by Fred Deane
Through the various discussions we have during any given month with programmers, hot-button issues arise every so often. Lately, and for a while now, the subject of Pop music catalysts has stimulated our format’s thought process, and PD’s have adjusted their thinking on the use of valuable metrics and analytics to determine trends within their respective audience groups. The use of granular and comprehensive data is at an all-time high in all industries, and certainly the radio industry has taken full advantage of this powerful trend.
The discussion in this feature centers on the gravitational pull by music influencers on determining trends in Pop music, and radio’s ever-changing role in the equation given the widespread proliferation of competitive DSP’s.
Our esteemed panel of contributors are some of the most insightful and passionate minds in the field: Kobe, PD, WWHT/Syracuse; Jonathon Shuford, PD, WRVW/Nashville; Rick Vaughn, OM/PD, KENZ/Salt Lake City; Dom Theodore, CEO, RadioAnimal Media Strategies.
Are DSP’s steering the car that currently drives Pop music?
Dom: I believe radio and streaming services are ‘apples-to-oranges.’ Think of it like Amazon.com versus physical Wal-Mart stores. Streaming is the Amazon model. They’re in the business of selling ‘one hundred thousand things one or two times each.’ They literally have some items that only sell two or three per year, and they can make a highly successful business model out of that. Wal-Mart, because their physical stores have only limited space, has to focus on selling ‘one thing ten thousand times,’ meaning they have to sell the ‘hits.’ If an item doesn’t sell enough units, they can’t afford to hang onto it and it loses shelf space. One is a broadcast medium; the other is a narrow-cast medium.
As long as the business model for broadcast radio depends on Nielsen ratings methodology as the metric by which we are judged, and as long as radio remains primarily a single channel device (and not an unlimited ‘on-demand’ device), we will never be able to match streaming in terms of new music exposure on a broadcast platform. There simply isn’t enough shelf-space to expose that much music on a broadcast radio station. Streaming services are a great “test lab” that radio programmers can use to help determine what songs have the best chance for mass appeal on a broadcast platform.
Kobe: I believe they are and we need to accept this. Sometimes we are too romantic with the nostalgia that radio is the number one source for music discovery. The fact is that we are not the only player in the game. We’re still in the game, we just need to change our position sometimes, adapt our thinking and act accordingly.
Jonathan: Not by themselves, but they’re certainly a good GPS, inasmuch as they provide a real-time snapshot of what Pop culture is at any given moment. There’s a lot of factors driving the car though – social media, Youtube, and yes, radio.
RV: They’re definitely in the car. Fans. Consumers. Listeners. They tell us what the hits are. They also tell us what the stiffs are. Same as it ever was, as much as the old geezers in this business would like to think it was 100% their golden ears.
Have the DSP’s repositioned the audience as the more prominent determinants of Pop music trends than terrestrial radio?
Dom: The audience has ALWAYS been in control. The thought that “gatekeepers” ever controlled new music exposure was always a fallacy. I remember back in the early 90’s when many Top 40 stations refused to play Hip-Hop. The audience still found those songs on their own, before the internet. So much so that today there are very successful throwback stations that are based entirely on music that many radio stations refused to play in those same markets when those songs were new. Today, the audience is even more in control, and we have better ways to measure that. So again, streaming is a great “test lab.”
Kobe: 100 percent. It’s a real time peek behind the curtain into what people are choosing to spend their time with. Time is currency, think about all these apps like Uber, Grub Hub, and On Demand music/television content. The one thing they all have in common is they save the customer time. So, to see what they choose to use that time on, is a very valuable tool when applying it to the analytical decision-making process.
Jonathan: Absolutely, and I think that’s good for everybody. Paper hits are going to be harder and harder to come by because of the quantitative data that DSPs can provide us. It’s easier to sniff out (and quickly) what our audience actually cares about and what they don’t, and that delivers the power back to the listener in a way that we as a medium have never really experienced.
RV: There was a window in time that a big radio group could decide (encourage) how far in any direction of “extremes” to let a format wander. It was short-lived and has passed. Streaming is one reason, but mostly that idea was ridiculous. The people want what the people want. We have always put the audience first. How many millions of dollars have been spent over decades on callout, auditorium tests, and surveys? The more metrics the better. Streaming is a new, valuable metric.
Has T40 radio become more flexible and tolerant of severe swings in music because of this current trend?
