Picking the Hits

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One reason I got into radio was to play the music I liked to listen to, but I quickly learned that musical fandom or expertise doesn’t matter very much. Radio is the thing you’re into, not merely music. Your job is the presentation: executing the format and providing value to your audience, and to advertisers who are paying to reach them. It can’t hurt to be a fan or an expert, but it’s not necessary unless you’re doing a specialty show of some kind. A radio jock can do just fine most of the time without an especially deep understanding of the music they’re playing, especially in a world where Google exists. I play Ed Sheeran on my show literally every day while being not remotely interested in him, yet when I talk about him, you can’t tell. I did country radio for a long time, and it was the same way: fake it ’til you make it. A person who works for a rhythmic CHR station can quite easily be someone who listens to Americana driving home. Some DJs don’t even like music all that much.

I am convinced that the number of radio jocks who would pick their own music every day if they could is vanishingly small. It’s not our job. I don’t want to pick it on weekdays because I need to concentrate on my presentation. I pick only a few on my weekend speciaty show and let the scheduling software do the rest because I want to concentrate on my presentation.

Any given radio station, especially in a small or medium-sized market, may not be creatively involved in selecting what songs to play and how often to play them. Back in the day, stations would make playlist decisions based on national charts such as those compiled by Radio and Records, which meant they were following the lead of larger and more influential stations. Today, the same stations might rely on airplay data from Mediabase—still following the lead of other stations. While stations may fiddle at the margins with individual titles in their “gold” libraries, the older songs they continue to play, most will be pretty conservative, playing the same hits from the past that similar stations are continuing to play. There are exceptions: stations with adventuresome music programming philosophies, those who can still afford to pay for local music research, or those trying to differentiate themselves from close competitors in the same format. But when margins are so thin—when, in a rated market, one-tenth of a share point can translate to thousands of dollars in advertising revenue—Rule Number One is frequently Safety First.

Some individual jocks do pick their own music. So-called “free-form” radio, programmed by the person on the air, still exists in a few places, although those places tend to be listener-supported stations or subscription-based satellite radio. But even when free-form was practiced by commercial stations that had to attract and satisfy advertisers, it usually wasn’t a free-for-all. Jocks often had limits; for example, they might be told that they had to play cuts from certain currently popular albums, and they might even have been limited to specific cuts from those albums.

Certain free-form jocks developed a following. You’d listen to them and think, This guy’s taste is just like mine. But it was actually a neat trick. “This guy’s taste” had to reflect the taste of lots of different kinds of people, to bring as many people as possible into the tent and keep them there. And so even on a free-form show, there was always architecture in place behind the scenes that conformed to a philosophy and was meant to achieve a goal. Also behind the scenes was frequently a lot of work in advance. A free-form music show, like any other radio show, succeeds to the extent that the person hosting it has prepared for it before they begin. You can’t just walk into the studio and say, What do I feel like playing tonight? 

TL, DR: Programming music on the radio is not the job lots of people think it is. It’s both harder and easier than it seems.

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but I decided it needed a little more editing that I wouldn’t have time for. I am not convinced it isn’t still fundamentally flawed in some way. Radio jocks, ex-jocks, and interested bystanders, I welcome your comments.

4 thoughts on “Picking the Hits

  1. On the mark. Dave Pratt won Major Market Personality of the Year in both Rock and Country. He didn’t care about the songs being played. You wouldn’t be able to discern his musical preference unless you knew him. His main interest was to entertain his listeners.

  2. “I did country radio for a long time, and it was the same way: fake it ’til you make it. ”
    I’m not sure “fake it ’til you make it” is the phrase you want here. I think the point you’re trying to deliver is that a good DJ is capable of “making it” in different genres — delivering value to listeners and advertisers — without having to “fake it” (that is, BS’ing, or pretending to be an expert in the genre, or otherwise putting on false airs.)
    It’s more like “walk in and make it,” although that doesn’t rhyme.

    As a layman, I suspect there is occasional value in having an enthusiast spinning the tunes … but I have also heard plenty of moments when a DJ’s interest in his chosen music (and it’s usually “his”) crosses into overkill. Think of the guy with the local jazz show who insists on reciting the names of all the musicians after he plays a couple numbers.

    1. What kblumenau said.

      The first and earliest recording of B. Mitchel Reed on the legendary KMET invariably confounds those who first hear it because they’re expecting the birth of album rock. What they get is 12 minutes of jazz from Bill Evans followed by three in a row from Aretha Franklin’s Columbia Records period.

      BMR wanted to play tour guide on a trip not everyone wanted to take. It was only after he got past that point that KMET became any kind of success.

  3. I just wrote and deleted a comment here that was maybe a little too explicit about who I hated and why, but let me try again: I take the point made above, but “fake it til you make it” exactly describes my most recent experience with country radio. That entire genre (modern mainstream country) and lifestyle is a place I visited for money but I had no intention of moving into.

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