How Hits Are Made: Radio's Rating Game


This article originally appeared in Issue# 34

If Mark Klose, the morning DJ of WMRY radio in Belleville, Illinois plays a song, say by John Cougar Mellencamp, he probably won't play it again for a week.

Unlike the programming on many other rock radio shows, listeners who tune in to his show won't hear the same hits played over and over again. They also won't hear expensive contest promotions, repetitive jingles or traffic reports.

What they will hear is listener requests — up to 60% — ranging from the latest hit single to favorites from local St. Louis groups and selections from Klose's own extensive record collection.

One thing will be the same, however. Listeners will hear commercials. Klose, an independent disc jockey who gets no salary from the station, supports himself through the bicycle shops, stereo stores and car dealers attracted by his area reputation and the demographics of the 25 to 40-year-olds who listen to him. The station, which wasn't making money in the time slot, had nothing to lose by hiring him, he says.

"My kind of program today is aimed at people who live here, sophisticated baby boomers who grew up with the St. Louis sound and want to listen to it. ft wouldn't work in the east or the west coast. And it certainly wouldn't work at a station where the numbers are everything and ratings are the key indicator of success."

For the long-time disc jockey, WHRY was the last stop on his way out of an industry that he sees as increasingly closed and confining.

With 97% of American homes having a working songs player and over 25,000 new records recorded every year, one would think the music industry would be a booming market, with plenty of room for all tastes and styles of music to flourish.

In actual fact, the merchandising of music wakes the industry a fairly closed shop with record producers, distributors, radio stations, and music stores making up a complex web of decision-makers - and profit centers - that effectively single out only a few records to be hits with the rest left to survive as they can.

Not too surprisingly, a situation develops where everyone watches everyone else. And all try to minimize potential errors by taking few risks.

Getting to the Top

"Radio is the jury, it's never wrong," says Thomas Noonan, associate publisher/director of charts at Billboard magazine where he manages its Hot 100 pop chart and its various spin-offs. Billboard and Its competing but less prosperous sister-publication, Cashbox, maintain highly influential and closely watched charting systems that highlight the hottest records each week. "Hot," of course, does not mean the "best" musically, but rather the "most bought" or "most played."

Since many stations only add new songs when they reach a certain point on the rating charts, there's a chicken and egg quality to the system. But a record's initial progress on the charts is based on airplay. Sales aren't a significant factor for several weeks.

Naturally, established artists possess an overwhelming advantage when crucial decisions regarding radio play lists are wade

Besides its own quality and/or perceived commercial viability, a new act must depend on luck, pluck and getting the promotion department really behind it to break the system.

"Generally speaking, you don't break a new act in a major market," the Billboard editor says. "Usually, they have to be proven someplace else'' frequently in a part of the country that knows the performer and responds to a particular sound.

Some suggest that this is why proven performers like Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder have made recent come-backs in the pop-music world. There's less risk involved in updating them than grooming — and selling —a new act.

Although there's general agreement that promotion is very important, as a former head of promotion for Columbia Records, Noonan emphasizes that there's no set formula for promoting a record, only techniques.

"Timing is important. There are summer records and winter records and records that fit the mood of a particular time. Obviously, a promoter doesn't listen to music the way a musician or fan does. "We like music; we have to. But we have commercial ears. And every song has to have its hook." The "hook" is the point of difference that can serve as its selling point when the promoters sell It to radio stations.

A Numbers Game

Although he feels that songs that deserve to make it generally do, Noonan is the first to admit that the numbers are "real rough — it's a crapshoot."

Of approximately 4,000 RPM singles, about 2,500 are pop, he estimates. "Of those, maybe 57 will become hits. And a station like KIIS-FM (Los Angeles' hot top-ranked Top 40 station) might add as few as four records a week of the 50 or so released."

He notes that numbers and demographics assumed added importance during the industry slump of a few years ago. He credits some of the recent vitalization of the industry to MTV and other video outlets.

Steve Resnick of A&M Records agrees that "every record is different." Although he asserts that "we try to promote every record fairly," he agrees that distinguishing features simplify the job and "major acts are easier — they can be sold simply on the music."

