September 27, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the early days of Top 40 radio some 50 years ago, programmers used rather crude and unscientific methods to determine their play lists -- record store sales, phone requests, the number of plays on the local juke box. And of course some programmers and deejays took pride in their gut ability to pick the hits. In the '70s, as all-music stations specializing in different genres took over the dial, competition heated up. Stations experimented with more accurate devices to survey listeners' music preferences, and today most commercial music stations test each and every song in the laboratory of public opinion research. For listeners hoping these tests mean longer play lists and less repetition, the news isn't too good. OTM's Paul Ingles has the story.
MALE RESEARCHER: Put on your poker face. Don't let anyone know what you're thinking when a song, song comes on - how you feel about music is a very personal thing.
PAUL INGLES: A researcher we can't name is speaking to about a hundred 25 to 54 year old men (whom we can't name) seated at long tables in a hotel meeting room in a city we can't name. To eavesdrop on this top secret music research session called an auditorium test, we had to promise complete anonymity to the radio station that on this day is determining its play list for the next year. Each participant was pre-screened over the phone and offered about 40 bucks to come here to rate hundreds of song clips. Each has the old scantron [sp?] sheet and the number 2 pencil, ready to fill in a circle --1 through 5 -- 1 meaning you'd switch stations you hate the song so much -- 5 meaning "It rocks, dude!"
MALE RESEARCHER: 57. [MUSIC CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: [SINGING] WHEN I SAY I LOVE YOU, YOU SAY YOU BETTER--
FEMALE CHORUS: YOU BETTER, YOU BETTER, YOU BETTER--
MALE RESEARCHER: 58. [MUSIC CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: [SINGING] [...?...] TO THE OTHER SIDE--
PAUL INGLES: The most recognizable 10 seconds of reach song, called "the hooks" go barreling by, about 5 a minute for over two hours. If the test-takers don't recognize a song, they fill in a box marked U for Unfamiliar. If they're just plain tired of hearing it on the radio, they can also blacken a box marked T.
MALE RESEARCHER: 62. [MUSIC CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: [SINGING] I HAD A BONE...
PAUL INGLES: This auditorium test is one of many kinds of music testing that costs stations 25 to 40,000 dollars a pop. There's also a high tech version wherein each participant gets a little transmitter.
ALAN KEPLER: It's a little box with a dial on it, and it allows the listener to respond more emotionally.
PAUL INGLES: Alan Kepler [sp?], who heads the research company Broadcast Architecture, says the dial twist is a more true to life measure.
ALAN KEPLER: You hear a song on the radio that you like --what do you do? You reach over to the knob and you turn it up! Or if you hear a song that you really hate, you reach over and you turn the volume down or you punch to another station.
PAUL INGLES:But getting everyone who's invited to turn up on the given night of an auditorium test can be a trick. Weather, traffic, the prime time TV schedule can get in the way. So some stations are taking the test to their listeners via the telephone.
WOMAN'S VOICE: Now let's play the first song. You'll need to wait until it finishes playing. Then you can vote your opinion -- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - or the star key if you don't recognize it. [MUSIC CLIP PLAYS]
MAN [HA HA]: [SINGING] YESTERDAY... ALL MY TROUBLES SEEMED SO FAR AWAY... [SHORT BEEP]
MAN [HA HA HA]: [SINGING] MY FRIENDS SAY I'M ACTING WILD AS A BUG-- I'M IN LOVE -- I'M ALL SHOOK UP. [SHORT BEEP]
PAUL INGLES: Mike Maloney, whose company Music Tech [sp?] offers this phone method, believes it's more natural and relaxing to take the test at home than with strangers in a hotel ballroom. People can take several days to finish if they choose, and there are built-in safeties to prevent at-home distractions from contaminating results. Periodically through the test subjects are asked to state their name to confirm they haven't handed the phone to their kids to do the test. Maloney says they record the name and more.
MIKE MALONEY: We're able to record background noise. In other words if we get an idea that maybe there's-- a TV blaring or a child screaming --if there's something that tells us that they're not in an, in an environment that allows them to sort of take the test conscientiously, we throw it out. We don't use it.
PAUL INGLES: For stations that play new music, frequent phone surveys are a way to keep tabs on the tastes of fickle fans.
CAROLINE GILBERT: They can warm up to and love an artist and six weeks later they're done.
PAUL INGLES:Caroline Gilbert [sp?] oversees research for hundreds of Clear Channel radio stations across the country. She recommends that hit music stations do call-out research 40 weeks a year to look for signs of song burnout which she insists comes much later than station staff thinks.
