Is 'The Crazy Race to No. 1' Damaging the Country Radio Format?
“It’s Monday, so the clock resets,” WGH-FM Virginia Beach, Va., PD Mark McKay recently wrote in a sarcastic post on Facebook. “I can’t remember, whose turn is it this week [to have a No. 1 single]?”
Sarcasm aside, McKay touched on a very real — and growing — frustration among country radio programmers who say labels often push records up and off the charts much faster than their listeners can get familiar with them. Programmers say there have been many records they would have liked to have seen stick around longer, but label priorities sometimes mean the -chart-toppers come and go at a pace Cumulus Media vp country Charlie Cook likens to planes landing at Nashville’s BNA Airport.
“It’s this constant push to have a new No. 1 song every week that is stalling this format out,” says KPLX Dallas assistant PD Smokey Rivers, who advises his fellow programmers to “tap the brakes and hold on to bulletproof hits longer.”
For labels, of course, No. 1s help their artists gain such media attention as TV bookings and command higher fees on tour, not to mention generating bonuses for the promotion execs who got their records there. But programmers are becoming increasingly vocal about what Cook calls “the crazy race to No. 1,” even if they somewhat sheepishly admit radio is very much a part of the problem by going along with label priorities when it has the free will to hold on to singles as long as it likes.
It’s Cook’s biggest concern for the format right now. “Today, a marketing plan is put in place the day the song goes for adds,” he explains. “With slight adjustments, based on what other labels are doing, some on the [label] marketing and promotion staff can sit down and say 12, 14, 18 weeks in advance, ‘This is the week that we’re going for No. 1.’ My concern is that there may be more juice in the song, that [by the time it peaks it] is still gaining recognition with the fans and radio ends up shortchanging both the song and listeners. The marketing plan may not address the acceptance or the strength of a record at that point. It’s simply, ‘Let’s get this song to No. 1 and get another song out,’ often when the first song is still in power rotation at many of the stations that helped make it a hit.”
He cites a recent discussion with a label promotion executive who told him, “We’re going to get out of the way this week so [another label] can get their No. 1, and then there won’t be anybody in our way next week.’ Really? That’s how you do it? … It’s driving people to play a song in a particular rotation all on the same week. That’s almost delusional.”
“I do miss the days when a song was a multiweek No. 1 because it deserved to be,” says McKay. An extended hit like “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw “couldn’t happen now,” he claims. “It would get a week, maybe two, and it would be someone else’s turn … It’s like kids getting participation ribbons sometimes. Being told about a push week a month or more before it happens really points out the ridiculousness of the process. I can’t tell you how a song will be researching in a month.”
“Superstar tunes race up so quickly that by the time they peak, the audience is just starting to get familiar with them. Then, boom, new single, which we didn’t need for another four to six weeks,” says McKay. “Let us play hits longer.”
John Shomby, director of programming for Cumulus’ NASH brand and its WKDF Nashville, agrees, saying the push to No. 1 “shouldn’t be up to the labels. That should only be up to the listeners.”
One of programmers’ primary concerns is that the speed at which No. 1s move through makes it difficult to ascertain which ones will have legs as recurrent and gold titles and which ones won’t. “Once the song hits No. 1 and it’s gone, it’s hard to determine the longevity of that song,” says Shomby. “Then it’s in our lap as radio to figure out which ones are going to be worth playing … Once it’s a No. 1, the label’s done with it. We’re not. That’s when you realize what a real No. 1 is vs. a No. 1 that just was pushed up the charts. For radio, we have to look at that even harder these days. We have to be careful.”
“My concern is that this era of taking turns and knowing push weeks several weeks or a couple of months in advance is diminishing the value of a No. 1 song,” agrees WZZK Birmingham Ala., PD Craig Allen. “How many No. 1 songs over the past two years are being played in recurrent? Are they actually hits?”
McKay is also concerned that the speed at which records climb, peak and replace themselves means listeners can’t get familiar enough with them, “which will impact whether they eventually make it into our gold libraries. We can already see it coming back in research.
“I’ve had reps just flat-out tell me, ‘But it’s our push week,’ when I tell them that their song’s not in power,” says McKay. “It’s unreasonable to expect us to hurt ourselves that way.”
Shomby sympathizes with the label side, saying, “I understand why it’s done. You look at [a No. 1] with pride if you’re a label.” He is also among those acknowledging that radio is part of the problem. “We’re all in this,” he says. “We can complain all we want about it, but we’re all doing it.”
Allen, who works for Summit Media, also admits radio is part of the issue. He says, “I blame the big company lists. I do research and work on a local level. I play what makes sense, not what is in the top 30. All stations need to be independent and, honestly, quit adding songs that you’re only going to play three times a week after midnight. That isn’t helping anyone.”
While he generally doesn’t let label pushes affect his day-to-day programming, Allen says, “I try to not be the reason an artist didn’t hit No. 1. But if your song isn’t doing well in my market, I’m not going to jeopardize my relationship with listeners in favor of someone getting their fifth No. 1."
“Have I been guilty of this a time or two? Sure, we all have, whether out of friendship, investment in an artist or whatever,” says McKay. “But I find it counterintuitive when it’s a policy. Why on earth would you want to move a power-testing song out of a power category on your station in order to move a lower-testing song up in its place just because it’s a push week? That can actually damage our ratings. We work for our owners, not the labels.”
Counter to the Country Airplay chart and its behavior is Hot Country Songs, a chart that measures direct audience response, through digital sales and streaming, in addition to programming preferences. Because of its multiple data sources, the chart reduces the influence that promotion departments can make on it, as label sources pointed out in a 2016 story. Instead of providing a revolving door at No. 1, Hot Country Songs had only one title that stayed at the top for just one week in the last 12 months. It featured seven other singles that topped the chart for as few as two weeks or – in the case of Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.” – as many as 18 weeks.
While there may be no easy solutions on the horizon, Shomby says somewhat wistfully, “I would like a No. 1 song to be a genuine No. 1 song that gets up there on its own merits.”