By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
When is a song a slow song?

I’ve known that wasn’t an easy question to answer, ever since I first scheduled music twenty years ago. That was when I encountered this song coded as “uptempo.”

Specifically, it was “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon,” credited to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes but really a duet between the featured artists, Teddy Pendergrass and Sharon Paige. On a 1-5 scale, somebody who had maintained the database before me thought the R&B classic was a four. I would have coded it a two, maybe a three under duress.

I know why a difference of opinion might have existed. “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” isn’t a classic slow jam. It’s not Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” or Luther Vandross’ “Here And Now,” two songs that I definitely would have coded as 1s. There is a pulse, albeit a languid one. But I’m not sure how anybody hears it as a four.

I was reminded of that story while editing logs a few days ago for a Classic Hits station. It was then that I noticed that the energy code for “Message in a Bottle” by the Police  was a one. I hear that song as energetic, and happy, probably a four. Somebody else heard it as dead slow. Maybe they were responding to the sometimes droning vocal. Or the less intense verses, rather than the bouncier chorus. (Coding the current Skrillex & Diplo hit, “Where Are U Now” is probably equally challenging, since the energy/intensity level changes throughout the song.)

Tempo and energy are clearly subjective. I do not doubt that some accomplished PD or MD reading this article now genuinely believes that “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is more uptempo than “Message In A Bottle.” When I tweeted about this topic earlier this week, WEBG (Big 99.5) Chicago PD Steve Stewart replied, “Ha, ha. Inherited databases! My favorite cleanup!”

Coding the most and least energetic or uptempo songs on a station are easy. On a Classic Hits or Adult Hits station, “Tears In Heaven” and “The Long And Winding Road,” slow and placid, are 1s. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “You Spin Me Round,” uptempo and sonically aggressive, are 5s. It is when songs are slow-but-bouncy (“Bennie And The Jets”) or medium-tempo but not so intense (“Pink Houses”) that things become complicated.

Pat Cardinal, the veteran Canadian PD, had a simple, elegant solution. On some classic hits/”greatest hits” stations, he coded songs as either fast or slow. And anything that wasn’t uptempo and hot was slow. That includes, say, “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac (which is a “3” for me, but undoubtedly a “4” or “5” to somebody else reading this. If what you care about most is keeping things moving, Pat’s system makes a lot of sense.

It is also possible (albeit unlikely) that I was the person who coded “Message in a Bottle” as a 1. As is often the case, the database had gone through a number of hands in a relatively short time, including mine. But this was probably an object lesson in why each new PD should start from scratch. Whether you agree with how I’d code a song is academic, unless we work on the same station at some point, at which point the inconsistencies will inevitably play themselves out over the course of an hour.

This whole discussion, I realize, veers towards the academic. But if the expert and deliberate scheduling of music is part of what sets a broadcast radio station aside from other audio choices, it’s not a minor concern. Tempo coding impacts a handful of other choices a programmer makes over the course of scheduling a given hour—song-to-song flow, tempo at certain times of the hour, etc. How engrossed you are now in this discussion probably reflects how much you care about those details.

There are programmers who feel that the coding of a station database should cover most eventualities, and require very little subsequent editing. There are programmers who prefer to edit one song at a time. Even if you’re in the latter camp, inconsistencies in coding still create snags. Just because you’re willing to search for the right song doesn’t mean you want to have to dig because somebody coded “All My Love” by Led Zeppelin as uptempo, thus seemingly ensuring it will end up next to another ballad (or, worse, flanked by them). Ultimately, the best combination is a well-coded database and somebody who can embellish as needed.