Evolution of The Relaxing Music Format

By Andy Beaubien, BPR

Relaxing music radio was a fairly new format idea in the late 1980’s. Early relaxing music stations played mostly New Age and Jazz Fusion recordings, most of which were instrumentals. One of the pioneers of the format was The Wave in Los Angeles which debuted in 1987. The station created a lot of interest because it sounded so different from all other radio formats of the time. It provided a stark contrast to the Rock, Oldies and Contemporary Hit stations of the time. The format was known in the business as NAC (New Adult Contemporary).

Subsequent relaxing music stations soon learned that the combination of New Age and “Smooth Jazz” (a new name for Jazz Fusion) was insufficient in the quest for a greater mass appeal audience. The emergence of PPM ratings technology (so-called People Meters) showed that audiences of the format were very passive and listeners had little allegiance to “relaxing” stations perhaps because the brand offering was so limited in content. In effect, the original format was similar to the music streaming services that offer a constant flow of the same style of music.

One of the problems with the original relaxing music concept was that listeners were mostly listening at specific times and under specific circumstances such as late evenings before bed time. This severely limited the degree of listener engagement and loyalty to the station. NAC stations suffered from poor conversion of weekly reach to P1 listening status.

In time, NAC stations realized that their target audience was being drawn away by the emerging Adult Contemporary format stations. AC stations differed from NAC stations because the AC stations played pop vocals. Additionally, AC stations were able to present a playlist with a somewhat broader tempo and dynamic range than NAC stations. As the years passed, the music tastes of the AC target audience changed and AC stations began to play more and more up-tempo songs by pop and pop rock artists.

Meanwhile, NAC stations were moving away from New Age and Smooth Jazz. They added an increasing number of familiar vocal hits that appealed to the target demo (usually 25-54). Although the energy level and tempo of these vocal hits had to be limited in order to fit the format, vocal hits offered a key component common to almost every music format and that is familiarity. Listeners could now hear songs that they actually knew and with which they could sing along. The introduction of news and information segments and live presenters expanded the brand offering.

The term Soft AC soon replaced the term NAC. Station brand names also had to change. The word “soft” unfortunately has negative connotations for some potential listeners. Soft implies weak and ineffective. As a result, brand names such as Relax, Smooth and The Breeze emerged. Positioning statements evolved into lines such as “the feel good station”. The benefit of “feel good” is that it does not necessarily imply any specific music style, tempo or energy level. It just makes you “feel good”.

Today, some of the most successful Soft AC stations fill a void between contemporary hits and oldies formats. They attract audiences that have outgrown a steady stream of contemporary hits and they also attract listeners who are not quite ready for oldies nostalgia. The demographic center of the audience is most often 35-44 with a slightly larger concentration of women than men. However, the potential audience of a well-programmed Soft AC often extends to the 30-49 demo and beyond.

It would not be an over-simplification to say that Soft AC stations are the new “easy listening” stations for listeners whose preferences fall somewhere between stations that make you want to dance, stations that make you want to fall asleep and stations that remind you of the good old days.



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