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99X Cracks the Alternative Code: All Oldies

A great brand in Atlanta has been fully resuscitated – Classic Alternative 99x goes Top 10…

Atlanta morning show icons Barnes and Leslie.

By Paul Marszalek

Fans of the Happy Days and That ’70s Show can remember how strong the nostalgic pull was on their emotions.

The formula was pretty simple: Happy Days ran from 1974 to 1984, drawing on the 50s. Similarly, That ’70s Show ran in the 90s.

If you were doing that show today, you’d be drawing on the late 90s back into the 80s – which is exactly what 99x/Atlanta is doing – hitting 40 to 50-year olds right between the ears with nostalgia.

While Alt has been chasing its tail for the past five years, Cumulus took a heritage brand, lured back a beloved morning show, killed the currents, and played Alternative, Modern AC, and Triple A crossover hits to a Top 10 finish in the February Nielsen.

Since November, 99x has posted 1.2 – 1.1 – 2.6 – 3.8. The station is cuming more than 400,000.

The comeback is remarkable – or is it?

99x is simply executing a solution that’s been hiding in plain sight, and doing it well. Strong positioning with a known brand, a familiar library that has both male and female appeal (and almost no risks), a talented morning show that has to actually be costing them some money, and even a bit of marketing.

Is this format coming to a town near you? Quite possibly – although others, such as 91x, has not seen similar success. 91x has a format competitor, and the musical formula does not include the crossover titles featured on 99x to point out just a couple of differences.

Frustrated Alt stations might try the 99x approach and cover the Alternative position by moving up the demo, while effectively preventing a new entrant from filling the hole. There’s just not enough to go around.

The problem with Alt in recent years is the dedication to a fantasy of building a rock-based format around 18-34 year olds. The younger end of that demo is entirely too diverse to make it work and spends little time with radio. Meanwhile, the Alternative brand attracts older audiences — but when they arrive at an Alt station and get Machine Gun Kelly, they bail.

Ramifications of more Classic Alternative stations include another radio format that ignores young adults, perhaps helping to hasten the demise of the medium. It’s also another bummer for a music industry increasingly concerned about launching new artists — at least via radio.

The upside is that there’s more good radio entertainment.

Whether 99x and imitators stay with the classics or sprinkle in some new music remains to be seen. It’s early.

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