Previous "comments" you might find worthwhile to read...
Commentary in the June 3, 2024, Music Letter...

We still occasionally encounter questions about the Music Letter that suggest that the questioner does not understand the difference between a music tipsheet and music research.  For example, we have been asked how we can justify publishing a radio music sheet in which, with some regularity, there are NO new tracks “Recommended” for Mainstream AC airplay!

A conventional music tipsheet would encounter some resistance to that, because it is designed to turn over a playlist at a fairly regular rate, and therefore would “tip” changes and new tracks every week, even if the music quality being tipped is a bit variable in terms of listener appeal.  This is a legimate approach.

But a music research service is simply intended to tell you which songs appeal to the audience and which do not.  The turnover of the resulting playlist then becomes the variable, because when there are no really appealing new tracks for the target audience, the playlist has to turn over slower to keep a decent number of current playlist songs available for play in the “Recommended Playlist” to keep the music balance right.

Needless to say, the latter is what we are doing, and we are still unique in doing it after four decades.  We give you the best and most appealing tracks for your audience in new and current music, targeted specifcially to the Mainstream AC format, and weed out the ones which may be getting charted and widely played which do not really appeal to the core female audience which drives Mainstream AC radio.

And we have been asked if we would “follow our results exactly” in programming a Mainstream AC station.  The answer is yes -- what we print is exactly what we would do.  We know our readers are free to use the data any way they think appropriate -- but when we know what our target audience likes best, and which “charted” songs in the format really do not appeal to the audience, why would we not follow it exactly?  So, yes, that is exactly how we would use our research information.  We continually cross-check it, and it is still very accurate.

Commentary in the May 27, 2024, Music Letter...

Something we have been discussing here lately is the urgent need for radio to start getting compelling and relatable and relevant to local listeners once again -- through the use of live local talent!  But we have been told by broadcasters that this is just financially infeasible these days.  Well, maybe it's infeasible if you consider your station to be in a terminal death spiral.  But the financial success of radio follows the audience’s size and responsiveness, since these are the factors that make radio work. You CAN have local talent on the air in all time periods, if you have a sales staff able to sell ads on a station people really listen to.  

Recently we discussed how hiring quality live staff needn’t cost nearly as much as you think -- because quite frequently, with some of the glamour now gone from “being a DJ”, today’s broadcast students naturally are inclined to be themselves and follow formats, being more engaging and real than most of the “professionals”.  And we suggested that you, yourself, get involved in teaching and moulding these future air talents.

One more comment about live and local air talents:  Some folks in radio seem to think that staged bits and rehearsed liners and syndicated joke scripts are what it takes to make a “personality”.  Not at all.  The true personalities in this business are the people who have learned to be themselves and just relate to the listener as a friend. The very best talents do not “sound like an announcer” -- they sound like themselves!  They apply all the voice techniques they learn (most importantly, how to use their breath properly -- there are a couple of pages on how to do that in Eric’s still-in-print book, “Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy”) to developing their skill, and then just “are themselves” with the listener. 

In our personal experience in markets of all sizes, right up to the very largest, the best radio personalities believe they are not doing anything remarkable -- when they are!  

Find interesting people -- people who are interesting to listen to, because of the way they think and express themselves naturally -- and help them polish their craft on the air.  You may remember something one of them said on the air for years, while they will have forgotten it moments later, because “I didn’t really do anything special”. 

If we can help get this idea across to you better, get in touch
!  It really IS the secret to success!

Commentary in the April 22, 2024, Music Letter...

In a recent column, veteran radio journalist Sean Ross wrote a about the value of playing current and new music (which is also the founding principle of this newsletter, which has been providing that substantial benefit for Mainstream AC stations for over forty years) -- and, in passing, he made reference to a practice we were unaware of, which explains why some stations are not gaining traction with new music:  That they start it ONLY in off-prime hours, and primarily at night.  We join Sean in thinking such a practice is really pretty dumb!  If you think a new or current track is worth playing -- and new music on Mainstream AC is a definite PLUS, if you are able to identify the songs your audience will actually like, which AC trade charts can't tell you, so this is where the Music Letter comes in -- then you are concealing this strong positive programming element by not exposing it to your entire audience!  Rotate the new ones throughout your whole broadcast day, for heaven’s sake!

Commentary in the April 8, 2024, Music Letter...

In our freqent comments and observations about the Nielsen (former Arbitron) radio ratings service, we have given you many reasons why what has always been the least accurate national radio ratings service is, if anything, even MORE inaccurate now, as they try desperately to retain radio stations who pay a fortune for it by further compromising their statistical accuracy with further mixing methodologies and by retaining “cooperators” -- to keep them in subsequent samples, which do need to be completely fresh each time to assure statistical reliability, at least theoretically.  Theoretical, because in order for it to really be statistically accurate, they need a new random sample each time -- AND GETTING DATA FROM MOST IF NOT ALL OF THE SAMPLE.  We have heard a few comments from readers suggesting that they probably are doing all they can do, and as much as any other survey does, while using standard survey techniques.

BUT, NOT SO.  For those who remember the Pulse radio survey service, which went bankrupt in the 1970s due to a lack of radio support, let us tell you how THEY obtained the most accurate survey results that any national rating service in the U.S. has ever had.  First, they used randomly-chosen telephone numbers to identify residential blocks -- and then surveyed every residence on that block EXCEPT the one with the telephone number in their sample.  (That did away with any phone/non-phone bias in the sample.)  Second, they obtained PAST listening for the previous seven days, which did away with the Hawthorne effect, which has always introduced major bias into every Arbitron and Nielsen radio survey ever made.  Third, they did NOT rely on self-reporting; they used in-home interviewers, hired from the pool of interviewers used by the U.S. Census -- and those folks aided sample recall with a roster of available stations, and avoided leading questions.  And they obtained an interview in virtually every residence in their sample!  Fourth, they reported ratings only to the full point, since the Roslow family who owned Pulse were a family of statisticians, and they knew there is no statistical validity in bringing out the “shares” figures to a tenth of a point, as Arbitron always did.  (To make Pulse data look equivalent to Aribtron in our markets in those days, we did the math [from the Pulse book itself] to provide tenths of a point; side by side Pulse was always far more consistent to tenths of a point than Arbitron, but our arguments to Pulse that they needed to do it to tenths of a point also, to look consistent with their competitor, were rejected; they never would consent to using a display technique not statistically justified.) 

But Arbitron, and now Nielsen, still displays shares to an unjustifiable tenth of a point to this very day -- knowing that, to the untutored, it makes them look more accurate.  Pulse viewed their clients to be the radio stations paying for their modestly-priced survey, and that they deserved accuracy; Abitron/Nielsen have always viewed their real clients as the ad agencies (who only seek rationale for buys, not accuracy; and who pay practically nothing to receive their ratings) -- and the stations simply as
the cash cows who pay through the nose for what the agencies ask to see!

Commentary in the June 19, 2023, Music Letter...

So how DO you use strong new music in an Adult Contemporary format that has generally become all-recurrents and oldies?  First of all, as we frequently point out, playing older music -- and especially nostalgic music -- is NOT responsive to the desires of your core Mainstream AC listeners.  They grew up with current hit pop music, and they still seek that -- or they would be listening to the oldies station.  Aggressive Mainstream ACs are playing 50% currents from our list; less aggressive ones usually find 33% currents from our list work well for them.  Our Top 15 should rotate faster than the remainder of our “Recommended” list on page 2 of each Music Letter issue.

What, then, Is the function of the noncurrents in Mainstream AC...?  They provide a comfort zone of familiarity in which the current music is set.  “Familiarity” is not relevant in new music!  But the noncurrent music must never be perceived as “old” by the listener, which is a key distinction between the noncurrents in AC and those on oldies stations, and most ACs have never realized this distinction -- they simply consider familiarity.  A familiar song can be percieved as either “good” or “old” by the listener, and you are sabotaging your own AC station with familiar noncurrents they think of  as “old”!   All songs must simply and entirely be perceived as “really good ones”, no matter how recent or old they may actually be.

Commentary in the May 22, 2023, Music Letter...

In a recent Music Letter we offered the thought that if AM radio is to survive it has to revive listener interest in it and demand for it, and the most likely path to that would be for AM stations to take advantage of the high audio quality and static resistance of going to 100% HD Radio.  We pointed out that anyone with an “HD Radio” in their car could receive it in high fidelity and stereo; that it sounds as good as FM if not better, and has the same coverage as the analog signal -- while being resistant to static.  (And for AM stations worried that a few older listeners may not be able to tune it in -- you can always buy another AM station in your market and duplicate your HD signal on that, in analog AM -- thus using the new station as a “translator” for your main signal.)   A May issue of the radio engineering magazine “Radio World” led its “letters” column with a similar observation written by a reader, headlined “Take Advantage of All-Digital AM”:

“AM radio has seen many attempts to improve the service over the years. There was stereo AM, the NRSC-1 AM standard, and then in-band on-channel analog/digital broadcast. IBOC suffered from the digital interfering with the analog of adjacent channels; in the end everyone shut down the digital and considered it a fail.  But in the meantime, for the last 10 years or so, car manufacturers have been providing HD radios with digital AM stereo capabilities! Sadly there’s no mention, not even a hint, that these radios are digital AM capable. It was not until WWFD in Frederick, Maryland, started broadcasting digital-only that I was able to listen to and evaluate digital AM for myself.  It is surprisingly good.  Audio quality [even on music] is very good! The signal coverage appears to be close if not equal to the analog coverage.  Most importantly, there is no audible noise.  And, yes, both of my cars — model years 2010 and 2012 — receive digital HD AM!  As I read and listen to the complaints about AM, I find it amazing that an existing technology, one that is mostly already in place and available, is being ignored.

“Carmakers are not going to continue to support a technology that no one is using or cares about. AM stations clamored to add FM translators to improve the listening experience; yet most of those stations have a much greater signal coverage on their AM signal -- in many cases by hundreds of miles. Not taking advantage of the HD technology already  available could be the beginning of the end for the AM band.”  – David Eltzroth, Elkridge, Maryland

Commentary in the January 30, 2023, Music Letter...

From time to time, as we see ever-huger fines assessed to American broacasters for breaking rules they really should be strictly following, we try to give you a heads-up on maintaining careful watchfulness to make sure your own station is not guilty of such an infraction.

Some old FCC rules are outdated; some have changed; but some are still the same -- and are strictly enforced, and so are quite important.  Such a rule is the "Sponsor Identification Rule", which hasn't changed at all, and is still vigorously enforced with steadily increasing fines.  Strangely, many broadcasters seem oblivious to it, and violate it with some regularity -- including the major group owner who has been caught by the Commission violating it TWICE in recent years on a number of their stations, each time having to pay an enormous fine, and having their qualifications as a licensee questioned by the Commission after their second major recent violations. 

Every General Manager and Program Director should be very aware of this rule, and sensitive to any potential violations at their station(s).  Yes, monitoring FCC rules is the ultimate responsibility first of the owner, and then the General Manager; but it is a fact that when a station is fined, it's often the PD who's made the scapegoat -- blamed in the station response to the FCC for the violation, and fired.

So we urge you to familiarize yourself with the FCC rules that apply to programming, or which the PD is often expected to oversee, or even which the PD might be the ultimate backstop for.

So what actually IS the "Sponsor Identification Rule"?

It simply states that if a broadcaster receives "consideration" (money or merchandise) in exchange for running an announcement, the announcement must include clear mention of who paid for it.  That even goes for informal plugs on the air by airstaff!  It's this rule that makes "payola" illegal -- believe it or not, if you announce a particular record which you were paid to play as "sponsored by", payola is legal!  It's also this rule that requires the political sponsorship announcements on political ads to be clear and explicit.

Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, not always.  Is it the RIGHT sponsor?

One trap radio folks have been falling into for decades, as regards this rule, is based on the Commission’s allowing the name of a well-known brand name such as Coca Cola to satisfy the requirement that the sponsor be identified.  Yes, but ONLY if it is the Coca Cola Company that is the sponsor!  But very frequently the local bottler is the one who is paying for the ad.  If so, the corporate ad needs to be tagged “Sponsored by the Portland Bottling Company” -- or whatever bottling company is paying for the ad.  Without that, the ad has violated the rule, and your station could be in for BIG fines. 

In years past, on-air Program Directors could spot these violations pretty easily, because the ad would be on the log as “Portland Bottling” (or whatever the local bottler is), but the ad only mentioned Coca Cola.  Since the program log was always based on the sales orders, the name on the log was the one paying for it.  Some logging procedures have been relaxed to accommodate automation, but it certainly pays to monitor this somehow! 

Another costly error stations have made in the past is assuming that an ad recommending drinking milk was sponsor-identified, because “milk is a well-known product”.  Yes, but milk isn’t a brand name, and cows didn’t pay for it!   We've seen some stations make this mistake repeatedly and have to pay big fines more than once!  When you make such a mistake repeatedly, the FCC increases the fines on the repeat offenses, and often raises the question as to whether the licensee is qualified to keep the license!  A word to the wise!

Commentary in the December 12, 2022, Music Letter...

The phenomenon of the “all-Christmas” format on AC radio is curious.  It is widely assumed that the big “bubble” in the Average Quarter Hour ratings that this can give a station is the reason most do it -- but there are definitely problems with doing that.  For one thing, ad agencies see right through that tactic when it appears in the rating book, since it is temporary and generated by a format that is already gone when the ratings come out (maybe that’s why some stations adopt the format as early as Hallowe’en??).  Furthermore, it is generated by something unrelated to whether people actually HEAR the content of the station or not; the phenomenon appears mainly when audience is measured by diary or People Meter, which are the two worst ways to measure listening, since both require that the person being measured know in advance that their listening is being measured, which -- at the very least -- influences behavior in ways different from what it would be if they didn’t know they were being measured when they were doing the listening!  That is known in the statistical profession as the “Hawthorne Effect”, and because it is so important  in skewing the results, it is interesting that Arbitron and now Nielsen have gotten away all these years with not acknowledging it in their long list of the “Limitations” of the accuracy of their results!

But there is something else at work that puts the AC stations using this temporary seasonal format at odds with their listeners.  As we have pointed out throughout our four decades of Mainstream AC musiic response testing, the AC audience is NOT INTO NOSTALGIA -- if they were, they would prefer the oldes station!  So, noncurrent music is played in AC for familiarity and preference, NOT NOSTALGIA.  (Most conventional music testing ignores this critical difference when researching preference!) 

When we find the AC core audience is NOT happy to have their station plunge into all-Christmas-music weeks before the holiday itself, this reflects that they “live in the moment” more than they relive their past -- and for this reason it probably should be the oldies stations that adopt this tactic. At least their listeners would enjoy it -- while Mainstream AC listeners just grit their teeth and put up with it -- or else tune away for the season (and sometiomes don’t come back).  A significant portion of the Arbitron/Neilsen “bubble” in the ratings we mentioned is due to conscientious retail workers in the sample reporting having the “Christmas station” on all day in the store -- or, now, that the People Meters pick up that background music when panelists are in stores and restaurants which use ithe station for that purpose.  None of that listening translates into hearing the ads -- or any of the station content!

Commentary in the November 7, 2022, Music

Radio’s journalist, Sean Ross, in late October [2022] had a compelling column in the subject of radio’s greatest strength -- which is the intimacy of radio’s one-to-one local and relevant relationship with the listener. If it's still available online, read it HERE.  He is discussing “personality” vs. being a “DJ”.  For some of us, those are two names for the same thing -- and to be a “personality” does NOT have to mean staged bits and rehearsed humor.  It’s being real, expressing yourself interestingly, and keeping the listener company.

Radio is the most transparent communications medium in human history -- meaning that the medium itself is not perceived while listening.  When you see a TV picture, no matter how high-def, you are conscious of the medium which comes between you and what you are seeing.  Thie same is true of reading print, no matter how well it may convey a thought or emotion.  In radio you are not conscious of the loudspeaker or headphones -- all you hear is the real live sound, and the voice of the person who is talking with you.  The art of the radio talent is to build that personal intiumacy which the medium permits (if you “sound like a DJ” you are not getting it; the art of radio is to use experience and technique to sound like you aren’t using any -- it’s just you and the listener).  Today, large ownerships have the idea that it’s just the music, and air talent can be prerecorded and in another city somewhere and it doesn’t matter.  But it DOES matter!  It’s the only reason for radio’s existence!  Otherwise we couldn't possibly compete with continuous music streaming services that have no commercials. 

We have to bring back live, relatable, local talent if radio is to have a future.  Today’s predominant approach to running radio stations cheaply is making radio itself irrelevant.

Commentary in the October 3, 2022, Music Letter...

We've made the comment that we think the big ownerships’ obsession with eliminating live local airstaff to save money actually makes this the best time ever for a really good live local station!  To better explain that thought, consider that the single biggest advantage radio has, and has always had, over every other mass medium of any type, is the intimacy of the one-to-one relationship between a live local air talent and the listener who is sharing the space with him or her.  Radio’s technology is invisible, and removes all barriers to that intimate contact.  Thus the very last place to cut, for radio, should be the live local talent!  Radio is not a music service -- it’s an intimate person-to-person experience that often involves sharing music.  David can beat Goliath with that!

We might go on to mention that we are also NOT fond of multi-person radio shows, in any daypart, for that same reason -- because that scenario almost always results in these air talents talking with each other instead of the listener.  Nothing is more powerful than one interesting person on the radio communicating with one listener.  Instead of forcing the listener to be be a witness to a “show” involving other people who are involved with each other, an air talent should be a one-on-one companion for the listener.  “Human and relatable” beats “clever performance” every single time.

Commentary in the September 12, 2022, Music Letter...

When we started the Music Letter 39 years ago, there was no way to determine actual AC listener response to a new track, and except for this newsletter, there still isn’t.  At best, those doing hook-based testing can only get a reading on a song they’ve already heard anough to recognize the hook -- and THEN listeners are asked to recreate in their mind their own reaction to each song based on its hook -- which intellectualizes an emotional response, and often results in wrong data.  

