Saturday, December 16, 2006

Radio constantly sifts listener opinions to keep playlists fresh

This article explains a lot about why radio is the way it is these days. Even though the article talks about St. Louis, this is happening all over the US - even in the smaller markets/cities. What happened to the days of hiring knowledgeable DJs and letting them pick the music based on listener requests and the DJ's own tastes?

Radio constantly sifts listener opinions to keep playlists fresh
By Diane Toroian Keaggy

What do women want?

Mark Edwards, the top programmer at KYKY-FM (98.1) and KEZK-FM (102.5), doesn't pretend to know. Yes, he has an ear for pop. But like his counterparts at radio stations across St. Louis, he relies on frequent market testing to determine what hits his audience craves and what songs are so over.

"I'm a middle-age man (programming) stations for females who are often much younger than I am," says Edwards, who was named top adult contemporary programmer this year by Radio and Records, a leading trade publication. "Some people only care about gut. But if you don't believe in research, you can miss some hugely important trends."

Like TV shows, political candidates and breakfast cereal, radio stations are largely products of sophisticated and costly research. Most stations lead large-scale audience music tests — AMTs in radio lingo — once or twice a year. In addition, many outlets also conduct smaller phone surveys every week or two. Those studies influence every sound we hear on our favorite stations, from the music to the personalities to the promos.

"I wouldn't say that research is a dictator, but it is a tool," says Tommy Austin, director of programming for Clear Channel's local stations. "It's an effective way to find out what people do and don't like about your station and what they think about your competitors."

The audience music test is run like this: A station enlists an independent research company to convene about 125 listeners in a hotel ballroom. Researchers then play the hook — the most recognizable portion of a song — from about 500 singles. Participants are asked whether they recognize the sample and, if so, do they like it.

Afterward, participants are asked "perceptual" questions about the station's image, morning show and personalities.

For their trouble, participants get about $50. And radio stations get volumes of data to help update their catalogs. Do KMJM-FM (104.9) listeners still like "Tyrone" by Erykah Badu? How much Green Day is too much for KPNT-FM (105.7) fans? These tests offer answers."

Over time, you see listeners pass the baton upward," says programmer Rick Balis, who oversees rock stations KIHT-FM (96.3), KSHE-FM (94.7) and KPNT. "Pink Floyd, which used to be a core artist for KSHE, moves to K-HITS, and a band like Pearl Jam, which started as an alternative group, becomes a core artist for KSHE."

Stations that play a lot of new music, such as Y98, KSLZ-FM (107.7) and KPNT, also conduct frequent phone surveys. Researchers call about 80 listeners and ask them to rate about 25 current hits. The results surprise even veteran programmers.

"It's amazing," Edwards says. "One week, they love a song, and then the next week, they are over it. A song just falls off the cliff.

"That's what happened to the Christina Aguilera single "Ain't No Other Man." On the flip side, Y98 listeners still enjoy "Far Away" from Nickelback.

"That's what people in the industry mean when they say a song has legs," Edwards says.

Though managers agree research is worth the investment (Emmis Communications, for instance, spends $40,000 per audience test and $30,000 per phone survey, Balis says.), the results are not foolproof. Everything from audience size to the number of songs tested can influence outcomes.

"People say you have to take research with a grain of salt. I take it with a salt lick," said Balis. "If someone hears a hook they really like and says, 'All right,' does that influence the rest of the room? Maybe.

"There are tricks we do during a test to make sure everyone is sticking with the program, but there are all sorts of things that could sway results."

As always, comments are welcome.


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