"Chart Beat" columnist Fred Bronson answers readers questions about radio station ratings, research, and singles.
A FAIR HEARING
I have to take issue with what you said in last week's column about radio stations playing what we want to hear. There are no request lines anymore -- they play their top 40 songs (and I may be being generous) over and over again. If Burger King only put the "Whopper" on their menu, then the most eaten food would be the Whopper. The fact that ratings would "plummet" and their "survival is at stake" is laughable. I try to listen to the radio these days, but there are only so many times I can hear Nelly before I switch to AM talk radio. At least there I can call and give my opinion on the topic of the day. Radio stations that don't listen will not be listened to.
I await the day that Elvis, the Bee Gees, Ja Rule, Garth Brooks, and Guns N' Roses are played right in a row. Needless to say, I will be listening to a mix tape that I made myself.
I think you've hit on a solution I've suggested in these pages before. Personally, I do not listen to radio anymore because I can't hear the songs I want to hear. So I've turned to other means, including making my own CDs to listen to at home and in my car. On my desktop computer, I've downloaded 3,000 songs that I play at random (they've been downloaded from my own CDs, by the way, not illegally from Web sites) and so I have a jukebox of my favorite 3,000 songs (the number is always going up, because I'm always adding new songs).
As I write this, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin's version of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" is playing. Would I rather be listening to that or "Hot in Herre" for the 5,000th time? Not to pick on Nelly, who is a fine artist -- I could have mentioned a number of other songs as well.
A lot of readers wrote in to dispute my statements about radio. But here's what I know: the more restrictive playlists are, the higher the ratings usually are. It's a sad fact, but it's a fact. Radio stations do an enormous amount of research and testing to determine which songs are the most popular, which songs have burned out, and which new songs stand the best chance of being hits. I would rather they programmed by their gut instincts and love of music, but that doesn't happen anymore. Advertising rates are determined by ratings and so they do whatever it takes to get the highest ratings.
I think the lack of airplay for artists like Elvis Presley, Cher, and Kelly Clarkson (see "Chart Beat Bonus") is terrible -- and a big mistake. But radio programmers aren't deliberately setting out to make people angry; they're doing what think is best for their business.
One more point: in this era of mass media, a network television series that draws an audience of 3 million people can be considered a failure. Imagine, a failure, even though 3 million people made the effort to watch that series. A movie that takes in $10 million at the box office can be considered a failure -- certainly far away from a box office hit. Imagine, having a product that generates $10 million in sales, and it's still a failure!
That's what we're up against.
You keep saying radio stations play what the public wants to hear, but I never hear you mention the payola investigations. What about the fact that record companies have admitted to paying radio stations to play certain songs? How does that fit in with music directors researching the public and playing what they want to hear?
And what kind of research is done? To my knowledge, a few people from a given area are asked to listen to a few songs and then give their opinion. Stations base what they will and won't play on these few people? Is that right? Do they try to get a good cross-section of the population that listens to the station? Do they leave room for those singles that need to grow on you?
The issue of pay-for-play is more complicated than what you suggest. Payola is, of course, a crime. The issue centers around independent promoters, who pay radio stations to have access to their program directors. Record companies then pay the independent promoters when their label's songs are added to radio station playlists. As laws are currently written, there is no crime being committed. Radio stations claim they still only play what they want to play. What they have changed is who has access to music and program directors. In days gone by, promotion staff members from the labels had direct access to radio station staff; now that access and access to some radio chains is restricted to the independent promoters.
As for the kind of research being done, whether I like the results or not, there are people who have studied research as a science. It is not done casually or by bringing in a few folks from a certain area. I know people who work in research, albeit for television and not in the music business, and they are expert at what they do.
REAL GOOD FOR FREE
Most of your recent letters regarding the unavailability of commercially-released singles seem to link the sales to Billboard chart positions, with one reader even going so far as to infer that Billboard's policies contributed to the demise of the single.
I think we need to remember that a single song by an artist, designed to generate more attention for that artist and the rest of their music, has always been intended to be heard as a "free sample."
Now, I'm not going to say I agree with downloading entire albums over the Internet, because then a person owns something tangible without the creators (artists and record companies) receiving a penny for their efforts. However, a single from an artist's album should be free of charge in audible form, whether heard over the radio/Internet/MTV, at an outdoor or televised concert, in a music store before considering a product, etc.
Just as many retail outlets offer free samples of food and other items, which a consumer can enjoy on a daily basis without ever spending a dime to purchase some of the sampled product, songs which become "hits" should be available for our ears as free product, just as music has been heard for free since the beginning of time. If people also wish to purchase these singles, those purchases should be viewed like the purchase of other collectible merchandise such as posters, but the sales generated by these purchases shouldn't really affect Billboard chart positions since not every fan can afford to purchase a song they might want to hear every day. The song's airplay numbers are correctly used as the more accurate barometer of the public's relative fascination with a song.
Whether or not these "hits" can be purchased to reflect chart position in trade magazines is not as relevant as whether people enjoy hearing them, in my opinion. Therefore, whether or not the single survives (and I personally hope it does), it should survive as an entertaining collectible, but it shouldn't significantly affect Billboard chart policies and vice versa. Otherwise, we might as well start tallying the sales of baseball cards to determine which team goes to the World Series (if they're not on strike, that is).
Thanks for listening,
The Hot 100 was designed as a chart that combines sales and airplay to determine the most popular singles in the U.S. every week. While sales have declined dramatically, I think at this point units sold should still be factored into determining a song's position on the Hot 100. If the single does go the way of the 8-track tape, there may come a day when the Hot 100 is an airplay-only chart, but we're not at that day yet.
Meanwhile, I'm sure you and other readers have noticed that the singles debate has dominated "Chart Beat Chat" for three weeks running. Almost all of the E-mails I received this week were on the subject again. We're at a point where the same things are being said over and over, so I'm calling a moratorium on the issue, for now. Consider that a challenge to "Chart Beat" readers to write to me about different subjects in the coming week.