Back when we started,  there were reliable Top 40 methods of determining what would galvanize the audience for that format, based on local market singles sales -- but that didn’t work for AC use.  Then that useful Top 40 data was compromised when sales shiifted to albums, since there was no reliable way of determining in such sales just WHICH track or tracks were behind the album’s sale.  In fact, people bought albums sometimes without even having heard them, and they then might find to their disappointment that they didn’t much care for ANY of the tracks on that hot album they bought from word of mouth, or based on the last album.

Now it is extremely difficult to come up with ANY useful information through channels that used to be reliable!  The bible of the pop industry, Billboard’s Hot 100, mutated into a mishmash only tangentially involving sales; streaming plays a large part in it now, and there is no reason to believe that streaming data can conribute meaningfully to what RADIO should be playing.  It seems to us that something like our methodology (which, to this day, nobody else ihas used in musifc research) might be, in the end, the only way radio stations in ANY music format can find out and profitably play the songs their own audience really wants to hear!

Commentary in the May 16, 2022, Music Letter...

In all the ratings discussions in radio, there remains the industry fixation on “SHARE”.  In actuality, the most informative and useful numbers in any rating report are in the CUMES.  Yes, the share figures are something ad agencies do use to rank stations, but that does not make them accurate, or even useful for programming.  If you are to actually DELIVER shares, you really have to focus on CUME.
Let's see just what these two types of ratings data actually represent:  You will always do better over time in the ratings -- as well as with your real-world performance as a radio station -- if you have a substantial cumulative (total) audience.  For the ratings, that simply means that you have a better chance of the ratings company coming across your listeners!   For programming and for sales, that means you have a larger total audience to sell.  And for your listreners, it means your station has sufficient awareness and presence in the community to become and stay a leader.We in radio become fixated on “share” simply because we measure it. 

Radio “Shares” would correspond to the print media offering “readers per page” data.  They know better than to do that -- they sell total audience; and they love it when radio sells itself short, comparing print circulation to our “shares”. 

So what is “shares”?   It is a mathematical projection, factoring cume and “average listening span”, calculating the percentage of available audience -- in a quarter hour -- listening to each station.  You can have a large cume and a short listening span, or a teeny weeny cume and a huge listening span, and get the same “share”. 

But the cume tells the real story in a case like that!   The low-cume station may have loyal listeners, but they listen so long that few ads are needed to reach all of them.  The station with the big cume and shorter listening spans will require more ads to reach all their listeners -- but there are far more listeners to reach!   Program for cume; then add inducements to listen, to ehnance your “share”.

Commentary in the July 26, 2021, Music Letter...

We were asked recently about what puts a song in the “borderline / X-1/2” scoring level -- and the answer is, the target audience has no negative responses to those records -- but no real positive response to them either, since they do not yet care to hear the song all the way through. 

That does not make them tuneouts, but it does mean that if you play one, it will be occupying the space on the air of a song that they DO want to hear all the way through -- that is, a stronger song!  We see no advantage in straying from concentrating on the “Recommended” tracks, when you are playing currents -- since the AC core listener is essentially indifferent to the “X-1/2” songs.   (If you have a really good reason, such as it’s by a local artist, an exception can make sense.) 

Alas, the AC trade charts have a LOT of X-1/2 (or lower) testing songs on them, which is what eventually led to the incorrect conclusion for so many programmers that AC listeners “must not want to hear currents”, resulting in AC being too often a glorified oldies format. 

Oldies formats appeal to the nostalgic; AC is a pop music format, and its audience DOES want to hear interesting new music.  We help you find it.  The trade charts, just reflecting what currents the AC programmers have chosen to play (without any audience input) are not useful in finding the new music that appeals to core AC listeners, which means that most AC stations do not really appeal a great deal to their audience -- and, even if they are taken as “the best alternative” for AC listeners in the market, they are actually vulnerable to new stations and formats arising in the market, which are at least “different” -- and that can even divert AC listeners for a while to a real oldies station debuting in the market which is, at least, a bit different!

Commentary in the May 24, 2021, Music Letter...

On the top of the second page of each Music Letter we present a “Recommended Top 15”.  This is a numbered list, with the rank number of each song in the previous week shown in parentheses at the right.  We are informed that it is uncommon for a radio playlist to show rank numbering anymore -- which seems strange to us, since (as sports statistics and consumer rankings regularly show) people love rank numbers on things -- it gives them a way not only of cheering on their favorites, but also of providing a way for them to comprehend where things stand, week by week.  But there is no need for you to publish a list for the public in order to find this ranking useful -- our intent is to help you with your top rotation! 

Different stations will have different numbers of songs in a high rotation of current tracks -- and if you have only seven songs in yours (for example), our rank numbers will help you determine which seven those should be in any given week – just use the top seven songs in that ranking.  If you want to speed up a short top rotation list, you can drop songs from the top seven which have started back down (in our example), and move up into your top rotation the rising songs just outside our top seven songs.  Like all our data, we are trying to provide you with a way to customize our findings for your unique situation!

So, that begs the question of why we stop with fifteen, then.  Why not rank below number 15?  The answer is that it is very difficult to number beyond 15 with any certainty in the mainstream AC format.  It becomes quite subjective, and we do not want to impose our opinions on your decisions -- we are committed to data-driven research information.  Unlike Nielsen, we do not want to venture beyond where statistically-defensible statistical analysis limits us, in our playlist recommendations to you!  The additional current "Recommended" songs, for lower rotation, are listed below our Top 15, listed in order of date of original recommendation.

Commentary in the May 17, 2021, Music Letter...

Even in weeks in which we find nothing to “Recommend” for your playlist, you will always find useful guidance on page 2 of our printed publication (also available in PDF form) -- and it seems apropos to review what we present for you there, and the ways you can use it.

On the top of that page we present a “Recommended Top 15”.  This is a numbered list, with the rank number of each song in the previous week shown in parentheses at the right.  We are informed that it is uncommon for a radio playlist to show rank numbering anymore -- which seems strange to us, since (as sports statistics and consumer rankings regularly show) people love rank numbers on things -- it gives them a way not only of cheering on their favorites, but also of providing a way for them to comprehend where things stand week by week.  But there is no need for you to publish a list for the public in order to find this ranking useful -- our intent is to help you with your top rotation!  Different stations will have different numbers of songs in a high rotation of current tracks -- and if you have only seven songs in yours (for example), our rank numbers will help you determine what those seven should be in any given week – just use the top seven songs in that ranking.  If you want to speed up a short top rotation list, you can drop songs in the top seven which have started back down (in our example), and move into your list the rising songs just outside our top seven songs. 

Like all our data, we are trying to provide you with a way to customize our findings for your unique situation!So, that begs the question of why we stop with fifteen, then.  Why not rank below number 15? 

The answer is that it is very difficult to number beyond 15 with any certainty in the mainstream AC format.  It becomes quite subjective, and we do not want to impose our opinions on your decisions -- we are committed to data-driven research information.  Unlike Nielsen, we do not want to venture beyond where statistically-defensible statistical analysis limits us, in our playlist recommendations to you!

Commentary in the October 5, 2020, Music Letter...

We all seem too often to be part of a format of sheep:  “All Christmas” appears to goose the ratings -- particularly in Nielsen.  So, without further thought, AC stations pull the ripcord and change format until after Christmas -- often long before Halloween. 

Is this a good idea?  No. Why?  Because it destroys listener expections of your AC format, and forces too many to tune away for a significant period of time. 

But why wouldn’t we want big year-end ratings? Because when the ratings come out, Christmas is over, and the ad agencies know it.

The bald truth is that the ratings bump is caused by going into stores that have the “Christmas station” on.  Merchants for decades have wanted stations to play Christmas music early, because they want customers to get into the Holday buying mood as early as possible -- and to spend more in the store.  It benefits them -- but it does not benefit the station, because although the stores keep the station turned on in there, it’s turned down low, so that the music is perceptible, but the ads and content are not!

This is the same reason you don’t have “Beautiful Music” stations in your market anymore.  At the time the “Beautiful Music” stations faded away, they were still at the top of the ratings in their markets!   So why then did they all disappear?  Because the ad agencies finally caught on that these stations didn’t get any results for the advertisers.  Ad agencies are not particularly concerned with accuracy in ratings -- they’re just used to justify the buys to clients.  But, when clients start getting upset when a class of station doesn’t deliver customers to them, ad agencies buy around those stations, regardless of ratings.  It took a couple of decades for clients to catch on -- but when ithey did, the ad buys stopped, and these top-rated “Beautiful Music” radio stations faded away.

The reason the ratings were high for those stations was that listeners had them turned down for background use.  Just like the stores using all-Christmas music!  Nielsen detects those tones in the store, but the person wearing the device doesn’t really hear the station!

Commentary in the September 14, 2020, Music Letter...

Many years ago, when the technology was first introduced, it was clear to us that Arbitron’s (now Nielsen’s) “People Meter” radio listening technology, which relies on the pager-sized listening device being able to hear encoded tones in radio programming to identify stations and lengths of listening times, could not measure headphone listening, and some people then and now do listen to radio on headphones!  This past week, Neilsen announced that it now will include listening from headphones. 

But it is NOT being done by having people plug their headphones into the “People Meter” and plugging the “People Meter” into the radio, as we imagined would have to be the solution -- in fact, HEADPHONE LISTENING IS NOT BEING MEASURED AT ALL!  Instead, they are using a separate method of ascertaining “which stations are being listened to as streams from the Internet” -- and then are applying a mathematical boost to the ratings of those stations in their radio ratings research!  Talk about mixing apples and oranges!! 

And, this method does NOT attempt to determine who listens to RADIO RECEIVERS with a headset -- those folks are still excluded!! 

Also, since their methodology – diary AND meter-measured – has always shown “wobbles” from book to book due to inadequate sample sizes and selection, and due to the outsizaed impact of atypical listeners – they have triumphantly announced that they now will take the extreme outliers among their sample, and average their results down to bring them in line with their second-most-extreme outliers.  They are not addressing the weaknesses in their measuring process that producing these wobbles -- they are just mathematically erasing some of the wobbles!!  If you’re a statistician,  you’re tearing your hair out:  A terrible sampling method is moving even further away from any pretense of statistical accuracy!

Commentary in the July 20, 2020, Music Letter...

A longtime subscriber from outside North America, looking at recent rating trends in the U.S., asked why AC shares seem to have been sliding.  Last week we responded, “That’s at least partly because AC is an adult pop format, not an oldies format – but most mainstream ACs are all recurrents and older records, with few if any currents.”  That ceretainly does not encourage listener loyalty.

However, we added, there actually was one additional reason for the trend he was observing, which specifically was in the Nielsen ratings trend this year for KOST/FM in Los Angeles.  We replied: “That first, high, rating occurred during the station’s all-Christmas stunting period.  You have read what we have to say about that  every year!  Changing the format completely is not a great idea; and the real reason the ratings tend to shoot up for it is that all the stores have the station on in the background to promote a Christmas Shopping mood.  Ratings (particularly People Meters) tend to pick up that exposure, even if the person carrying the meter pays no attention to the music in the background, and is not even aware it is a radio station, let alone hear any of its ads!

“This stunt can, and often does, briefly goose the ratings, but the ad agencies increasingly discount that – knowing that the station’s ratings will be down again by the time the book is out.  Meanwhile, its listeners are NOT pleased by wall-to-wall Christmas music for a couple of months, and some are driven off.  When Christmas is over, and the regular format resumes, some listeners may have found another pop music station they like better; the rest seep back.  As the memory of the format change fades, more listeners may resume listening for longer periods of time again… Until it happens to them again the following October or November!

Commentary in the July 6, 2020, Music Letter...

Over the years, we've made no secret of the shortcomings that make Nielsen (formerly Arbitron), in particular, so unreliable for programming guidance.  We've also reminded you that what the industry is most focused on -- “shares”, in percentages of total radio listening -- is the least accurate figure; it’s not a projection of real listening, it is just an efficiency figure, being based on dividing cume by the average listening span for each station in the survey. 

But in real life selling and programming, CUME is really more useful than SHARE -- because no matter how you explain share, clients will still compare share with the “circulation” figure of competing media, and your audience may look puny in comparison. That’s because “circulation” is a cumulative (cume) figure.  Other media love it when they can have their total circulation compared with your efficiency figure -- a totally different measurement, and always a smaller one. To explain the difference in terms of newspapers, circulation is the number of people who get the newspaper (regardless of whether they read it or not), while “share” would represent the number of readers per page!!  The newspapers ONLY talk circulation, as do most other media -- while radio talks “share”.  Ad agencies like being able to calculate turnover, and thus cost per thousand of actual listeners -- so that is why the ratings services require we are stuck with share. 

Let them do that; we should use the CUME. Total circulation!  And the station with the most listeners in its universe will look best that way -- against other media, and against other stations.  But, what if your station is strong in cume but weak in share?  That actually is TERRIFIC -- because it means your clients need to buy more ads to reach your HUGE cumulative audience!  The most “efficient” stations may have larger shares -- but often smaller cumes, which means their clients buy fewer ads to reach their universe of listeners.  Program first and always to build cume -- and only then for your cume to want to listen longer, thus increasing efficiency (share)!

Commentary in the March 23, 2020, Music Letter...

One of our subscribers alerted us last week to an item in “Inside Radio”, discussing considerations about when to offer “commercial-free hours”.  We have always considered commercial-free hours an extremely destructive programming practice, and NOT just because of their impact on revenue. The reason we dislike them goes straight to the heart of what successful radio programming IS.  Eric went into the basis of radio programming in his book “Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy”, which is over two decades old but is still in print and still selling, and the principle today is as valid as ever.  Here it is, in its essence:  “Establishing, and then meeting (or exceeding), listener expectations.”  That’s it!  It’s why we use formats.  It’s why people who listen come back, and listen longer and more frequently:  They develop expectations of what they’ll get (both content and presentation); and when they listen, you succeed when they get what they expect.  That’s what brings them back.So what is the message that “commercial-free hours” sends?  That commercials are bad, and that you resist having any. As long as commercials pay the bills, why would you make a point of saying how bad they are?  And what do you think happens when listeners then hear a commerical on your station, later on?  “You’re inconsistent, and you’re greedy!”  If you run a consistent listener-acceptable load of commericals as part of your content, and treat those as interesting, listeners are much more likely to keep listening, and you don’t risk or damage their expectations!

Commentary in the September 16, 2019, Music Letter...

One constant in the world of radio ratings, for well over forty years, is that programmers have consistently designed their programming to take advantage of shortcomings and biases in Arbitron/Nielsen -- taking advantage of opportunities perceived to bias its predictably poor methodology.  On the one hand, it's the old "all's fair in love and war" philosophy; but, since this rating service has been and still is the least statistically accurate national rating service ever (that is, the one with the cheapest and least accurate methodology, but for which it has always charged the most money of any service), such an opportunistic radio programming approach is both an acknowledgement of the rottenness and vulnerability of this particular survey, as well as a display of programming foolishness that often comes back to bite us in the behind.

The long "Limitations" list in the back of the book has always detailed all the ways that this particular survey method could give an inaccurate result; apparently the Federal Trade Commission remains less concerned about whether a radio survey has any accuracy -- than that the inaccuracies it does have are nicely listed somewhere in the book.  To this day, even with Nielsen's move in larger markets from the self-administered diariy to the use of a user-worn "people meter" which is intended to eavesdrop on listening, most of those old inaccuracies STILL apply!

And by the way, as we have often observed publicly in the past, one such "limitation" that has always applied to this particular survey methodology and is especially egregious, has never been in that list!  That would be the "Hawthorne Effect" -- which statisticians know means simply that if somebody's behvior is being monitored, and they know it is, that knowledge will affect the behavior being monitored!  (Should that surprise us?)  No other major radio survey has ever let participants know their listening would be monitored BEFORE it was monitored, thus biasing the behavior being measured -- and that alone would make this the least accurate major survey ever!

Anyway, maybe radio salespeople feel good about selling with ratings that are inflated, but we programmers should actually want to know what our listeners REALLY think and do, because we cannot do a good job attracting and holding them if we don't know that.  If we do program toward what they are looking for and want to hear, we will succeed in building a solid and reliable audience -- succeeding with the LISTENERS, which should be our goal.

But, for programmers who still feel fine about trying to inflate Nielsen ratings with gimmicks and tricks oriented toward flaws in the methodology, this thought:  Nielsen methodology shortcomings result in a large enough error factor that a station can vary wildly in share from book to book when there is no actual change in the actual audience at all.  With these "windshield wiper" swings from book to book, you can be on top in one survey -- and down and fired in the next -- all due to statistical wobbles, with no real change in the actual audience at all.

We suggest you seek out the alternate (and more accurate...and cheaper, too) rating services upon which to base your expertise and your career!

Commentary discussion started in the May 13, 2019, issue of the Music Letter, and continuing over several weeks...

In this space, from time to time, we discuss -- among other things -- how the new music which our testing shows has solid appeal for the Mainstream AC audience might best be used on air.  To begin our discussion on ways to most effectively make use of the new and current music our unique research turns up for you, we must again explain how trade charts (which, in AC, simply reflect what stations are playing, NOT in any way what the listeners themselves may actually like) have led to the airplay of inappropriate current songs.  Then, when these songs later do not test well in station-based "hook testing", AC programmers have incorrectly concluded that their research is telling them their AC listeners do not like new music!  But they actually DO like it (which is why they are listening to AC, and not to oldies stations!) -- and this mistaken impression has led our format to become heavily recurrent as a result.

Actually, the trick is to play the RIGHT new music, and that is where our subscribers have the advantage of knowing what those songs actually are.  Realizing this advantage, however, requires figuring out how to program the strong new music for best results.  This gets into the matter of rotating music correctly, and presenting it most advantageously. 

