The Songs You Want to Hear
Has audience research sucked all the life out of commercial radio?

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.

The songs just keep on coming: ABBA (way down), the BeeGees' "How Deep Is Your Love" (decent score but a big age split), Harry Chapin's "Taxi" (dives in all age groups), America's "A Horse With No Name" (a winner across the board), the Fifth Dimension's "Stoned Soul Picnic" ("That song never tests," Allan mopes. "Too bad -- I love it." So do you play it? I ask. "It doesn't test," he repeats. End of story.)

The easy part of the evening comes each time a Beatles tune streams through the speakers -- "Strawberry Fields," "Back in the USSR," almost any Beatles number does the trick, which is why WBIG, like most oldies stations, plays two or three of the Fab Four's hits each hour. But move forward in time, and the picking gets dicier.

Here's why: Since oldies radio was born in the 1970s explosion of niche formats, radio executives have believed that the Top-40 tunes of the '60s were America's new standards. Unlike the pop music of, say, the early 1950s -- the songs of Perry Como and Doris Day that were pretty much never heard again -- the hit songs that reigned during the heyday of Top-40 AM radio seemed to win new fans with every generation. This was the stuff that high school kids and their parents could agree on in the car. But in about 1995, the research numbers began to reveal a crumbling of that consensus. People in their 30s didn't necessarily want to hear "Surfin' Safari" or "Sloop John B." They hadn't grown up with those songs, and, therefore, their kids weren't growing up with them, either. As Dan Michaels, Big 100.3's new program director, put it, "Your musical tastes are defined when you're between 18 and 22, and you kind of lock into that for the rest of your life." But when managers of oldies stations tried to update their playlists, they were smacked in the face by the reality of what the previous three decades of radio had wrought: Modernizing the oldies format wasn't a simple matter of deleting the early '60s tunes and adding the hits of the '70s. The FM revolution had altered the musical foundation of the nation.

In the '60s, nearly everyone grew up listening to the same kind of go-go AM Top-40 stations, with happy, shouting deejays, lots of jingles and an endless stream of two-minute pop dance hits. But by the mid-'70s, as FM radios became standard equipment in cars and as home stereo systems got cheaper and better, Top 40 was dying, and young Americans headed off in all directions, to underground FM rock, to hard rock, to soft folkie rock, to disco, and on and on. Now, when oldies stations tried to bring those listeners back together again, there were precious few unifying tunes.

Kids who had grown up on Boston, Kansas and Steve Miller wanted nothing to do with the music of those who grew up on Chic, Gloria Gaynor and Parliament-Funkadelic, and they in turn had little in common with those who came up with Billy Joel, Celine Dion and Gordon Lightfoot.

"The times and the music became more fragmented," Allan said, "so the commonality isn't there. There are some songs that work, but then you hit disco in '78, and that changed everything."

Songs that even hint at disco are far too divisive to reach the consensus WBIG needs among its 40- and 50-year-olds. For example, research shows that white women generally want their oldies station to play the melodic disco anthems -- "I Will Survive," "Last Dance" -- but black women hate them, preferring the '70s soft soul groups the Spinners, the Stylistics and the like.

Buried somewhere in that decade lie the hits that will offend few enough listeners to make them acceptable. The challenge at the Holiday Inn was to find the songs that might bring in younger folks without chasing away older, core listeners. (The perfect '70s song, at least according to this night's test, was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," which sent the EKG lines straight up like nothing but a Beatles tune. Whatever Bill Clinton's real musical taste may be, his advisers certainly knew their music testing when they chose that tune as his 1992 campaign anthem.)

Allan's task was to push the average age of WBIG listeners down from 48 without losing overall audience. "We had to move to more '70s music, because, sadly, in America, if your average age is over 50, your money's no good here anymore," he said. "Once you hit 45, American business doesn't believe you're going to spend any money." WBIG was playing 45 percent '70s music, and this test wasn't showing much tolerance for more than that. (Anything by the Carpenters: Numbers fell off a cliff. Linda Ronstadt: Every song tanked.)

