WTF: Why do local radio stations play the same songs over and over again? | WTF | Seven days
Listening to music on a commercial FM radio can feel like groundhog day all year. And it’s not just Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” that reminds Bill Murray of living the same day over and over again. On Vermont’s classic rock stations, songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” Heart’s “Crazy on You,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” get so much airplay you’d think these artists had little other successes.
Still, would a Stones fan, who has recorded over 400 songs, include “Start Me Up” in their top 10? Listeners can catch “Satisfaction,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Brown Sugar” five days a week, while “The Spider and the Fly” and “Hand of Fate” are unreleased. Two years into the pandemic, why hasn’t a DJ resurrected the 1972 release “Ventilator Blues”? Too early?
Playlists aren’t much more diverse at adult alternative stations in Vermont, where the choice of Eurythmics songs seems to fall between “Sweet Dreams” and “Would I Lie to You?” Whenever a local DJ teases a Tracy Chapman song, you can bet your favorite vinyl will be “Fast Car” or “Give Me One Reason.” Not to disparage the four-time Grammy winner, but you can’t give me a single reason not to turn the dial when these songs arrive.
Why isn’t local radio programming more innovative? A lack of competition is certainly not the problem. It’s a time when music enthusiasts have a wealth of listening alternatives – satellite radio, streaming services, YouTube, TikTok and their own digital libraries.
In a Jan. 6 blog post titled “Why Radio Just Shot Itself in the Foot,” Fred Jacobs, president of consulting firm Jacobs Media Strategies, explained how SiriusXM satellite radio became one of of the country’s biggest advertisers on AM/FM stations. steal their audience from under them. “Terrestrial radio is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Jacobs wrote, accounting for almost 40% of all audio consumption, but it’s steadily losing market share to new technologies.
But if you’re waiting to hear deep cuts or acoustic or alternate versions of your favorite artists’ songs on FM radio, you better take the advice of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler – dream it up.
For insight into the local broadcasting industry, we spoke with Mike Luoma, a 40-year Vermont radio veteran who got his start at WWPV the Mike, the student-run station at Saint Michael’s College. . Since 1987, he has held various positions in commercial radio, including Director of Music and Programs at WIZN, the classic rock station in Champlain Valley. From 2006 to 2018, Luoma worked at WNCS the Point Independent Radio. Since then, it has been hosted on WBKM, a Burlington-based internet station.
Why, we asked, do so many local stations have such a limited selection of songs?
Luoma explained that it all comes down to risk aversion. For-profit radio stations have to keep listeners tuned through ads, which pays the bills. Thus, the music they choose is “safe, familiar and well-tested”.
In the 90s, Luoma said, WIZN did a lot of music research. At that time, the top performing song with listeners was still Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”. If you listen to WIZN today, he said, you can probably figure out which songs are on the current roster. (I’m looking at you, “Layla”, “Lola” and “Kashmir”.)
Things were different during Luoma’s time at the Point, he said. Instead of running tests, this station relied on consultants who looked at which stations were broadcasting similar formats in larger markets. These consultants also helped program WXRV the River, a Boston-area adult album station, which, like The Point, is owned by Northeast Broadcasting.
“The argument used was that the radio was promoting [new] artists, and in the case of WNCS, that’s always true,” Luoma said. But in a broader sense, catalog music is a balm used by commercial radio stations to soothe you through commercials.
“They don’t play music [that] people who love music want to hear,” he added. “They play songs that everyone will listen to.”
We spoke to another longtime radio DJ from Vermont who asked not to be identified because he wants to keep his job. He lamented that local DJs have little say in what they play.
On many FM stations, he claimed, “DJs can never choose just one song.” Why not? Because most listeners “can’t tolerate music they don’t know”.
Not everyone on the Vermont radio scene agrees with such claims. Kevin Mays is the program and music director for WIZN and its sister station, WBTZ 99.9 the Buzz. He explained via email that both stations use music scheduling software to set up their daily playlists, as is industry standard. However, he wrote, unlike stations owned by large companies, WIZN and the Buzz keep all of their music locally from their own library. (None of the four largest radio conglomerates in the country — including iHeartMedia, which is known for repeating songs until nausea — owns stations in Vermont.)
Mays said DJs have “a bit of freedom” to listen to listener requests and mark an artist’s birthday or death, as was the case on Jan. 20 when Meat Loaf passed away. Most of the time, however, what is broadcast is from the Daily Playlist.
“I wouldn’t agree that the Buzz is risk averse,” he added. “We play more new music and emerging artists than most commercial alternative radio stations across the country, and we have several other outlets for new music discovery, including five hours a night on our [syndicated] evening show, ‘Alternative Soundcheck.'”
As for the high-rotation classic rock folds on WIZN — think “Free Bird,” “More Than a Feeling” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” — Mays said more than 40 years of rock programming has refined audience preferences.
“Since our job is to attract as many listeners as possible,” he said, “we tend to lean on the ones they really want to hear.”
Mays also noted, somewhat cheekily, that WIZN has 22 Rolling Stones songs in active rotation.
You make an adult cry. I was mistaken.