In figuring out rotations, programmers all too often try to create hourly "clocks" in which to present music.  Problem is, listeners listen SEQUENTIALLY, not according to an hourly pie chart; "clocks" drop records from the sequence (or add them) as needed to stay "on time" in the hour, which can mess up the rotation.

Instead, we recommend MUSIC SEQUENCES, and short ones at that -- because studies show the AVERAGE listener listens only twenty or so minutes per day -- and, no matter how short a time they listen, you want them to hear the whole sequence of old and new music in the correct balance.  Our suggestion is to reduce your key categories to no more than four song positions!  (And then repeat.)  If you have more categories than that, alternate them within an appropriate single position of the sequence!

One such category would be a tertiary sequence of noncurrents -- all strong and familiar enough to play, but which would not benefit from high rotation -- placed in a huge list, a "lunar rotation" that comes around every 2-1/2 to 4 months!  This "opens up" the perception of your having massive variety in your playlist, while still allowing you to concentrate on the best and strongest music in your programming.  Virtually every programmer today in every format (even oldies!) overlooks the audience drawing power of such a secondary category to augment their tight rotation of top music.

Here is a four-song sequence we’ve used successfully on both personality AM and FM AC stations: “strongest oldie recurrents” ALT. with “secondary oldie recorrents” / playlist primary rotation / lunar rotation of “tertiary oldie recurrents” / playlist secondary rotation  (And repeat).  That’s a 50% rotation of current to noncurrent material, and it works like a charm on both AM AC stations and personality AC FM’s to this day, as long as you vary (rather than match) tempos, and have live DJ interaction -- including announcing all the songs!  Amazingly, listeners’ impression of this sequence is that “each song is better than the last.”

For FM’s minimizing DJ interaction and leaning more recurrent -- and this one would work with "matched flow" segues -- we offered an alternative three-song sequence:strongest oldie recurrents” ALT. with “secondary oldie recurrents” / playlist “secondary currents” ALT. with “primary currents” / lunar (but fully curated and justified) tertiary recurrents.  (And repeat.)  That’s 33% corrent content and 67% recurrent/oldie content, and that is as low a current ratio as we would suggest for ANY AC station -- as long as your currents are drawn from our tested “Recommended Playlist” (and NOT trade charts)!

That is the requirement for either sequence to work properly -- because AC listeners really DO want to hear more current music, but they don’t like a lot of the songs on the trade charts -- because those charts just reflect what stations are doing (which is mainly rely on the trade charts, and the programmer’s own tastes!), and not on any OBJECTIVE AND ACCURATE AC LISTENER PREFERENCES -- which, of course, is what we report each week.

Commentary from the February 4, 2019, Music Letter...

The Nielsen ratings are now coming out for the "Holiday" period, and in the majority of cases, the leading stations switching early to an all-Christmas format are showing their annual bump -- sometimes, a pretty substantial bump.  It's a pretty useless bump, too, but radio keeps playing this weird game...  As we keep pointing out, this bump in Nielsen's metered (and even diary-measured) markets depends largely on in-store and in-restaurant exposure to the station that's used for background music there -- which, late in the year, tends to be the station identified with playing constant Christmas music.

Remember the "Beautiful Music" format?  The one that went away when it was still getting big ratings?  It was the victim of clients and ad agencies rather belatedly discovering that a station used for background is turned down enough that listeners do not hear the ads, no matter how the ratings turn out!

So, AC's all-Christmas ratings bump is pretty useless because (1) this background exposure in places of business generally is not turned up enough for the ads to be heard; (2) these ratings do not, in any event, actually apply to the station's audience by the time these numbers actually come out, and everybody knows it; and (3) a significant number of a station's regular listeners listen less or change the station when their favorite station "changes format" for a while at the end of the year -- so the number of ears actually HEARING the ads may actually DIMINISH during the Holiday period!

Commentary from the October 15, 2018, Music Letter...

Many of our recent discussions with broadcasters have focused on ratings, and their deficiencies.  No credible national radio rating service has ever had more deficiencies than Arbitron/Nielsen, in our opinion -- both when using diaries and when using people meters.

But radio and advertisers seem always to be focused on "share", and that is an artificial projected figure, based upon the cumulative audience for each station -- projected from the measured sample, combined with the average amount of time listeners in the sample listened.  Cume is inherently based on a better sample than average listening span, as a result.

The first point to make is that print media have always loved that radio sells share figures (either "persons" share, or an abstract number) while print sells "circulation" -- which is equivalent to cume persons in radio, and that guarantees that print looks better in the comparison!  Unless local print media is willing to reveal their "average readers per page", you cannot compare their circulation with your share.  So sell locally with CUME!

We used to do ratings analysis for major and smaller market stations which restored the data to more or less what it was to begin with, in the survey -- and which made it clear what the ratings were saying.  We ranked stations by cume -- and then showed each's "average listening span" (per demo, per daypart).

If you want to do the same, the formula for calculating this is:


Commentary from the October 8, 2018, Music Letter...

Many of our recent discussions with broadcasters have focused on ratings, and their deficiencies.  No credible national radio rating service has ever had more deficiencies than Arbitron/Nielsen, in our opinion, both using diaries and people meters.

But radio and advertisers seem always to be focused on "share", and that is an artificial projected figure based upon the cumulative audience for each station, projected from the measured sample, combined with the average amount of time listeners in the sample listened.  Cume is inherently based on a better sample than average listening span as a result.

The first point to make is that print media have always loved that radio sells share figures (persons share, or an abstract number) while print sells "circulation" -- which is equivalent to cume persons in radio, and which guarantees that print looks better in the comparison!  Unless local print media is willing to tell the "average readers per page", you cannot compare their circulation with your share.  So sell locally with CUME.

We used to do ratings analysis for major and smaller market stations which restored the data to more or less what it was to begin with in the survey -- and which made it clear what the ratings were saying.  We ranked stations by cume -- and then showed each's "average listening span" (per demo, per daypart).

If you want to do the same, the formula for calculating this for individual stations is:


Commentary from the May 7, 2018, Music Letter...

We conclude our series on accurate music testing for Mainstream AC radio this week.  Although hook-based testing is by far the most accepted method of music research these days, it has significant flaws -- and relying on familiarity to test songs with the use of song fragments forces listeners to mentally resconstruct those songs from these snippets -- and then figure out how they feel about them, which encourages intellectualizing emotional responses -- instead of revealing listener BEHAVIOR, which is what you want.

Last week we went into substantial detail about our methodology, which has -- for a third of a century -- dodged these problems and given accurate informatioon on the music that actually appeals to the AC core female listeners -- INCLUDING on brand-new songs they have not heard before, since we play them for our prequalified panelists from the beginning, until they want to stop a song and move on to the next one (making it NOT "recommended"), or want to hear it all the way through (making it "recommended").  If they ask for immediate replays after hearing it all the way through, it ascends to one or the other of our rare top-two scores.  Initial scores are the song's final scores over 85% of the time, but we re-test to find the 15% that move up with further exposure.

We hope this discussion has opened your mind to other, more accurate ways to test AC music for appeal to your audience!

And, why test mainly for FEMALE response to the songs...?  Well, women have a real edge over men in AC demographics, of course, but that's not the major reason.  It's because we found, early in developing our methodology, that the tastes of the pop-music-loving women attracted to AC radio tend to be broadly in common.  If they are really right in the core of the AC listeners (determined through the prequalifying process detailed last week), they tend to like the same songs, even to the same degree.  In contrast, the men who are included in AC radio cume have pop-music tastes "all over the map"; there is no unanimity.  For mass appeal, you center on songs with the most unanimous appeal.  We test for mass appeal, for the mass-appeal mainstream AC format, and in AC, women lead the way!

Commentary from the April 30, 2018, Music Letter...

For weeks we've been discussing how AC got into the weird situation of being basically a noncurrent pop music format -- for adults who would actually prefer a more current-oriented format!  And, we pointed out that "research" is really to blame, since the methods commonly used employ "hooks" of songs to get audience preference scores -- and that means the songs have to be known and sufficiently familar in order to be scored.  That would seem to rule out testing any NEW current songs!

That is why we have always tested songs by playing them from the beginning for a prequalified small panel of core AC listeners, in an informal setting in which they do not realize their reactions are important -- and in which they are allowed to interact with each other conversationally as they wish, and even to snack, as the songs are played. 

Songs are played from the beginning in our methodology, and are allowed to continue to play until the panel asks that we move on; if they are not interested in hearing a song all the way through, it cannot at that time be "Recommended"!  The importance of their wanting to hear the song all the way through in order for it to be "Recommended" should be pretty obvious for those who put together radio playlists!

To help YOU develop YOUR OWN informal test group, we are discussing our methodology in some detail.  The panel you work with needs to be quite small -- generally under 10, and all female -- in order to keep it intimate and informal, and without a sense of importance.  You are there to evaluate for your notes their response, but never to direct it.  How, then, do you develop "statistical validity" with such a small group?

You don't.  You resolve that issue by prequalifying each panelist, so you KNOW they ARE in the heart of the AC audience target for which you are determining reactions to brand new and current music. 

We pre-qualify our panelists by developing a list of several songs which we play one-on-one for potential panelists, to find those who react in ways that match our previous testing.  Just a few songs will do it -- these are songs that tested very strongly in our ongoing testing, but never became wider hits outside of our circle of subscribers, and thus are not usually responded to by the person you play them for from a position of "familiarity".  (Had they been played in AC more widely, our format would now have a larger and richer library from which to draw our recorrents!). 

Those whose response is similar to our previous test scores for these exceptional but relatively unfamiliar tracks are invited to join the panel of people who "come by to listen to a few new songs each week".  (Not "pick songs", not "score songs", not "influence radio stations" -- just "listen to a few songs".)  We'll conclude next week. . .

Commentary from the April 23, 2018, Music Letter...

To resume the recent conversation begun as a result of a column written by radio and music journalist Sean Ross, which was entitled "The Format With One Current" (Adult Contemporary). . .

We recapped in detail how our format got into this weird situation -- basically a noncurrent pop music format directed to adults (leaning female) who would prefer a more current-oriented format.  Research carries much of the blame, since the methods commonly used employ "hooks" of songs to gain audience preference scores -- and that means the songs tested have to be known, and sufficiently familiar, to be scored this way -- and that would seem to rule out currents, which stations are expected to play for some time (generating charted airplay rankings) BEFORE programmers can find out whether our audience actually likes them!  (And often they don't, or else don't care about them one way or another.)

Complicating the matter further, we test with hooks in an artificial situation not at all like their normal listening environment, by using pieces of songs, which force listeners to INTELLECTUALIZE their emotional reactions; they give you honest answers, but those responses may not match their BEHAVIOR when they hear the same song on the radio.  For example, MANDY by Barry Manilow often tests poorly in such testing, because Barry is a singer from an earlier era and not hip today, but the same listeners may turn it up when it comes on the radio! There are many real-live examples like that. And what we want to do is benefit by audience BEHAVIOR.

Worse still, such tests are often done very expensively in auditoriums, where peer pressure from those sitting nearby making comments during the testing can further predjudice the scores.  So, can new songs be tested accurately for AC?  Yes, and here is the way we found to do it and get accurate results.

Our testing avoids all those testing pitfalls mentioned above.  And ours may not be the only way to do it; we suggest you find your own way to obtain such results yourself, both to confirm our results (and to use our results to calibrate and verify your method), and to find other new songs we may not have tested that your audience likes.

TO BEGIN WITH: Your test group needs to be small, in a normal living room type environment; the validity of the group's reactions need to be verified by your having PRE-QUALIFIED its members.  Not just pre-qualified by their choice of format and demographic, although those are not insignificant, but especially by their one-on-one reaction in your presence to a few songs known to be powerful for AC core listeners, but which are not conventionally played on most AC radio, so familiarity with these songs will not bias the reactions. 

And these panelists -- always under ten in number, to keep it intimate -- must not realize that their reactions are important to you, to keep them from intellectualizing their responses.  For that reason they must be allowed to chat, or even snack, during the songs that you start from the beginning and play for as long as each song holds their interest.  If a song doesn't hold their attention, it cannot be "Recommended", for what should be obvious reasons.  We'll continue with this next time.

Commentary from the April 2, 2018, Music Letter...

To continue the comment we began four weeks ago, about just how we all got into this situation...which is a mainly non-current format.  First, we had Jack McCoy's RAM Research, which introduced auditorium testing in the late 1970's, which concentrated on non-current songs (as hook-based testing must) since the song fragments the testees are to respond to -- "hooks" -- can only work if the folks know the songs the hooks are from.  Jack found many songs the AC core audience liked that had not been played when current, and he produced lists of non-current songs to play.

Add to that the discovery by programmers of that era that the songs they'd borrowed from Top 40 which they thought would apopeal to their core AC listeners often hadn't, when they became familiar enough to test with "hooks".  They failed to learn the right lesson: They'd been playing the wrong currents!!  Instead, they decided thatg their audience didn't LIKE currents, and their statiosn became mostly recurrent/noncurrent, and still are today.

Since the only reason to pick AC radio over oldies stations is the hope to hear SOME new music, AC stations that short their audience on new music are very vulnerable to the novelty of new stations entering the market.  AC should be one of the most loyally-listened-to formats, and instead it is often just a default choice -- consistently disappointing its audience with old music -- frequently, a short list of horribly over-played songs.  That's a problem!  More next week.

Commentary from the March 26, 2018, Music Letter...

Recently we heard from a very longterm subscriber, who sent us a link to an article by the well-known radio journalist Sean Ross called "The Format With One Current".  You can probably guess what format that would be.  Yep, Adult Contemporary! 

Sean observed in that essay, "Now adults are again looking for new music they might like; the difference is that it's become easier for anybody to find music for themselves."  That puts radio outside the realm for listeners of where they expect to find new music.  That is not good.

To continue the comment we began three weeks ago, about just how we all got into this situation...  .

Last week we told about Jack McCoy's RAM Research, which produced a list of some 600 strong AC songs which were all non-current, back in the late 1970's.  (And believe it or not, parts of that list are STILL being used by prominent consultants even today, even though it is over 40 years out of date!  How do we know?  Because there were some "keyed listings" in it -- songs that don't appeal to the Mainstream AC core audience AT ALL, and had no other reason to be played, thus betraying ont he air stations using the list without paying a licensing fee.)

Till then, AC had lots of currents.  But subsequent station research with music hooks -- played over the phone, or in auditorium tests -- showed that the weekly trade charts for AC always include some current songs that don't appeal to AC listeners.

And why is that?  Because most AC PD's don't know what currents their audience likes, so they rely -- in picking currents for the playlist -- upon:

  1. Record promotion
  2. Their own tastes (they are often men; their target is women)
  3. AND THE TRADE CHARTS THEMSELVES, making them self-perpetuating
The assumption that the promoters in the music business must know the AC audience better than do PD's is wrong!  The music business thinks AC does not sell music -- they're wrong, but the AC audience sure doesn't buy the music they are often pushing -- and so they are trying to get AC airplay on songs they want to break on Top 40!  They don't care if the AC audience likes them or not, because they don't think AC listeners buy records.  That explains a lot, doesn't it.

The key point remains that AC listeners don't listen to oldies radio, but instead choose AC, because they are not into nostalgia like the oldies listeners, and they want to hear some NEW AND CURRENT MUSIC But they want the RIGHT currents; the ones THEY will like!  And AC charts are no help at all with that.  More soon.

Commentary from the March 19, 2018, Music Letter...

Recently we heard from a very longterm subscriber, who sent us a link to an article by the well-known radio journalist Sean Ross called "The Format With One Current".  You can probably guess what format that would be.  Yep, Adult Contemporary! 

Sean observed in that essay, "Now adults are again looking for new music they might like; the difference is that it's become easier for anybody to find music for themselves."  That puts radio outside the realm for listeners of where they expect to find new music.  That is not good.

To continue the comment we began two weeks ago, about just how we all got into this situation...  When Eric had the opportunity to move from Top 40 to AC by becoming the Assistant Program Director of KMPC in Los Angeles, under the late Mark Blinoff, he found traditional Top 40 music research methods could give results for AC radio, but the results would be wrong -- because, unlike in Top 40, the bulkl of the key listeners to whom the music must appeal are not responsive in such surveying; they seldom called in a request, and kthey did not buy singles.  How, then, to identify the music they want to hear?

Eric was still working on the problem when he was promoted within Golden West Broadcasting from Asst. PD at KMPC to Program Director of KEX in Portland, Oregon.  It was while he was there at that RAM Research began auditorium testing and developed a list of songs for AC use.  This syndicated and expensive list clearly showed that those songs we in AC programming already knew were particular favorites of our female listeners tested well, even if they didn't show as well in the trade charts, and that many of the Top 40 "softer" hits we assumed they'd like just didn't have much appeal to them.

So, this "RAM list" had instant credibility.  But it would have been prohibitively expensive to constantly test NEW music in auditoriums -- and these songs could not have been tested properly there, since the use of "music hooks" depends on the subjects being familiar with the songs the hooks are part of, and thus is not done, and the immediate reaction from AC radio was to move in a recurrent/oldies direction.

what distinguishes AC from the oldies radio that would love to eat our lunch IS THE NEW MUSIC!

Commentary from the March 12, 2018, Music Letter...

Last week we heard from a very longterm subscriber, who sent us a link to an article by the well-known radio journalist Sean Ross called "The Format With One Current".  You can probably guess what format that would be.  Yep, Adult Contemporary! 

Sean observed in that essay, "Now adults are again looking for new music they might like; the difference is that it's become easier for anybody to find music for themselves."  That puts radio outside the realm for listeners of where they expect to find new music.  That is not good.

To continue the comment we began last week, about just how we got into this situation. . .  When the late Bill Gavin discarded the "Non Rock" title for "Middle of the Road" radio, and coined the term "Adult Contemporary", it was a time when such stations played quite a bit of new music.  Eric had just been offered the opportunity to move from Top 40 to AC by becoming the Assistant Program Director of KMPC in Los Angeles -- a jump from Market 141 to Market number 2.  What he hoped to do there was find a way to identify the new songs the adult pop music listener would like!  At that time, AC charts were just the Top 40 charts, with the harder sounding records filtered out.  The theory was that the rest of the songs would appeal as much to adults as to the kids -- that the tastes would be the same, as long as the harsh and less-melodic hits were filtered out.

