To Play Or Not To Play ... That Is The Question!
July 14, 2015
At the end of the day, a successful contemporary music format has to play the right songs in rotations to maximize its efforts with the target audience. The desired result is a ratings number that can bring in advertising dollars. The side-effect for a successful song is the business success for the recording artists, writers, publishers and record companies.
Radio's job has never been to propel the career of an artist. It is a wonderful side effect when a song reaches great heights. I love conversations with young personalities in college radio or just beginning a career in this business. Not breaking every great song that comes out is always the #1 complaint with newbies or the uninformed. I immediately try to increase their radio IQ on the goals for music radio and a record company. So you get to be the fly on the wall for my conversation with an up-and-coming air personality.
Coach: I hope I can help; you want to know why radio does not play more new music?
Jock: I work at a college station and me and my buddies don't understand why radio plays so many commercials and don't play hot songs as soon as they come out. Instead stations play the same stuff over and over.
Coach: I was where you are at one time and had many of the same thoughts and questions. If you get lucky and have a few really smart PDs, you will learn as I did how contemporary music radio works. Radio is not a farm system for every song that comes out for any format.
Jock: How are songs going to become hits if radio stations don't play them?
Coach: It is the job of commercial contemporary music stations to play perceived hit music by the majority of the target audience to get the highest rating it can. The point is to sell advertising and ratings is very important to the process. By the way, record companies do not sign every artist coming through the door to a recording deal; they, too, are a business. Sometimes when the planets align and a song happens to make an emotional connection with an audience, both radio and record companies reap the benefits.
Jock: We had a guest speaker here from a station and he made a big deal about research. I know when a song sounds good; shouldn't that be enough?
Coach: Yes for college or a community station. But in commercial radio, we need a way to verify our gut. Various stations have their own methods of implementing ways of exposing and rotating music. A formula to do this is very subjective and PDs try to use theirs to present the best presentation of music they can.
Jock: You still haven't addressed why stations play the same songs so much. I believe that is why Pandora is doing so well.
Coach: It is time for a glimpse into reality. People have a lot of audio and visual ways to spend time other than with radio. Also, consider that people have lives -- work, school, hobbies, social media, and a host of things which can distract them from radio. When they come to radio, the format of choice better be playing a perceived hit song. Over the years, formulas have been applied to music to reap the benefits of people's listening habits. A song is a product just like Geico Insurance or Budweiser. Once a station selects a rotation, its goal is to give the perceived hit music enough plays/impressions for audience exposure. It is about playing what the audience wants to hear and not should hear. The job is to reflect and not direct. Research has become an important tool to make sure a station is doing the right thing. Research gets blamed for preventing PDs from playing more songs; new, recurrent, or gold. The real problem is the interpretation and how information is applied to song usage.
Jock: I think more gut should be used.
Coach: I agree, but what I call 'Intelligent Gut' and it takes in a lot of factors including research. Don't get it confused with an immediate response without thought, which is what most people associate with the term gut. Let me explain various forms of research so you will not think it is some dark villain whose sole purpose is to keep songs from listeners.
There are four basic types of research most stations do on a regular basis, Auditorium Music Test (AMTs), Perceptual Focus Groups, callout, and Mscore:
Auditorium Music Tests are conducted with a screened group of target listeners who evaluate portions of songs called hooks. Each song is scored according to its familiarity, appeal and passion. Programming picks the songs that will be tested. The number of songs included from the library is subject to cost factors. The outcome for songs to be kept or eliminated is subject to whatever criteria a station has chosen to use. The songs put on hold as a result of the test do not mean these songs are necessarily terrible, but just that they did not meet the chosen criteria for airplay. These tests are great for stations with an older audience base, such as Classic Rock, ACs, and Urban AC.
Callout Research is an evaluation process wherein target listeners evaluate 30 or more songs weekly; indicating familiarity, appeal, and fatigue. Stations playing a lot of current music usually use this method (Some also use in conjunction with Auditorium tests).
Perceptual Focus Groups are smaller, carefully selected groups of target listeners who discuss and identify key issues and set priorities for quantitative research and are designed to enhance the overall value of perceptual research. Participants are never made aware of the station or stations having the study conducted. In fact, the client sits on the other side of a one-way mirror to watch. All music formats can benefit from this.
Mscore can only be used with PPM. It is an index which measures the amount of switching to your competition that occurs when you play specific songs. Mscore only looks at listeners who are switching to another station every time a specific song is played. Listeners tend to switch from one station to another frequently, especially in a car. So Mscore takes that into account when doing their calculations. They look at what's above normal or below normal. If there is less switching than usual, this is good. This becomes a positive Mscore. If there is more switching than normal, it's a negative Mscore.
Jock: All of that to play music on the air?
Coach: Yes, all if it to make an 'Intelligent Gut' decision of what to play, how often to play it, where to play it, and the habits & lifestyles of those you are playing it for. And I will also include some other resources various programmers use too; Shazam, YouTube views, digital download statistics, and retail figures.
Jock: How does a song ever have a chance with all of this stuff to make a decision?
Coach: Let me explain it again, radio stations are not in the record business or the management of music artists. Music stations and all commercial radio are in the advertising business. Radio just wants to make sure it is making good music choices. Let me put it to you another way; it would be like playing the stock market without studying what to invest in. By the way, the record industry also makes business decisions when it comes to what songs are released and how they are marketed. My friend, I love your mind, but you are about to come into an industry which its participants pay bills, buy homes, purchase cars, retainers, braces, buy food, pay rent, and pay college tuitions. There is art involved and a whole lot of business; music stations try to increase the possibilities of playing what listeners want to hear. Right now you are in college and playing and learning radio. Once you graduate and if you are fortunate enough to land a commercial radio job, some of the things I have told you will start to make some kind of sense.
I can remember when I thought like this college air personality. I can remember working during the summer at college; overnight at a Top 40 station during the week and at a club on the weekends as a DJ. The PD never locked his office and in-between songs I would go and thumb through all the new music he had and read Billboard Magazine to look at the charts. I would listen and then take the extras to the club to play. I was so naive, all these new hits and my station wasn't playing them.
It took several years before I learned the business of music, radio, and audiences. Four key items --know your target audience, be objective, have patience, and have a consistent pattern of approach with built in rule exceptions.