To make matters even more difficult, something new was happening on this night, something that surprised even the experts. Every time the computer served up a Motown song -- every time, whether it was the Supremes, the other girl groups, Marvin Gaye, the Chi-Lites -- the lines on the screen dived.

How could this be? Motown was the heart of the oldies format, every bit as essential a component as the Beatles or the Beach Boys. The appeal of the Supremes, for example, is no more dated than the new "Dreamgirls" movie. Had Oldies 100 and similar stations overplayed a handful of songs, burning out listeners on those tunes? If they mixed in some other songs, would it reconnect listeners to the infectious joy of Motown? We may never know: The rules of radio ordained short playlists of songs listeners already knew they liked. The executives saw the numbers streaming across the computer screen at the Holiday Inn, and the numbers ruled.

"Maybe we ought to rethink Motown Mondays," which were a longtime staple at the station, said Bob Karson, who was then WBIG's creative director. "They're really shooting down every one of those songs."

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.

Except for one thing: "So Motown Monday's got to go, huh?" Allan asked.

Absolutely, the group confirmed.

NOT LONG AFTER THE MUSIC TEST, the owners of WBIG, Clear Channel Communications, decided that traditional oldies had had their day. Like many other oldies stations across the country, WBIG switched formats this past spring. Big 100 adopted an approach known as "classic hits," which consists of top rock songs from the 1970s -- Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," The Kinks' "Lola," Queen's "We Will Rock You," Styx's "Lady," and lots of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. It strives to entertain listeners by serving up clever themed weekends of music, such as Big Decomposers (three days of songs by departed artists) or Big Ugly Rock Stars Who Score Great Chicks (Steven Tyler, Billy Joel).

So far, the new Big 100.3 is doing what its owner wants it to do. It is "skewing" younger, reaching an audience that on average is a little closer to the low end of the 25 to 54 age group than the oldies format drew. The classic hits are luring more men, so the audience is almost evenly split by sex, while Oldies 100 leaned more toward women. "This is a much more appealing advertiser demographic," Michaels said.

The bigger picture, however, only grows fuzzier. As young people choose to discover, share and collect music via iTunes, blogs and MySpace, decades of music research suddenly seem irrelevant. If listeners can create their own music stations, what will radio's role be?

Wrong question, many radio executives contend: Choice is overrated; most people don't want to spend their leisure time sifting through hours of mediocre tunes in search of their new favorite. They just want someone to deliver the music they love. The trick for radio is to find a way to capture the spirit of the Web -- the interactivity, the flattened hierarchy, the sense of empowerment -- while maintaining radio's traditional authority ("The hits from coast to coast," "The hits just keep on coming").

Satellite radio attempts to find that balance by giving deejays more freedom to select songs but only within the boundaries of narrowly defined channels of music (XM, for example, has one channel for "greasy, gritty" country tunes, one for honky-tonk hits of the '50s and '60s, one for current country hits, one for country stars from the '80s and '90s, and one for country classics). The satellite services use some of the same research tools that FM radio deploys but claim to escape the resulting blandness by giving programmers leeway to create sets of music that feel as if a human hand is at work. Whatever the result of that recipe, the bottom line is that in this tough time for radio, the bedrock belief in the efficacy of music research is finally cracking.

"Everything's cyclical," Michaels said. "Research had its time, and it's still important, but now people are willing to have a gut feeling and go with it."

In the 1950s, when TV came along and wiped out most of radio's most successful programming, radio defied predictions and survived. What saved radio -- playing rock-and-roll records for a new generation -- emerged from a combination of accident, innovation and desperation. What will save radio this time is very likely a similar combination. The desperation is growing, the innovation is beginning to bubble up, and accidents are waiting to happen. What they will sound like is unknown, but at long last, most everyone in the industry agrees they won't happen in a Holiday Inn meeting room.

Marc Fisher is a Post columnist. This article was excerpted from his new book, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, published this month by Random House. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

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