Spin cycle

In Features /

Shi Davidi

If you listen to Toronto radio, you can probably sympathize wight these words.

Listening to Toronto radio can be frustrating because the song rotation in this cut-throat market is repetitive and leaves plenty to be desired.

In developing their playlists, radio station program directors must consider their listeners, request lines, record charts, record companies, advertisers, and CRTC regulations. These factors force radio stations to rotate songs that mass audiences will tune into, which in turn attracts advertising dollars. This leaves radio stations with little room for creativity.

“People are not being challenged musically,” says Ken Stowar, program and music director at Hot 103.5. “Commercial radio is pretty safe now — it’s very formatted. This business has a battle on its hands on how to get a bigger piece of the pie.”

“At the end of the day, we play records that will get us the audience we’re looking for,” says Scot Turner, program and music director at Energy 108.

While it’s easy to criticize the music our favourite stations play, it’s actually very difficult to program a play list which appeals to everyone. Radio programmers must always keep their ear to the ground.

“Listener feedback is so important,” says Stowar. “I think ‘Barbie Girl’ (by Aqua) is the biggest fucking piece of cheese, excuse my language, but for every request I get for a song, I get 10 for that one. I have to play what the listeners want to hear.”

Q107 is a good example of what can happen when a radio station doesn’t properly gauge its listeners’ interests. After misjudging the scope of alternative’s influence on music and losing listeners, the former FM rock king is not trying to catch up to its competition.

“Q has been trying to find itself the last little while,” says Debra Svicki, music director at Q107. “We got caught off guard by alternative. Nevermind (by Nirvana) came out and Q was late in getting on that. We refused to give up classic rock but alternative became really big and calling rock ‘classic’ was the worst thing you could say. Now we’re figuring out a way to do both.”

A station’s format determines everything from what type of music it plays to how often songs are played and how many songs are rotated.

The Edge’s format is new rock, meaning they will have a larger rotation of songs than, say Energy 108, whose format is Top 40 dance-rhythmic. The Edge will have a smaller rotation of songs than Q107, because the Q spins both classic rock and new rock.

Play lists are developed with the station’s format in mind. Songs are put into one of several categories, depending on what the station wants to play it.

Canadian music is put in its own category and spun at three levels: heavy, medium and light. Under CRTC regulations, 20 per cent of the songs radio stations play must be Canadian. This means when a Canadian song has some success it may get a few extra spins to help stations meet the quota.

The gold category consists of megastar musicians (some of Q107’s top gold bands are Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, U2). You can expect to hear at least one song daily form these groups.

Most stations also have a Canadian gold category (102.1’s Canadian golds include The Tragically Hip, Sloan, and 54-40). These groups are also important in meeting Canadian content regulations.

Big hits that have reached their “burn-out point” end up in the recurrent category, with spins decreasing as the song ages.

“There’s not exact science here, it’s a combo of gut feel, how many weeks we’ve been playing it, research, listener feedback and looking at the charts,” says Energy 108’s Turner.

Current music is also put into its own category, with three rotation types: heavy, medium and light.

These songs make up the bulk of music rotated.

Typically, a current song in heavy rotation is played every four to sic hours, a medium song play every six to eight hours and a light song played every eight to 10 hours.

For example, during the week of August 3-10, Hot 103.5 ad 20 songs in heavy rotation with Will Smith’s “Men in Black” and Puff Daddy and Faith Evans “I’ll Be Missing You” leading the way with 34 spins for an average of nearly five plays a day.

Energy 108 had 17 songs in heavy rotation between August 28 and September 3, with Mariah Carey’s “Honey” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” playing 34 times each, an average of nearly five spins a day.

Q107 had 11 songs in heavy rotation during the week of August 20-26. “D’You Know What I Mean?” by Oasis spun 27 times for an average of four plays a day.

Although those numbers sound extreme program and music directors disagree.

“Unless you work in radio, there is no one who listens 24 hours a day. Songs are repeated during the day so everyone can hear their favourites. There are very few people who don’t like to hear the hits every day,” says Q’s Svicki.

“There’s been enough surveys that have shown you need at least 300 spins of a song before your entire audience is familiar with it,” says Hot 103.5’s Stowar.

They also point out that American radio stations play songs twice and sometimes three times as often as Canadian stations.

According to Airplay Monitor, a music trade magazine, Khits 106.9 in Tulsa spun “Men in Black” and “I’ll Be Missing You” 90 times between August 18-24. They’re not alone. Z93 in Dayton spun “I’ll Be Missing You” 81 times, Kube in Seattle spun “Men in Black” 80 times and Jan’n 94.5 in Boston played “Mo Money Mo Problems” 72 times.

New songs are placed in a category called “adds” because they are new to the play list, with stations adding up to eight new songs a week.

Music and program directors go through hundreds of CDs a week to determine three things; whether the song fits their format, if it’s worth spinning on air and if so, how often it should be played.

“There are too many bands out there for airplay… it’s like the gold rush days, you take your pan and shake and shake and shake and hope you find a nugget,” says The Edge’s music director Kneale Mann.

“Listening to the radio isn’t like going to the store to buy something,” says Mann.

“When you have to pull money out of your wallet you think about that decision. You don’t think when you change radio stations, it’s not a difficult decision, see?”

He shuts off the radio. “How difficult was that? Not at all. That’s why it’s so hard to keep listeners tuned in. Even our loyal audience only listens nine hours a week. We’re here to play stuff for the audience.”

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