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The Songs You Want to Hear

Still, as the managers watched their playlist evolve before their eyes, Karson hesitated: "Testing brings everything to a middle point -- whatever's least offensive -- and I wonder if we sometimes miss the highs. Those musicians couldn't have imagined 40 years ago that someday researchers would be sitting in a hotel room rating seven seconds of their song. I got really angry because they stopped making my favorite conditioner because of someone's squiggly lines on a screen. I called L'Oreal, and they said, 'Thank you for your input.'"

One set of 50 song clips ended, there was a quick break, and the survey group was seated for another set, 16 sets in all. The Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away" was down, down and out. "Stand Tall" by Burton Cummings fell flat. Tony Orlando's "Knock Three Times" went unanswered.

FINALLY, THE ORDEAL WAS OVER and the subjects were free to leave. But a dozen accepted the invitation to stay on and become a focus group, discussing their evening's work. Those who lingered pleaded for songs they could sing along with, songs that would "mellow me out," and, repeatedly, "my favorite songs." And then the same people complained that the stations they listen to play "the same songs over and over," that there are way too many commercials and that they are sick to death of Motown.

"You hear 'My Girl' 'til it's running out of your ear," one man offered.

"Yeah, always the same Motown songs," a prim businesswoman said.

A woman who said she loves the station admonished the researchers to "stop putting us in niches and do something different. Introduce something new. A lot of us bought these records way back when, and we know there's a lot more out there than they play on the radio. We know what's on the flip side of those records."

Finally, Steve Allan ventured to the front and announced what nearly everyone had figured out, that the station conducting this survey was WBIG-FM. "You're the taste-makers," he said. "We want to play as many favorite songs as we can, as often as we can."

Instantly, they lit into him. Why won't you play any Led Zeppelin? Why won't you play a greater variety of songs by the artists you do play? Give us something different.

"Could I really do what you're saying?" Allan asked. "All that music on one station, really?"

"Yes" came the shouted replies. "You could! Do it! Why not?"

"But would you expect me to play Zeppelin?" Allan responded. "Would you come to my station for that?"

Slowly, the enthusiasm leaked out of the focus group. Nobody turns to an oldies station to hear Zeppelin -- that harder rock sound would fit in on classic rock stations, such as Washington's 94.7, the Arrow, but not among the lighter pop fare on WBIG. "Guess not," one gent said. The others came to see Allan's point. It was all about expectations and favorites. They realized they had just guaranteed themselves more of the same on their favorite station.

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