By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

My adventures in music library coding apparently resonated with a lot of “Ross On Radio” readers. I wondered why the seemingly uptempo “Message In A Bottle” by the Police had been treated as a ballad somewhere in my station’s past. As I considered the impossibility of any two programmers hearing every song the same way, I found myself slightly defensive about why such Trekkie-ish details mattered.

I needn’t have worried on the latter score. The topic resonated with many:

“I learned a trick for just this situation a long time ago, especially when I inherit a database from someone else. There are no 2s and 4s. I only use 1, 3, and 5. The listener only knows slow and fast. The medium setting helps the scheduling program do the math.” – Bob Quick

“I’ve even been in the position of recoding songs as they go from current to oldie.  A medium tempo song that is fresh and new may sound a little faster, more vibrant when it is coming up the charts, as opposed to six months and hundreds or thousands of spins later . . . We recently changed from Selector to Music Master, and in looking at song credentials that were converted from 10 years ago, wow! Songs that were ultra-rap then are considered pop now, and songs that were edgy and hard then are mainstream now.  Speaking of the Police, when I worked at an AC station in Ocean City, Md., that song was considered ‘hot.’  Now, I bet most stations have it just above ‘dreary.’” – Rob Lucas, WTSS Buffalo

Why is BPM not a good method of approaching song coding in an empirical manner?  It would seem you could create three (fast, medium, slow) or five ranges of beats per minute to screen the music and those right at the edges of the ranges would be the ones to make judgement calls about dropping into one or the other category.  Still subjectivity in the mix, but perhaps less so given the screen?  Of course, then there is mood.”—Andrew Skotdal

“Why do PD’s miscode tempo?  Because they misunderstand the term.  Tempo is what it is. It’s mathematical. If that can be counted in beats per minute. Some PD’s confuse tempo and timbre.  Few databases are properly coded.   Correctly coding tempo and timbre can improve a stations flow.  Two thin sounding songs back-to-back is as bad as too slow songs back to back.  Some PD’s try to solve this with tempo when they should use timbre.  Think of tempo as the time signature in beats per minute and timbre as ‘musical thickness.’  Timbre is subjective. Tempo is not.” – Randy Michaels

“Are you sure the tempo on the Police song wasn’t just a typo? Maybe someone just hit a 1 instead of a 4?” – Marty Bender.

No, I’m not sure that “Message In A Bottle” being coded as a ballad wasn’t a typo. A lot can happen when somebody is inputting hundreds of songs, often on short notice. I’ve also seen both dead-slow ballads and scorching rockers coded as “3” at various times, and I can only believe that whoever was doing the inputting simply didn’t know every song, or was not able to conjure a song mentally under duress.

As for timbre, it has only become more of an issue with today’s glut of densely produced midtempo pop hits. American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life” is faster, but Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” would probably read as hotter to most people. But moving the discussion from tempo to texture can’t reconcile the different ways that different programmers hear a song. Michaels cites “Back To Life” by Soul II Soul as a song that is light in timbre, whereas I think of that song as reasonably intense (after the first few seconds of its acapella intro).

There’s something about the current combination of “midtempo-but-dense” that makes tempo coding a cruel hoax. I’ve rarely found a radio station “too uptempo,” but I have found too many midtempo records in a row to be fatiguing, especially as they become the rule at CHR. Sonically, Sia’s “Elastic Heart” is as aggressive as many Active Rock songs and has no tempo to leaven it. In overabundance, those songs drain the excitement from top 40 as thoroughly as the overabundance of soft rock in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. “Midtempo-but-hot” doesn’t net-out to “uptempo.”

I’d be curious to hear from PDs how strict adherence to BPM as a primary measurement worked for them. I like the judgmental stew of tempo, texture, and energy, but that’s because I’m willing to take responsibility for it in the editing process. If it’s hard for two different programmers to agree on 300 judgment calls, imagine the likelihood of any agreement on 900 such decisions. But a lot of today’s hits aren’t “just one thing,” and it’s hard to treat them that way.