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How radio picks the songs

Successful programming remains an art form that's difficult to master

Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Adrian McCoy

In an uncertain world, you can still count on waking up tomorrow and hearing Led Zeppelin on your local rock station or 'N Sync on your local Top 40 outlet. And it's equally certain there's a whole universe of music out there you won't hear.

(Ted Crow, Post-Gazette illustration)

Rating the music radio formats in Pittsburgh

When is promoting really payola?

For a handful of listeners, that predictability is frustrating. For others, it's kind of comforting.

How the man behind the curtain arrives at what we hear on the radio is somewhere between an art and a science. Although some people like to blame a big corporate conspiracy for the state of radio, much of what we hear is determined by a jury of our peers.

The magic playlist formula starts with audience research. With the help of telephone or group surveys, the data is fed into a computer, which is then used to build playlists. When the masses want to hear a song, it's in; when they tire of it, it's gone.

But good programming remains an art. Beyond dollars and data, instinct is still important.

"The very best radio programmers balance the science with a great set of ears and an educated gut," says Gene Romano, senior vice president of programming for Clear Channel Communications. "An overly researched clinical environment does not make for a very interesting radio station."

Playlists are kept small in commercial formats for a reason. Most listeners find a comfort level through repetition, says Chuck Stevens, program director for WLTJ-FM. "People look for instant gratification. The majority want to hear their favorite songs over and over." Although, he admits, "If you're a music fan, it tends to be a bit annoying."

Audiences today are much more fragmented than they used to be. By catering to these, Romano argues, commercial radio has actually become more diverse. Ten years ago, he says, 18- to 34-year-olds had a choice between classic rock WDVE-FM and contemporary hits WBZZ-FM. Today, contemporary hits WKST-FM and new rock WXDX-FM are part of the mix. "The aggregate music playlist for the market is much more diverse."

Play the hits

Hits feed off radio airplay, and commercial-hits formats feed off commercial hits in a kind of chicken-or-egg first relationship. How are those playlists chosen?

You can boil a successful hits format down to three simple words and an even simpler idea: "Play the hits."

Contemporary hits radio (CHR) formats like WKST and WBZZ are aimed primarily at 18- to 34-year-olds, although teens -- a voracious and fickle group of music consumers -- also influence what gets played. So new songs are added -- and dropped -- frequently.

"This is by far the most active format. That's why I think it's the most fun," says former WKST program director Michael Hayes. "Top 40 is about pop culture. It's so wired to what is going on. There's a huge appetite for new music."

Besides research, other factors important to hits formats include record sales, trade publication hits charts, listener requests, what's being played on MTV and what CHR stations in other markets are having success with.

There's also considerable pressure from the record companies, who have their own agenda with regard to pushing product. But although they feel that pressure, programmers say ultimately it's the station that makes the call.

"Record companies certainly try to exert some influence on radio station playlists," says Clarke Ingram, former program director and air personality at WJJJ-FM, and a veteran Top 40 programmer who also worked at WBZZ and the former WXKX-FM here and at other CHR stations around the country. But ultimately, it's the programmer's call, he says. "How long do you think either [WBZZ or WKST] would survive if their playlists were unduly influenced by the record labels? They'd be out of business in a month or less, playing too many songs that were all hype and no substance. They wouldn't be playing enough hits to meet audience expectations."

In the adult contemporary, or AC format, things move a little more slowly, and a new record usually has a longer shelf life. Current music is important but there's not much of it. "It's not like when we were in our teens," WLTJ's Stevens says. "[Hearing new music] is not the No. 1 priority for a 39-year-old who's got a heck of a lot of other things going on in her life."

On formats like urban and country, it can be tough for new music to find its way onto a playlist. "We play hits," says WDSY-FM program director Stoney Richards. "We're looking for the broadest audience we can get, so we're not sticking our necks out and taking many chances on unfamiliar artists and songs that aren't getting played [at country stations nationwide]." Urban WAMO-FM doesn't add a lot of new artists, because its audience is very loyal to the core artists already being played.

In non-hits-driven formats, such as oldies and classic rock, some of the guesswork is gone -- they already know what the hits were. But research and knowing one's audience is still the driving force. Telephone or focus group research gauges listeners' opinions on what songs they still like or are tired of hearing.

The core of the music on classic rock WRRK-FM comes from the 1970s, although the station has added some '80s and even a few '90s cuts. The criteria for adding newer music, says WRRK program director John Robertson, is a simple question: Does it fit with the core '70s sounds? That's why you'll hear newer Tom Petty, but not other popular '90s rock.

The corporate culture

A decade ago, radio stations operated as individual entities. But with the ownership consolidation that started in the mid-'90s, most of those same stations are owned and operated by a handful of large companies. How does the new corporate culture shape what we hear?