Dom: When we look at callout data, and even metrics like M-scores, we see that the power recurrents are still typically the best performing songs. The audience behaviors are different on a broadcast platform versus a narrow-cast platform. We do tend to see songs become familiar faster because of streaming exposure, but in terms of big hits, the cycle is still much slower than streaming data would have you believe.
Kobe: Yes, but not everyone. We overthink things sometimes. Take BTS for example, I get it that it’s in a totally different language, but it’s multi-media widescale getting attention. That’s what we’re fighting for, our listeners time, their attention. I’m not suggesting we play a song in a totally different language 80x a week. But some people are overthinking it. Would it kill you to play it 2-3 times a night?
Jonathan: We’re getting there. It’s still a work in progress, and as with any change, some adapt to changing environments more quickly and effectively than others. But I believe as an industry, we are becoming more cognizant of exactly how streaming affects what we do.
RV: I don’t know. I don’t think we’ve been seeing severe swings. Top 40 is a moving target. Every station is an individual brand and will do things differently than another brand if a “swing” fits one and not the other.
Is radio reacting more quickly to viral hits and artists originating from streaming services?
Dom: Yes, for sure. The exposure of new artists and songs on streaming services helps get these songs familiar more quickly, and gives radio programmers the opportunity to gauge whether a new song might have legs. Programmers can also see a track lose momentum quickly and avoid songs that show no promise. In that sense, streaming services provide an early picture on a song’s potential.
Kobe: Yes, we need to. You have a rise in music that connects with the audience on an emotional level. Acts like Billie Eilish and Juice Wrld are connecting with the young-end like never before. These artists are showing in their music that they are on the same emotional level as their audience. If we go by the old school timeline, by the time radio would get to these hits, the moment would’ve passed. Think about “Old Town Road” in the old days, that record may not have even been considered for a release to radio. But now, we see these things popping as it happens. We need to show we’re in tune with these things because in some instances our listeners are more in touch with what is going on than we are.
Jonathan: Yes. Radio got on the “Old Town Road” bandwagon pretty quickly compared to viral trends in the past. And I’m not sure that artists like Lauv or Dean Lewis would have found as much success at CHR radio if not for programmers reacting to the numbers in front of them. Not to mention the Billie Eilish phenomenon.
Is radio better off in the long-run to selectively meet these streaming nuance hits (and artists) as soon as they are becoming events, or should radio be at the forefront of these event songs?
Dom: Because Nielsen ratings are the metric by which we are judged, we are still better off waiting to let streaming services help incubate unknown artists with brand new songs. The key is paying attention to all of the real-time data points that we have so that we can get a reliable early read on a new song before we decide to play it.
Kobe: We need to analyze each project individually. Not every song on Youtube or Tik Tok is gonna be “Old Town Road,” or Billie Eilish. But we need to watch for the bigger picture. Is a song popping on Tik Tok, Instagram, Streaming, Sales, and Shazam? Then it is probably raising its hand to get played asap. But if a song is just going off on Youtube, but no other platforms, you may want to wait on that one. Billie Eilish is a movement, it all came together relatively at the same time as the artist connected virally with her fanbase to the extent that commanded astute and proactive recognition.
Jonathan: I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, but I think that it’s key to keeping the medium top-of-mind with millennials. We’re obviously not benefitted by playing every big streaming hit, but being able to spot the ones with the ability to gain mass appeal and penetrate the Pop ethos can only serve to help us cast a wider net and attract a new generation of radio listeners.
RV: Long run, you say. If our medium is to stay relevant for the long run, we better pay attention to all the metrics available. I feel like we are. I don’t know anyone that is ignoring songs or artists on any platform. Some are hits, some end up stiffs.
As artists aggregate fanbases more quickly via with social media platforms and viral streaming services, does radio have to react more quickly to Hispanic flavored music, the K-Pop music culture, viral event records like Lil Nas, etc.?
Dom: In the digital space, almost EVERY niche artist can find some type of fanbase. They can even ‘manufacture’ one to an extent if it doesn’t really exist, and many of those fans could be completely out of your station’s target demo, so that alone is not a very reliable way to get a true read on whether or not radio should play a specific song. If you dig into all of the real-time data, you’ll see the big reaction records have a much larger footprint than just their early adopters or niche fans. Lil Nas X is a great example of a song that blew up quickly and started showing up in multiple data points almost immediately. When you see a song raise its hand across several different real-time data points, it’s probably a risk worth taking.