But Eric, pretty early, learned that that just doesn't work...  Although the adult pop music audience grew up with Top 40, they'd still be listening to THAT if much of the music were as appealing to them as ever.  After all, the heart of Top 40 was variety, which meant and still means that some of what you hear won't appeal to YOU; it's being played because it represents the cutting edge of what's hot NOW, which is always drawn from the youth.

No, AC had to identify its own hits.  And that was not easy, because -- as Eric learned at KMPC -- tabulating music sales and the requests reaching the station does not identify what the broad mass of the AC audience wanted to hear; but some unlikely material COULD enthrall that audience if it could be found. 

The answer never was, and still is not, playing just noncurrent music, because if that's what the AC audience REALLY wanted, they'd just be listening to oldies stations!  And they don't.

More on solving this problem, next week. . .

Commentary from the March 5, 2018, Music Letter...

In late February we heard from a very longterm subscriber, who sent us a link to an article by the well-known radio journalist Sean Ross called "The Format With One Current".  You can probably guess what format that would be.  Yep, Adult Contemporary!  As always, Sean offered a thoughtful and well-written piece -- concluding with a thought that is the foundation of our 34-year-old weekly music research service, although it is foreign to the thinking of most of today's AC programmers -- "The CHR Miracle of the late '00s/early '10s proved that adults were sincere in wanting to hear new music, if only they could find the new music they liked.  It also shattered the assumption that that music would be somehow esoteric.  It might be Adele.  It might also be Pitbull or "Party Rock Anthem" for a minute.  Now adults are again looking for new music they might like; the difference is that in the intervening decade, it's become easier for anybody to find music for themselves."

Sean observes that not playing more current music might be a "missed opportunity" for AC.  Well, it certainly is.  To recap, we ourselves came from a successful Top 40 background in which meticulous tabulation of actual local music sales and what came in on the request line served us well, and made a little Class IV AM station in a market well below #100 in size influential in breaking records and building a phenomenal audience in an era which, even then, was considered a time when AM music radio could not do that anymore.  (It still can, but that is another thread to follow at some other time.)

That success led to a successful 40+ year career programming stations in major markets -- but most of our subsequent successes qualified in various ways for being AC stations; we never did pure Top 40 again.  Those successes were built upon the principle that adult-oriented pop music mass-appeal radio would work just fine for the adults who grew up with Top 40, if the principles of that format could be adapted successfully to the AC format.  They key would have to be getting input on what new and current music they want!  Trial and error showed that music sales wouldn't do it, and tabulating requests wouldn't do it; the core audience was too passive compared to the minority of the audience that was going to record stores and calling the station with requests.  That led to developing the method we still use here.  But there is much more to be said about the journey between then and now.  More next week. .

Commentary from the February 5, 2018, Music Letter...

A comment here, with regard to our "oldies/recurrent list" for 2017, which subscribers received in our first issue of 2018:  We are disappointed, as no doubt you are as well, that in recent years there have been so few songs to place in these lists -- compared to our earlier annual lissts, which often ran more than a full page in length, as still presented in our "Book of Research".  Is it because fewer and fewer songs are released that have appeal to the Mainstream AC core listener?  Obviously not, as we are able to give you the same lengths of current "Recommended Playlists" each week, and often the same number of new "Recommended" songs, as we did in our earlier years.

No, the problem is the same one that has bedeviled Billboard magazine in compiling its charts in recent years -- HOW people are listening, and what they have been exposed to in each avenue of listening, has vastly splintered the audience; and the WAY they consume the music in many of these new ways is often considerably different from how they listen to the radio, and what they still EXPECT of music radio.  So much of that disparate data is irrelevant to radio, yet it's mixed in to the trade charts.

Music streaming is far different in showing real comittment to one song over another than any form of sales, or even requests.  Access to streaming varies from service to service, usually requiring a subscription, or exposure to ads.  Sales data began going screwball for radio sue when labels switched long ago from a singles approach to an album approach; albums made more money for them, but which of the songs on them that people really liked was no longer clear.

How much more difficult is it, then, to interpret preference levels on songs heard in random streaming, and to find any real value of songs exposed through social media!

So, commonality of preference for AC core listeners is harder than ever to establish in conventional chart and test data.  The AC trade charts really cannot tell you.  And it is "commonality of preference" that make oldies/recurrents useful in AC radio!  Thus, our shorter annual lists. 

We continue to develop that "commonality of preference" for new and older songs that nobody else does -- data which makes programming currents a positive audience attractant for AC radio.  But we are not sure it will ever again be possible, as a result of this splintering of the avenues of listening, to return to being able to offer a longer annual "oldies/recurrents" list.

Commentary from the July 10, 2017, Music Letter...

To continue a discussion started here recently, we are still urging those of you who may still be holding out, to ANNOUNCE THE SONGS YOU PLAY.  You would be surprised how indifferent to the music your station seems, to your listeners, if you simply paste unidentified tunes between your breaks, and ignore the songs you just played in your announcements.  Your listener can be passionate about the music, particuarly if you, as a Music Letter subscriber, are actually playing songs she likes; but, if you seem not to care about the music you're playing -- seemingly uninterested in it, except as filler -- that is the real turn-off for her.  Announce it!  Announce it all -- even if she does already know what it is (and you'd be amazed how often she doesn't, and is hoping you'll tell her), she will appreciate that you care about the music she likes...and that increases her expectations that you know the music she likes, and will play even more of it if she listens longer!

At an AC seminar we attended many years ago, a still-very-well-known AC PD commented that, "of course we don't announce the songs."  We asked him privately, "Why not?"  He said that he knew that announcing the songs always shows up near the top in listener preferences in audience research, but conceded that he was still uneasy about doing something nobody else was doing.  (In fact, doing something different which your listeners want is a good way to rise to the top of your market!)  He also worried he'd break "forward momentum". 

Nuts!  "Forward momentum" is intended to draw the listener along -- and what she wants to hear next, after a song, is WHAT IT WAS!

Commentary from the June 26, 2017, Music Letter...

This week, we chanced to engage in an informal discussion about radio with professionals in various fields, and found that our own perception of radio as having become very boring, as huge group ownerships have proliferated, is shared by people outside of radio also.  We believe the reason for this is that when you own multiple stations in various formats in a single market, you not only don't want your own stations competing with each other for listeners, for fear one of them will undercut others you own, but you also tend to treat radio stations like cards in a card game -- sacrificing one of yours to take down one of theirs, with no regard for what a station (which is basically an intangible that lives in the head of a listener) means to those who listen to it.

It seems to us we live in an era that has actually never been better for a scrappy independent station, willing to aggressively compete in a market -- since the big guys not only are afraid to compete for the reasons just mentioned, buit they have no idea how to counter it if YOU get competitive.  Most independents seem to take a look at the monster radio company(s) they are up against, and all those bucks they can deploy, and tend to be submissive when they could instead be very aggressive -- and win.

And by the way, as the late Bill Gavin was telling us forty years ago, and as we too have been saying for years, since listener research consistently shows listeners want the music we play announced, DO IT!  It not only meets their desires, but it sets your station apart in a positive way -- and it shows them you respect the music you play!

Commentary from the June 12, 2017, Music Letter...

Last week, for those operating AM radio stations, we asked that you please don’t give up on them, as the industry did as a couple of decades ago. AM’s still not only have coverage advantages in hilly terrain, but the audience still considers AM a separate service from FM, with different expectations of it -- and until that perception evaporates (as we in radio have seemingly been trying to make it do for years) -- there are still ways AM stations can beat FM stations with music.  We outlined just why and how in Eric’s book “Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy”.  And, rather than use weak FM translators to put AM stations on the FM band as is being done widely today, we said that since ’most every adult still has an AM radio, you should instead give them a reason for listening to AM that meets their expectations of what they want on, and used to love about, AM radio!

And, we promised this week to tell you about a unique transmitting antenna that appears to end most issues facing AM transmissions -- it seems to have little or no skywave, thus eliminating the reason for directional antennas in many cases, and the reason for reduced nighttime power, while still delivering a strong groundwave; and it is extremely compact. It's called the Paran antenna design.

This antenna has been working just fine for KAPS in Mt. Vernon, Washington, north of Seattle, for a quarter century.  The brilliant engineer Eric mentioned in his book, George Frese PE, was faced with an AM station with a CP for 660 kHz, using 10 kw-D and 1 kw-N -- but there was a tower height restriction of something like 200 feet at the location, due to its proximity to Canada.  At 660 kHz, a quarter wave antenna should be well over 500 feet.  George turned to a shortwave design, and showed the FCC how it would work on AM, and the Commission authorized it, subject to its meeting a proof of performance, which it did.  The four towers, in a box shape, are some 115 feet tall, with grounded bases, fed at the tops by an “X” pattern of wires, with the transmitter connected to the center of the “X”.  The groundwave is excellent, but there seems to be little or no skywave, and George believed it didn’t have a skywave -- but nobody was willing to pay for a helicopter to run a vertical signal plot to prove it.  If someone were to do that now, and could prove it, that would revolutionize the AM band!

And there’s that one other thing...  In an era in which AM stations are diplexing into towers, losing tower sites, and fighting planning commissions to build or retain conventional transmitting tower systems, this one is dinky.  Tower heights decrease as radio frequencies rise.  If four 115 foot towers, spaced about that distance from each other, is all that’s needed for 660 kHz, think how tiny the antenna system would be at 1600 kHz!  Twenty feet high, perhaps?  Maybe less?  Spaced that far apart?  You could build that one in somebody’s back yard and call it landscaping!  We have been trying to attract the attention of the industry to this PROVEN AND LICENSED antenna design for years.  Want to spread the word?

Commentary from the issue of February 16, 2015

As radio increasingly competes with other sources of music and content, it is worth reminding ourselves what radio is best at.  It makes little sense to compete with all-music services, especially in a world in which music services can be customized to the tastes of each listener, because broadcasting has an inherent disadvantage in that regard against narrowcasting.  Forty years ago, radio began to set itself up for this problem by stressing "much more music".  While indeed it is good to play a lot of music, radio is not and cannot be competitive against all-music services that can be customized to the individual's taste!

What radio IS best at is relating to the listener on an intimate one-to-one level -- and it's better at that than any other medium ever invented to date.  But doing that requires the presence on-air of live and relatable human beings, who unite -- and present on-air -- the various elements of programming...and do so in a context that is LOCAL to the listener. 

It is somewhat ironic that in this era of "social media", the ORIGINAL social medium -- radio -- does not seem to understand this.  And yet radio can still be the most intimate companion of all -- if radio elects to return to its strength, with live and local air talent regularly interacting with the listener over the air, one-on-one.

We must not lose sight of this:  Successful programming can be boiled down to a simple rule:  Build clear listener expectations of the station and what it presents, and then meet or exceed those expectations!  That's what keeps them listening, and that's what keeps bringing them back.

Commentary from the issue of September 22, 2014

Over the years of our testing, which is well over thirty years, we have seen the "Recommended" Mainstream AC music shift somewhat towards a bit harder edge; this is the natural evolution associated with younger listeners entering the psychographic at the low end, and the older listeners departing at the upper end -- it's the changing of the generations!  

The tastes of the younger AC listener shifts as the years pass -- and the younger listener is the one for whom the music means the most.  (The older listener is more tolerant of whatever she gets in music, as long as the station stays relatable, and remains a reliable companion.)

What is most striking to us, though, is how little -- in many ways -- the AC core females have actually changed in their collective tastes.  They still like rhythm and melody, and usually are rather indifferent to lyric.  (Offensive lyrics will bug them, but often they have no idea what the lyric really is.)

In fact, if you check the "Our Findings" page on this website, even though it has been posted there in its current form for years, there is as yet nothing on that list that we would change.  It still expresses what we continue to find, in general, about the tastes and preferences of the audience to which Mainstream AC is programmed.

And why is the format targeted so specifically to women?  Because -- and this does remain the case after all these years, also -- the tastes of the female pop music listener STILL are very similar across the whole psychographic, while the tastes of men in the same age range who prefer to listen to pop music still vary widely.  It's that "female unanimity of tastes" that makes AC a mass-appeal format.

Commentary from the issue of July 28, 2014

In our issue last week, we discussed how to "unwind" ratings data to put it back into a form approximating the way the data existed originally -- by ranking stations by cume, and projecting average listening span for each station.  Not only is this a more meaningful way of studying the data, but it also gives you insights into the accuracy (or lack of it) reflected in the ratings you are examining.  And we'll give you some guidelines to help evaluate this sort of ratings data, to get a feeling for that accuracy.

First and foremost, the cume numbers should be fairly stable from book to book, if the ratings you are getting for your market do have statistical validity.  If you see the cume go down and the average listening span go up, and vice versa, on a book-to-book basis, you are observing that the ratings company is not very good about reaching your secondary listeners, but is getting your core listeners with regularity -- the long listening span audience is holding up your share while your cume wobbles.  Cume shouldn't wobble, in an accurate and statistically-valid study!  if your share and cume go up and down together, on the other hand, the sample in your market is not well-drawn geographically.

If your shares bounce around from book to book, the form of ratings display we are advocating can tell you what's causing it:  A reasonably steady cume, with average listening spans that bounce around, tell you that you are on the right track with your audience, but the ratings sample is not large enough for relilable share data.  Needless to say, program decisions based only on share trends can ruin a station that is actually doing just fine, and which has a loyal audience.  Program your station for cume rather than share, to develop a strong mass audience -- and then, be consistent, in order to build and reward listener expectations. 

Commentary from the issue of July 21, 2014

A major secret in radio is how to evaluate ratings -- both for content and for accuracy -- by focusing on CUME.  The largest part of the statistical sample is represented by the CUME:  For programming, that part of the ratings is based on the entire sample and not just part of it, and thus is more accurate; for sales, CUME is comparable to print media's CIRCULATION, and thus is a stronger tool for selling than is SHARE.

The Average Quarter Hour SHARE is simply an efficiency figure, mathematically derived from a formula correlating CUME with AVERAGE LISTENING SPAN.  Some programmers work so hard to lengthen the listening span by reducing interruptive elements (like news, DJ content, and relatability to the listener!) that they lose CUME (fewer people find the station worth listening to).  This approach is a major error; you actually want to build your CUME by appealing to a wider variety of people, which automatically means that to some of your audience your station is their third or fourth choice, to which they listen less, and that reduces your average lisstening span.  THAT IS NOT BAD:  You then have a large CIRCULATION, and if the efficiency is down a bit, advertisers simply have to buy a few MORE ads to reach your large CUME!

If you are too efficient, advertisers only need to buy one or two ads a day to reach your whole audience (which is probably cumulatively not very big anyway).  High efficiency and long listening spans are great for niche formats -- but they're death  on mass appeal formats!

Commentary from the issue of May 27, 2013

On Thursday, May 16, came the bad news:  Landmark radio programmer Paul Drew had passed away in a Los Angeles care home that morning at the age of 78.

Eric Norberg comments, "Paul was very supportive of me, personally, dating back to my days programming KMBY/AM in Monterey, California -- my first programming assignment (1968-72).  When I wrote my book, "Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy" -- although the publisher had given me a contract for the book before it was written, they told me after I delivered the manuscript that they would would need a favorable peer review before publishing it.  I suggested Paul Drew.  Paul liked the book, and endorsed it, so the book was published in 1996 -- and, close to two decades later, it is still in print and readily available.

"Paul was also very supportive of the Adult Contemporary Music Research Letter that we've been publishing since 1984, and he followed our testing results.  He called my attention in the mid-1990's to what turned out to be the strongest-testing vocal we have ever tested in our entire 29 years: The original version of TO LOVE YOU MORE by Celine Dion.  It was 5-1/2 minutes long (you don't even get to the hook till the 4-1/2 minute mark!), and was being touted to me by a programmer famous for wanting records to be short!  Whenever the original version, which Paul had imported from Japan where it was a TV show theme and was released on a 3-inch CD, was played in the U.S., it got strong calls.  When copies were made available for sale, they sold out immediately.  (A store in Michigan obtained over 100 copies in a promotion with one of our subscribers, and when the store opened there was a line -- and all copies were gone an hour later.)

"Epic Records, apparently annoyed about having to release a song in North America that they had not planned to, did so -- but whacked a couple of minutes out of it, which washed out the astonishing emotional impact.  We still recommend having the song in your "oldies" -- but only the stunning original version!  (If you don't have it, we can e-mail it to any radio professional requesting it through their professional radio e-mail address; it will require the ability to receive an e-mail of upwards of 15 MB.)

"In this incident it was made clear that Paul still had an uncanny sense of how the audience would react to a song, regardless of how programmers (or record companies) felt about it.  I will miss Paul Drew."

Commentary from the issue of May 13, 2013

Recently we have shared with you details of an elaborate study conducted for Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters in Los Angeles in the 1970s which actually did show that radio ads can be more effective in generating accurate ad recall than television ads.  Despite that validation of the effectiveness of radio advertising, and despite radio ads costing just a fraction of what TV ads do, the GWB gift to the industry of the results of this expensive study were almost completely ignored, and to the best of our knowledge a similar study has never been conducted since.  It was ignored at the time probably because the study was seen as benefitting GWB and its own approach to radio more than it did radio as a whole.

In reality, however, it meant much more to radio in general than was perceived at the time, and it should have become (and could still become) an important part of the arsenal of anyone selling radio.  Just as one can use rating info selectively, one could do the same with this study, concentrating on the "overall radio/overall TV" comparisons, if one chose.

