Radio station synchronicity.
March 26, 2005 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Why do two different radio stations sometimes have the exact same song playing, often in complete sync, or only a measure off?

It seems like the chances of this happening randomly would be very small. Yet, sometimes the "rock alternative" station and the "top 40 pop" station will have the same (usually bad) genre-blending song on at almost the same exact time. Anyone with experiece in radio know how this happens?
posted by lazaruslong to Media & Arts (24 answers total)
Because of ClearChannel?
posted by librarina at 10:05 PM on March 26, 2005

I think it's just dumb luck.
posted by knave at 10:08 PM on March 26, 2005

I've always just assumed it was pure coincidence, like knave. Really, how many times have you switched between those two stations? How many times have they been playing the same song? Personally, I can count the latter on one hand, while the former is incalculable. I think you're just bound to find them playing the same song in their limited rotations every once in a while.
I suppose them being owned by the same conglomerate, i.e. ClearChannel, could have something to do with it though.
posted by PhatLobley at 10:19 PM on March 26, 2005

Radio playlists are probably smaller than one would guess. And radio singles are mostly fairly similar in length. Stations frequently do things like traffic updates at :15, and have new 'personalities' come in on the hour? Any one of these factors would probably contribute.

But I still suspect it's just coincidence, combined with a spot of confirmation bias/observational selection.
posted by box at 10:30 PM on March 26, 2005

Years ago I was tooling around in my '63 BelAir with the pushbutton radio when Michele by the Beatles came on my favorite local station. Hating that song, I switched to my 1st alternate - guess what? Michel was playing. In desperation I switched to alternate #2 (in the late 60's that's all the choices you had around here unlesss you wanted to listen to the Wilburn Bros.). You guessed it - Michele was playing. It's perverse....
posted by Pressed Rat at 10:32 PM on March 26, 2005

Plus, this would simply happen if the playlists start or end at a specific time, and the same song is at the start/end of both.
posted by abcde at 10:33 PM on March 26, 2005

I think it is a combination of many of the factors above. Sometimes it is the Clear Channel effect, one company many stations with similar playlists, 2nd is related kinda, the playlist selection is pretty small overall and if you listen to stations that play similar music you are bound to hear the same song at the same time sooner or later, then there is always random chance.

I got nothing new, everyone has said it already, chance?
posted by edgeways at 10:39 PM on March 26, 2005

only a measure off?

Satellite relay? A long time ago, I could flip back and forth between the big 3 TV networks' sat feeds and the local affiliates (we also had an old-fashioned VHF antenna.) They were always w/i seconds of each other, but never in sync.

I know nothing about the radio business; this is the only analogous experience I've had.
posted by trondant at 11:45 PM on March 26, 2005

The real question is, what happened to your 63 bel air Pressed Rat?
posted by Dean Keaton at 12:59 AM on March 27, 2005

I also think it's ClearChannel's doing. Around here there are three "soft rock" stations that I can pick up from three different cities: one in Orlando, one in Melbourne, and one in Gainesville. They're all owned by ClearChannel and they all run the same syndicated "love songs" package each night. Their daily playlists sync up a lot, sometimes as much as twice a day over all three stations. In the mornings they play the same blasted trivia games at the same time (different questions though), have the same basic musical jingle for station ID breaks, and sometimes even have the same inane chatter topics (different DJs though).

I'm tellin' ya, it has to be because of ClearChannel. I've never experienced this outside of their group of stations.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:14 AM on March 27, 2005

If you listen to similar stations (your favourite top 40 stations or favourite classic rock stations or whatever) they'll have similar set lists. They might not be exact but as an example for classic rock stations each band has a canon of songs that gets played over and over and over and stuff outside that canon rarely gets touched.

In addition as mentioned above stations overall music times mimic each other. News on the hour or half hour, new djs at certain times and big blocks of commercials.

Because of all of this musical coincidences will happen more often than you'd expect and are bolstered in your mind by your personal preferences. If you're changing stations it's because you're looking for something better. When you change stations and hear what you're trying to avoid it's going to stick out. At least some of the times when you've been shaking your head like a paint mixer to your favourite tune some other stations been playing it at the same time plus or minus a few bars.
posted by substrate at 5:27 AM on March 27, 2005

I've heard this outside of Clear Channel. I grew up near Detroit city which had 3 main rock stations at the time: WRIF, WLLZ and WCSX. WLLZ and WCSX were sister stations if I remember right but WRIF wasn't. WRIF and WLLZ both had an album oriented rock format and I'd often hear the same song on both stations when I flipped through the dial. WRIF and WLLZ were owned by different parent companies. WCSX was a classic rock station and I'd still get some instances of switching away from one station only to find the same song on it.

