This Is Only a Test
Mark Brooks

This Is Only a Test

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."

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."

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."

As for Gates, the A&E network's Biography program just named him the 41st most influential person of the millennium, fourteen spots ahead of explorer Ferdinand Magellan and sixteen in front of Elvis Presley. Sidewalk, shmidewalk.

Back at the News, onetime Denver Post-er Penny Parker is set to take over the gossip column recently abandoned by Norm Clarke. The move came after decision-makers offered to split the slot between a pair of in-house candidates, soft-feature specialist James Meadow and food writer Thom Wise, who recently stepped back from covering the Denver stage scene because he's trying to purchase an East Colfax theater. But when Meadow and Wise turned thumbs-down on the deal, execs recruited Parker, a journalist from the Post's business department who, according to the October 8 article introducing her to News readers, loves to golf, ski and teach step aerobics. When Jazzercise gets hip again, she'll be ready.

Two days later, on October 10, the News tried to squeeze a few more drops of blood from the Columbine stone via three (count 'em, three) pieces about Kyle Velasquez, a shooting victim whose parents had previously been among the few to keep the press at a distance. We'll probably never know why his folks chose this particular moment to sit down with the News and Channel 7, which also ran a Velasquez piece that day; perhaps they simply reached the stage in their mourning where they needed to vent. But their decision plays into the hands of those media cynics who have let the coverage of this important story devolve into a ghoulish popularity contest. Just like high school.


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