This Is Only a Test

The programming secrets toies er's old-time formats radio.

And play it, and play it. The Hawk's Clifton declined to say how many songs are in his station's roster at any given time, but his peers mention numbers that range from 400 to 800. However, some of these efforts don't air at all during a given week, or they play during the middle of the night, while the ones that tested the best often blare every day, sometimes several times a day. Computers sort the lists in an effort to prevent a song from playing at the same time two days in a row, which can seem redundant even to casual listeners. Computers also make it easy to prevent too many lower-testing cuts from appearing in the same set. At Jammin' Oldies, for instance, songs are labeled with letters of the alphabet, with "A" denoting the hottest tunes, "B" a level lower, and so on. "That way, we can ensure that everyone will hear the big, strong songs whenever they tune in and use some of the less-strong songs every once in a while for flavor," Haskell says.

To the Fox's O'Connor, this tack is necessary to prevent "the audience from punishing you by voting for your competitor. That's why, if you play 'Peace Frog,' by the Doors, which is nobody's favorite song but sounds like it belongs, then you'd better play 'Rock and Roll,' by Led Zeppelin, next. The passionate people will stay with you if you play something else not that well-known, but since people tend to punch out songs they don't know, you might turn over the other 80 percent of the audience. And if you do that, you'll lower your overall time-spent-listening numbers -- which is why radio does what it does. While we're often guilty of being too tight in the rotations, too conservative, sometimes we're also guilty of being too hip for the room -- although that happens less than it used to now that we're in the corporate era."

The program directors insist that research isn't the be-all and end-all at oldies stations. For instance, the Hawk's Clifton, who has worked in Denver radio since 1981, admits to occasionally trusting his gut by adding tunes that didn't test as well as he'd hoped. But the Fox's O'Connor is so protective of the system that he even discourages requests ("If the same song is scheduled a few hours later, it can cause more damage than good"), and KOOL's Watson sees taking too many chances as "a good way to get into trouble. In radio, there are a lot of egos involved, and when people program a station for their own tastes as opposed to what the listeners tell them they want to hear, it's a blueprint for disaster."

Mark Brooks

From an aesthetic standpoint, however, the effects of research can be even more catastrophic. When Jammin' Oldies first went on the air, its playlist contained a lot of songs that hadn't been played on a major Denver FM station in ages: great singles by Parliament-Funkadelic, fabulous R&B offerings by groups like Zapp that never crossed over to the pop charts, and so on. But weeks later, such tunes were replaced by a heavier concentration on the most familiar Motown hits of the Sixties and disco smashes of the Seventies. The explanation? "When we started the station, we hadn't had a chance to do any local research," says Haskell. "But we did some after we were up and running. So what you're hearing now is a station that's been tweaked for Denver."

In other words, market research strikes again.

Two years ago, the Microsoft empire spared no expense in creating Sidewalk, an ambitious series of locally based city Web sites. In Denver, for instance, a number of big names in area journalism, including Rocky Mountain News business type Joe Rassenfoss and News restaurant critic Bill St. John, were persuaded to abandon their comfortable positions for the brave new world of cyberspace. Local print publications felt the pressure: In December 1997, the News refused to run a Sidewalk ad for "competitive reasons." However, even Microsoft couldn't find a way to make the concept profitable. In July, the company Bill Gates built sold the entertainment portion of the enterprise to CitySearch, an arm of Ticketmaster, in a stock deal that could be worth as much as $400 million. Microsoft is hanging onto the yellow pages and buyer's guide portions of Sidewalk, but that's little comfort to Denver staffers, who will be abandoning their offices on October 19.

The bloodletting isn't confined to Denver. The full-time and freelance crews at all ten U.S. cities where Sidewalk opened offices have been let go, and while some employees may wind up working for CitySearch, most are in job-search mode. In the meantime, no one is offering specifics about what will happen to the assorted Sidewalk addresses (73 in total) or to the reams of information that have been compiled since 1997: Beyond noting that folks trying to visit Sidewalk will wind up at a CitySearch site, Pasadena-based CitySearch spokesperson Nancy Lyon says only that "there will be some Sidewalk branding and information on CitySearch that we'll announce as we move forward."

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