In fact, the "all radio" and "all television" figures -- "for accurate recall of at least one advertisement broadcast by a given radio or TV station in the past hour" -- were almost exactly the same, at around 20%.  In this verified recall study, radio ads worked just about as well as TV ads, and for a fraction of the cost.  That was, and still is, very valuable information to have in selling radio advertising!

There was a substantial increase over "all radio" in the accurate ad recall for the Golden West station, KMPC, due to its "personality" approach -- but instead of making KMPC look transcendant, the study showed the same effect applied to KLAC's country format and any other station in the market using a "personality" approach to air talent presentation.

That, too, is vital information even today -- and validates what many have these days come to believe: That the use of LIVE, LOCAL, interesting people on the radio, particularly as hosts in a music context, build a relationship with the listener, which results not only in greater station loyalty, but also increases the effectiveness of the radio advertising in that setting by up to 50%.  In radio, AIR TALENT can still make a huge and quantifiable difference in a station's ad effectiveness, and thus in the station's revenue -- and you can take that to the bank!

Commentary from the issue of February 11, 2013

We recently reminded programmers that one of the most-often-identified unmet needs of radio listeners -- especially AC core female listeners -- has been well-known for decades, because it keeps turning up in research.  The late Bill Gavin, our mentor, made the point clearly as early as the 1970's:  Announce what you are playing!  Tell them what the song and artist are!  They want to know, so tell them.  

This comment drew a response from a longtime reader, Buzz Brindle, who gave us permission to quote him by name...

Your commentary reminded me of something that surprised me when I sat in on an auditorium test for an oldies station in the early '90s, which was reinforced when I was programming an oldies station a few years ago.  I sat in the back of the room as a test participant, and wrote down my responses to the hooks like everyone else (my responses weren't included in the test results), just to get a sense of a respondent's experience.  Oddly, the moderator didn't prevent participants from verbalizing their reactions to the '60s and early '70s oldies which were being tested, so people were excitedly shouting out artist names and/or song titles as the test progressed.  These were P1s and P2s for the station, and the songs being tested were the perennial hits which had been played many thousands of times on the radio -- so I was amazed at how often they misidentified the artists and songs.  They were even getting wrong such highly identifiable artists as the Beach Boys and the Beatles!

Flash forward to the early 2000's, when I was programming an oldies station in our cluster.  Like most radio folks, I presumed that my oldies-partisan listeners woulod have a high level of awareness about the titles and artists of the '60s and '70s hits they'd heard hundreds of times during their lifetimes.  But, again, I discovered that I could not take that for granted.  Consequently, we started backselling title and artist information for those oldies, just as one would (or should) on a station which plays current music.

Another observation I made, and which I believe has been noted in the Music Letter in the past, is that it's much more effective from the listener's perspective if the title/artist info is backsold, rather than provided just prior to playing a song.  It's more likely that the question they're asking, if they've been listening all the way through, or tuned in halfway through a song, is "what is that?"  At the beginning of the song, it's more likely that their decision to stick with the song will be based on how the way it sounds satisfies their needs at the moment, and the title/artist info is less relevant.

Thanks Buzz!  If it's either/or, then yes -- the place to put the announcement of song and artist is after it has played.  Because that IS the next thing they want to know.  But we have always advocated introducing AND backselling everything played.  Nobody tunes out because you are telling them what you are playing, and many really do want to hear it -- even if they think they know, your announcement confirms it for them.

And here is one more thing to remember:  Stations that don't announce the music they are playing are showing that it is of no consequence to them -- that's it's just filler between the commercials.  The station that respects both the music and the listener enough to tell them what the music is shows a respect for the music AND the listener that makes a difference in how the station is perceived! 

Commentary from the issue of November 26, 2012

In all the angst we have been reading in the trade press lately over how Arbitron's "People Meters" are seen as upending previous rating trends and undermining niche formats, one point seems to have been overlooked: Arbitron's diary rating method is the most inaccurate ever used by a national rating company, subject to more limitations and skews than any other.  Although placement and cooperation issues still skew Arbitron's results, the meters at least seem to measure actual listener behavior, so they represent one step closer to reality

And we remind you that your goal as a programmer should not be to build
SHARE, which is simply an efficiency figure, but CUME -- which is actual circulation information, comparable to print circulation figures. 

If your cume is high but your share is low, advertisers simply have to buy more ads to reach your huge audience.  Big share and low cume means that just one ad will reach most of your audience, so advertisers only need to buy a few, and can save their budget for the station with the big

Commentary from the issue of November 19,

We have had recent conversations with subscribers on the subject of programming research.  We are in the research business, and we also have programmed.  Research which illuminates audience behavior is extremely useful.  Research based upon audience opinions can be very misleading.

For decades, it's been pointed out that TV viewers often tell researchers that they want more documentaries and fine programming -- yet when they get home from work, they sit down and turn on mindless comedies.  The usual conclusion is that people must be lying in order to portray themselves in a better light.

But what is actually happening is that intereviewers are seeking opinions -- and they are getting them.  They are usually honest opinions -- people do recall the best of those special programs that really made a difference to them.  Yes, when exhausted after a long day of work, they don't really need or want mental stimulation, and as a result their behavior does not match up with their previously-expressed opinion.

All too often, programming research is based on listener
opinion.  Callout research necessarily picks up substantial opinion, since respondents must reconstruct their reaction to a song from hearing only its "hook".  There, too, research may indicate antipathy to a song -- which, later, the same listeners turn up when it appears on the radio!  MANDY, anyone?

Our own research is deliberately BEHAVIOR-based, which is why it is predictive.

Commentary from the issue of October 29, 2012

One of our subscribers shared with us a new radio research report which finds that there are (gasp) negatives involved in going "all-Christmas" way early -- and it turns out they are the very negatives we've been warning you about right here each year.  The reason for high ratings for "all-Christmas" programming in Arbitron, when doing this annual all-Christmas stunt, is the same reason that the old, extinct "Beautiful Music" format got high ratings in Arbitron (much higher ratings than they did in other rating services) -- but radio eventually was forced to bail out of the entire format despite very high ratings right to the end. 

That reason was that Arbitron's methodology (then with diaries, and now with the People Meters too) uniquely emphasizes in-store and at-work exposure to radio stations turned on in the background for environmental purposes.

With the diaries, it was largely people working in offices or in retail, who took the trouble to find out what station was on all day at work, and wrote it down for eight hours a day in their diaries.  That still happens to stations used that way in diary markets even today.  But today, in large markets, that is augmented by shoppers, visitors, and workers whose incidental exposure in stores and offices is picked up by the People Meters.

Either way, ratings gained that way are unproductive -- since the radio is turned down too low for those who "listen" that way to hear the commercials!  In our home base, Portland, Oregon, we had THREE Beautiful Music stations in those days, and each one was #1 12+ when it changed format!  Advertisers had learned that the numbers did not translate to sales, and stopped buying ads (and told their agencies not to buy ads, if that's how their buys were made).

That is a hazard with all-Christmas programming too, for today's AC's.

An additional hazard:  The regular listeners drift off during this stunting (it's really like a format change for them), and it does take a while for them to come back after the Holidays -- if they ever do.  So, the ratings drop afterward.  As you have probably noticed.

Commentary from the issue of August 20, 2012

One of the tracks tested this week was labelled as being the "clean" version.  The song itself was one of the more appealing of the batch tested -- but, as we have mentioned before, we have big reservations about "recommending" any song which is available as a broadcast "clean" version, because the purchased version -- should the listener buy the song on iTunes or on a CD -- is very likely to be the "original" version, which obviously is not a "clean" one. 

Since the core AC female listener usually has a family, if she buys a song she hears on your station which turns out not to be "clean", who is she going to blame?  NOT the record company that released it -- but YOUR STATION.  That's where she heard it!
We continue to hear, however: "What difference does that make -- AC listeners don't buy music".  Nuts.  Not true.
That misconception is what brought AC to its current ridiculous situation, in which it is touted on songs that the labels want to break in other formats -- simply to get station airplay -- without any concern whether the song actually appeals to AC listeners or not. That, in turn, has led to our format becoming heavily oldies-oriented, because these new songs, when later hook-tested, all too often turn out not to have any real appeal for AC listeners!
The Adult Contemporary radio's conclusion about that result has been that "AC listeners must not like new music".  But, in fact, the truth is that they not only DO, but actually PREFER it.  But ONLY when these new songs appeal to them!
The AC core female listener DOES buy music -- and does so much more these days, since iTunes makes it so easy to do so -- BUT ONLY THE SONGS SHE LIKES!!

Since the trade charts, which are based entirely on AC airplay, don't reflect what she is buying (or what she likes -- stations don't think they have a way of measuring that, which is why we do what we do), the myth persists that she just doesn't buy music ("or sales would track the AC charts"). 

Well, the AC charts are based on airplay, and the truth is that most AC programmers rely entirely on promotion -- AND THE CHARTS -- to determine which currents to play!  So listeners are left out of that equation altogether.

We can tell you that sales DO tend to track what our testing shows AC core female listeners like. 
Stations use our data develop more engaged, loyal, and more attentive listeners.  That translates to improving ratings, and better reponse to the advertising on the station.  And, less vulnerablility to other stations!
Commentary from the issue of July 9, 2012

A longtime colleague in radio forwarded us a news item about a study conducted by Mark Kassof and Company about AM radio.  It shows that the format most associated with AM radio is Talk.  Surprise.  WE did that to our audience; just because listener expectations of engagement and interesting content are still more centered on AM than FM (as explained in depth in Eric's still-available book "Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy") -- expectations that make talk programming still more welcome there -- broadcasters for over a quarter of a century have been creating a vast wasteland, with no music, on the AM band.  Listener expectations are based upon what we as broadcasters do!!!  So, we trained radio listeners not to expect music there, and sure enough they don't.
However, we remind broadcasters that in the late 1950's and the first half of the 1960's, most people didn't even HAVE an FM radio, which made it hard for FM to compete with AM radio.  At least today, even if they are mostly listening to FM, most people do HAVE an AM radio.  As with FM then, give them something they WANT to listen to, on the band they are not tuning in, and you can still get them to listen.  (And, for 80% of the available audience, that's music.)

Because of the availability of AM radios, it is still easier to get people to tune in AM today than it was to get them to tune in FM back then!  The music testing we do can and has made pop music work -- work well -- on AM.  But, it has to be programmed a bit differently from how it is on FM.  We can help.

Commentary from the issue of April 30, 2012

Since the 1970's, Arbitron has been demolishing its radio ratings competition by massaging the ad agencies, getting them to specify Arbitron as the rating they want to see.  They did this not by stressing accuracy, but by providing the data agencies wanted to have (like numbers to tenths of a point, which is statistically meaningless with these sample sizes), in order to make and justify ad buys, even if it was statistically irrelevant.

Radio never understood how it was being manipulated into paying ever increasing prices for subscription to Arbitron -- when the agencies got all the ratings in the country for practically nothing!  (This means you don't have to subscribe for the agencies to see how you are doing -- they get all the data anyway.)

Arbitron also provided ratings information to the trade press to establish their ratings' reputation as the main currency of the trade, even though they were statistically the least accurate results of all major national rating services.

In this context, Arbitron in April of 2012 showed that they may have forgotten how they got into this enviable position, and that they may now simply be basking in their near-monopoly -- by no longer releasing rating information to the trade press for any station that does not subscribe!  This suddenly makes each market's Arbitron ratings less credible, since it is clear that stations and data are being intentionally left out.  Non-subscribing stations vanish from these published reports -- putting extra pressure on these stations, perhaps, to subscribe....

For decades, we have called on stations in ALL markets NOT to subcribe to Arbitron.  It is foolish to sell local advertisers based upon abstract "numbers" that can, and often do, wobble widely from Arbitron to Arbitron.  Local advertisers are interested in CUSTOMERS, not numbers, unless broadcasters "educate" them otherwise.

The only clients who specifically want to see Arbitron ratings are ad agencies -- and they already receive ALL Arbitron market data at virtually no cost, while the stations foot the huge bill for all this.  NOW would be a good time to stop subscribing!  We suggest that for more accurate information that can actually be used to steer the ship (or to counter a bad wobble in Arbitron when communicating with ad agencies), buy something else.  You might look at Eastlan.

Commentary from Winter 2011-12

We have tried for years to get a response from iBiquity, the developer and licensor of the U.S. "HD digital radio" technology, on our concern that although the system is increasingly robust for FM stations, the AM station version uses digital power levels (for the HD component) that are very low. It appears to us that today's AM HD receivers cannot resolve an AM HD signal of from a station whose regular AM analog signal strenght is below about 15 mv/m -- THREE TIMES the "city of license" signal strength required by the FCC in the station's "city of license"! 

Thus, AM stations need massive licensed AM carrier power to have enough digital HD power embedded in it simply to cover their metro with HD, and smaller AM stations cannot even cover just their entire city of license with an HD signal.  (The iBiquity signal reverts to standard analog when the HD signal cannot be resolved, for both AM and FM stations.)  Given this situation, we believe AM stations should be allowed more digital HD carrier power embedded in their analog AM signal than is currently allowed by the FCC.

Our latest attempt to contact iBiquity DID draw a response from Bob Struble, President and CEO of iBuiquity.  He wrote, "I share your concerns on AM.  the basic issue is the band itself, and its noise issues.  I am speaking of analog, but the same applies to digital when the analog signals are still around.  Every time someone turns on a computer or a fluorescent light bulb, there is less AM reception. . .  Unfortunately, with all the noise and AM stations out there, there is only so much we can do with digital. . .  The best answer to the band is a transition to all-digital AM HD broadcasting.  Here, the anlog signals would be powered down, the digital would be powered up, and we would have a beautiful pristine band -- no interference, miles and miles of coverage, crystal clear sound.  In this scenario, [today's] hybrid AM HD radio is just a transition technology.  Unfortunately, I think [this all-digital scenario] is a long way away."

We still think higher AM digital power is needed NOW.  This would cause some adjacent-channel interference at a distance -- but if AM cannot compete within its local metro, it is doomed, and having cleaner long-range signals at a considerable distance cannot save it.

Commentary from issue dated May 9, 2011

We've been observing for a long time that broadcasters themselves have been destroying listening to the AM band.  It's been going on for over a third of a century.  Part of successful programming is starting out with what listeners already think and expect -- that's "positioning" -- and broadcasters have really been blowing it when it comes to understanding what listeners STILL want and expect of AM.

As discussed in an early chapter of
our book, "Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy", which is still in print after 13 years, FM began as a background medium -- an extension of the hi-fi (later, stereo) system.  As a result, as a commercial medium, FM has always worked best as an environmental, background, unobtrusive medium -- even in a rock context, with matched-flow segues and minimized breaks.

AM, by contrast, was already established as the medium to be used for companionship when engaged in boring tasks -- driving, doing yardwork.  AM was expected to be interesting and engaging.

Consequently, listeners -- even today -- expect FM to be an undemanding accompaniment, and AM to be interesting and engaging.  The expectation is NOT so much about audio quality as PRESENTATION.  Broacasters totally do not get that.

These listener expectations eplain why talk programming (interesting, engaging) still works better on AM than on commerical FM, recent format changes nonwithstanding.  But 80%-85% of all radio listening is done for music, and AM should be playing music if it still is to draw a decent audience.

Mainstream pop music STILL will work on AM -- provided the presentation matches the expectation!  That's where the DJ interaction, contrasting music presentation, production elements, richer content (including local news!), and energy, are involved.  When FM began its ascendancy, AM began to copy FM programming techniques, and audiences lost interest -- this did NOT match their expectations of AM.

So, where are we today?  Adult listener expectations of AM radio still have not yet been completely destroyed by broadcaster programming decisions, though the day may come when they are.  But today, the AM band is a vast wasteland as far as most adults are concerned -- and we did it to ourselves.  If we as broadcasters respond to what adult listeners of all ages EXPECT of AM -- with music and CONTENT and PRESENTATION that FM cannot successfully match -- it can still be profitable! Our own unbroken record of success doing this, across the decades, gives us some credibility in making the point.

Is AM too far gone to make it work?  Eric started in FM when nobody had an FM radio (and many people did not know what FM was) -- and he saw the new medium rise.  Today, whether they ever listen to AM or not, everyone DOES have an AM radio.  Often, several.

Give them a reason to listen, and they can, and they will.

Commentary compiled from several issues in late 2010 and early 2011

We have followed with bemusement programmer distress over Arbitron's "People Meter" methodology, as it replaces the use of self-administered diaries in larger markets.  Since it seems clear that -- despite all the ongoing placement difficulties by Arbitron -- the meters are more accurate than the diaries, we haven't understood what the objection is.  Could it be that programmers somehow thought the diaries in any way represented ACTUAL listener behavior??

A comment we saw recently turned on the light for us:  "PPM demands cume".  Is THAT the problem?  Yes, a bit weakness of the diary method is the way it unintentionally encourages the overreporting of favorite stations and omitting the rest, which does make "avergage quarter hour share" more prominent than it should be -- but, as we have argued over the decades, and in Eric's book also, is that CUME IS ESSENTIAL -- YOU MUST PROGRAM FOR CUME.

Cume -- "cumulative audience" -- corresponds to print's "circulation"; and, for advertising, that is what radio salespeople compete against. 
Cume is based on the whole sample, and share on just part of it.

Cume defines your audience; share is just an efficiency factor.  Program for cume!

And just what does that mean?  it means that the relentless removal of all interruptions and content around the music, which the desire to increase "share" while disregarding "cume" has led the industry to, must stop.

It means that that DJ presence in ALL time periods can build audience and listener loyalty.

It means that compatible elements that appeal to segments of the potential audience should be melded in -- and that does include news!   News is no tuneout if it is done properly -- responsively directed to the interests of the target audience, and what they expect of a news report.  News builds cume, but must be scheduled consistently and frequently enough to be anticipated by the listener, in order to do so.

News is also a way for MUSIC radio stations to remain compelling and relevant.  When the FCC requirement for at least a little news from all radio stations was abolished, most music stations cut way back in news -- leaving just headlines in drivetimes, or worse yet, no news at all.  Too bad, because true LOCAL news coverage remains extremely compelling for the adult listener.

