Determining A Song’s Real Radio Age

There has been a lot written lately about the Website health quiz that determines your “real age” based on your current physical condition and lifestyle. Clearly the concept resonates: we all know people who look and act younger than their physical age. And most of us think of people currently in their middle age as more vital than their counterparts of a generation earlier.
This can apply to songs as well. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” — still a heavily played record at multiple formats and an inevitable wedding/party staple — first charted almost 42 years ago. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine the 1925 recording that would have been on the radio when “Brown Eyed Girl” was new; just being on this side of the rock ‘n’ roll era has made an longer lifespan possible for most songs. But very few records from 1967 have the same overall currency with the general public; (“Are You Lonely For Me” by Morrison’s label-mate Freddie Scott, a record just a few months older, is timeless to me. But it’s sadly lost to many.)
So here’s our own quiz for determining a song’s Radio Age. Start with the actual age of the song and then add or subtract, based on the following:
1) Is the song still readily available on the radio?
That one seems pretty obvious, but airplay begets airplay, particularly at a time when less music research is being done. Those songs excised by “Greatest Hits” stations in recent years — first the early ’60s, then any mid-’60s song that wasn’t “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Mony Mony,” or “Respect” — do feel older now, just for being heard less in the context of those songs that still get played. So….
*If a song is still heard regularly on major-market Classic Rock, Classic Hits, or Greatest Hits stations, subtract five years from a song’s age;
* If a song is still heard at AC, Hot AC, Urban AC or Country, subtract seven years;
* If a song is still heard at Mainstream or Rhythmic Top 40, Alternative or Active Rock, or Urban, subtract nine years;
* If a song maintained a presence at radio, but has recently been culled, add five years;
* If a song was a “terminal current” — never played as an oldie — add seven years for a major hit and nine years for a mid-charter.
2) Did a song come to national prominence years after its release?
A lot of enduring hits built their relationship with the audience over a period of years, not months: “Red Red Wine,” “In Your Eyes,” “What I Like About You,” “I Melt With You,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and “Dancing With Myself” feel newer than their release date to many listeners because much of the audience didn’t hear them until years after their release date.
* If a song had a significant “afterlife” at radio, subtract the number of years between initial U.S. release (1983 for “Red Red Wine,” say) and when the song came to prominence for most people (1988 in this case).
3) Has a song been rediscovered somewhere other than the radio: movies, TV, sporting events, or now video games?
Violent Femmes’ “Blister In The Sun” was released in 1985, but its durability comes from its 1994 inclusion in “My So Called Life,” (which took on much of its own appeal posthumously). Etta James’ “At Last” must have already felt like a throwback as a 1961 R&B hit (it was a remake of a 1942 standard), but has maintained a consistent home in movies and commercials for nearly 20 years now. Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” is a nine-year-old dance hit, but outside New York, sports fans have only taken up its “whoa-oh-oh, whoa-oh” chant recently.
* For a major usgae in a movie (“What A Wonderful World” in “Good Morning Vietnam,” say), subtract the years between the original and the movie;
* For a secondary usage in a hit movie, subtract three years;
* For a major TV commercial that’s running now, subtract 10 years;
* For a TV commercial over the last five years or so, subtract three years;

* For a major TV showcase (“At This Moment” on “Family Ties”, “Hallelujah” on “American Idol”), subtract the number of years between the original and the show;

