Tuesday, June 17, 2008


One of the biggest complaints on radio that we constantly see in focus groups, listener panels, and just talking with the audience in passing is 'it's the same list of songs over and over.' We've all heard it and for the most part just thrown up our hands over this BIG issue with the audience.

We've all done the math and know that the minute we expand the playlist the ratings fall off as the audience can't keep up with the depth of the playlist. If we don't play the top testing current hits 20 or 30 times a week the audience's time spent with the station won't allow them to hear them enough to become familiar. The ratings consistently show that the bigger the list the harder it is to attract large enough cume to deliver a competitive share.

It's all translated by the audience as tight corporate playlists that don't challenge them or match what they can now carry around on any MP3 player.

We've faced this before. Many of you may not have been around at the time. Back in the early 70s top 40 radio ruled the world and was mostly on AM. As FM was building one of the cornerstones was the 'progressive rock' and early AOR formats.

Most of the AM - Top 40 stations had playlists of around 100 songs. At some the top song of the week was played every hour at the top of the hour. It truly was the same songs over and over. The top 40 DJs talked over the music with hyped up voices, on air gimmicks and a bunch of one liner jokes in some cases.

The complaints we heard as FM was launching on radio programming are not much different than what we hear today. As rock radio planted it's seed there were 4 rules:
  • The DJs pick the music
  • No talking over the songs
  • No Hyped up voices - be laid back and just talk to the audience
  • Blend the music together with segues and fewer interruptions in the hour.

While the FM rock audience didn't seem that big at first it grew as more and more got FM radios and by 1980 FM Rock radio had evolved to race past most of those top 40 stations and built a bond with the boomer audience. Yes we did build a controlled library with card systems and did play the hot current songs in a rotation over the day. But, the perception that the DJs picked the songs was still central to the format.

As music scheduling systems came about the jocks were taken out of the music selection process and pretty soon they were more used to sell liners, billboards, and maybe toss in a little audience interaction on the phones.

What would happen if we brought the air staff back into the music selection process now?

We've all watched the launch of the "Jack" formats and their positioning statement - Playing Whatever We Want (or something close). Often the first adaptors for the Jack stations come from an audience that remembers the day when the jocks picked the songs. We often found in the early research that it was Classic Rock and Rock listeners that jumped on the Jack stations and cited the positioning as a key reason to try the station. Of course most of them didn't stick around when they played ABBA and other train wrecks trying to prove their point. Also not having jocks on the Jack formats made you wonder - who is the WE in playing Whatever WE Want.

Is there a way to get the air staff more into the music? We all know there is and it's time to start experimenting. We all know that the listening 'math' won't allow a jock free for all, but just going around with the air staff sounding clueless and totally uninvolved in the music isn't working either. There's a middle ground here that need some exploration.


Cara Carriveau said...

Great stuff here. I totally agree, especially for rock radio. Keep in mind the jocks are also the ones who answer the phones and literally speak one on one with the listeners every day, and have to field the "why haven't you played my damn request already - it's been three weeks" question often.

Lou Mazz said...


A big problem is getting up the gumption to toss the scheduling software - that's a crutch for so many managers and jocks alike.

The next problem to solve is making sure the airstaff knows a large playlist in depth. That takes time, but can be accomplished with the help of a motivated music and program director.

The give the jocks a simple format - three or four song sets, maybe with something from a tighter rotation list at the top of each set. Jocks can go anywhere in those three or four songs, but have to be ready to answer the question "why did you play that"? if asked. Possible good answers include: common riff or melodic structure, similar rhythm tracks, common lyric theme, shared band member, reference to topical event, etc. "Because I felt like it" is insufficient.

Use the music as a language for communicating mood, topicality, etc. What about that expensive software? Use it to track what's been played over a week to reduce duplication.

Of course, this approach requires real thiinking talent in the studio, instead of button pushers. Talent is not made up of replaceable piece parts.
That's probably the biggest reason what I describe is unlikely to happen in most rock music stations.

...Which is too bad, because my iPod shuffle is already better than a lot of rock radio I listen to.