CAROLINE GILBERT: When you're sick of a song in the building, in the radio station, it's not time to stop playing it yet. When your core -- you know, 8, 9 hours a day people -- start burning on a song, it's still not time to stop playing it so much. When the broad base starts burning out on a record -- that's when you back off on the rotation.
PAUL INGLES:To maximize audience, many programmers say they must minimize low-testing and unfamiliar tunes that give listeners a reason to punch out. The result is active title lists of just a few hundred songs. Hit music stations have the shortest lists and play their best-testing songs many times a day. Stations like oldies, classic rock or classic country play more songs, but their strongest play three or four times a week in different times of the day so people are less likely to hear them too much.
BILL LEWIS: You know when you, when you drive right down the middle of the road, you, you don't have to worry about ending up in a ditch.
PAUL INGLES: Bill Lewis [sp?] is program director at WNCX, a classic rock station in Cleveland, who cites another reason why playing less familiar album cuts is risky. The station wants the younger listeners who never had the original albums to begin with. Testing shows that 18 to 35 year old classic rock fans have had their music tastes completely defined by stations that have played, for example, only Steve Miller's biggest hits.
STEVE MILLER: [SINGING] I WANT TO FLY LIKE AN EAGLE...
BILL LEWIS: Those people are just wanting to hear Fly Like an Eagle and Jet Airliner and, you know, they have no cognizance of the Sailor album, you know, nor will they ever unless they become dyed in the wool Steve Miller fans, but you know -- I mean they, they're, they're just more Fly Like an Eagle fans.
PAUL INGLES:While like-formatted stations across the country may seem mostly the same, research Alan Kepler says local music testing will help stations reflect their own markets.
ALAN KEPLER: We see differences, and a lot of the differences are driven by what was played in that market years ago -- for example, Denver is a real rock market -- so even with an adult contemporary station you see much more of a rock lean in the older music that the AC stations play, whereas in Philadelphia there was a lot of R&B music in the '60s and '70s and you see a lot of that stuff pop. [STATION IDENTIFICATION: THAT BIG OLDIE 98.5]
PAUL INGLES:Still there are commercial stations that haven't hopped on the research bandwagon. Some can't afford it. Some don't seem to need it. Lawrence Dominguez [sp?] programs big oldies KABG in Albuquerque and draws solid ratings.
LAWRENCE DOMINGUEZ: What we're doing is working, and we're not using consultants; we're not doing music testing; and you know, we're not doing, we're not doing a l-- whole hell of a lot of research out there.
PAUL INGLES: Deejay Bobby Vox [sp?] stands at the controls of his weekday morning show.
BOBBY VOX:Thank God, too - I want to tell you - these consultants -- I, I've got a book to write about those guys - and it's, it's not good.
PAUL INGLES:Vox, who's been on Albuquerque radio for most of his 40 years in the business, blames consultants and researchers for gutting the risk-taking heart from radio. Vox is given rare freedom to play tunes not on the station's regular oldies list. Muddy Waters' Hootchie Cootchie Man was blaring when we came in.
MUDDY WATERS: [SINGING] WHAT'S THIS ALL ABOUT? BUT YOU KNOW I'M HERE...
PAUL INGLES: They're not concerned about playing a, a rare song like this on an oldies station and having them punch away to your competitor.
BOBBY VOX: I, I guarantee it, they won't. The problem is, when they turn to the competitor it's the same thing they heard yesterday and the day before and the day before. Now this is--unique stuff, and I'm very proud of it.
PAUL INGLES: The freewheeling KABG in Albuquerque may be a success, but still the vast majority of commercial stations in the country are programming just the top half of the results of their most recent music test. Bill Lewis of WNCX in Cleveland makes no apologies.
BILL LEWIS: You know, we're commercial radio. We'll do anything not to have to have pledge drives. [LAUGHS]
PAUL INGLES: Hmmmmm. Touche. Despite the practical attitude toward his stations's play list, Lewis is himself a rock connoisseur and will slip in something like a rare David Bowie track late at night hoping to keep other rare rock and roll fans from abandoning his station for their own CD changers.
DAVID BOWIE: [SINGING] DON'T FAKE IT BABY...
PAUL INGLES: For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles.
DAVID BOWIE: LAY THE REAL THING ON ME, THE CHURCH OF MAN LOVES A-- SUCH A HOLY PLACE TO BE-- TAKE ME, BABY-- MAKE YOU KNOW YOU REALLY CARE, MAKE ME JUMP INTO THE AIR...