* For a secondary showcase (more routine “Idol” appearances) over the last few years, subtract three years;
* For use at sporting events or at wedding, subtract five years;
* For use in video games, subtract three years. (You hear a lot about the “Guitar Hero” effect, but it hasn’t shown up at radio yet.)
4) Has a song been successfully remade?
Rod Stewart’s “The First Cut Is The Deepest” was scarce on the radio when the Sheryl Crow version came along. Same for the Supertramp original of “Give A Little Bit,” when the Goo Goo Dolls remade it.
* For a major remake of that magnitude, subtract 10 years.
* For a prominent and identifiable sample or interpolation (e.g., Flo Rida’s use of Dead Or Alive), subtract five years.
5) Has a song suffered serious burn in recent years?
Both “Old Time Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Home Alabama” have had many years taken off their age by ongoing airplay, movies and TV commercials. They’re still massively liked records, but they have been diminished in years by over-exposure.
* For a song with massive burn, add five years.
6) Is a song on the wrong side of a generational divide?
Songs like Usher’s “Yeah” or Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” have lost a little of their hipness by becoming mom-friendly Hip-Hop. The same goes for grunge which may be the strongest, most enduring rock music of the last 15 years, but is finally becoming a little less hip with 18-year-olds than some Classic Rock music.
* For a song that your mom or big brother likes, add three years.
7) How contemporary does a song sound in 2009?
* Was a song ahead of its time in terms of production? Subtract five years..
* Was it already a sonic throwback or an artist at the end of their career? Add five years.
8) Has the act’s stock overall improved at radio in the last year or two. Subtract 5 years.
9) Has a song experienced an iTunes resurgence in the last year or two? Subtract 5 years.
Finally, let’s also say that no song can take more years off its age than it actually has.
So let’s do some math. (All calculations are subject to the author’s relatively low TV watching, so you make take off some years for “Idol” appearances or TV spots that I missed.)
Beatles, “Twist & Shout” (1964) – A U.S. hit 45 years ago today. A movie-driven radio hit again in 1986 subtract 22 years). Still heard on “Greatest Hits” stations (subtract 5 years.) Radio Age: 18.
Beatles, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (1964) – It’s only a few months older, but, despite its Earth-moving significance at the time, much less present on radio now. It should add five years for having disappeared from the radio, but it loses five years for being groundbreaking. Radio Age: 45, same as its real age.
Beatles, “Come Together” — It’s 40 years old (1969), but gets 10 years off for the Aerosmith remake and another three for a movie, even the disastrous “Sgt. Pepper” movie. It also gets five years off for its Greatest Hits/Classic Hits airplay. Radio Age: 22.
Ben E. King, “Stand By Me” — A hit almost 48 years ago in spring ’61. A movie/radio hit again in 1986 and one of the few songs from that era to make the cut at radio. Subtract 25 years for the movie/chart resurgence and another 5 years for ongoing airplay. Radio Age: 18
Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated” – It’s a 31-year-old cult classic that finally made its way to the Weekend Kick-off shows in the mid-’90s. So subtract 17 years for incubation time. You could add five years because it’s not quite as present on the radio as it was a few years ago, but you also have to take off five years because it was a cutting-edge song in 1978. Radio Age: Like its creators, an eternal 14 years old.
Abba, “Take A Chance On Me” – Another 31-year-old record. It deserves three years off apiece for its inclusion in both the Broadway and movie versions of “Mamma Mia” and another five for making its way back on to the radio over the last year. Radio Age: 20.
John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, “You’re The One That I Want” – Also 31-years-old, it was on the radio next to “Take A Chance On Me” in spring ’78. Then it disappeared for many years, but with the enduring popularity of the movie “Grease,” we have to give it back the 18 years between the original and the radio success of “The Grease Megamix” in 1996, toss in three years for the reality show “Grease: You’re The One That I Want,” three years for the recent Broadway show, and seven years for being back on many AC stations. Give back three years for some recent signs of generational polarization and five for some burn and the Radio Age is eight.
Green Day, “Brain Stew/Jaded” – Came out in 1995 at a time when Green Day’s decision to make a less radio friendly record in “Insomniac” drove its stock among programmers down for those few years between “When I Come Around” and “Time Of Your Life (Good Riddance).” It has become a much bigger Rock radio record and gotten a little Top 40 airplay in recent years, helped further by the success of “American Idiot.” Actual age, 14, but subtract nine years for current airplay and five years for its edginess at the time. Radio Age? Effectively, a current.
Sublime, “Santaria” – A similar story here. Came out in 1996. Didn’t get significant pop airplay. Since then, however, the Sublime album has become a dorm room staple. So, actual age 13, minus eight years for current airplay. Radio Age: five.
AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long” – 29 years old (1980), but an airplay perennial at Classic Rock, Active Rock and even a few Hot ACs. So take off nine years. And another five for the group’s resurgence with a new album and more playable songs at Classic Rock last year. And another five for ongoing arena usage. Radio Age: 10.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” – It’s 35 years old (1974), but with airplay even at Active Rock gets nine years back, plus three for “Con Air,” another three for the KFC commercials, and five for Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” But you’ve got to add in massive recent burn. Radio Age: 20.
Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (1988) – It’s 21-years-old but loses nine years for recent airplay, even at Hot AC. Radio Age: 12.
Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Baby Got Back” (1992) – It’s 17 years old, but has had a new currency since 2002-03. With ongoing airplay at Mainstream and Rhythmic Top 40 (9 points) and 10 points for the recent Burger King spot, this one is also effectively a current. And that’s not even including the Grand Skeem remake.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) – Eighteen years old, but never disappeared from Alternative or Active Rock. So subtract nine. Then add three because grunge is losing a little cachet with today’s 18 year olds. Radio Age: 12.
Toni Basil, “Mickey” (1982) — Almost 27 years old. This one added seven years by disappearing from the radio almost immediately. And in New York, you might have to add a few more years for those WXRK (Now FM) promos attacking it. But we can take off five years each for “Hollaback Girl” and “Girlfriend.” And another three years each for the movie “Bring It On” and the Subway commercial with the cheerleaders. That nets out at a Radio Age of 18.
Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing” (1981) — The Sopranos finale gave it so much bounceback two years ago that you have to take off 26 of its 28 years. Figure in the iTunes boost or the new musical “Rock Of Ages” and its Radio Age effectively becomes that of a current.
Eager to hear your additions to the iist. Or any suggestions for modifications to the formula.

