Thursday, 25 April 2019

Radio Songs #62: Playlist

Where did it all go wrong?

With the playlist.

In 1988, when I started worked in radio, there was a box of 45 singles in the studio that represented the current playlist. It was a selection of the latest hits and new releases which had been decided upon by committee (the programme controller, head of music and the jocks) and was updated weekly. Three or four times an hour, the on-air presenter would choose a disc from the front of the box (not necessarily the first one, they could flip through a handful and find the right one for right then), play it, then put it to the back of the box when they were done (to prevent the same tune being played in consecutive shows). Beyond that, presenters had free choice in the music they played. They were given a basic pattern to try to stick to - big hit at the start of the hour, 70s oldie, current, 80s, oldie, recurrent etc. - but they could mine the record library for whatever they wanted to fill those gaps. If they ran a music feature in their show, they could (with agreement from the boss) go off-piste completely, given the right justification.

The best DJs used this to make endlessly engaging radio - "Ooh, I haven't heard that in ages" moments followed by big, comfortable hits, followed by "What's this? Never heard that before, but I like the sound of it..."

(The laziest DJs grabbed a pile of old Now compilations and picked from those. But those guys were the exceptions rather than the rule.)

In the early 90s, with our first takeover (or the first one I'd experienced), all this changed. The new management decreed that listeners didn't want unpredictability from their radio shows - they wanted familiarity. DJ choice was almost completely gone, overnight, replaced by computer-generated playlists that rotated oldies, often with a frequency only marginally less than the rotation of current chart hits.

How were these songs selected for addition to the playlist? By audience testing. Someone would call up a random selection of people who were roughly the right age and socio-economic profile as the station's target audience and play them a bunch of 30 second song clips down the phone. Those that got the thumbs up went in the computer. Those that didn't get an immediately positive reaction were confined to the dustbin of history.

Now, apparently I'm in the minority, but even at a young age, I never listened to radio to hear the same old songs over and over again. Yes, I wanted to hear my favourites - new and old - but many of those favourites had only been discovered because some DJ with free choice and an extensive musical knowledge had ventured beyond the predictable. In short, I wanted a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar - where else would I discover my new favourites?

With the exception of new releases (and those were only selected based on their "heat" in industry mags like Music Week... and a little bit of playlist discussion, of which, more later), local radio listeners were deprived the joy of discovering something "new" (i.e. something they'd never heard before) sometime in the early 90s.

And radio would never be the same again.

There were two songs that cried out to be featured this week, although both of them have appeared in this series before...

Mark Germino & The Sluggers - Rex Bob Lowenstein

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - The Last DJ

...but here's one that hasn't featured here before, not as classic as the two above, but I can't argue with the message.

Will someone tell me why we even listen?
Airwaves are filled with repetition.
What ever happened to selection?
Tune in and they will waste your time.
Is anybody bored yet?


  1. Great post Rol. This computer generated playlists killed the individuality of DJ's. That is one reason why I stopped listening to the radio many years ago.

  2. A mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, I couldn't have put it better myself. Fortunately these days there is a choice of radio stations out there fitting that criteria, but for a long while there wasn't.

  3. Excellent post Rol but I too despair at what you describe - a very real example of the way things increasingly get watered down for commercial gain and to appeal most easily to the mainstream/lowest common denominator, etc. etc. Ugh.

  4. I know I've mentioned this before but in every job individuality has been killed off - Even in my old workplace, no heed was taken any more of what the audience (the managers with big budgets) wanted in terms of information, they had to be given what every other manager the length and breadth of the country were given from a standardised computer system.

    Anyway, great post and now I realise why you all like music blogging so much as you can discover new stuff that might otherwise pass you by. Sadly its always the old familiar stuff over at my place but I have loved looking into the back story behind songs and artists in a way that was never possible before. We blame technology for so much but it has given us a lot too - This!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...