There's a man who is sure all that glitters is not gold
September 20, 2007 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Why is it that classic rock stations, as if the sanity of the country and the whole damn world depended on it, play the same timeworn Led Zep, Pink Floyd and Rush hits over and over? Is some kind of payola or copyright issue involved?

So there I am, driving in my car, when Pink Floyd comes on on the classic rock station. Nothing wrong with that. I like the Floyd.

So then, two hours go by, and I turn to the station again, and they're playing another Floyd cut. From the same album. Dark Side of the Moon!. Don't get me wrong, I like Dark as much as anybody, but on my own terms, in the right environment, with a good and proper chill in my mind and soul. Not driving down the highway chomping on SUV fumes.

When I hear the words "classic rock," I think of tens of thousands of songs distributed over thousands of albums. Unlike urban or "alternative"' stations, the classic guys are free to pick and choose from this oasis, this bottomless pit of hits and wannabees. Forgotten B-side cut from the Strawberry Alarm Clock album, anyone?

But somehow, the history of rock-n-roll gets distilled to a heavy rotation of Rush, Styxx, Lynnrd Skynnerd, Zep, . . . you know the rest. It's like 99% of rock never even existed.

Which gets me wonderin'. What's the money factor behind this? Are stations trying to capitalize on the brain-dead contractor or plumber in his 50s on the construction site, who's too apathetic or pissed off or bummed out to listen to anything but stadium ballads from his high school years? Or is there a deeper, more nefarious scheme going on here?

Do Led Zep and Floyd give radio stations discounts for playing tunes? Or does the money flow in the reverse, with a weird payola being delivered to the silver-haired drummers and guitarists in their mansions on the hill?

Or am I just crazy, and does the general classic rock listener have a desperate need to hear "Black Dog" at least once a day, otherwise their head will catch on fire and the sun, moon and planets will spin out of control?
posted by Gordion Knott to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Which gets me wonderin'. What's the money factor behind this? Are stations trying to capitalize on the brain-dead contractor or plumber in his 50s on the construction site, who's too apathetic or pissed off or bummed out to listen to anything but stadium ballads from his high school years?

IANADJ, but I'm guessing that's pretty much on the money. Many people are probably more likely to jump to a new station if they tune into a classic rock station and hear something they don't really recognize.
posted by ripple at 8:05 AM on September 20, 2007

I think you answered your own questions. The sheep want to hear songs they recognize from their younger days, and the radio stations want them to hear the ads. Programmers (formerly DJs) are aware that most active listeners don't sit next to the radio all day, so they want to make sure said listeners will get their Black Dog fix during the hour or so of commute time they're tuned in.

It's not that they can't play the so-called "deep cuts," some stations do. But they're giving the audience what they want. Which is crap.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:08 AM on September 20, 2007

I think they just play what works well enough for a majority of listeners. Nothing to offend anyone, nothing too obscure for the typical radio listener.

I saw some commercial a few years ago for an 80's radio station. Their big selling point in the message was that listeners would never have to hear any songs that they didn't already know. Now, that might turn you (and me) off faster than anything else, but I suspect that it works for a lot of people who just want something on in the background.
posted by DarkForest at 8:09 AM on September 20, 2007

Also, keep in mind that many commercial radio stations are working entirely from hard drives - no more vinyl or CDs means that they only have certain songs from certain records, not the full Dark Side. They can buy pre-loaded hard drives full of a certain catalog of time-tested songs, playlists ready to go ...
posted by jbickers at 8:11 AM on September 20, 2007

Are stations trying to capitalize on the brain-dead contractor or plumber in his 50s on the construction site, who's too apathetic or pissed off or bummed out to listen to anything but stadium ballads from his high school years?

You nailed it right there, my friend. Chicago has a similar station (as I'm sure most large cities do) that sounds exactly as you described. These stations are pre-programmed based on years of market research to appeal to people who do not like a challenging listening experience. I remember back as far as 1981 going on a tour of a radio station in Minnesota and was, at that time, shocked to see that there was no live DJ; just a reel-to-reel machine that had been carefully programmed with an entire days' programming.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:12 AM on September 20, 2007

Commercial radio programming is very heavily tested & tuned to make sure it appeals to the people they want listening to it.