"My biggest frustration comes when I believe in a record that I just can't get played," he says. And he agrees that the situation has become somewhat tighter during his 17 years in the business.

"Radio stations have to provide high ratings," he says, referring to the Arbitron rating system, which, similar to TV's Neilson ratings, ranks radio stations on the basis of the listening preference of a relatively small number of sample homes.

The ratings, as in TV, determine how much each station can charge for its advertising time. And with dozens of radio stations competing for listeners in each broadcast market, the pressure is on to keep listeners from switching the dial. "Radio programmers are afraid to program records unless they can be sure they're hits," notes Resnick.

A Packaged Image

Nationwide, some of those crucial programming decisions are made, or at least supplemented, by consulting firms that have sprung up to package a particular "image" for a station. Such firms offer services ranging from completely pretaped programs that include disc-jockey patter and intercuts of local advertising, to consulting advice and suggested play lists that are systematically designed to make the station appeal to a target audience.

Where play lists or pre-taped programs are used the programming risk is transferred to the programmers at the consulting companies, who then, of course, must bear the responsibility if their recommendations don't lead to the expected market share.

According to Robert English, president of Broadcast Programming, a Seattle-based consultant that services 100 stations in 32 states, research is very important in making his company's programming decisions. He estimates that up to one-third of the nation's 10,000 radio stations use some form of consultant service.

"We monitor the national trade magazines and the action of certain radio stations whose decision-making we're familiar with."

He agrees that the selection process tends to favor "established product."

"It's tough being a new act. We do make sure that we're aware of music that's out by new artists, but almost always they have to make their mark before we recommend them.

"Of course, if a client station in Davenport was aware of an act that was hot there and they wanted to play it, that night make sense for then."

Minimizing Risks

But stations are taking an unnecessary risk and maybe wasting their money if they deviate from the prescribed play list, according to Mary Sibulkin, director of public relations for Drake- Chenault of Canoga Park, California, another well-known consulting firm.

Company co-founder Bill Drake initiated the formula "more music, less talk" that W88 instrumental in transforming older, disc jockey-oriented stations of the '50s and '60s into music-driven programs featuring minimal announcing.

The result, according to some music industry watchers, has been a decline in the number of local working disc jockeys responsive to local community interests, and an increase in the number of stations that depend on canned programs.

Plus, with the recent change in ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission, more and more radio stations are owned by fewer and fewer media chains. For some chains it's easier (read cheaper) to program once for all of its stations than for each local outlet.

"I often hear the same voice from city to city," says a frequent traveler. "The only thing local is weather and traffic."

Drake-Chenault's 300 U.S. client stations include 49 that are number one in their target market for their formats. Its clients have also included stations in such far-flung locations as Japan, Australia and the Caribbean, bringing mass marketing techniques and targeted sounds to other cultures.

Although company programmers watch the market closely, they also depend heavily on the kind of market research that's so important in other industries. Computer analysis of listeners' reactions to songs played in test marketing sessions are broken down by age, sex, and lifestyle demographics. "If we have a 35-year-old woman in a certain city who likes country music and there are three country stations in her city, we're going to know which one she likes," Sibulkin says.

"There are occasional surprises, but in general we're paid to know what's going to happen," he adds. "We know how to vary the play list to avoid repetition but make sure the public hears plenty of the hottest songs. It's true that a song that's not in the Top-40 is going to have a hard time getting in.

"Radio programming has become harder than ever," says Rick Lemmo of Drake-Chenault, who was program director for a Toledo, Ohio area station. "I don't remember that we ever added more than 4-5 songs a week. But new formats and MTV have opened up the market in other ways. You have to pay attention to what the listener wants.

"There's not much margin for error. These radio stations are dealing in big money and they live and die by their ratings."

Which brings us back to Klose and his frustration with the formatted system he left to go independent.

"When I started out, program formats were much looser — similar to what I'm doing now. But when you're talking about a situation where half a rating point might mean half a million dollars, the pressure is on to follow the formula. That's also why so many stations have gotten involved in contests. It just encourages listeners to stay tuned-in in the hopes of picking up a little cash.

"Radio's become a big corporate business."

Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.