Even if they don't like your music they'll cume your station for the news, because (heaven knows) nobody else in your market is likely to be doing much with it.  Even the "full service" station, which still pays a news staff, is usually content to have their newsperson(s) simply PRESENT the news on the air, as if that mattered much, and otherwise just have the news staff cover scheduled news events (civic meetings, etc.).

The solution is to hire an aggressive "newshound" -- at least one -- and, other than having them come in in the morning to SET UP the news for morning drive, they should be free to keep their own hours and have their productivity measured by how much real news they come up with, rather than how many newscasts they give on the air!

How do you find such a newsperson?  Former newspaper people are often an excellent choice; other than doing "voicers from the scene", they need never go on the air.  Letting airstaff (you should have one, even if you are in a tiny market) present the newscasts, and devoting the newsperson to gathering local news and preparing it for use by the airstaff (probably supplemented with wire copy, using a specific policy for how the stories are to be selected and sequenced from such a source), will propel virtually any music station these days into the news forefront in its market.

You will build cume if you become preceived as THE station that knows what is going on in this community -- you'll be drawing from every other radio station in the market, at least for your news, which builds cume and share as well. 

And since, as we said earlier, "cume" in radio is the equivalent of "circulation" in newspapers (as opposed to "share" being equal to "numbers of readers per page", which no newspaper will touch!), the result not only keeps the station relevant and compelling, but is very saleable by a competent advertising sales staff.

Fore more of the how-to the details about this proven and very effective approach -- together with a specific way that ripped wire copy can be integrated into the regular local newscasts given by airstaff will torpedo any perceived advantage of the big-news-staff "full service" station in town, and probably the TV stations and newspaper as well -- we refer you to the "News as a Weapon" chapter of 
our book

Commentary from issue dated August 9, 2010

An important point needs to be made, as we read the trade press -- regarding Arbitron's new "People Meter" technology.  It appears that (1) broadcasters are afraid of it, and (2) it is accused of requiring radio to further cut back content by air talent in order to get the best ratings.

Our response to these ideas -- NONSENSE.  If these meters actually do measure audience behavior, and it should, then there is nothing to be afraid of -- because good programming ADDRESSES audience behavior and motivates listeners to tune in and listen often, building loyalty with CONTENT (a good music list can only support good content and presentation).  Bear in mind that this methodology replaces the absolutely worst and most inaccurate method of audience measurement EVER used by a major national ratings company -- the mail-distributed, self-administered, seven-day diary.  With the People Meter, we're back to cume-based measurement, and THAT'S GOOD!

The diary has always been subject to gimmicks and tricks in programming; only the most active radio listeners kept and returned it, and radio found it could sometimes manipulate these people to get fake long listening spans recorded.  Although the sample used for placing the People Meters is subject to question, this methodology comes closer to capturing REAL PEOPLE AND HOW THEY BEHAVE.

The answer to People Meter measurement in your market is BETTER programming...NOT LESS programming!!

Commentary from issue dated June 21, 2010

All songs testing at our "borderline" level -- which basically means that there are no negatives for them, for the core female audience for AC radio, but these women do not currently care to hear the song all the way through to the end -- are routinely re-tested. 

Although some programmers see nothing wrong in playing songs testing at this level, it sure dilutes a playlist to play songs the listener is currently indifferent to, instead of somthing which the testing shows she really LIKES!  So we do NOT recommend playing as currents any song testing "borderline".

However, songs which test at that level -- but which have enough familiarity from broad airplay, or other general exposure -- can be "recommended" for oldies/noncurrent airplay later on, since the value of noncurrent songs is different from the currents. 

Currents are intended to be the key flavor of AC radio -- what is new, what is current, what you'll LIKE; familiarity is irrelevant for currents. 

A noncurrent's most important attribute, on the other hand, is familiarity -- to provide a comfort factor within which the currents appear.  So, as loong as the target AC female does not DISLIKE the "borderline"-testing but familiar noncurrent, it can safely be played as one later on.

That means really familiar "borderline"-testing songs CAN be used as oldies.

This shift in values, as songs transition from being currents to noncurrents, points up the importance of "resting" a song for 4 to 8 months between when it is on your current playlist, and when it re-enters as a noncurrent.  Today, this idea "resting" songs leaving the current playlist is a very unconventional idea -- but, think about it: If a song never stops being played, from the listener's standpoint it is just a really burned out and unappealing old current, rather than a familiar noncurrent -- which it CAN be AFTER an interval of rest.  We STRONGLY recommend doing this "resting" routinely, for songs which will have further life as a noncurrent.

Eric Norberg
Eric Norberg

Comment from the issue dated April 26, 2010

Shannon West is one of the most perceptive programmers in the format.  She, as do others of the Adult Contemporary format's most successful programmers, studies the target female listener in real life -- and, in Shannon's case, does so frequently in retail stores.  She comments:

"You would die if you heard the music mix played at one of the major craft and fabric retailers -- especially since a much wider group of people has started making things, now that they are having to pull the purse strings tighter.  A lot of crafters/sewers are 18-35, and 95% of the people entering these stores are female, so why are we playing so much '70's music?. . .  The men (they are obviously men) who selected this music seem to have forgotten [if they ever knew!] that women, regardless of age, like to stay current!"

We thank Shannon for reminding us of the single most important fact about A/C listener tastes!  (For more findings about this radio target group, see our
"findings" page.)

Comment from the issue dated March 15, 2010

A comment on the spectacle of Hispanic broadcasters excoriating Arbitron for drops in the reported listening to Spanish stations by the new "People Meter" technology....

The Arbitron self-administered diary method -- the cheapest to gather, least accurate method of gathering, listening information by any major research firm in the history of radio -- is being replaced by measured listening, using the pager-sized "People Meter" which cooperating respondents wear.

The People Meter placement methology seems to be subject ot most of the same errors and objections as the diary, with the single exception that the data is gathered continuously and unconsciously in contemporaneous fashion...and with the diary, over half the respondents always filled out the diary at the end of the survey week, either from memory or by recording what in their own perception was their "normal listening" (and some may have been motivated by the opportunity to "vote" for their favorite station).

Hispanic listeners have been notoriously hard to reach, and have always been reluctant to participate in any surveys when they ARE reached.  This means that they are underrepresented in surveys which rely on cooperation in advance, and so Arbitron has always had to use a high multiplier for any Hispanic listening.  These meters are now simply showing that diarykeepers listening to Spanish stations apparently always overreported their own listening; the meters, placed in the same way as diaries and no doubt requiring the same high multiplier to merge their data with the rest of the data to make a survey, simply show what this listening actually IS.

In this respect, and with specific reference to Hispanic radio listening, the Arbitron meter results DO correlate with what all other rating companies have been reporting for a very long time.

Comment from the issue dated February 8, 2010

Arbitron's People Meter, despite some potential shortcomings, is inherently far more accurate an audience measuring system than the wretched mail-distributed, self-administered diary.  It is interesting to note that the ratings books for the last-quarter of 2009 are showing a 1 to 5 share jump for AC stations, reflecting the temporary use of the "All Christmas Music" format.  The downside of this is that they should all drop back to normal in the next book.

There is actually a lot more downside to it than that, though.  Since the People Meters pick up background radio broadcasts to which the meter-wearer may not even be listening, this ratings performance reflects the very same "in-store exposure" effect that brought reliably top ratings to the "beautiful music" stations a quarter of a century ago.

Say, whatever happend to all those stations, if they were doing so well..? 

Well, despite their reliably top ratings, advertisers eventually realized that the money they were paying for ads on those stations was wasted -- because the "listeners" all had the radio turned down for background use, and did not hear the ads.  Their ad buys went away, and as a result so did the stations.  In Portland, Oregon, where our service is based, all three of the "beautiful music" stations were NUMBER ONE when they each abandoned the format.  They just couldn't sell it anymore.

Since these spiking Christmas-season numbers on AC stations are being generated by that same effect -- the Christmas music coming out of loudspeakers in stores and offices at Christmastime, but not loud enough for the ads to be noticed -- AC's using this tactic may think they are winning, but they face a lot more downsides than up.  Let us count the ways...

1. The spike will last only for one book.  Ad agencies will learn to discount THAT pretty quickly!

2. The spike is caused by the in-store use of the station for seasonal background -- and so the ads will not work as well during that period of time.

3. Although our research shows that the AC core female listeners remain surprisingly resistant to switching away from their "favorite station" during this two-month wall-to-wall Christmas music blitz, they are almost entirely quite dissatisfied with it, they dislike "rushing the season" and resent getting burned out on Christmas music by the time the Holidays finally arrive, and they just can't wait for the all-Christmas-music to end. During this time, they do keep listening -- but they listen less often, and for shorter periods of time.

4. Eventually, a sharp AC programmer is going to realize that listeners who are dissatisfied with the station they usually listen to are listeners who can be wooed to try another AC station if it offers what they actually want to hear, and if it is presented that way in the promotion, and if that promise is fulfilled when they listen.  (And, since these listeners tend not to switch away from the station they listen to, it may be hard for the station they used to listen to to get them back after Christmas!)

We continue to believe that, month in and month out, the stations that actually offer what the listeners like will be the ones that hold the audience best, and will prosper the most!

And this PS from the issue of March 15, 2010:

The first People Meter ratings from Arbitron including the post-Holiday period are in, and as we predicted here, show that the AC's that had big gains with all-Christmas-music are indeed dropping back to, and in some cases below, their pre-Holiday ratings.  One example (from the 6+ three-monthly-report-trend) from Los Angeles for KOST:  5.5 - 8.1 - 3.9.  Clearly, as we have warned, AC IS putting itself in the position of having ad agencies DISCOUNT any big Holiday ratings caused by non-typical programming -- while taking very seriously (and reducing ad buys because of) a big ratings DROP after that Christmas spike.  Meantime, by disrupting and dissatisfying its normal audience with an unwelcome all-Christmas format for an extended period of time, AC stations risk LOWER ratings AFTER the Holidays than they had

Comment from the issue dated October 12, 2009

We have pointed out, for a quarter century now, that AC's reliance on recurrent and non-current songs for most of its playlist is detrimental to the format -- not only because it is not responsive to what its listeners most want to hear (which is fresher, appealing music), but because the format is failing to create many new hits -- songs its listeners will recognize fondly a decade from now or more.  Our annual recurrent/oldies lists used to be three pages of titles per year.  Recently, it's been less than one page.  Will we be playing songs from the '60's and '70's, still, in the '10's and '20's... or will AC be dead by then -- of old age???

Comment from the issue dated August 31, 2009

We have had a question or two from readers about some of the more rock-oriented songs that have tested well for mainstream AC radio in the recent past.  The underlying question seems to be, how can such songs be appropriate for Adult Contemporary?

The response is that AC is mass-appeal pop radio for adults, especially females, age 25 to 49+.  Programmers tend to define a format by its "sound", but it is always more fruitful to define a format by its listeners!  And in the case of our format, the women at the top end of the demographic range today were just entering it 25 years ago.  Tastes change across the generations, and today's younger-end AC listener grew up with rock.  What has impressed us most, actually, is that despite this generational change, the music that tests well for AC has been remarkably consistent over our past quarter century of testing; surprisingly, we have NOT seen any significant polarization between the young end and the older end of the female AC core audience in that whole time, and we don't see it today -- so AC programmers can still bias their music toward the younger end of the demo, and still not lose the older long as the "favorites" that are played are actually LIKED by these people and are not just songs drawn from the AC charts.

As we have explained over the years, AC trade charts are all based entirely on radio station airplay, which (particularly in the case of new and current music) is NOT based on any actual usable audience input, since virtually all music testing is done with hooks, which requires familiarity for scoring.

Our research still remains pretty unique in the industry in that it does NOT depend on the use of hooks, and can actually give solid and accurate audience preference information for this format on

Comment from the issue dated March 30, 2009

The lack of major airplay for new songs at most AC stations has been eating away for years at the number of releases aimed at AC.  In fact, artists aiming for AC now seem to be having a harder and harder time even getting and holding contracts with major labels.

The format has brought this upon itself -- both by not wanting to play any new music till it is "proven" (and in fact well-worn) somewhere else, as well as by allowing itself to be manipulated into giving its limited new-song airplay to releases that the AC audience is indifferent to, or actually dislikes.

Programmers assume the record companies must know what AC audiences like more than they do, since they are in business to sell music to various audiences -- never realizing that because songs that make AC charts (charts which are based on airplay, and NOT listener preferences) don't sell in a pattern that matches the chart numbers, labels don't think AC sells music, and therefore don't care if AC audiences like the music they hear on their station or not!!  This AC airplay is thus being sought to help break the songs on formats labels believe DO sell music, whether it's relevant to AC audiences or not!

AC actually DOES sell music, but it can't sell songs its audience is indifferent to -- or actually dislikes.  Sales indeed do not correlate to AC charts, and now you know why.  But we have always observed that what TESTS well in actual LISTENER PREFERENCE, in our weekly testing, DOES correlate well with record sales!  

If only the labels and the stations would get on the same page with the huge listener base for AC radio, they would sell lots of product -- and build REALLY LOYAL audiences.  As it is, listeners usually pick their AC station over other stations mainly because it is "less objectionable".  NOT a way to build audience loyalty!!

Comment from the issue dated October 27, 2008
Adult Contemporary radio's "Christmas curse" results in as much as 1/6 of the entire year being devoted to continuous Christmas music.  The AC core listeners don't like it, but radio keeps doing it to them.

Let's recap how this happened to us. 

In the Holiday season of 2001, after the catastrophic and extremely frightening terrorist attacks of September 11th in New York and Washington DC, across the country radio's response was to turn to Christmas music early and often.  It seemed to serve the role of providing familiarity and comfort in a time of shock, for some listeners -- and for those for whom it didn't, there was still an uncommon amount of acceptance of the tide of Christmas music that year.

This musical response became inappropriate the following year, and each year afterward, since it had served originally as a musical Band-Aid for an emotional open wound.  In subsequent years, to the listeners, it simply became "rushing the season".  But many AC stations, recalling the success they'd had with this temporary format change in 2001, have continued to do it annually -- and even to race other stations to do it first!

For AC core female listeners, who DO continue listening to their favorite station out of habit, even while being annoyed at all the Christmas music starting as early as Hallowe'en, this was and is perceived as simply a stupid format change -- possibly prompted by advertiser pressure, which makes their station look like it has "sold out" -- which they simply endure, knowing it will go away after the Holidays.

Yet, ratings seem good for this stunt each year.  How can that be if the core listeners don't like it?

For AC stations, this annual programming mistake tapped (and still taps) into a well they haven't drunk from for quite a while -- the same well that gave us "Beautiful Music" stations in the 1960's and 1970's. 

That well is called: "in-store listening, recorded as eight hours of daily listening by conscientious Arbitron diarykeepers who work in those stores".  "Beautiful Music" used this tactic to get great ratings, but in the end that format was "not saleable" to advertisers because its use as an in-store background (and background use other places) makes the ads inaudible.  Advertisers were paying a premium for the high ratings, but didn't get response. 

And those Beautiful Music stations eventually all went away -- in many cases changing formats when they were still #1, 12+!  (In Portland, Oregon, all three Beautiful Music stations were #1 at the time when they, one at a time over a period of several years, each changed format to something that drew a smaller audience, but got more advertiser response, simply because people turned it up enough to hear the ads!)

AC stations which enjoy a ratings bump at the end of the year from this in-store use of their all-Christmas format probably don't realize that in doing it they are reducing their advertiser response, and thus their effectiveness as an advertising medium -- while at the same time they are reducing the loyalty of their core listener, by failing to meet her expectations and desires of the station even more than usual. 

They probably don't understand that they are making up for decreases in core-listener listening spans, which they are experiencing from having bored their core listener, with temporary long listening spans recorded in Arbitron diaries by store employees who make the effort to find out what radio station is on in the store -- for the diary they've been asked to fill out -- even though they can't hear the ads themselves, because the radio is turned down too low to make them audible.  After all, the radio is on in the store only to provide musical ambiance.

An interesting question which has not yet been answered is to what extent Arbitron's switch to the new "personal people meter" system, replacing the diaries, will support or refute this Christmastime ratings anomaly.  It depends upon at how low a listening level the radio station can be set, and still be noted as being on by the meter. 

In "recall" studies, which virtually all other ratings services have always employed, the "Beautiful Music" bump never happened; those stations always enjoyed a 33%-50% increase in Arbitron ratings over all other ratings services -- because, in recall methodology, if you don't remember having heard the station, you won't report having listened to it.

Although some may argue that recall measurement is unfair because it does not report all potential listening, the correct response to that objection is that if a listener has no memory of ever having heard a station, then he or she probably never heard any of the ads.  And ratings -- which are intended to measure exposure to the advertising, since they are bought as an advertising sales tool -- should not reflect listening to which no attention is paid, inasmuch as it is not useful "listening" to he advertiser using this circulation data to buy ads on radio stations.

In the long run, those stations are best rewarded with loyal and long-span listening who best meet the needs and expectations of their target listeners.  And those needs and expectations, in the Adult Contemporary format, NEVER are for wall-to-wall Christmas music to start at Hallowe'en -- or even at Thanksgiving!  In fact, that tactic works well for the AC core female listener only in the
last week before Christmas itself.

Comment from the issue dated July 28, 2008
We have occasionally been asked in the past how it is possible for songs which test higher than other "recommended" songs not to be at the top of our playlist at all times.  Those with experience assembling actual charts of listener preference will not be surprised; time changes all things.  Preference does not erode when later songs displace previous ones, even if the older ones test higher -- because ongoing evolution of music preference is at the very heart of all pop music radio.

When we are asked this question, we know we are dealing with a programmer who has been schooled by research firms to believe you must always play the top-preference songs in highest rotation...forever.  That kind of thinking is what has led our format to get bogged down, all too often, into being an unexciting, never-changing musical museum.

