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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Waitresses, Top Forty radio and the illusion of diversity

When I wrote about something I heard on Planet Rock, somebody who didn't wish to be named took me to task for slating the station having only listened to it for five minutes. In fact it was a bit longer than that but no matter.

All the people I know in radio accept that the very most of a new listener's attention they're going to get is a few minutes. That's why they design playlists in the way they do so that they hear something familiar, something hot and something new but familiar-sounding.

I was reading John Seabrook's piece about the songwriters behind Rihanna in an old copy of The New Yorker. Here he quotes from Marc Fisher's excellent book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation. Fisher credits Todd Storz with the invention of Top Forty radio. When Storz was in the army during the war he watched how customers in diners tended to pick the same records again and again on the jukebox. When the customers left the waitresses took their own coins, put them in the jukebox and punched up the same records. They didn't want change. They wanted familiarity.

It was this concept he took into radio - in an era when it was considered bad form to play the same song twice in a twenty-four hour period. It's this principle of heavy rotation which still underpins all music radio, whether it professes to provide all the hits and more or pretends to follow a higher agenda. Behind the scenes programmers, producers and algorithms are working very hard to make sure you're never too far from something warm and familiar.

It's the same thing when you do research around people's preferences in music magazines. When asked everybody will describe themselves as having very eclectic tastes. In practice very few of them do. They all say they want informative pieces about new bands. In practice they all read the old one about Oasis.