When I briefly worked at the local very popular "adult contemporary" mix station, I counted six instances of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" during one workday. I not-super-tactfully told one of the programming people when asked if I liked the station that I didn't much because they mostly played songs I didn't care too much for, and played it on obscenely heavy rotation. She said they did this on purpose, because their focus groups had determined that the people they want listening to the station like to hear the same song over & over again. Even, apparently, if it is by Nickleback. I would guess similar logic applies to the need to play EL&P's "Lucky Man" at least once a fucking day.
posted by fidelity at 8:23 AM on September 20, 2007

This is how the radio industry works. You can make the same argument for contemporary music. Radio stations remain profitable because people want to hear singles over and over again. The logic here is that their average listener probably doesnt listen as often as you and only hears "black dog" twice and month as opposed to twice a day. Specifically, with classic rock you're going to have an audience of mostly baby boomers who remember this stuff when it came out. Theyre nostalgic for the singles, not the 9th random track.

This is why god created the cd and mp3 player. I also imagine that the fans who demand 'deep cuts' have given up and just moved to owning ipods with 30 gigs of music on them and hitting shuffle.

Its also a little impolite to call people who dont have your exact listening habits 'brain dead plumbers.' Some people dont care about music. Others supplement the radio experience with their own personal collection. Lastly, the grand exiperment of giving people a more personal touch can be heard at every crappy college radio station in the US. Granted some are exceptional, but it usually degenerates into music-snob wankery. I am a firm believer that there's no middle ground and music listening habits are just too personal to please everyone.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:34 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Actually I'd have to say that all stations operate in a similar fashion. Any time I find myself on a roadtrip listening to the radio I make it a game to count how many times I hear "Fell On Black Days"
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:49 AM on September 20, 2007

Sometimes it depends on the station, sometimes the DJ.

Looser-ruled stations allow them some more free-reign, so if he's into Skynrd you're going to hear a damn lot of it.

Certain stations do "Rock Block" which are like 2-5 songs from one artist in a row. Others advertise the same artist a few times in an hour but not in a row.

Your mileage may vary.
posted by PetiePal at 9:05 AM on September 20, 2007

It's not just classic rock, it's radio in general. Over the summer I started listening to the radio while driving to and from work (about a half hour each way), and I discovered that even the indie-folky public radio station plays the same stuff over and over again. More than once I heard Josh Rouse or Feist three times in the same day.
posted by danb at 9:09 AM on September 20, 2007

Boston's "More Than A Feeling" every hour on the hour is what drove me from classic rock radio for good.

Plus, it seems like the most successful band of the 60s (the Beatles) fit in neither the "classic rock" nor the "oldies" format, so we're stuck with Del Shannon and Eddie Money clogging up the airwaves instead.


Other people have nailed it, but the sentiment is "so long as we're making money doing it this way, why screw it up?"
posted by peacecorn at 9:13 AM on September 20, 2007

Slightly OT, but have you ever noticed how on the classic rock stations, the people who call in always want to hear a lil'... followed by a partial band name?

As in, "Hey, we're installing drywall over here on third! How 'bout a lil' Zeppelin?"

"How 'bout a lil' Floyd?"

A lil'. Listen for it.
posted by ImJustRick at 9:18 AM on September 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

In a former life, I worked as a DJ at a classic rock station so perhaps I can provide some insight. As alluded to in previous responses, lots and lots of research goes into finding out what your target audience likes/dislikes, and thus, stations will largely play only songs that "test well" - most often those songs by Led Zep, Pink Floyd, which you referenced in your question. I distinctly remember being disgusted on one of my first few days on the job when I found out I had to play the Rolling Stones 'Emotional Rescue' followed by Warren Zevon's 'Lawyers, Guns & Money.' Not only did (and do) I very much dislike both songs (although that's just one man's opinion), but when I inquired as to why those particular pieces of junk were on the playlist, my boss simply said, "They test well." Further, those were considered 'deeper than normal' cuts, which made me grumpy.

I should also mention that there is no such thing as a request in radio - at least not in the manner you may be thinking of. At my station, there were two "open" slots (and that was considered very generous within the industry) on the playlist which could be filled in with listener requests, the catch being that those requests must be listed on an "Approved Request List" located in the studio. 99.9% of the time, the requests were on there because people, as mentioned before, like to hear the same old stuff. On 3 AM on Sunday morning, thinking no one of influence would be listening, I once took it upon myself to play 'The Magnificent Seven' by The Clash which was not on the list. I got in trouble for it.

