In high school, the only radio stations I wanted to hear were the ones that weren’t playing “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac or “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I wasn’t in search of well-programmed radio stations that played the hits. I was in search of new music, and although I occasionally came across good radio, I more often defaulted to small-market top 40 or AC stations (or country truckers’ shows) that played the stiffs. If the presentation was particularly inept, I noticed, but I didn’t mind.
Then I began to learn about radio programming. Now, I was more interested in what was between the records, even if the songs didn’t mean much to me personally. When Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” stations helped revive top 40, I sat riveted as songs I’d gotten tired of months ago repeated once an hour in morning drive. Joseph’s presentation was, by design, formulaic. But when WHYT Detroit launched in September 1982, that presentation somehow made “Jack and Diane” fascinating for a while.
Since then, I have listened at least equally for “radio” and “music.” My wife is long used to having to converse during the records—not the jock breaks—and other industry people nod in recognition, not sympathy, when she tells that story. Only their spouses groan. Customizable radio is of professional interest to me, but when I’m listening online for myself, I’m in search of produced entertainment and a shared experience.
Once I adapted the programming mind-set, I never begrudged radio the right to play the hits. Eventually, I went into the radio research business to help it do just that. The perfect radio station played just enough new or unlikely music to make things interesting and enough hits to compensate for playing a few songs that weren’t. I had enough access to new music—first by being in the industry, then from the proliferation of other choices, that I wasn’t tuning in for that purpose anyway.
And yet, in the last six months or so, it has become very hard for me to sit through music I don’t want to hear, regardless of my professional interest in doing so. There is little that can make “Jack and Diane” fascinating for me at the moment. And while other friends (and some of the research I’ve seen) suggest that some classic rock warhorses aren’t quite as indestructible after 30 years, there are also 30-week-old hits that are just as difficult to endure as I punch from one contemporary station to another to escape hearing “Don’t You Worry Child” again.
For the first time since I listened to “American Top 40” as a teenager, I find myself scheduling my top 40 listening to coincide with stations’ “Top 9 at 9” countdowns. Unlike those days, I’ve already heard the songs for the first time. But it’s often my first time hearing them on the radio. Or hearing a few new songs in succession without “One More Night” and “Sweet Nothing” in between.
Why so impatient now? Perhaps because I have so many choices. I’ve had SiriusXM in my center stack for 10 months now, and WunderRadio in my cup holder for three-and-a-half years. Perhaps because, despite this, I have so few true alternatives as Portable People Meter-era compression pushes playlists tighter and formats closer together.
Or perhaps, it’s hard to listen for what’s between the records when there is less content than ever between the records. I recently checked out a major-market top 40, which was enjoying its best ratings ever. I sat through the debt relief and weight-loss spots. I heard two breaks that never gave the call letters. Both ran “dry” between records, not over intros, in that way that didn’t even try to camouflage being canned. I heard “Stay” and “Feel This Moment.” Then the debt relief and weight-loss spots were back.
One industry observer recently commented that broadcasters had recovered from the initial post-PPM freak-out in which presentations were stripped bare. Based on recent listening, it’s too soon to declare that period over. As for declaring these frustrations publicly, any industry veteran who feels this way runs the risk of being pronounced as burnt out on radio. But I’m expecting some nods of recognition as well. I don’t think I’m burnt out on radio yet—but I do find myself having to look harder to find some.