THE TARGET AT XTRA AM
Ever wondered how a
commercial radio station plans its playlist or wondered why a
particular commercial station's playlist seems to be so very limited in
choice? Well this article provides an insight into the thinking
behind how commerical stations choose the limited number of records
that appear on their playlist. This example is for 'classic hits'
station XTRA AM from an article by the IBA.
HOW CAN YOU IDENTIFY THE MUSICAL TASTES OF A SPECIFIC AGE GROUP?
In 1989 Phil Riley
suggested one practical approach:
commercial radio stations are springing up all around us with the
introduction of incremental independent local stations and the growth
of split frequency services. Many, such as XTRA AM, broadcasting across
Warwickshire and the West Midlands, are aiming to target one particular
section of the listening public by using specific types of music to
appeal to their chosen demographic group.
But if music is the right way of reaching a particular audience, how do
you know that people within your planned target group share musical
tastes to such an extent that you can appeal to them with a specific
mix of music, and how do you discover what that mixture is?
Certainly, in the case of XTRA-AM, our analysis of JICRAR (joint
Industry Committee Radio Audience Research) and our own research
suggested the 35-54 age group as the most appropriate. Accordingly, the
first stage in developing a coherent music policy was to identify the
musical tastes of this group.
Our first approach was a standard field survey questionnaire, in which
we simply asked people between 35 and 54 to define the type of music
they wanted to hear on any new station. The popular answers included
'Golden Oldies', 'Easy Listening', `60s music', 'Middle of the Road',
'Light Classical', and even 'Country'. Hardly the basis for drawing up
a coherent playlist, especially when the definition of these musical
types is open to such different interpretations. What constitutes a
'Golden Oldie'? Is it 'All Along the Watchtower' or 'Please Please Me'?
In short, the questionnaire approach threw up more problems than it
The idea behind stage two was to try to answer some of these questions
with in depth song, specific research using auditorium testing. This
involved inviting a representative cross-section of 35- to 54 year-olds
into the Grand Hotel in Birmingham and playing them 'hooks' from 250
records which we felt accurately represented these popular genres of
music, and analysing their responses.
The results were more enlightening. 'Easy Listening' meant the
Carpenters but not Perry Como, 'Golden Oldies' meant 'Waterloo Sunset'
by The Kinks but not their noisier 'All Day and All of the
Detailed analysis showed that there was a specific type of music which
was popular softer, more melodic, familiar classic pop music, with a
bias towards the '60s and '70s. Even so, the feel of the music was more
important than the year of release.
This first stage of auditorium testing raised an issue alluded to
earlier. Standard audience research defines the 35-54 age group as one
homogeneous mass of people, but do they share musical tastes? In terms
of spending profiles and lifestyles there may be some justification for
this grouping, but our music research threw up a specific problem with
this 20 year age span. While the 50-plus group rated Sinatra and Mathis
as their favourites, they did not like Eddie Cochran. The under-50s
gave him positive scores, but those over 50 were negative.
This suggested that a station aiming at the 50-plus market needed to
have a radically different playlist to one aiming at an under-50s
audience. If you try to please both, you will end up pleasing neither.
Our decision was to pull in, and focus on the 35-50 age group.
Having defined the general musical parameters of the station with our
first test, the next stage in our research was to do a much more
widespread set of auditorium testing to select a final station
playlist. 1 drew up a list of 1,200 contenders, using the guidelines of
melodic, familiar pop music developed from the first test.
Five hundred of these were, in my opinion, so obviously the right type
of music that they were preselected
for the playlist. The remaining 700 went through the same auditorium
testing procedure. Five hundred of those passed, although some needed
'dayparting' (play restricted to certain times of the day), and 200
failed, leaving the station with a main playlist of 1,000 records. As
for the records that press the buttons' so to speak, you cannot go
wrong for the 35-50 age group with a steady diet of Beatles, Beach
Boys, The Everly Brothers, Cliff Richard and Motown. The two most
popular songs were 'If You Leave Me Now' by Chicago and 'Whiter Shade
of Pale' by Procol Harum.
This kind of auditorium testing also helped us make decisions about
day-parting', as some songs and artists were quite clearly popular with
one sex but not the other. Englebert Humperdinck will work wonders in
mid-mornings with a predominately female audience, but not in the
afternoon when more men are listening!
It also proved that it is impossible to programme for a specific
audience from the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles or by a slavish
devotion to playing music from a particular era. Baby 1 Need Your
Lovin' by The Four Tops was the 12th most popular record n our tests,
with a 'turn up the volume' score of 53 %, yet it was never a British
hit single. On the other hand, 41% of respondents said they would
switch stations if they heard 'Paper Sun' by Traffic, despite it being
a Top 5 hit from the '60s. 'Saving All My Love For You' by Whitney
Houston was over four times more popular than 'For Your Love' by the
Yardbirds. They were both Top 5 hits, but of course Whitney's was a hit
in the '80s, and the Yardbirds was a hit in the '60s. Oldies just for
the sake of oldies will not necessarily work, even if they were
successful at the time of their release.*
Phil Riley was Programme Controller of XTRA-AM, the split frequency
service launched in April 1989 and closed in 1998.
late 2005 we spent a couple of months or so listening to MAGIC 105.4 in
the late evenings as something tuneful to go to sleep to. Magic
105.4 is the London 'easy listening' station. At first it seemed
after several weeks /months of listening it became quite apparent that
record library was extremely limited indeed. We began to notice
every single night the very SAME records kept appearing again and
again and again. Magic's record
library / playlist seemed more limited than even our own private record
/ CD collection!
Having studied the preceding article we now know the
reason - it seems that a typical commercial radio station is just too
scared to offer variety and may only
playlist of fewer than 1000 narrowly targeted records.
Fewer that a thousand or so
records seems incredibly
considering that a station will be on the air 24 hours a day 365 days a
The same records being played over and over and over again will
certainly become most boring! Indeed after a number of weeks
MAGIC 105.4 became extremely tiresome indeed and we were forced to find
musical entertainment elsewhere.
In 2012 a study on comparemyradio.com showed that in a 30 day period BBC
Radio One played 2975 unique tracks, BBC Radio Two played 3035 unique
tracks while Heart FM played 769 unique tracks and Capital FM only 212
Bored with your radio station?
It is amazing to think
that a major commercial station has a playlist of such meager
proportions when there is an almost limitless range of music available.
Indeed, many people's recorded music libraries may well number thousands
or tens of thousands of tracks.
Our own music library has an
of 10,000 tracks, so we now tend to be play them out via our own 'radio station'
from a computerized Media Player and into the Hi-Fi system. This
is a much more satisfying musical experience than any
commercial radio station we have heard in recent years.
BBC Radio Two is probably the best bet for the widest variety of
un-repetitive music. Radio Two even guarantees that you won't
hear the same song twice. Thank goodness for the BBC is
what we say!
If you are bored with repetitive narrow-casting of commercial radio, then you can
find Radio Two between 88.0 and 91.1 FM and also on DAB Digital Radio
in most places and Radio One on 97.7 to 99.9 and DAB in most places. Give it a go!
Xtra AM presentation team, left to right:
Stewart, Dave Jamieson, Les Ross, Ted Elliott, Annie Othen, Phil
Brice, Noddy Holder and Dave Hickman.