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On the Radio
Next time you listen to the radio, you won't hear many songs by pop artists like the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync. Although they are selling tons of CDs and concert tickets, many radio stations decided they are finished with the boy band and teen queen craze.
Most new songs cannot become popular without the medium we know as radio. After all, people won't usually buy CDs without hearing at least one song first, and the place they hear it is usually on the air.
So who is it that decides what is played on the radio and how?
The Radio Industry
During most of the last century, many independent radio stations had DJs who chose the music they played on the air. Many developed legions of hard-core fans who tuned into their shows regularly. Listeners depended on their favorite DJs to introduce them to new songs. Good DJs knew their audiences and could predict which songs would become hits.
These days, large corporations own most of the radio stations. They are in business to make money and play the music they think will lure audiences and sell advertising. (The exception is non-commercial, or public, stations that don't play ads and depend on listeners and corporations to send in donations.)
Some people say that large corporations are less willing than individual DJs to take a risk on new or innovative music, and therefore don't offer listeners as much variety.
One thing commercial stations can't do is accept money from record companies or musicians in return for playing their music. That's illegal, and known in the business as "payola."
"Since the early days of rock and roll on the radio there have been numerous rumors of payola in the radio industry, but very few have ever gone to court, and only a few of those have ever led to convictions," said Reed Bunzel, editor-in-chief of the radio industry Web site Gavin.com.
At commercial stations, DJs play songs from a pre-selected playlist put together by the station management based on what they think listeners want to hear. The DJ's job is mostly to entertain listeners with talk between songs and introduce the music. He or she has little choice or input for song selection at most stations.
There are about 10,000 commercial stations in the U.S. and about 2,500 non-commercial stations. The most popular format in the U.S. is country music. That means country music dominates the airwaves, but not the record stores. That title goes to hip-hop, which last year outsold country music for the first time in 10 years, according to a new report from the Recording Industry Association of America.
It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to make a hit out of any new song or new artist. Most musicians don't have the resources to distribute their recordings to the public, so most artists try to get a major music company (label) to "sign" their act.
Once a band has signed a contract with a reputable label, the chances of getting their song on the radio are much greater because record companies have professional promoters who work full-time to get stations to play their records.
Promoters call radio station program and music directors who are responsible for organizing each day's playlist and try to convince them to play their artist. Promoters report the attendance at the artist's recent concerts and plug upcoming local performances. In some ways, it's a tough cycle to break into: to get popular, artists have to convince people they already are.
College stations are not as concerned with traditional marketing. David Cash, music director of Nashville University's WRVU, said their music staff distributes new CDs to DJs who pick their favorites for airplay, usually for a span of 6-10 weeks.
"During any give show, a DJ must play a certain amount of CD's that are in rotation They are strongly discouraged from playing bands who get significant press, publicity, and airplay from commercial stations around Nashville and other medial outlets, such as MTV or VH1," Cash explains.
Part of marketing new music is to create buzz about the musicians themselves. Promoters call magazines and entertainment television shows urging them to write stories about their new acts. Once an artist starts becoming familiar, promoters hope fans will contact their local stations demanding to hear the music of that artist.
Dave Douglas, Program Director of commercial station WAAF-FM in Boston, said that picking the hits depends on many factors.
"Is it a song by a brand new artist or from an already established artist? A new Sting song will have a better chance of being on the radio for a long time than a group you've never heard of - unless it's a big smash hit. Even though few had heard of Christina Aguilera when her first record came out, it was hit music."
Choosing the Tunes
When the "Austin Powers" movie sequel came out in 1999, it featured a song by Madonna called "Beautiful Stranger" that got a lot of airplay while the movie was out in theaters. When the movie disappeared, so did the song. But Madonna's 1983 song "Borderline" still plays on radios all over the country. Why do some songs last while others fade?
Long-lasting hits are the secret staple of many radio stations. While many try to play the latest and hottest songs at least several times a day, they also stock up on "recurrents" -- songs like "Borderline" that were big hits when they first came out and are still popular even though they aren't selling many new records.
"Golden oldies" are songs that were removed from a current playlist but are brought back for a short time because people still like them. Oldies and recurrents are chosen mainly through audience research polls.
There are various ways to test an audience, including the telephone or online. The most common are auditorium tests, where station listeners are brought together for an evening once or twice a year and asked to listen to short segments of songs.
"These songs are scored, the scores are tabulated, and the station programmer then determines which songs will be re-added to the playlist, when, for how long, and how often they will be repeated... 'Borderline' often tests well and sometimes is brought back in order to have a Madonna song on the air when nothing new has been released," says Bunzel.
Although corporations, professional polls, and media hype control much of radio music today, there is still nothing like good, old-fashioned audience input. Stations still like to hear from listeners and often have request shows so you can hear your favorite tunes.
So the next time you are burning to hear something specific, get a bunch of your friends together and try calling your local radio station programmers to tell them what's hip.
-- By Samara Aberman, NewsHour Extra
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