Avoiding this when Van Halen's 1984 came out was nearly impossible of course. In a 70 minute welding class I swear that Jump would be played 3 or 4 times.
posted by substrate at 5:34 AM on March 27, 2005

I think the Birthday Paradox is a better explanation than Clear Channel.
posted by sohcahtoa at 6:04 AM on March 27, 2005

I can vaguely remember reading an article about this a few years ago where they described nationwide playlists. It could just be the ClearChannel playlist, but I thought is was some sort of service which might stretch across networks. I wish I could find that article now. Since I can't my memory on this may very well be just wrong.
posted by caddis at 6:30 AM on March 27, 2005

This has only happened to me once. I was working at Toys R Us, and they have satellite music piped in (a pretty good station too - lots of Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, and one weird Beach Boys song "Busy Doing Nothin" that they played every day at the same time - right when it was time for my last break).

On that station they were playing John "Cougar" Mellencamp's "Pink Houses", and the local "rock" station we were listening to in the warehouse was playing the same song, in sync.

Needless to say, minds were blown.
posted by Quartermass at 7:00 AM on March 27, 2005

When "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was at its peak, I had a morning commute where all of Jacksonville, FL's basic stations (top 40, adult contemporary, rock) were playing it at the same time. It was probably four stations and a pretty weird experience.

Okay, so we're largely denying the phenomenon as conspiracy, but allow me to piggy back: what about when all the stations are playing commercials at the same time? Is that also cognitive bias at work or the ClearChannel thing again?
posted by kimota at 8:09 AM on March 27, 2005

I know 10 or 20 years ago most stations used to play commercials at about :35-:40 and :50-:55 past the hour... ever since Clear Channel got into the game they're all over the place and a lot more frequent.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:18 AM on March 27, 2005

The radio station thing has happened to me a few times. Once, though, I had a tape in (this was back when new cars had tape players) and wanted to change it at a red light. I popped it out and the radio was playing the exact same song at the same spot. Well, actually, I had been on the first chorus, while the radio station was in the same spot on the last chorus, but it still scared me. I sat there and looked at the tape in my hand and the song still coming out of the speakers until someone honked at me to point out the light had changed. At which point, the radio station cut to commercial and the world made sense again.

I add this anecdotal datapoint to say that the world is full of amazing coincidences, and you tend to remember them (the tape thing happened 11 years ago), instead of the hundred times a day that you do things that aren't coincidental or interesting. With shrinking playlists, the homogenization of radio and ClearChannel's faux locality, there's certainly a lot more opportunity for this sort of thing to happen, but there's also still going to be a strong factor for you noticing when it happens and not when it doesn't.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:28 AM on March 27, 2005

Some quick numbers:

Let us say that a song is four minues long, and that a radio station can play ten songs in an hour. For a pair of stations, that's ten chances an hour to play the same song. If you have five stations, there are ten combinations of two of them that might be playing the same song.

The difficult questions are playlist size and the degree of playlist similarity. Classic Rock and Smooth Jazz stations will have almost no overlap. Two Top 40 stations will have nearly 100% overlap. The normal playlist size for a heavily-programmed station is 300-400 songs, but it can be effectively much smaller. Stations that play the major rock hits of the day, for example, are likely to be playing some songs every hour, so that the statistical size of the playlist is more like 25 or 50.

If we fudge on all of these questions and say that average playlist size is 100 and average overlap is 25% (this latter is, for any one person's listening habits, probably an underestimate, unless you're quite eclectic), then at every song cue-up, we get an expected 1 in 40 chance that two stations will start playing the same song. That's about a 1 in 4 chance every hour, which is pretty noticeable.

Let's fiddle with the numbers a little. If those five stations are all playing from the current heavily-promoted stable of major songs, we'll call that 100% overlap on a playlist size of 50. That works out to an expected two coincidences every hour. Rack up a few hours of listening, and it will seem like it happens all the time.
posted by grimmelm at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2005

Take into account the new payola. I like math too, grimmelm, but you got a lot more multiplying to do before the proverbial needle drops occur in a five second window! Or at least make a case for all the starts being synchronized.

Clear Channel + payoffs.
posted by mzurer at 9:57 PM on March 27, 2005

Apparently, Spitzer's interest scared the participants and payola is now dead (sorry, but you will need to watch an ad to see this article from Salon), but commercial radio will still suck.
posted by caddis at 10:37 PM on March 27, 2005

I hate ClearChannel and wouldn't be surprised at all if it were chance, but here's a more remote possibility:

I live in Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border, and one station takes advantage of this by broadcasting on once frequency in NH and a different one in MA. They are in different states with different call letters so it's legal for the FCC, but both have the exact same programming (often slightly off... a measure?).

Anything like that in your area?
posted by themadjuggler at 4:47 AM on March 28, 2005

Michele by the Beatles came on my favorite local station. Hating that song

What kind of a depraved heathen are you?
posted by ludwig_van at 8:12 AM on March 28, 2005

Oh, cuz commercial radio sucks?
posted by raster at 10:53 AM on March 28, 2005

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