If I hear Smells Like Teen Spirit one more time...
October 16, 2012 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand how music is selected for modern radio airplay.

So, a combination of factors leads me to listen to the radio as I drive into work. And it seems that modern radio has abdicated playing new music, beyond one or two new songs. It seems like I can't go a whole morning on my (short!) commute without hearing at least one song from circa 1995. And they are extremely loath to play music by modern bands even when all signs point towards it being extremely advantageous.

An example. Mumford and Sons has a new album, called Babel. Regardless of the quality of band, or the album, it's one of the biggest debuts of the year, topping the charts, and receiving great press. From listening to it, it appears very similar to the last album, and not a great departure from their music. None of the radio stations in my major metropolitan area are playing it. They'll play songs from the previous album several times a day, but not the new one.

I have no idea why this is. The band is still popular, the album is popular, and you would think popular new music would sell advertisement. So why are they still playing top ten from 1995?

Nuts and bolts articles about the process would be appreciated.
posted by zabuni to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I assume they target the demographic that's most likely to be listening at that particular time. Someone who grew up in the 80s or 90s will be listening on the drive to work. That's also probably the explanation for why so many stations seem to have a '90s at Noon' type show, to catch people who are on their lunch break.

I could be wrong of course. Try tuning in in the evening and see if they play newer stuff then, when current high school aged kids are more likely to be listening.
posted by mannequito at 1:04 PM on October 16, 2012

Risk aversion, plus stations are now formatted to the nth degree. Commercial radio is no longer a discovery medium: instead, it is designed to satisfy expectations and (most of all) discourage changing the channel.
posted by holgate at 1:10 PM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The radio stations around me generally only play songs that have been released as singles. For your example -- there's only been one song released as a single of Babel, I will wait, and it hit 23 on the US Billboard chart, which is based partially on radio play (and anecdotally, I hear on the radio all the time).
posted by brainmouse at 1:13 PM on October 16, 2012

Best answer: Most commercial radio stations are top 40 stations, so they'll play selections from the singles list, usually what's popular at the given moment. They will occasionally dip back into the back catalog, but even then they'll stick to singles.

This is important, because it means that unless a band releases a particular track as a single, the odds of it being played on non-college, non-public radio are almost nonexistent. There's only one single from Babel right now, so most stations are only going to play that one, but there are four singles from Sigh No More, so you'll hear all of those at some point.
posted by valkyryn at 1:49 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

But what makes a song a single these days? It's clearly not something released as the A side of a 45 rpm piece of vinyl. Is a song a single just a because the record company has declared it a single?
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 2:16 PM on October 16, 2012

Best answer: Also, a lot of commercial stations have been given over to the so-called "adult hits" format, known in many cities as "JACK-FM." These stations play mostly back catalog singles, along with a few current songs.
posted by ronofthedead at 2:22 PM on October 16, 2012

But what makes a song a single these days?

Basically, the label says it is. They are and have always been songs that the label targets for promotion, it's just that with the evolution and decline of physical media, the term "single" is kind of archaic. It dates back to when putting one song on a small record cost less than producing a whole LP. Well with CDs, that wasn't true, and now that we're digital the term bears almost no connection to physical media anymore. But the connection to a physical object and the means of its production and cost structure were somewhat accidental. Singles have always been about targeted promotion.
posted by valkyryn at 3:42 PM on October 16, 2012

Not answering question, but I always assumed they didn't play stuff because they weren't getting paid to play stuff. Is this not right? If you have a smartphone and an AUX port in your car, listen to Pandora instead.
posted by cnc at 5:05 PM on October 16, 2012

Not answering question, but I always assumed they didn't play stuff because they weren't getting paid to play stuff. Is this not right?

No that is not right. It is a violation of FCC rules in the US for radio stations to accept cash or other payment in exchange for playing certain songs; this is called payola. Any paid programming must be disclosed as such.

Basically, most commercial radio stations in the US are owned by only a handful of companies, and programming decisions are often made from corporate headquarters based on intensive market research. Radio stations are programmed to attract advertisers who want to reach very specific segments of the population. If the station you listen to is targeted at, say, women aged 24-35, and the market research suggests that audience mainly wants to hear hits from the last 10 years, then that is what they play. There are going to be regional variations in the way certain formats are programmed (like Contemporary Hit Radio, which is the current incarnation of what used to be top-40, or Adult Contemporary), but that is all part of the market research.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:29 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because the top ten from 1995, 1985, 1975 etc are still bigger markets than the top ten of today. Many, many many people prefer the Eagles and Journey to Mumford and Sons, sorry.

Commercial radio takes the safe bet, always.
posted by tremspeed at 11:12 PM on October 16, 2012

10 years ago Salon ran an article on how Payola morphed into new legal but still shady form.

In addition, there are people who listen to radio to hear lots of new things. There are also people who turn to radio to hear things that they already like. A lot of commercial radio programmers believe the secondary group is bigger/easier to deal with/more lucrative/etc.
posted by mmascolino at 7:43 AM on October 17, 2012

10 years ago Salon ran an article on how Payola morphed into new legal but still shady form.

And in 2005 Sony BMG was caught doing exactly that (along with more traditional forms of payola), and forced to pay a $10 million settlement.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2012

Great explanation from @DiscourseMaker. I knew payola is against the law, but I just assumed it goes on anyway.
posted by cnc at 9:37 AM on October 23, 2012

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