The Songs You Want to Hear

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, January 21, 2007

A WEEKDAY EVENING IN SUBURBIA, a Holiday Inn at happy hour: In the lobby of this hotel near Landmark Mall in Alexandria, flight crews checked in for the night while five people clustered around the TV set, watching the president of the United States address the nation. In meeting rooms just off the atrium, the J. Walter Thompson agency put on a marketing presentation for managers from Domino's Pizza, and Northern Virginia Realtors got pumped up at a sales rally. At the end of the corridor, behind a sign that said "Music Survey," 54 people took seats at rows of tables stocked with hard candies, Cokes, brownies and palm-size, black electronic gadgets labeled "Perception Analyzer."

There was no deejay in the room; no radio station's music director was here, but on this night, these 54 people -- recruited by telemarketers and selected because they collectively mirrored this station's audience by sex (29 women and 25 men), age (ranging from 38 to 52), race (every one of them is white) and musical preference (40 percent like oldies best) -- would choose the playlist for Washington's WBIG-FM. Each person in the room was being paid $65 for 2 1/2 hours of his time. They were spending those hours listening to seven-second snippets from 700 of the most familiar pop songs from their teenage and young adult years. They weren't told which station was paying for this research, but most of them figured it out soon enough. They heard the Beatles and Carly Simon, the Supremes and Fleetwood Mac, the girl groups and the British imports, Elvis and ABBA, more Beatles and more Motown, clip after clip after clip until they thought they'd heard every song ever recorded. They were amazed that they recognized almost every one of those songs from just a few seconds' worth of music. They spun the red-capped dials on their Perception Analyzers from 0 to 100, thereby telling the station which songs they wanted to hear on the radio and which would drive them to punch up another station.

If they followed the thick clot of wires that extended out of the computer at the front of the meeting room, they might have noticed that the cables disappeared under the divider into the next room, the one with the closed door, the one where executives from WBIG sat eating club sandwiches and staring at a giant screen that tracked every twist of those dials, collecting all 54 opinions on each song in the form of five lines inching their way up and down the screen like an EKG readout, each line tracking a different subgroup of the listeners next door, the whole graph mapping the taste of the American radio listener, captured in precise metrics.

WBIG, known on the air now as Big 100.3, hires a company to conduct these tests twice each year. Another group of about 55 people was coming in the next night, at another hotel, this time in Montgomery County, and the combined results would determine the station's songlist of a couple of hundred tunes. Stations that play current top hits do this more often. But just about every music station in any big city in the country uses auditorium or mall testing -- as well as more frequent, often weekly, phone calls to listeners at home -- to pick its playlist. The stations want to deliver exactly the songs that their desired audience most wants, and they believe this technology makes that possible.

At the Holiday Inn, some of the results were obvious before the technician switched on the first clip (the industry calls them "hooks," and an enormous side business replete with psychometrics and statistical analysis goes into choosing which seven seconds of a song will be presented to the survey group). Everyone would like Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and the Beatles' "Help!" If you compared the playlists of all the oldies stations in the land, pretty much the same core of about 100 songs would be on every list. But beyond those obvious choices, there were decisions to be made about the next hundred tunes, and the people who run the stations do not trust themselves to make those decisions -- and haven't for a long time.

Since the late 1970s, the music you hear on the radio has been determined by tests such as this one; by "perceptual studies," in which listeners grouped by very narrow demographic characteristics are questioned in detail about their attitudes toward radio and music; by phone polls; and now by online surveys, as well.

Whatever the methodology, the result is a pile of numbers telling station managers exactly which songs to play. Software programs such as Selector then determine the order in which songs will be spun -- plotting playlists weeks in advance -- to maximize the chance that listeners will stay tuned. Songs are matched to different parts of the day, based on their tempo and psychographic research that probes listeners' moods as they move from getting ready for work to commuting and on through each stage of the day and night.

Despite -- or, critics say, because of -- all that supposedly scientific research, it's hard to find a radio executive who does not concede (at least privately, with the notebook closed) that radio has become boring and predictable, that stations sound the same no matter where you are, and that the steady decline in the amount of time Americans spend listening to radio is disturbing.

"We've perfected our science, but we've lost an entire generation of listeners," lamented Steve Allan, who was WBIG's program director when I observed the music test. "The only thing we have left in broadcast radio is convenience. We're there in the car. Young people don't get their music from radio anymore. They download it."

Commercial radio isn't being challenged just by iTunes, MySpace and other online music sources. Satellite radio -- the multibillion-dollar gamble by XM and Sirius -- also has forced broadcast radio to worry about the millions of customers who now shell out $13 a month for what has always been free. This year, the radio industry is pushing its answer to satellite: HD Radio, a new set of digital stations that offers more choices of music but requires listeners to buy a digital radio.

Americans still listen to an average of 3.2 hours of commercial radio a day, and more than three-quarters of the population listens every day. But radio's reliance on research prevents stations from providing the variety they tell pollsters they crave. Because advertisers want to reach a defined demographic group -- say, women ages 25 to 34 -- stations have no qualms about alienating people who fall outside their target audience. In the heyday of Top-40 AM radio, a station's success was measured by the raw size of its audience; by just playing the hits, no matter the genre, a station could win 20, 30, even 50 percent of the local audience. Today, by using research to identify the songs that appeal especially to those 25-to-34-year-old women, a station on a much more crowded radio dial can trumpet its success with a 4 percent slice of the audience. That puts all the more pressure on stations to identify the right songs necessary to deliver the right slice of listeners.

THE SCIENCE OF CHOOSING MUSIC CAME DOWN TO THIS -- five colored lines rising and falling on a computer monitor. "Just watch," Allan told me as the music survey at the Holiday Inn began. "You'll see the [expletive] that rises to the top is the same as ever." The test starts out with a few control questions, just to make sure that the station has recruited the right people to this room. A few seconds of rap, and the lines plummet to the bottom of the screen. Then Rod Stewart's "Young Turks" ("Young hearts, be free tonight") and the lines shoot back up again. A snippet of hard rock floors the lines again, and they soar on the Beatles' "Love Me Do." Okay, we're in the right place.

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