I love music.
I love the excitement of stations finding and breaking new music.
I love the entire history of pop music—even the bad years—and not just the handful of songs that endure on the radio.
I make my living in the music and radio programming research business.
I’m happy to say that in 14 years, nobody has asked me how all of the above can be simultaneously true. Not even my music-loving record collector friends.
But it’s also possible that some of my friends, and certainly some of my Facebook friends, don’t fully understand my slightly complicated job description—research, consulting, newsletter. This becomes clearest whenever I take to Facebook to discuss music.
Last week, I enlisted friends’ help for my story about the Classic Hits titles that programmers wished would still perform well enough in music research to play. I was looking for those songs that were true hits at the time, would sound great on the radio now, but did not endure. I wasn’t looking for favorite stiffs or turntable hits—the songs that peaked at No. 14 and were never really hits to begin with—but I got a lot of those, too.
And I also got Facebook comments like this:
“Stop testing and go with your gut.”
“How about we just get rid of these stupid ‘tests?’ They are unscientific and not truly reflective of the public’s tastes.”
“If ELO’s ‘Turn to Stone’ doesn’t test, then I question research. To me, it’s that damn good.”
“Admittedly, I’m not a radio person, but my solution would be just play it and (bleep) what the tests say.”
I did not chime in with, “Excuse me, I’m in the research business.” I didn’t want to sidetrack or stifle the discussion. But veteran programmer J.J. Dulling did engage with a number of comments like those, including that last one, with some of the exchanges escalating to the “well, I hope I get to program against you some day” level. (Dulling also told me that he got angry messages outside the thread.)
Toward the end of the thread, WPLM Boston’s Scott Reiniche weighed in on behalf of playing more than just the hits. “It can be done and it has been done. I’ve watched TSL go from 1:15 to 4:15 in under a year after playing titles like these. People grew up with this music, and it’s an insult to constantly pulverize them with these ‘tested’ songs.”
Dulling noted that people grew up with a lot of songs that they don’t want to hear now. Reiniche added that WPLM still played the hits—“we just play more of them.” That conversation went through a few rounds, too (although civil ones, compared to some of the other exchanges).
Here’s what I am certain of, after 13 years in the research business.
Stations that have access to music research consistently do better than stations that do not. That doesn’t mean music research will fix everything if you have other issues that go beyond individual songs.
I’ve seen PDs walk into a station, throw out the music test, in favor of just playing “good songs” that were once a hit in the market, and turn a 10-share station into a 5.9 station within a matter of months.
The wrong songs do not tank a radio station on the first or second play. It’s when they go into sustained rotation. When the Jack-FM format brought its broad playlist to WCBS-FM New York, my wife was excited to hear “Driver’s Seat” the first time. The second time she said, “I don’t need to hear this.”
I’ve seen some stations that do not have access, or frequent enough access, to music research, get by on the larger knowledge of what tests well, or what has tested in the past. Deliberately playing the songs known to be hits can, sometimes, protect programmers from the times when they guess wrong.
And the programmers I admire most are those who can play the tested hits in the market, build their station’s authority, and then carefully surprise and delight. This is easier to do when you know which songs are and are not hits. You can know that “Sweet Home Alabama” usually tests. You can know that “Driver’s Seat” does not. I bring you knowledge about the other 698 songs you might be considering.
It is true that most songs disappear from the radio for a reason. Part of the job is to know whether it was a good reason (they faded from memory organically) or an arbitrary reason (some stations won’t play “Go Your Own Way” because it’s from the ‘70s, but will play “Ride like the Wind” because it came out one month into the ‘80s). Some of the songs on WPLM are things like “Into the Night” by Benny Mardones that tested until the very day that AC PDs decided it was just too old or hokey.
It is also true that many of those songs were once part of listeners’ lives. Part of the job is to know which songs actually were part of listeners’ lives, and which were mostly part of programmers’ lives. The songs that can be used strategically were really hits to begin with, or have become “cultural hits” through movies, TV commercials, etc.
Dulling programmed Adult Hits at WLUE (Louie 100) Louisville, where he played 700+ songs—which was definitely against radio law until the Adult Hits format came along. He also boasts of getting Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano” to test, a minor chart entry that became a “cultural hit,” his words.
Reiniche programs a station that evolved from Easy Listening to Supersoft AC to Soft AC. WPLM’s calling card for years was the music that other stations didn’t play. When WPLM tried to modernize a decade ago, it was never quite the same. There were other stations in WPLM’s trading area of the Boston and Providence metros that played traditional mainstream AC. WPLM, in particular, has a license to surprise and delight.
Dulling and Reiniche are actually mostly in agreement. They both believe in “play the hits, plus.” There’s no radio imperative to do that. The well-programmed station going from “Blinded by the Light” into “Billie Jean” right now is probably doing pretty well. But so can “hits, plus.” If you keep a steady hand on the music scheduler, it’s a secret handshake with the audience. But not every programmer knows the right secret handshake.