The shape of the playing field has changed somewhat, but the rules -- and the final score -- are basically the same. If radio stations across the country sound pretty much the same, you can't just blame the suits. The rise of FM radio in the 1970s created a set of formats and formulas that worked, which were adopted by stations across the country -- hence the term "cookie cutter radio."

More than half of the stations in this market now belong to two companies -- Infinity Broadcasting Corp. (WBZZ, WDSY-FM, WZPT-FM and KDKA-AM) and Clear Channel Communications (WDVE, WXDX, WKST, WJJJ, WWSW-FM and WBGG-AM).

Romano, a longtime force in local radio, is now one of six senior vice presidents at Clear Channel, overseeing a variety of formats in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. He's responsible for hiring and training talent, strategy, research interpretation and morning show development.

He says the corporate role in programming is more big picture-oriented and less about micro-managing individual stations. "We have to have a deep respect for local autonomy in order to be successful. It may be corporately owned, but the station had better be locally focused."

As vice president of programming for Infinity's four Pittsburgh stations, Keith Clark oversees music programming, although each station has an assistant program director/music director who handles day-to-day music decisions. "I depend on their music expertise as one of the basic components in deciding what songs to play," Clark says. "Unlike some of our competitors, all music decisions are made locally and not by a corporate process. We believe it is important to reflect the information and entertainment desires of each local city."

In the new environment, the programmer's role has changed. The program director's primary duty is to drive ratings up and look for sources of revenue tied to programming. Music directors schedule the music for flow, tempo and appeal and audition new music. At some stations, the two jobs are combined.

"I used to think of the program director as the auteur of the radio station, in the same sense as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese would be to a movie," Ingram says. "A good program director was the P.T. Barnum of the radio station. Today, with the homogenization of radio, that quality may have been lost. Either the PD is constrained or he's taking orders from too many people higher up in the company, or both."

Some observers think the combination of corporate culture and a creative process like programming aren't working so well. "Big corporations with too many layers fall prey to 'inside thinking,' so they create black-and-white systems to control the output of the company. This produces consistent but most often very sterile products," says Guy Zapoleon, a Texas-based media consultant. "We are getting to the point where many radio companies are beginning to create a company template for each format. The big loser is the listener, who more and more these days receives generic programming with little innovation."

Programmers who work outside those corporate confines say their job is easier, more rewarding and more like the good old days of radio. "If we want to do a contest, or something marketing-wise, I can just go upstairs and ask someone," WRRK's Robertson says. "We don't have to go through five layers of bureaucracy to get something done."

Listeners vs. advertisers

Public radio programming follows the same rules and uses the same tools. But because these stations have limited financial resources, they share information like research and playlists with similar stations around the country.

WQED-FM operations manager/afternoon host Ted Sohier has worked both sides of the commercial/public radio fence, and says the approaches to choosing music are completely different. "Commercial stations are there to serve advertisers by getting listeners. We're here exclusively to serve listeners."

Commercial formats are often defined by decades. With classical music, Sohier says, "We're talking centuries. It's a balancing act to try to incorporate a broad range." Like any other "oldies" station, they identify certain "hits" -- the "Boleros" and the Beethoven's Fifths and try to maintain a balance between Baroque and Romantic music. Recently, WQED has added more choral music to the mix.

Decisions on what to play in public radio are governed much more by time of day. Since classical or jazz stations are often used as music in businesses or workplaces, stations tend to program more lyrical or low-key music during business hours. In the evenings, or late at night, they might get more adventurous.

Even the most progressive station must tread a fine line in the attempt to satisfy its core listeners while providing music that swings outside the periphery of its standard repertory.

"If we are not serving a mass audience," says WDUQ general manager Scott Hanley, "we will ultimately have problems being sustainable."

It's a delicate balance that all radio stations wrestle with. Each week WDUQ receives hundreds of records. "We try to listen to it all," Hanley says. "The decision to play one song versus another is based on how it sounds." WDUQ tends not to play songs with long bass or drum solos, because they don't translate well on the radio, but there are always exceptions, Hanley says. "Swinging melodic music and accessible vocal stuff is at the core of what we are attracted to," he said." The third intangible is interesting music, and we will play that stuff."

At adult alternative WYEP-FM, the challenge is to cover the spectrum of what adult alternative is. And that's constantly changing, says WYEP program director/afternoon host Rosemary Welsch. "The format allows for you to constantly mutate into what people need."

For the disenfranchised minority, there are alternatives beyond public radio. For those who want more variety in their diet, there's college radio where, musically speaking, anything can happen. Some commercial stations offer specialty programming or add the occasional deep cuts.

On the Web, there's a mind-boggling choice of formats. Satellite radio has entered the fray with commercial-free music formats to choose from. But these are still young technologies and serve only a limited audience.

By the masses and for the masses, commercial radio still rules.

Adrian McCoy covers radio for the Post-Gazette. Staff writers Nate Guidry, John Hayes and Ed Masley contributed to this report.

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