We know, from over a quarter century of testing for the music preferences of this core AC listener upon whom we all depend, that she likes NEW music -- as long as it is music she likes -- and she does NOT want her station either to be unchanging, or to concentrate on older songs.  That we hold her as a listener out of habit when we so regularly let her down is a measure of her willingness to compromise out of convenience -- radio is not the most important thing in her life these days, and if she can't get great radio, she will usually settle for radio that is not too annoying.

But, that offers a huge opportunity in the marketplace, because this core listener would LOVE to find a station that DOES engage her musically with new and current music she really likes, complemented with some of her favorites. 

If you use music to delight her, you will get a loyal listener who
tunes in more often and listens longer.

And THAT adds up to share gains, and advertising effectiveness!

Comment from the issue dated July 14, 2008
Last issue, we were discussing how the conventional AC trade charts always have (and still do) simply tabulate what AC stations are playing, of the new and current music -- either through airplay monitoring, or through station reporting -- and do not (and never have) include any direct measurement of what AC listeners actually like.

AC listeners DO buy recordings, although the industry believes they do not; but they buy only what they like, which has never matched what's on the AC trade charts, so the lack of buying patterns matching the AC charts has convinced record companies that "AC doesn't sell records" -- thus the record industry promotes many songs to AC on which they simply want airplay, to use as a promotion tool in working the songs to other formats.  In those cases, they don't really care if AC listeners actually like the songs or not!  They just need your airplay, you see.

But AC programmers usually consider that any song promoted to them must have some demonstrated appeal to their listeners -- because "record companies surely wouldn't promote something that they wouldn't sell if they got the airplay -- would they...??" 

Now you see why they would -- and do.  And you begin to see how the AC trade charts tend to turn out about the way the record companies want them to, in order to show airplay to programmers in other formats, and why these charts often do not predict AC listener tastes.

That's why we started this research newsletter a quarter century ago:  We found a way reliably to learn what AC listeners do like, of the new and current music; and, when you play what they actually LIKE, including new music, you gain an increasingly enthusiastic and loyal audience for Adult Contemporary radio!

But if there is one record company trick which has devastated AC, by further distorting an already distorted process, it is the "add date".  We have encountered ethical people of goodwill at trade publications who sincerely believe the rationale that the "add date" levels the playing field, by getting songs into the hands of the smaller stations before the large ones can weigh in with airplay and reports.  But, by enlisting the cooperation of trade publications in not reporting any airplay on a song till after the "add date", record companies give themselves time to gather enough airplay to get a song to debut high on the charts at the "add date", thus hyping the chart enough to gain even more airplay and even higher chart numbers -- all without any listener input, and without any concern whether AC listeners even like the song.

The rationale is no longer valid, if it ever was, because today's download services allow instant distribution of airplay copies of anything released -- even to the smallest of stations.  But the "add date" persists.

However, it should be noted, record companies pay a high price for the convenience and effectiveness of manipulating the "add date" so that much advance airplay can build, unreported, before the date, to gain a high chart debut: The practice can prevent real hits from ever breaking!

When record companies hype the charts this way, even though the practice helps them get higher chart numbers on songs the top brass of the company has designated as priority projects (as if anyone in the record business has ever shown the consistent abiloity to predict a certain hit!), the chart numbers frequently do not translate to sales -- because the top brass was wrong, and the listeners don't like the song enough to buy it.

But the "add date" restriction effectively prevents small stations from breaking actual HIT records!  Small stations have often been where the real hits start, as chances are taken on new material and listeners react to their local station's airplay, however you cannot break a record if your early airplay and your early listener response are ignored by the trade press, and if other small stations thus do not learn early of your success with it.  Since small stations used to be rich sources of strong, selling hits, broken at the grassroots -- and since SUCH songs DO sell -- the record companies unknowingly pay a very high price using the convenient but ultimately corrupting promotion technique centering on "add dates".

We would LOVE to see an END to trade publiations honoring record company "add dates".  Let airplay be reported as soon as there is any, and let the chips fall where they may!

Comment from the issue dated July 7, 2008
Recently we got a somewhat frustrated e-mail from the promotion manager of a small label in Florida -- Mike Houser, of Island Estuary Records.  While we can make no comment on their artist nor his releases (somewhat ironically, we have not received them), he does have a point, and he quotes us in making it:

"Every day I sit in my office calling PDs of AC stations across the country to try to get them to play our artist Boz, and every day I hear the same exact thing: 'It hasn't been proven', or 'it needs to be on the charts'.  Every time I hear that, I go back to an article you wrote in 2005:

"'A current song is intended to reflect what is happening TODAY.  It's a piece of the current culture. And, since AC is a song-oriented rather than an artist-oriented format (even though many seem to believe the reverse), just as Top 40 tends to be, we nee to find and play the current songs our core female listener most wants to hear, regardless of artist, label, promotion, or charts.

"'A current does NOT have to be familiar.  Instead, the current fulfills the listener's hope and expectation that she will actually hear something appealing and NEW on her AC station, rather than the same songs she heard last year and the year before.'"

That's still true, and bears repeating, though presumably, to those who come to our website or subscribe to our weekly newsletter, we are here preaching to the choir, -- since our specialty is identifying new and current songs that most please and excite the female core Adult Contemporary listener. 

But Houser would like to know how to get this point across to AC programmers at learge, and that IS the question, isn't it!  Had we figured that out, we probably would be the most widely-subscribed-to newsletter in the format!  Alas, we are not.  All we can say is, PDs who understand this point DO have a competitive advantage over those who don't!

The problem is, of course, that AC charts have always been based simply upon what stations are playing, rather than on what their listeners actually like of the new and current music.  The assumption by the trade publications is that the stations have some idea of listener preferences among the current songs.  Unfortunately, most AC stations haven't the slightest idea of what their listeners like of the new and current music; they add based on what other stations are doing ("the charts") and on promotion, and when the new songs become "familiar enough" to test with hooks, after considerable airplay, all too often they test poorly.

Rather than realizing that the charts apparently don't actually reflect what AC listeners like after all, PDs come to the incorrect conclusion that their audience must not like new and current music -- which is what their core female listeners, having grown up with pop music, are hoping for most!  (If they preferred oldies, they'd be listening to the oldies station.)   So, AC has become a mostly-noncurrent format, contrary to the preferences of the people they are trying to serve!

Comment from the issue dated May 26, 2008
Some AC programmers are troubled by our consistently producing test scores showing strong AC audience appeal for songs that do not "sound" like typical Adult Contemporary songs.  To them we point out that if you want a station that remains unobtrusive, providing a functional background music service, then the consistency of the "sound" of the station indeed is important.

But, if you want people to turn up the radio, to look forward to listening, to be loyal to your station, and to feel they are missing something if they don't listen to YOUR station whenever they can, then you MUST tailor your music to the tastes of your target audience -- NOT tailor them to your own idea of what your station should sound like!!

Some programmers may wonder what's WRONG with being  traditional unobtrusive AC station.  What's wrong is that your station then is turned down, and not paid attention to -- and the ads, upon which your paycheck and professional future are dependent, are not noticed.  Advertisers who get no return tend not to continue advertising!  And there goes the revenue.

A COMPELLING AC station is heard and paid attention to, and keeps bringing its listeners back to listen some more.  That means more exposures for each ad, and a more receptive and attentive audience available to hear them.  For your future success, make sure your station is COMPELLING to your listener!

Comment from the issue dated May 19, 2008
Veteran radio commentator and researcher Sean Ross of Edison Media Research offered an interesting comment this week which squares well with our own experience -- entitled "For Some, Radio is Still the Best Way to Hear Music".

You can read it online at:

As long ago as when tape decks began appearing in cars, radio programmers decided radio listeners would prefer their music with less announcing, less production -- less of everything but commercials!  The problem with that is that turning a radio station into a tape deck never worked as well as a person's own tape deck did, since our radio music was never just right for that one individual, and commercials are not the ideal punctuator of music on a tape deck.

When listeners choose a radio station over a tape deck, CD player, or iPod, they are looking for something those cannot provide:  Companionship, new music, musical surprises, staying "in the loop" culturally and informationally (which is why news is a legitimate part of music radio).  If you give them what they tune radio for, THEY WILL STILL CHOOSE RADIO.  If you give them your version of "iPod shuffle", they will tend to opt for the real thing -- since they load the music on it themselves, and there are no commercials!

Sean writes, "This doesn't mean in any way that broadcasters should not seek to offer listeners content they want in the package and on the platform of their choice . . .  But if the combination of pre-programmed music presented by personalities is not among radio's viable offerings in the future, it will be because broadcasters destroyed it, not because the audience rejected it outright.  And perhaps because broadasters allowed a few of radio's critics to become proxy for a segment of the audience whose needs and attitudes they should have studied more directly."

Sean's observations are always worth reading.  You might want to bookmark:

Comment from the issue dated March 31, 2008
We've long advocated using only live air talent in all time periods, even on small stations -- and have done this ourselves in every instance.  It's an economic decision -- live air talent does not have to cost a lot if you hire good talent on the way up, and listeners pay more attention to the content of stations with live air talent, which includes the ads as part of the content!

This is more than just an opinion.  It's backed by meticulous research.

We call your attention to a major and extremely expensive Simmons study, conducted in Los Angeles in 1974 for Golden West Broadcasting, which proved the sales power of stations using LIVE AIR TALENT in all time periods.

Simmons designed the study to include a telephone sample of 100,000 -- the largest radio study sample ever used, as of that time -- and it required Simmons to have equipment monitoring (recording) all TV and major radio stations in the market during the survey's telephone interviews...since if a respondent reported recalling a commercial heard within the past hour (which is what the study was designed to determine), there had to be a way to verify that the ad had really run on the station within the hour they reported it -- or that response would have been considered "negative".

In the final results of the study, "personality" radio stations, of any format including pop music and C&W, had a 28% correct recall rate of at least one ad in the preceding hour; Top 40 had a recall rate of about 22%; talk radio, about 18%; and easy listening ("beautiful music") stations about 6%.  TV had a recall rate of 15-17%, with independent stations having a slightly higher correct recall rate than network stations.

Since KMPC, Golden West's station in Los Angeles, did appear in the top ranking, the study was discounted by the industry.  But, the design and conduct of the study was by the highly-respected print research firm Simmons -- and the results showed that it wasn't just KMPC but ANY station with a "personality" air talent approach, an approach which involved the listener with the air talent's conversation, that had the extremely high recall rate; the Top 40 stations in Los Angeles at the time were pursuing a "much more music" policy, and although they employed "personalities", the air talent was not allowed to say very much (and in many hours relatively few commercials were broadcast -- which could have reduced the response, obviously).  Even so, the Top 40 stations still beat TV!

Talk radio stations had a lower recall rate -- about on par with the average for radio as a whole, and slightly ahead of the much more expensive ad medium of TV.  The talk stations apparently scored a little lower because the ads (talk) were surrounded by talk programming, and thus did not really draw listener attention as well as ads contrasting with music programming.

And, at the bottom of the research were the easy listening stations -- the automated, deliberately unobtrusive format, INTENDED to be used as background, on which the ads quite naturally were not widely noticed.  ("Smooth Jazz" seems to have the same problem today.)  This was NOT a surprising result, given how the listeners were using the stations.

As radio makes itself ever more inoffensive and unobtrusive today, it can still get big shares, but advertisers do NOT get the desired response from their ads -- forcing stations to complete on rates, and sell only the higher-rated dayparts, and not ROS schedules.  It was not this study but advertiser reaction which led to the "beautiful music" format gradually disappearing despite high ratings!  (In our hometown of Portland, Oregon, all three Beautiful Music stations were actually #1 12+ when each of them, at different times, abandoned the format, and went to other approaches.)

Here's the bottom line, and the reason even small stations should use live air talent in all time periods:  LIVE AIR TALENT MAKE MONEY FOR THEIR STATIONS.  The incremental cost of using live talent is less than the additional revenue that they can bring in.  It's a (ahem) sound investment!

Comment from the issue dated March 17, 2008
A longtime subscriber and friend of this report recently e-mailed a few questions about current perceptions by the core A/C female about the state of the format.  He asks how the panel feels about radio in general these days?....

They would like more live DJ interaction, particularly announcing of the songs.  They tend to listen a little less in time periods in which they have picked up on their not being a live announcer, just canned tracks.  They are still listening, but it is affecting their listening span (which translates to "share"), and their loyalty (which makes it a bit easier for other stations to pick them off, and that can eventually affect the "cume").  Cume declines, we must point out, take, at the very least, much time and effort to reverse. 

He wonders if we have ever had any interaction with the panel on radio contests and games?.... 

The core AC female has not really changed her feelings on this subject in over a quarter century.  If such promotions are fun to listen to, they are a plus.  She is not likely to participate, but does so mentally when they are fun to listen to.  (Eric has a chapter on this subject in his book, still in print, "
Radio Programming Tactics and Strategy".)   Such contests are a way of "formatting fun" into the station, and the size of the prize is almost irrelevant compared to whether the contest is fun to listen to or not.  (Eric offers some examples of easy and fun contests of this sort in that chapter of his book.)  Important: If your listener ever feels "bribed to listen" by the size of the prize, or the steps necessary to win, the fun for her in the contest is gone -- and you are then worse off with her than if you hadn't done a contest at all. 

Comment from the issue dated March 10, 2008
We've discussed here recently some of the things about our test results that strike newer programmers as contradictory to what they understand about the format, and what they fail to understand about their AUDIENCE that make our results quite relevant.

Getting past that, some AC programmers will say, "granted, your results may show what new and current songs my audience will LIKE best, but because of the way the format works, I can't play most of them."  They mean: They are keeping their station so centered in the format that that music which varies too much from the bland average "does not fit" -- in their opinion!

Well, if you are trying to keep your station unobtrusive, that is probably right.  But, if your station is too unobtrusive, people will have it turned down as a musical background -- and will miss the ads, which makes it difficult to keep advertisers without making major rate concessions -- and which means listeners tend not to have strong emotions about the station, either.  Strong positive emotions about a station are what build audience loyalty!

So, it is important for economic reasons, as well as to superserve your core listener, to play a greater variety of music than perhaps you feel comfortable doing.  "How can I avoid train-wreck segues if I do that?" might be the next question.

The answer brings us to a very important point: When you are cold-segueing two songs, it IS useful to have a "matched flow" transition.  BUT, when an announcer is part of the segue, it actually works better from the listener's point of view to have a CONTRAST -- contrast of tempo, contrast of song type.  There is no "train wreck" if a human being ties them together.  another reason to use live air talent in all time periods!  Doing so need NOT materially increase your costs -- in fact, it can considerably enhance ad revenue.  Just why: See the March 31st commentary, above!

Comment from the issue dated February 25, 2008
There are two ways of looking at the musical variety that emerges from our testing. One way is through the lens of the AC format as it is conventionally thought of in the INDUSTRY these days... By that view, the music we recommend is "all over the map", and not relevant to the way AC is programmed -- that is, with a "consistent" sound. Newer programmers often look at our data that way. "What a mishmash!"

The other way is from the LISTENER'S point of view. Listeners don't know format definitions, and they know they won't like every song played on ANY station...but they pick AC radio to listen to, because the music is more palatable there.

The AC core female listeners -- sometimes called P-1's -- are attracted to our stations over most others because they are more enjoyable to them than the nostalgia-soaked oldies stations or the rap and rock-tinged Top 40's (or "Hot AC's"). But, part of what this essential listener expects from her station, today's AC's do not conventionally offer: Good NEW songs, appealing variety, airstaff announcing the songs...

When you program new and current music from the LISTENER'S point of  view, you forget format definitions, artist values, and all of that nonsense -- and just play songs that attract YOUR CORE LISTENER and keep her happy. And, because you play more of these songs than any other station, you build her loyalty.

This is basically the principle that Todd Storz exploited in the first Top 40 station, KOWH in Omaha, over 50 years ago -- and which Gordon MacLendon developed into the most popular music format ever.  While Top 40 today is preoccupied with "format consistency" -- a fatal flaw, in the ultimate "variety" format! -- we in AC can still use it to build a large and loyal audience.

That's what our testing and our results help YOU to do, each week!

Comment from the issue dated February 27, 2006

This might be a good time to remind you that the vital difference between a song testing at the minimum "recommended airplay" level, and one testing even slightly below it--although there may not be any significant negatives to the song from the target adult female listener--is that she does not yet care to hear the song all the way through.  We have always been frustrated when subscribers interpret the "borderline"/"wait" category we print in our subscribers' weekly report, in the section in which all new releases are tested, as some sort of a green light to play a song "since there are no negatives".

If music is to have listener-attracting and listener-holding POWER and real value for your station, in a way most programmers today seem to think is unlikely--in other words, for music to be a MOTIVATOR for tuning in and staying tuned longer, both of which are components in the ratings "share" figure--the song you play needs to be one the listener WANTS TO LISTEN TO ALL THE WAY TO THE END!  We think that seems obvious, and yet it appears some of today's programmers think that the music is just wallpaper, even though music is mainly what they offer their listeners.  It can be and is so much more--being not only what your listener is tuning in for, but also being an emotional experience she desires to have!

For that reason, anything testing at the "borderline" category just below our "recommended for playlisting" category--even if it IS in the trade charts, based on others' airplay--is NOT recommended for airplay until it tests higher.  The main exception to that would be if YOU have a solid REASON for playing it which makes sense to your listener (local artist, significant message, etc.).  And, if that is the case, make sure its relevance is made clear to your listener each time you play it.  We call that "setting up" a song.

And, because the MUSIC DOES MATTER TO YOUR LISTENER, we urge you as we always have to ANNOUNCE WHAT YOU ARE PLAYING--EVEN OLDER SONGS.  The rationale for not doing so seems to be: (1) Backannouncing breaks the forward motionof the station, and (2) the listeners should know what the song is anyway. 

We say NUTS to both ideas!