To your point about the repetitiveness - my station, at least, was very aware of it. There was a "no repeat" rule in effect meaning no song could be played more than once in a 24 hour period. Also, certain times of the day (usually 5-30 minute blocks at 8 PM or later or longer during the weekend nights) were reserved for 'special' programming which might feature some live Zeppelin or Roger Waters playing stuff you might not have heard before or a different rendition. Generally these did just O.K. which leads me to my last point...

As frustrating as all this is, it kind of makes sense. We can sit here and wonder why stations don't expand their library, but the fact remains that there are very few songs out there that are almost universally liked. Those that are are placed in heavy rotation already. In terms of the 'deep cuts' that we all look for - well... just remember that one mans trash is another mans treasure and vice versa. For every guy out there who hears a specific song which evokes wonderful memories and thinks "MAN! I haven't heard this song in years!" there are two other people thinking, "What the hell is this crap?" and turning the dial.
posted by Rewind at 9:18 AM on September 20, 2007 [11 favorites]

I don't work in radio, but I do read a lot about it, and this is my understanding:

One of the things that people tend to overlook when discussing radio programming is that very few people listen to the radio in more than one block a day. They might be morning drive people. Or lunch hour listeners. Or afternoon drive people. Or in the morning before their drive people. Or in the evening people. But there's just not that big an audience that listens to more than one or two of those segments on the same station on the same day.

So, sure, they play the same track from Pink Floyd 6 times a day. But that's because they know that on the whole, people are happy to hear that track once a day. And the chances of any one person hearing it more than once a day? Relatively low.

The other thing that's key in radio programming is the punch in/out factor. Radio programming is largely built around the idea of not offending anyone so much that they change the station. Someone who likes classic rock isn't likely to go 'Oh, Pink Floyd, I hate them, let me see what's on KROC instead.' But when they start playing obscure b-sides from bands people don't really know the chances that they will dislike something goes way, way up. At the same time, the chance that someone who is punched out of their other favorite station will think 'Oh, Pink Floyd! I like them!' goes way down if they're not, in fact, playing Pink Floyd, or at least, not a Pink Floyd song that people recognize.

So, the basic answer is--because once you start listening to a radio station, you're likely to listen to it for a pretty much pre-determined amount of time based on your schedule, not their programming, unless they play something you hate. So they try very hard not to play something you hate.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:21 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I bet that every song from Steve Miller's Greatest Hits 1974-1978 is on the playlist of every classic rock radio station, but not a single cut from any other album.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:25 AM on September 20, 2007

Classic rock (shudder). How I loath that concept, and my fellow exercisers at the gym to whom this is the only acceptable radio choice. It should be called racist rock IMO because it's 70s oldies ethnically cleansed of all the non-white performers.

Anyway, regarding the responses I read here, everybody repeating the blather about "years of market research" and "tested endlessly." By whom, exactly? And who's being asked, what they like? Details would be appreciated, if they exist.
posted by Rash at 9:51 AM on September 20, 2007

It's not just the radio overplay that is surprising, but these albums still sell in considerable volume.

After the advent of CDs and Soundscan (which added a previously unheard of accuracy in sales reporting) Billboard ended up creating separate "Catalog" charts just so contemporary artists wouldn't be embarrassed by being outsold by old Zep and Abba albums. I think you get two or three years on the regular charts nowadays, and then they retire you to catalog sales.

"Brain dead plumbers" is harsh but I know what you mean. Most listeners do prefer the familiar though. There is no shortage of people who eat regularly at McDonalds or like to watch reruns of "Friends" either.
posted by quarterframer at 9:57 AM on September 20, 2007

Another person who says that this kind of radio playlist is what drove me away from regular radio. I now listen to my iPod, internet radio, and XM.

But, as long as there are offices, there will always be a need for stations that play the non-adventurous music like this. I have co-workers that keep the adult contemporary station on all day long. If I go into the local hardware store, chances are that either the local classic rock or the country station and country is as bad at this as anyone) is on somewhere. At a warehouse I once worked out, a co-worker and I popped in an Arrested Development tape. After about 10 minutes, one of the bigshots came out and told us to "turn that spear-chucker music off." But they never had a problem with the rock or country station blaring out there.
posted by azpenguin at 10:17 AM on September 20, 2007

I've worked at a few college radio stations. They're expressly forbidden by law from playing hits. Nothing that has ever charted in Billboard since its inception. So that's why college radio sucks.

