With the radio audience being offered more listening options than ever, the programmer’s job is constantly evolving to stay competitive. One not only has to keep a station sounding great, but also address the audience through social media and maintain that elusive balance between focus and diversity. We spoke with four of our CountryBreakout panelists about the current marketplace and while they don’t always agree on how to get it done, they know sitting still isn’t the answer.
“The biggest challenge is trying to keep the playlist fresh,” says Mike Thomas of KFAV/Warrenton, MO. “Having been around when the charts were moving at lightning speed, I realize that wasn’t the best scenario either. The economics of the music industry dictate the labels get the biggest bang for the buck out of every single but that same philosophy is also hurting the industry by limiting the number of talented artists.”
“I’m not so much about quantity as I am about quality,” says Don Brake of WHWK/Binghamton, NY. “I want a meaty playlist with lots of great music. When I have to start searching for a song to add, I’ll just simply cut the playlist by a song or two. When I have more deserving songs than I have spots, I might add one or two songs.”
Breaking new stars is critical for the industry, but it’s never easy—especially if you’re an independent artist. Secondary radio tends to be more open to new and independent music, but it’s no cakewalk. Our panelists do agree on one important criterion, however: for Pete’s sake, make it sound good.
“One of the biggest problems independent artists face is getting good quality recordings,” says Brake. “A great song is still a great song, but a great song with great production is better than one that is poorly produced.”
Tom Duke of KQUS/Hot Springs, AR agrees that an indie artist “has to have a good song just like anyone else and they should be able to sing. I have heard some songs that should never have been recorded and I have heard some singers that couldn’t sing.”
So it is doubly important for new and independent artists to bring their A-game when going up against established and familiar names. “Our audience already knows the established artists,” explains Ryan McCall of WGLR/Platteville, WI, “so they have an advantage when choosing between adding one of their releases or one from a new artist.”
“Listeners see a video by an established artist that I may not be on yet and they will request it,” adds Duke. “I am forced to get on those songs sometimes before I really want to and that leaves the independent/unknown artists out in the cold.”
But how does one decide what to play and how much to play it? Primarily listener passion and a certain amount of intuition, but charts can be helpful as well.
“The charts are important, but if I feel really strongly about a song, that may also lead to a quick add,” says Brake. “If that gut reaction is then backed up by listener response and especially in our online testing then I have no problem moving a song up my playlist faster than the national charts. I also have no problem holding a song back locally that I feel is moving up the charts too quickly. Songs that hit No. 1 in about 10 weeks are simply moving too fast most of the time. I want more equity in a song before I push it up to 50 spins a week.”
“Sometimes you just have to go with your gut in deciding what you think would work for your audience,” adds McCall. “Jaron & The Long Road To Love, Jerrod Niemann and now Walker Hayes are all gut records that have paid off for us this year.”
“I use the charts to get a feel of what the rest of the country is doing but you can never go wrong programming what your listeners want,” offers Duke. “I believe that by playing their requests, they seem to be happy and that is what I want.”
“It’s all about the listeners first,” agrees Thomas. “They are the ones who actually spend money to buy music. If the listeners like it, roll with it. And gut instinct has to come into play—as long as it doesn’t turn into arrogance and make you think you’re the god of music programming, a little personal influence can sometimes prove to be a good thing.”
Some stress the importance of committing spins to a song if it really works.
“Even with a bigger playlist it still is difficult to play all the songs I want each week,” notes McCall. “Our light rotation is 10 spins per week and I would not want to lessen that in order to make room for more songs. Anything under 10 spins is considered ‘test’ play. If a song starts getting played 7 or 8 times a week then it needs to become an official add. If you can’t commit to playing a song at least once a day, to me you are just testing it.”
“If you’re going to add a song, give it enough spins to get a fair shake on the chart and allow the listeners to hear,” agrees Thomas. “If you believe in a song enough to add it, one spin a week is not good enough to impact listeners.”
The one constant of the last few years has been change and for veteran programmers, that means acclimating to new duties and (sometimes begrudgingly) letting go of old ones in order to survive.
“The business today is all computerized,” says Duke. “The songs are in the computer, the liners are in the computer, and the commercials are there. You can put the computer on auto and go fishing. You couldn’t do that with records and carts. Give me the the records and carts. You actually had to time your show. It took talent to do that.”
“To think we thought going from vinyl to carts and carts to CDs were big changes,” says Brake. “Now all the music is on hard drive and we are trying to keep up with our website, our mobile club, sending
e-mails to our listener club and being relevant on Facebook. It’s a whole new ballgame and those who can adapt will continue to be the ones who produce the best overall product.”