It does NOT break any forward motion to tell the listener WHAT SHE WANTS TO KNOW NEXT, for heaven's sake!!  That IS forward motion!  And what she wants to know NEXT is -- what it was she just heard!

As to the other objection:  You'd be surpried how often a listener recognizes an older song, but can't put a name to it.  But, even if she does know what it is, no research ever done has even hinted that a listener tunes out when you announce a song!  On the other hand, there is a LOT of research that says "announcing the songs" is in the top 5 list of what every listener wants to hear.

Why programmers are hesitant to do this escapes us.

One prominent programmer once told us, "I know the research says I should be announcing the songs, but nobody else is doing it, and I just don't do it..."  Not a very good reason, is it?

And hey, one more thought.  When you announce the songs, you are telling the listener, "the music matters to us".  When you don't, you are saying, "the music is just filler to us...isn't it to you, too?" 

Which message do you want YOUR listeners to get?


Comment from the issue dated February 13, 2006

A new ballad by Paul McCartney, THIS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE, came in two steps BELOW our "recommended airplay" level. While there is absolutely nothing annoying or dislikeable about it, it totally fails to catch the ear of the mainstream-A/C core female listener, for whom it seems to feel slightly old-fashioned. It tests weaker than JENNY WREN, his previous ballad single from the same album... And that calls our attention to something we've noticed throughout our more than two decades of A/C music testing: The A/C females have never shown a whole lot of enthusiasm for Beatles material, even when it involves those searing hits from the group's golden era.

There are certainly some exceptions--and there are some Beatle songs in our "ReFocus™ Book of Research", where, we should remind you, songs that by themselves tested as low as our "borderline--do not play yet" category when current are now included if they are well recognized by the A/C female, since the main requirement of an oldie is familiarity rather than exceptional appeal (though a combination of the two is much better). 

She does like some Beatles songs--one of the A/C core female listener's Beatle favorites is EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, which the Beatles themselves never wanted released as a single; Capitol released it in the U.S., but it was nevere more than an album track in the U.K. Thus, it appears to us that the Beatles have always been as much a male-appeal act as the Eagles, who don't test that well for A/C females either; the screaming female fans in the 1960's seem to have been responding as much or more to the personalities of the individual Beatles as to their music.  There are no negative feelings even today among A/C females about those four individuals who formed The Beatles, and she knows each of the four; but she just isn't all that crazy about their music.

On the other hand, the Bee Gees were always primarily a female appeal act, AND THEY STILL ARE.

Of course, all those Lennon-McCartney songs are truly standards; but--you may have noticed--she isn't all that into pop standards, either, and wishes Rod Stewart and the others would cut out doing these pop standard remakes, which she really dislikes!

To any one of us who was in the business in 1964 or shortly afterward, we cannot ever forget the incandescent impact of this ultimate pop act, The Beatles, on the radio, in movies and all media, and throughout the world in all cultures, during that magic and absolutely unprecedented six-year span.  It influences world culture, and we ourselves, even today.  But today's core A/C female listener is mostly too young to remember that, and in any event chooses her music by her own personal tastes rather than for history.  Never mind who's singing; only if she likes the song does she want to hear it.

Seems like there's a lesson there.


Comment from the issue of February 6, 2006

This week we read an article quoting a prominent radio consultant, and noted that almost all his insight into the format seemed to be wrong.

A lyric-driven format? No, the target female does not listen to the lyrics, unless they really call attention to themselves; she listens for melody, rhythm, catchiness. The lyric-driven hit at AC is an exception to the rule. And then there was a lot of advice about "lifestyle"! Well, it's always been important to be relatable to your audience, no matter what kind of station you have, but all this stuff about modifying the news ("lifestyle items; it doesn't have to have a local focus"), and other aspects of programming, to respond to "lifestyle", is very misleading.

Interestingly, this same mantra is being chanted through the newspaper industry these days; the theory is that to get the youthful readers back, newspapers must transform themselves into lifestyle media for this group. Trouble is, this ends up leaving news out, and making the daily newspaper a magazine without much news. The result is that the under-40 numbers are still declining, and the over-40 numbers aren't doing so well either!

In reality, people of all ages read newspapers primarily for NEWS, and listen to AC radio for the MUSIC. If they hear news on their station (and it is usually a plus if they do), they want to get NEWS, not a lot of lifestyle features instead of news; and they do prefer it be LOCAL.

What leads to this sort of major error in thinking by the "experts"? Two words: FOCUS GROUPS.

When people volunteer to spout opinions in front of anonymous executives sitting behind one-way glass, and to do it for money, in a clinical setting, you are NOT going to get much that's accurately projectable against your mass audience! Focus groups have always been intended simply to be "thought starters" and "topic suggesters" for more research....but instead, the executives sitting behind the one-way glass will hear panelists say things that they themselves have been thinking. So, whoops: They take it as gospel, and act on it.

These decisions are usually not only wrong but disasterous. Reshaping radio stations and newspapers to be lifestyle magazines is one of these decisions.

So beware taking seriously whatever opinions come from focus groups; it is much better NOT to be there when these panels are being conducted; but even so, some focus group companies swallow panel opinions in the same way, and present as "significant action directives" all sorts of ideas which come out of focus groups.

Don't buy into having a focus group done at all, if you are not willing to make sure that NOBODY at your station, including you, takes seriously any idea that emerges from them! They are thought-starters only!!

This does raise a fair question. We at the Adult Contemporary Music Research Letter use a small panel for all our music testing; always composed of under 10 participants. That means we do not rely on sample size for statistical credibility. How can OUR research be accurate, using such a small panel?

We trademarked our methodology (ReFocus™) because it is so different. We pre-qualify the panelists using a proprietary method, which assures that they are smack in the center of what's typical for the mass-appeal, mainstream AC format We don't lead them to think there is much importance to what they are doing, which allows us to observe BEHAVIOR rather than collect OPINIONS. And, our only pay for participants is a feature which actually CONFIRMS the accuracy of the scores we obtain!

Always remember, the objective of pursuing research is invariably to FIND A METHOD WHICH GIVES ACCURATE RESULTS, rather than simply to be a slave to a common method, and then swallow whatever comes out of it!

Comment from the issue of December 5, 2005

There has been a very sharp decline in A/C product being released, concurrent with a very sharp increase in the amount of Christmas product...guess why. Y

ep, all these stations going all-Christmas before the start of December has brought about a change--quite naturally--in what the record companies choose to release; and this warping of demand to suit radio fashion instead of listener preferences seems destined to encourage even more stations to pull the all-Christmas stunt.

Yes, we know that some listeners actually DO call their station to ask for all-Christmas programming. Bulletin: Some have always done that. And as we have always told you, in A/C in particular, the ones who call are NOT typical of the ones who don't.

It took us some years of soliciting requests at A/C stations, including one in Los Angeles, to figure that out, and when we did, we then came up with our "ReFocus™" research method, to find out what the "silent majority" of A/C core listeners actually DOES want to hear.

Although we have heard of at least one Country station that has gone for this same Christmas music stunt this year, there was an interesting quote in an article about the Country format, written by Phyllis Stark, in the November 18th issue of Billboard Radio Monitor, from Country programmer Ken Boesen: "In Country music, the fans of the music are big fans. They don't appreciate wholesale changes in the music that brought them to their station."

Hey, that's true of ANY music station, especially if the station has met its listeners' expectations in the first place, which, in A/C, means playing some NEW music that they DO like, which is often different from the music on the A/C trade charts.

Only if the music which a station offers is boring or indifferent to the listener do they not care if there are major changes--like flipping to an all-Christmas format for a month or two! All programming success is based upon building, and then reliably satisfying, the expectations of the listeners. A big format change for 10% of the year does not meet that test. Reduced expectations mean less loyalty, and a reduction of the frequency and length of listening the REST of the year.

Comment from the issue of November 7, 2005

An article by Paul Heine in the October 14th issue of Billboard Radio Monitor asked, "What's Wrong with AC?"

Since that question was posed of some pretty well-known programmers, their own practices as they revealed them in the article demonstrate what is "wrong" with the format: They play few currents, so problem number one is the lack of any currents in what the listeners want and expect to be a current-driven format. If the core female listener didn't want new and current music on her pop music station, she'd prefer listening to an oldies station, wouldn't she? Of course, unfortunately, in today's Adult Contemporary world, she actually is, but that is not her preference. And that's a problem, since it affects listening span and listener loyalty.

Problem number two is probably the programmers' perception that the format needs new "core artists". This presupposes that it is an artist-driven format. It is not and never has been. It is SONG oriented, and, if the song is right, it doesn't matter to the core female listener whether it is by a "burned out old" artist or somebody new she never heard of before. She just wants to hear songs she likes!! (And her preferences among the current product are often not the A/C-charted songs in the trades, since listener preferences are not part of the data from which the A/C trade charts are composed; they are made up entirely from reported station music choices, and/or monitored airplay--what the stations do, rather than how the listeners respond.)

That leads to the problem that these programmers seem to perceive, in the sub-headed term used in the article, of "hits that don't test".

First of all, what's in the A/C charts are often not hits for the target female, for the reason just mentioned, so that's why THOSE don't test. Second, songs that DO have appeal to the core listener are not easy to find using callout and auditorium testing, since both force the listener to intellectualize (to figure out) her own emotional reactions based on snippets of songs, rather than songs as she hears them on the radio--in full, played from the beginning.

Opinions often do not match emotional behavior, and to determine the behavior you have to play the songs as she hears them on the radio! (Also, hook-based testing requires that she already knows the song before the test in order to recognize the song, which rules out songs she has not heard before, for this type of testing).

However, if you play a new, unfamiliar song for her from the beginning, as she would hear it on the radio, then you CAN test new and unfamiliar music (which is, naturally enough, how we do it).

Also, the same article points out that the listening spans for A/C radio have been eroding for several years. This means that listeners are tuning in less often, and/or are listening for shorter periods of time. And this means that the cume which is tuning in the station is not hearing what she hoped to hear...EXPECTATIONS ARE INCREASINGLY NOT BEING MET. Among these expectations are: 1. Hearing likeable new songs; 2. Having all the songs played announced; 3. format consistency she can count on.

Comment from the issue of October 17, 2005

A record promoter mentioned to us this recently that a programmer--NOT one of our subscribers--had played one of the songs in our "Recommended Top 15" recently (one that he is promoting, evidently) and the programmer had reported to the promoter that the song had "drawn no audience response".

Of course, the programmer might have simply been using that as an excuse to the promoter for dropping the song. On the other hand, that programmer might not have a clue!

Time for us to remind you, here, what led us into this research in the first place: The fact that the core A/C female target listener does NOT as a rule ever call her radio station about a song. There are occasional exceptions, but she just doesn't have the time, and might even feel a bit foolish if she did. Eric found that out, after establishing an active and tabulated request line at KMPC in Los Angeles (then a top-6 A/C station, over a quarter of a century ago), and later at KEX in Portland, Oregon.

He had previously found that record sales and tabulated requests had been extremely accurate when he was programming Top 40 around 1970, and he tried to apply the same techniques to the budding A/C format at these major stations--only to find that, although you CAN get requests when you plug them, these requests are NOT representative of the tastes of the core audience of the station and of the format.

For that reason, after Eric left these stations, he spent a year developing the music research technique we still use, and then started applying it at a small Oregon AM station, which went on to the greatest success any such rural station in the state has ever seen in ratings and sales impact at great distances, AM or FM.

With the test process proven, we started publishing our results in 1984.

A couple of our subscribers have been with us for close to the whole time, and one moved upward in markets four times, culminating in great ratings at the leading A/C station in a Top 20 market, after which he then took a job as a group PD for a major station group, where he STILL gets our information. For those who follow and use our information (and we are always happy to assist subscribers in implementing this at no extra charge), it has worked and still works very well indeed. Some of the best known call letters in our format have subscribed at one time or another. (We continue to honor our promise when we began that we would not publicise our subscribers, who wanted to keep our information as their "secret weapon".)

Yes, some songs DO draw calls at A/C stations, but a lot of those songs are not representative of the tastes of the core A/C female listener.

So, dropping a song in our format because it "got no response" is irrelevant. If you can be sure it does appeal to the core listener you are after, it should be on your air. After two decades, we're still about the only reliable source of the information on which ones these songs are!

Various observations from the issue of October 3, 2005

We understand that a keynoter in a broadcast convention underway this past week suggested to his audience two "innovations" which we have long advocated: Spotlighting new music with some sort of headline--"pick hit", or whatever--to call attention to it, and make it a plus; and not to "throw away" the last 50 years of music, by which we hope he meant making THAT music a plus, and meeting listener expectations, by such niceties as: Having a live staff to present it (preferably in all hours); and ANNOUNCING all the songs!!

With these thoughts in mind, we present from Edison Media Research executive and radio commentator Sean Ross, this past week, the quote of the year, and probably of the decade, in our business: "You can try to build a new concept around the things people like about satellite radio or new jockless outlets, but there's still something to be said for winning the battle by giving people what they used to like about radio."

To which we add, "amen!!" We've long been vocal on the subject of the stupidity of the music business' efforts to do away with the "single", in order to make people pay big bucks to get a CD album containing the song they want. We have seen prices for singles go way up, then singles get cut out and become unavailable while still at their sales peak--and now singles being made available only to radio.

We've called it stupid for two reasons: One, the pop consumer is SONG-oriented rather than artist-oriented, and does not want to pay $12-$20 to get one song on a CD, and nowadays often won't; and two, both the music business and the radio business are dependent upon the continual process of developing new sounds, new concepts, new artists--and the potentially strongest ones frequently are so out of "mainstream" that they never would get released on an expensive-to-make album.

The Beatles were turned down by label after label, finally finding one willing to give them a try with a SINGLE. The same story has been repeated endlessly over the past century for any music act that's new or different from what is considered "mainstream" at the time it emerges. Only the inexpensive, easy-to-make, one-song SINGLE permits these innovations to see the light of day!

In an article headlined "Flat Note", the July 25th Forbes magazine points out that whatever success the music business achieves in preventing free "file sharing" of songs between consumers (an activity that the elimination of singles encouraged) will not result in the return to huge profits, because "iTunes" and others have responded legally to consumer demand, and now sell SINGLE tracks for 99 cents each. So, points out the magazine, "consumers are unlikely to spend as much as they did. . . Instead of paying $13 for a new CD, the digital music marketplace lets buyers grab a song at a time for 99 cents or less. . . And given the option, that's exactly what they're doing."

Bottom line: Apple and others have brought back the single, RESPONDING TO CONSUMER DEMAND. Unless the music business finds a way to meet consumer demand--SINGLES--folks will find another way to get their favorite songs the way they want. If this demands a new business model for the music business (or the return to an old one), so be it!

From the issue of May 9, 2005
Longtime readers will remember that we have explained before that research which shows significant changes in A/C core female listeners' preferences for certain noncurrents from year to year is just plain wrong.

Auditorium testing companies have managed to convince stations that they need these expensive projects every year, to stay current with the noncurrents she wants most to hear. All the constantly-shifting results from this shows is that when you force listeners to try to dredge up their own emotional responses to songs after hearing fragments of them ("hooks"), their best intellectualized efforts tend to be off target.

Hook-based music testing always results in intellectualized responses: That is, instead of obtaining the listener's actual emotional response to each song, you get instead what the listener, in trying to reconstruct the song in her head and then her own reaction to it, THINKS her emotional response to it is.

What you want in this situation is emotion and behavior, and what you get is opinions.

Opinions and emotions are frequently not in harmony with each other!

Opinion is colored by what other people think (which is sometimes quite obvious, in auditorium situations!), by what is currently fashionable, by one's own self-image, etc. Emotion is emotion, and emotion happens whether we want it to or not, and emotion is more powerful than opinion in influencing listener behavior.

Consequently, by our own use of methodology which captures emotion and behavior, we have consistently found that the core A/C female's preferences among non-currents SELDOM CHANGE, and do NOT have to be constantly re-determined.

In rare cases, a few individual song preferences do evolve by moving upward--they never move down. What they may do after a considerable interval, and when and if it happens varies considerably by song, is become irrelevant to the A/C core female listener. That is, she is not into nostalgia, or she'd be listening to the oldies station instead of the A/C, and when a given song stops being perceived by her as simply being "good" and instead starting being perceived as being "old", it no longer belongs in the noncurrent list of an A/C station.
Since most established noncurrent testing does not obtain this information, many A/C's--even successful ones--wind up playing songs that seem out of place to the listener, whether she likes them or not. This is not a good situation, because it colors an A/C in her mind into being some sort of a nostalgia station, which is NOT what she listens to the A/C station for!

Make sure you are getting this "perceived relevance to the format" factor probed, in your noncurrent testing, whether you do it yourself or hire a firm to do it -- or you are sufficiently unfocused that you are more vulnerable to competition than you think you are.

We do include this component in our own testing of course.







Indexed statement about this publication, requested by directory websites, follows: 6/19/2010 ... date of latest revision Eric G. Norberg ... name of person making the revision ... email address of person making the revision ... reference to an XML file, ie. alternative language version Adult Contemporary Music Research Letter ... name of publication ... alternative name (abbreviation or translation) ... type of publication, such as JOURNAL, MAGAZINE, TRADE JOURNAL, etc. SUB10035 ... key subject(discipline) areas covered by publication ... url address for cover of publication 1063-7494 ... ISSN number for publication 355.00 ... annual subscription rate for publication in USD 48 ... number of issues published per year United States (USA) ... country of publication ... language of publication

1837 S.E. Harold Street
Portland, OR 97202-4932
... mailing address for publication +1 (503) 232 9787 ... telephone for publication +1 (503) 232 9787 ... telefax for publication ... email address for publication ... web-site url of publication
editor: Eric Norberg editor Eric Norberg ... contact information, if different from general contact ... repeat for all key personnel Eric G. Norberg, editor and publisher ... name of publishing company responsible for publication ... see XML format for publishing companies ... ... name of sponsoring society for the publication ... see XML format for professional societies ...