Maybe classic rock stations have similar restrictions?
posted by Reggie Digest at 10:21 AM on September 20, 2007

Two things:

- Most radio stations are owned by one company, Clearchannel, which dedicates tiny playlists that are guaranteed advertisers.

- Radio stations only play music at all so that advertisers will buy time to be associated with the music. If they could play "stairway to heaven" 24 hours a day, they would, since it brings in ad revenue.
posted by softlord at 10:22 AM on September 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

"Anyway, regarding the responses I read here, everybody repeating the blather about "years of market research" and "tested endlessly." By whom, exactly? And who's being asked, what they like? Details would be appreciated, if they exist."

Arbitron, mostly. I've gotten called a bunch of times, at least while I still had a land line.

There are a couple things that people are missing here, just about how musical taste is determined. First off, people, as a whole, tend to like music more each time they hear it, up until a burnout point. So that's a reason that the same songs keep getting played. The second point is that people tend to like music they know other people like more than music that they don't know other people like. I'm sure how you can see that The Beatles or Zep or whatever carries a lot of cultural cachet.
posted by klangklangston at 10:27 AM on September 20, 2007

This thread has been very insightful. I always just figured there was a law requiring "Sweet Home Alabama", "Hotel California" and "Stairway to Heaven" be played at least once an hour.
posted by The Gooch at 10:53 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think Frank FM in Portland ME has the most diverse playlist of any classic rock station - can't explain why, but it's different than other stations. So not everyone follows the pack mentality.
posted by chickaboo at 10:59 AM on September 20, 2007

I've noticed a similar thing with KMTT here in Seattle. They do play new music and it's natural that they'd play the newest songs a lot, but they also have this bizarre tendency to pick a few less well-known cuts and then play them repeatedly for a week or two.

So on Monday you hear, say, Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" in the morning on the drive to work. "Oh, that's nice, I haven't heard that in a while," you say. The next day you're out to lunch and... "Red Rain." Then Thursday you're driving home and hear it again. By this time you're thinking, "WTF, you know Peter Gabriel does have other songs, right?" I am not sure why they do this.
posted by kindall at 3:49 PM on September 20, 2007

For what it's worth, don't think you can escape to the wilds of satellite radio for a deeply different experience. I was a Sirius listener for a few years and while I may have heard different tunes, those songs still suffered from repetition.

(Sirius is often criticized for employing a shallow playlist. XM is often lauded for having a much deeper one, but I was/am not an XM subscriber. My dentist pumped it throughout his office, however, and it did seem a bit deeper, but that might have been the gas.)
posted by tcv at 8:49 PM on September 20, 2007

I've worked at a few college radio stations. They're expressly forbidden by law from playing hits. Nothing that has ever charted in Billboard since its inception. So that's why college radio sucks.
Hi, I'm your opposite! God bless KALX, I hear one song I recognize every three weeks or so and have thusly vastly Increased My Musical Power.

I once took part in a focus group for a radio station trying to determine what bands they could add to their "classic rock" lineup. I hate "classic rock" but I like $50. They had a hard time struggling with putting Talking Heads on the list. I voted "yes," thus helping to move the line of Classic Rock forward an estimated .7mm, not that I listen to that trash except when I'm at the DMV or something.
posted by user92371 at 12:14 PM on September 22, 2007

"I've worked at a few college radio stations. They're expressly forbidden by law from playing hits. Nothing that has ever charted in Billboard since its inception. So that's why college radio sucks."

Wait, how did I miss this? It's absolute bullshit, either through your misunderstanding or through someone's miscommunication. God, it's such a tarbaby of wrongness that I can't imagine anyone seriously putting it out there.
posted by klangklangston at 12:32 PM on September 22, 2007

through your misunderstanding or through someone's miscommunication

Probably a bit of both, I'm afraid. Anyway, my overall point, as misinformed as it may have been, was that radio stations might be bound by their licenses to a particular format and content.
posted by Reggie Digest at 1:49 PM on September 23, 2007

(And the "sucks" was facetious, btw.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 1:51 PM on September 23, 2007

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