Kobe: What some PD’s are missing is we can engage with these fanbases before we even play the song! We have the ability to show we know what is popping up, even before we add the song. To that point, when we do play the record and show the fanbases we support the band, they will spread the word. For example, we played BTS (“Waste it On Me”), and on three tweets we had over 100,000 impressions on Twitter. A bunch of these fans took screen shots of them listening to my station on the iHeart Radio App when we played the song. Social Media, plus listening to our brands on apps makes this much bigger than a local market thing for the medium in general.
Jonathan: To an extent, sure. Top 40 at its core is a collection of songs that are the “best of the best,” regardless of format, and technology is allowing us to spot the best songs more easily and quickly. If our audience wants to hear a K-Pop song and they’re telling us that quantitatively, we need to play a K-Pop song. If the numbers tell us they want to hear a barbershop quartet singing Disney songs in Pig Latin, we probably ought to pay attention. The flip side is that we have to be diligent in ensuring that we’re ONLY selecting the cream of the crop and not swinging the pendulum too far in any direction. Should we play BTS? Probably. Should we be playing eight other K-Pop acts that aren’t BTS? I’m not sure there’s enough evidence to say yes to that. Remember, for every *NSYNC or BSB there’s a hundred Boyzone’s. Remember them? Yeah, didn’t think so.
RV: Sure, fans grow faster now. But we didn’t just emerge from the stone age in the past five years. Kids have always shared music, talked (texted) on phones, passed notes and rebelled against their predecessors. Nobody wants to be a sheep in the herd. The young audience will always be attracted to something new or different. We are doing a pretty good job now. It’s not too late with this current group of 14-22-year-olds. YOU HEAR THAT?!? 14 TO 22. Focusing solely on 25-54 will hasten your mad dash to mediocrity. What was the question? React more quickly, yes. It doesn’t mean play everything that is streaming balls. Just make a decision now before it’s over.
How does radio avoid being apathetic in the reading of these potential hits that can draw in wider audience acceptance?
Dom: The key is looking at a wide variety of real-time metrics and getting an idea where the ‘noise threshold’ is. Once you establish that baseline, you’ll quickly see how the big songs that are truly hits push well past that baseline. You can literally see the wider audience acceptance happening in real time, and act accordingly.
Kobe: By not over thinking it. To be honest, we have such a tendency to be too romantic with our air time. 7p-12a is my playground. Countdowns, new music battles, etc. We have opportunities to show that we’re in tune with what is going on with the world around us. If you think the CHR audience listens to our “Top 5 at 9” and believes that the true top 5 songs in our city are the same songs we play all day, I have beach front property in Kansas you may be interested in. We should use our countdown slots to show we actually pay attention to streaming and Shazam in the market. Not all the time, but when we have these records that are showing potential, would addressing them and spiking them from time to time kill us?
Jonathan: Just pay attention. Put our egos aside. Listen to what the audience is telling us and make educated decisions based on that data. Again, we’re in this cool time where we have the luxury of having a huge base of potential consumers telling us exactly what they want. There are huge corporations that pay millions of dollars for that kind of market research.
Isn’t it in radio’s best interest for music phenoms like Billie Eilish, Lil Nas, and BTS to become big T40 hits, again thrusting the medium into the equation of these big Pop culture events that appear to have real longevity value, versus novelty value?
Dom: It’s in radio’s best interest to play hits that drive ratings, regardless of where those hits come from. But with all of the data that we have access to, it’s easier than ever to get an early read on what the next big thing might be. Whether or not it has longevity is another question, as many quickly reacting records also burn quickly and go away.
Kobe: A novelty is a novelty, until it is not a novelty. Who are we to define what artist is a novelty anymore? As programmers, we have to rid ourselves of some of the old school ideas like novelty and realize that many rules from the past just don’t apply any more. Fundamentally, a lot of the old rules still do, we just need to differentiate between the ones that are still relevant and the ones that stunt our growth. Lil Nas X was signed off of one song that was a viral hit on Tik Tok and Instagram. Is he a novelty to the millions of people who follow him, or did their own ‘Old Town Road” video? The game is changed, but we still have a handful of programmers trying to play by the old rules.
Jonathan: Without a doubt. At the end of the day radio is better if people are talking about us. What better way to get people to talk about us than be an avenue for them to hear the music they want to talk about? Who cares if it’s “novelty,” and who are we to define that anyway?
RV: You say those all have real longevity value. I’m not so sure. Which is why the audience gets to say when the song is cooked. We have always had novelty hits. We have always had polarizing titles. We see them sooner now, so big deal. Pay attention and do what is right for the audience and your brand. Some will not make the cut, some will be on-and-gone, some will end up in your library.