Consistent sound coding will help you to define a clear music image for your radio station, says music scheduling and programming consultant Robert Johansson.
Welcome to this new expert interview series on music scheduling! We kick off with Robert Johansson of Better Radio Programming and discuss how you can use sound codes and song exposure to create positive listener expectations of your music. “Which sounds are expected from my station, and from other stations?” is a question that you should be able to answer.
“Put your finger on the essence”
Use station-specific sound coding
Robert Johansson was a program director of Classic Hits station Vinyl 107 in Stockholm and music director of Sweden’s Hot AC network Mix Megapol, before he became a music programming consultant. Based on using Selector, Music Master and Powergold for over two decades, his impression is that music scheduling (apart from some new software features) hasn’t changed. He also doesn’t find it necessary to use each and every option of today’s music scheduling software, as “the key thing is to define what’s important for each and every station”. Inconsistent or incorrect sound coding is a common problem. It occurs when several people work on the same database – or when a station imports the existing one of a sister station, without recoding songs. No market and format are the same, and sound codes are subject to change over time.
His advice is to check your sound codes every 6-9 months. In adult formats, some new songs that feel edgy now, become mainstream later. When Cher’s Believe was released in 1998, Mix Megapol separated this ‘Dance’ song from other rhythmic titles (as the station’s overall sound was MOR Pop). “One year later, Believe was coded ‘Pop’ and one of the most-played songs! When you just code a song once and don’t re-check it, you can get a balance problem.”
Keep music categories focused
It’s always a nice discussion; when to add a new release. You obviously cannot test new songs well, as listeners usually don’t have an opinion about it yet. How do you integrate new music?
“When I build a CHR database, new songs are being played almost as often as the most-played currents, but exposed separately from each other.” Johansson explains that when you have a power current list of 5 titles of which 2 are new and 3 are familiar (and you play 2 power currents an hour), there could be a big familiarity difference within this category from hour to hour. On the other hand, if you have a (power current) playlist of only 3 songs of which you play 1 an hour plus a (new music) playlist of 4 songs of which you play 1 an hour, it’s easier to create balance from hour to hour. “You should have one general theme for each category. That could be: it’s a new song; it’s a very well-known song; it’s a stay-current or whatever. If you have categories where it’s hard to put your finger on the essence, it’s hard for the software – especially if you’re setting rules on quotas for each and every sound.”
“Platooning is a great tool
to add freshness”
Play enough power songs
The consultant recalls a station that had a stay-current category with former A songs on their way down (so not recurrents yet), that seemed safe enough to expose evenly during the day – only to find after 6 months that 50% of them weren’t testing great. Instability was a result: “In one hour you could hear very big former hits, and in another hour you could hear a song that didn’t pass the threshold; more or less a crappy song in a very important category. So they could end up playing a secondary song, a power song – which was actually a secondary song! – and another secondary song…” His example shows that it’s key to check the content of your music categories on a regular basis, starting with your most-scheduled categories, such as power currents, power stay-currents and power recurrents.
Robert Johansson illustrates how music directors can use song rotations as a temporary programming tactic to increase ratings or create attention in a short amount of time. “I’ve had a client station where we played some songs every 50 minutes, but that was for a very short period. After that, we actually set it to 70 minutes. Around 140 spins a week is quite common today. But I’ve seen rotations up to 160 plays a week. Of course, that is huge.”
Platoon music category content
Some consultants advise to narrow your playlist book by book, and see what happens to your ratings – like how far you can go with decreasing the amount of songs you play. What’s your opinion?
“It’s different from format to format. When you’re at 140-150 plays a week for 3-4 songs, I don’t think it’s a huge problem.” He’s advising clients with a short A-list to also play new music, and have a power recurrent list of which one third is being switched on a regular basis. “More stations should work with platooning as it’s a great tool to add freshness, like ‘I haven’t heard this song for a while’. The time in between depends on the category. If it rotates fast, exchanging some songs every 3 weeks is good. Bigger recurrent or gold categories, I switch every 2.5 to 4 months. Among secondary songs, too many stations don’t platoon. But others switch too frequently, which makes it not being recognized by the audience at all… Platooning may include playing songs with a summer vibe in that season, or matching the time of year when specific songs were big hits. Gold category platooning is naturally less important for stations that do regular music library testing. If you have a contemporary format, some songs might move from your currents to your recurrents as well, and in a perfect world you have research to define which songs belong to each of them.”
“What are the key things
we want to be famous for?”
Research in right order
Do you sometimes see mistakes with implementing research?
(Laughing) “In some cases, they do music research, but they don’t define the strategy before. I would first do a study to define your strategy and format, then test these songs in music research. Some stations think: let’s do a music test and it will work out. But if you don’t know which images your station has, it could be a big problem. If you do a mapping study, ask: “which sounds are expected from my station, and from other stations?” When one of Johansson’s clients had a strong competitor who spinned a lot of soft music (and had a huge image for it), he wanted to make his client sound different by spreading out all soft songs. “Don’t play any songs back to back that can be linked to a competitor.” In addition, the client put most soft songs – even if they tested well enough to be powers – into secondary categories, because they weren’t important for the station sound. “By doing so, the station did grow. If it would have played the softer songs according to the numbers, it probably wouldn’t have grown.”
“Don’t play any songs back to back
that can be linked to a competitor”
His music programming strategy is focused on sound codes. “I spread out the extreme and increase the important sounds, and block sounds that can’t be played back to back. When it comes to balance of core sounds, I use spread rules where I look at how many times I want this sound to be played in a hour. As one of my clients says: ‘I always get back to my safe zones’. He does it for a minimum of 8 to 9 times an hour, and he has great ratings.”
Establish a distinctive image
I recently heard a CHR where one half hour sounded like a Rhythmic Contemporary station, including House, Dance and Trance, while the next half hour was Pop-Rock-ish; like an American Hot AC…
“They probably need some help, hahaha! If you go back in history and look at CHR, they would say: we can play whatever we want, as long as it’s a hit. A CHR station has some more room to be moving around the trends, but I think it’s essential to ask: ‘what are the key things we want to be famous for?’. If you start adding too much songs that are not really your core, the sound of the station can be really different.”