus,'' says WNVZ (Z104) Norfolk, Va., PD Chris Bailey. "It's just not going to happen. We've been playing it for 10 weeks and if it hasn't changed, it's not going to.'' In Z104's callout, "Teen Spirit,'' is disliked by 60 percent of the adult respondents.
"They're familiar with it, and they don't like it,'' Bailey says. "They don't understand its popularity. They can't get into it. And they're going, `what is he saying?' ''
That last comment is a reference to the song's hard-to-decipher lyrics, perhaps the key difference between "Teen Spirit'' and "I Love Rock & Roll.'' "It's hard to play that song in the daytime when people have enough trouble understanding it as it is,'' Bailey says.
There are, however, some PDs who are seeing adult response to "Teen Spirit.'' WWFX Bangor, Maine, PD Dave Cooper calls it "very much an adult record, shockingly so,'' at least up to age 30. "We have a lot of teens calling for it, but it's odd for more than 30 percent of the callers for a record like that to be adults.'' Cooper, however, has no intention of opening the record up beyond evenings because "it just doesn't fit with our daytime mix.''
WHYT Detroit PD Rick Gillette, who starts the record in afternoons, says "Teen Spirit'' is No. 3 in his 20-24-year-old callout demo, and that the record actually performs better with females than males -- something you would not expect from a hard rock record. KMEL San Francisco PD Keith Naftaly, who also plays "Teen Spirit'' in afternoons, sees the opposite. "It looked OK with males; with females, it was right there with `Oochie Coochie,' '' he says.
Both WHYT and KMEL are among the urban-leaning outlets that made the surprise decision to play Nirvana. If it seems odd that WHYT and KMEL would play Nirvana in afternoons where, say, rock-leaning heartland outlets like KKYK Little Rock, Ark., and WQUT Johnson City, Tenn., would not -- it should also be noted that churban stations start harder rap records in the afternoon, and play some novelty rap all day long.
As KSFM Sacramento, Calif., APD/MD Chuck Fields points out about his decision to play "Teen Spirit,'' "Street stations like KSFM will not usually add hard-core rock'n'roll records. But we play street music and we have to play we is hip on the street, it doesn't have to be urban. Nirvana is very hip on the street.''
As for the only major-market PD willing to unleash the smell of "Teen Spirit'' all day, KUTQ PD Jim Sumpter says, "It's performing well in both 18-34 and 25-34.'' When KUTQ began offering to fax copies of the hard-to-decipher lyrics to listeners' offices, "we got over 200 requestes from area business-people; we were stunned by the number of 30-year-olds calling.
"We are certainly in the position to take more of a rebellious on-air stance because the market is so youthful,'' Sumpter says. "One of the things that's really wrong with top 40 today is that we don't have enough anthems and this is an anthem. That's why we're really in favor of playing this record and letting it be a big part of our on-air personality.''
There was only somewhat more demand for rock anthems 10 years ago when "I Love Rock & Roll'' came out. While there were other rock megahits out at the time, most notably "Centerford,'' "I Love Rock & Roll'' was also out at the same time as such adult-targeted hits as "Leader Of The Band'' by Dan Fogelberg " '65 Love Affair'' by Paul Davis and "Sweet Dreams'' by Air Supply.
KUBE Seattle PD Bob Case remembers Jett's hit eventually moving from nights only to middays. KJ103's McCoy, then at KFMY (K96) Salt Lake City, remembers playing it only at night. Consultant Bill Thomas, then the PD of rock/40 WRVQ (Q94) Richmond, Va., opened it up at noon. Only a few PDs, like Gillette (then at KGB-AM San Diego) or WRVQ's Steve Davis (then at "hot hits'' WBBM-FM Chicago), remember playing it all day. And in one indication that top 40 really is in a 10-year-cycle, prominent top 40 advocate Guy Zapoleon, now PD of adult top 40 KHMX Houston, which is not playing Nirvana, was then PD of KRQQ Tucson, Ariz. -- which was not playing Jett.
One thing that should be pointed out in any discussion of how top 40 handles Nirvana is that more than a few of the PDs contacted for this article expressed a personal antipathy toward "Teen Spirit'' well beyond that which comes up unsolicited in discussions of other records. Says WTWR Toledo, Ohio, PD Duane Shannon: "I don't know what people see in it.'' Adds KTMT Medford, Ore., PD R. Charles Snyder says, "How do you explain something like that. Personally, I think it sucks.'' Both PDs, however, are starting the record in afternoons.
For his part, DGC director of top 40 promotion Steve Leavitt seems to accept that there are not many more strides to be made in airplay. "We're not trying to push people into something they're uncomfortable with,'' he says. "For a lot of people, it's moving into afternoons just through the sheer exposure of the song through the media.''
Leavitt hopes the follow-up single, "Come As You Are,'' will convert some of his holdouts. That song went to modern and album rock stations Jan. 20. It will be available at retail in the 5-inch CD format -- with some live bonus tracks -- and cassette configurations Feb. 18. Last week Nirvana was set to work on a video for the track, directed by Kevin Kerslake, whose credits include School Of Fish's "3 Strange Days.''
Meanwhile, Nirvana's first album, "Bleach,'' released by indie label Sub Pop in 1988, is benefiting from the heat generated by
"Nevermind.'' In its five weeks on The Billboard 200, it climbs to No. 106 with a bullet from No. 128 last week.