The widely revered chocolate chip cookie is a fine metaphor for the tastiest (Sorry for the pun) difference between US and European music programming.
For decades, the majority of American radio programmers have followed one consistent rule when programming music: Play the hits! Why not? After all, in the past, most listeners used radio as their primary source for discovering and enjoying the most current songs in every format genre. There were few other choices besides MTV or a friend’s mix tape. For the most part, radio was king. Record labels and radio enjoyed a love-hate relationship that further established radio as the authority on what was, and wasn’t, worth their audiences’ listening time and money.
As radio and records’ music taste and fashion monopoly/axis became more powerful, American radio programmers tightened down libraries and playlists proportionately in the quest for more and more listeners. In general, the old rules still apply to most North American playlists and so do the consequences of it.
The theory is simple but somewhat counterintuitive: Play hits over and over because people want to hear those songs. Repetition creates more opportunities for listeners to hear those familiar favorites, creating more listening opportunities that equate to more overall time spent listening. According to the theory, more cume will drive through the radio station to hear the big songs. Large TSL and cume drive up share, and share drives revenue. When revenue is up, everyone is happy, so repetition is a good thing.
Or, it isn’t.
Repetition and burn have been the banes of programming for too long to remember. Along the way, everyone won under the old rules, except for the people who had grown tired of an individual song or two. No worries, though, because repetition weary listeners theoretically would return to the offending station to hear the other songs they love. No big deal, right?
Today’s world of consumer and delivery choice means that it no longer works that way. Radio is still the at-your-fingertips in-car medium, but it now shares dashboard space with other, smarter, delivery devices that of offer new and interesting enhancements that place many of those technologies above the heads and shoulders of radio on the perceptual product ladder.
It’s time for North American programmers to get smarter about their audience and find new and engaging execution methods. Old hat methods become old hat much faster than ever and listeners tire of them.
Consider SiriusXM’s history of evolution. Early Satradio programmers like Lee Abrams insisted that XM should play a wider variety of songs. Subscribers suddenly were exposed once again to songs that were once “turntable” hits or club favorites, the “Oh, wow!” songs that had been rested into extinction everywhere else. Songs that listeners didn’t want to hear on a regular basis, but loved now and then. Even better, these songs were offered without commercials, often in a very entertaining and/or creative environment. Many early adopters rejoiced and became satellite customers for months to come.
Satellite radio wasn’t really the trailblazer in offering an occasional break from musical drudgery, though. Wiley PD Guy Zapoleon, now at Clear Channel’s digital division, often referred to his “chocolate chips.” These were secret weapon titles he played in long range rotations to give flavor, depth and musical spontaneity to his stations. Guy and his clients carefully mixed these songs into the batter to bake luscious and surprising presentations for their listeners. Later, every Jack and Bob station seemingly followed the recipe.
Then came corporate playlists. Don’t be fooled; they exist. I used to create and dictate some of them for a couple of big player companies that said the decisions were all made locally. Don’t misunderstand, there are plenty of today’s programmers have that kind of pull and who determine their own playlists, but, in general, it just isn’t happening in Bangor, Maine. So a lot of libraries become stale.
Except in Europe.
On the other side of the pond, our consultants constantly identify Content Managers and Program Directors who apply a different approach to music selection and rotation. Different regions of the continent produce wildly different musical tastes and hit songs. There is no single European chart to follow, so top Music Directors listen to the hits of many countries and determine the songs that best fit their strategy and tactics. It’s amazing! Programmers who are allowed…even encouraged… to think for themselves and make choices on behalf of their listeners.
The listeners appreciate it. Loudly. Passionately.
Do yourself a favor and sit down with tunein.com. Listen to the song lists coming out of Russia, Croatia, Italy, Germany and Latvia. When you tire of those, try Turkey, Greece or any of the countries on the North Sea. They’re musically fresh, they take a few chances on songs that sound like their stations and mirror listener likes and passions. They sound the way radio in North America used to sound before we became afraid. The way our stations sounded when the US led the world in presentation, execution, promotion and entertainment. Before we decided we are smarter than our listeners. Before we decided we know better.
Before it just became safer to do what we are told.
If you want to live on the musical edge, serve your audience more meaningfully, or just want to talk about how you can make your station sound better and more spontaneous, call us at MBMI. We’re all about looking at things with a different set of glasses.