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By Patricia Calhoun
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Denverites love their oldies.
According to the most recent Arbitron ratings (representing, in the jargon of the industry, "Summer, Phase 2"), four purveyors of flashbacks -- KOOL 105, Jammin' Oldies 92.5 and a pair of classic rockers, the Fox and the Hawk -- are in the top ten music-driven stations in the market among listeners twelve and older. Furthermore, three other outlets on that roster -- adult-contemporary KOSI, hard-rocking KBPI and adult-alternative KBCO, which topped the study -- leaven contemporary material with a generous (some might say overly generous) sampling of tunes from days and decades gone by. So with all of these signals working this territory, why is the average dial-surfer frequently subjected to the same songs by the same groups over and over again?
The answer has everything to do with the process stations use to determine their playlists, one that relies heavily on market research and focus groups. From the standpoint of pure profit, the approach works exceedingly well; the stations cited above are among the most successful revenue-generators in the area. But their computer-friendly, blinded-by-science methodology guarantees that repetition and predictability will triumph over creativity.
Of course, the program directors -- the Hawk's Doug Clifton, KOOL 105's Tom Watson, Jammin' Oldies' Eddie Haskell and the Fox's Mike O'Connor --don't put it quite that way. Clifton and O'Connor, in particular, emphasize that their numerous specialty shows freshen up the repertoire by touching upon tunes that aren't necessarily part of the regular rotation. (The Hawk spotlights "Classic Rock Archives," hosted by veteran jock Pete MacKay, on Sunday mornings from eight until noon and sporadically conducts listener polls such as one August quiz that established its listeners' three favorite classic-rock platters of all-time: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin's fourth long-player, sometimes called Zoso, and the Beatles' Abbey Road. Likewise, the Fox produces programming like "Rockin' the Millennium," which puts rock anthems from particular years in context via factoids about what was happening in the world when they first hit stores and lets morning personalities Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax spin otherwise unauthorized blues ditties during what's known as "Blue Monday.") But the vast majority of the music on the four stations is picked on the basis of market research. As Clifton puts it, "Anyone who works at an oldies station, or even a current-music station, who tells you that research doesn't play a huge role in their programming is lying."
Here's how it works. Twice a year or so, executives request that an internal research branch conduct a survey, or they hire an independent firm such as Moyes Research, a Colorado Springs-based operation used by the Hawk. These outfits use telephone-sampling techniques to come up with locals who fit into their targeted demographic, hoping to find folks who will agree, for a modest fee, to spend an evening sharing their feelings about music. Interested parties are directed to go to an auditorium for questioning. (Upwards of 100 people are invited to each session; some stations stage two in a row on consecutive evenings, using different individuals each night, while others make do with one.) Testers dub true devotees of the station "primary one" listeners, while those who check in every so often but are more loyal to another signal receive different designations that are taken into account when data is tabulated. Once they're settled, the listeners hear ten- to fifteen-second snippets of songs -- sometimes as many as 900 of them -- that they must judge. According to KOOL's Watson, "They score them based on the equivalent of 'love it,' 'like it,' 'don't care one way or the other,' 'hate it' and 'never play that again or else I'll shoot myself.'"
On the surface, testing such a huge number of ditties would seem to promise a real playlist shakeup. But think again. Most of the songs played at the sessions are ones the stations are already spinning; usually less than one in five is, in this context, new. Much of the research, then, gauges what the Fox's O'Connor refers to as the "burn factor" of the assorted cuts. "A certain percentage always come back burned -- songs that at one time people liked, but thanks to the confinement of commercial radio, they get exposed too much," he continues. "And once a song gets to a burn score of 15 or 20 percent, it's time to give it a rest." During one test, Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" received as high a burn as any O'Connor can remember -- about 30 percent. "That doesn't seem all that bad," he says, "because that means 70 percent aren't sick of it yet. But if we had played it, we would have been at potential risk of having nearly one-third of the people listening turn off the station. And since our bosses want us to make sure that we command the lion's share of the audience, we can't let that happen."
Distressingly, though, far more staples of oldies radio get a thumbs-up than a thumbs-down -- something that makes sense to Jammin' Oldies' Haskell. "The huge records are always going to be huge, and the bad ones are always going to be bad," he says. "It's the ones in the middle that sway one way or the other." As a result, the tallies change little from test to test. And to make matters worse, stations often come up with similar conclusions. Jammin' Oldies and KOOL 105 share around a quarter of their playlist at any given time, yet neither Haskell nor KOOL's Watson seems overly concerned about the overlap. "I've always been of the opinion that you program offensively, not defensively," Watson points out. "Different things drive people to our station than drive them to Jammin', so even if we share a hundred titles, that won't help me or hurt me." The Fox's O'Connor has a slightly different view when it comes to sister station KBPI: "We tend to skew to 25 and older, while they skew to 35 and under. So if there's something like Journey, Boston or Foreigner that doesn't do as well with people under thirty as it does with people over thirty, we'll tend to play it, and they won't." But, he adds, "If we find that Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin will do well at both stations, we'll both play it."