ON RECORDS: A CALL TO ACTION


The radio business is in trouble. It needs a shot of adrenaline.

The answer to its malaise seems obvious, yet even the smartest minds in the sector are too mired in the mundane to see it clearly. In any case, a big change is needed right now.

These days, everyone knows what the biggest hits are. We all scrutinize the DSP charts and stream counts. So why not launch a new format, one that plays records that are happening now—based on the abundant information about the marketplace that is basically one click away at all times—and plays them a lot?

Start by playing breakout songs that radio has resisted—hits by David Kushner, Luke Combs, Lil Durk, Bad Bunny and whatever else is being streamed heavily and consistently right now. Mix in long-tail hits like “Flowers,” “As It Was” and “Kill Bill,” and you’ve got a playlist that’s in sync with the moment, consisting entirely of songs that listeners are passionate about. Then you’ll have an invigorated audience that will likely be more receptive when you introduce some new and developing songs.

Such a format would improve ratings and listener retention. It would also help restore radio’s relevance, not to mention its role in enhancing the impact and longevity of current music.

“But what about waiting for callout?” I hear you ask. To which we reply, with all the love in the world: Fuck your callout results. We know what the hits are. Stop already with the outdated research and save yourselves googobs of money.

There’s a great story in Dan Charnas' book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop about Rick Cummings' trying to resuscitate L.A.’s Power 106 in 1991. The station was playing a lot of so-called “Latin freestyle” music that their research told them appealed to young Latinas. Then they assembled a focus group of young Latinas, who dismissed the subgenre as “that whiny girl music” and told the team they wanted to hear hip-hop. This was early enough that the programmers didn’t know what hip-hop was. The girls explained it was basically rap. Power eventually pivoted to highlighting rap, and its ratings went through the roof.

All they had to do, even then, was ask their listeners.

Once upon a time, PDs and MDs were the ultimate gatekeepers, and it was within their nearly godlike power to decide whether or not a record was a hit. They could decline to add it because it wasn’t up-tempo enough or wasn’t seasonally appropriate or had too much or too little guitar or was too vulgar or too polarizing or too male or too female or too white or too Black. They could point to callout research with low “recognition” numbers. Or they could just refuse to play it because they didn’t “get it”—or just didn’t like it.

These same justifications, based on outmoded methods, are keeping big streaming hits off the radio when they first get hot. Too often, by the time programmers give in and play them, they’ve peaked.

Meanwhile, because of issues unrelated to the impact of records—issues like getting big stars booked for stations’ holiday shows—playlists are larded with stiffs.

All of which has turned radio, to a significant degree, into a boring aftermarket platform, instead of the flamethrowing current-hits format it was designed to be.

Broadcast radio has an audience, albeit a smaller one than before. If it wishes to retain and even grow this listenership, it needs to play hits now, not months from now.

That’s where the new format comes in. We’re not great at naming things, but you could call it, we dunno, “Contemporary Hit Radio.”

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