13 replies
  1. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    All well and good, and all of which underscores my unwavering conviction that chronology is irrelevant in judging the worth of a given piece of music.
    For example, “Brown Eyed Girl”, which certainly has joined “Goin’ Out Of My Head”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Baby Love” in wearing out its welcome, was in the charts at the same time (give or take a few weeks) as the Parliaments’ “(I Wanna) Testify”, the Precisions’ “If This Is Love”, Bob Seger And The Last Heard’s “Heavy Music”, the Soul Brothers Six’s “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and the Who’s “Happy Jack”.
    And for my money, any one of those records holds up far, far better than “Brown Eyed Girl” does. Each did fairly well on the charts (at least regionally, if not nationally) and each has retained a reasonable recognition factor in some circles.
    And just to underscore the point, I can think of quite a few records released in the mid-1920s by the likes of Paul Whiteman, Vernon Dalhart, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Henry Burr and the great Billy Murray that I would not only have listened to in 1967, but would still spin regularly today.
    If radio chooses to ignore any of them, well, that’s their loss. Those of us who have long since grown weary of their pandering to the lowest common denominator have plenty of alternate means to find what we like.

  2. jamEs -
    jamEs - says:

    I was trying to figure it out for a song like Oasis’ Wonderwall from October 1995. The song still gets played today on modern rock, as well as adult contemporary stations. Ryan Adams covered the song for a minor hit, which both the original and the cover have appeared in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, though as downloads. You could make the contention that it was sampled to a degree in Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day as well. I’d say the production is kinda timeless and doesn’t really feel like a product of an era when compared to other Oasis songs. Oasis has maintained huge popularity in the UK along with a moderate level of career success outside of England. There was a general overexposure burnout for the song as well.

  3. Clark Smidt
    Clark Smidt says:

    Dear Michael…
    If you’ve ever programmed real radio to earn income, please don’t use that playlist. i.e zero ratings.
    Always smart to check movies, TV commercials and lasting viability of great tunes by familiar artists You’re correct, radio does miss entire formats of great music. However, a tune is a tune in and lunatic fringe tune is likely just that. Play the hits. Just have some gut, experience, sensitivity, know your market and the competition. Great songs are, in fact, AGELESS!. Best regards, Clark

  4. Randy James
    Randy James says:

    Interesting concept. You always have a unique way of looking at things. BUT, on this, age is age. The reality is that the listener today has so many choices beyond radio that these songs are what they are age wise. We reinforce the age, as opposed to sounding fresh. My father used to say “you can’t put silk stockings on a hog”. The songs are what they are. That’s not to say they are not cool to hear, or relevant, it’s just to say that they are how old they are, and more importantly, sound it too, because of the production values at the time they were recorded.
    But, once again, Sean, you’re making people think. So for that, good stuff and good job!

  5. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Sorry, Dave. Depends where you grew up.
    If you grew up in the U.S., depending on your age, it’s Rod Stewart’s song or Sheryl Crow’s song.
    If you’re from the U.K., it’s Rod or, if you’re in your late 40s or older, P.P. Arnold.
    If you grew up in Canada in the ’70s (or listening to CKLW), it’s Keith Hampshire!
    On the other hand, you could make a claim after the movie “Rushmore” for Cat regaining custody of “Here Comes My Baby” from the Tremeloes, although their version will always be definitive for me.

  6. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    There is some other good news for Dave, however, which is that “Wild World” still seems to be Cat’s song despite the more recent Maxi Priest and Mr. Big versions!

  7. Bobby Rich
    Bobby Rich says:

    Sean is the Rainman of music/radio. My takeaway from this is simple:
    1. Hits are Hits.
    2. Age has something to do with rotation but not everything. Genre trumps age. Sonic compatibility is common sense.
    3. Our Mainstream AC tries to maintain era balance by coding decades. To assure the product we protect “early” and “late” in each decade (so that a late 70’s won’t play next to an early 80’s.)
    In a KMXZ better-than-average quarter hour you should hear at least one each of 70’s, 80’s, 90’s/early 2000 and a current/recurrent. If I had Sean locked in a little room for 3 days I would have him mathematically re-age every title and change Era codes to Real Radio Age categories.

  8. Bob
    Bob says:

    You Shook Me All Night Long, Santeria and Pour Some Sugar on Me STILL get some airplay on the heritage CHR in my market.

  9. Jason Goodman
    Jason Goodman says:

    I like the mention of Violent Femmes “Blister In The Sun”, which was never an orginal radio hit. However, many stations would be surprised to find out that it would test back in research. Another song like that was Beastie Boys “Brass Monkey”. Never an orginal radio hit but I would be willing to bet that many stations could get top 20 research on it. What other songs are there that were never consider to be hits on the radio?

  10. john of sparta
    john of sparta says:

    airplay? Star Spangled Banner/Amazing Grace.
    ahead of it’s time? Mairzy Doats.
    movie tie in? Man of Constant Sorrow (1913)
    bottom line: in radio’s history….the most played
    and popular song could be from some other
    country than the USA and some other language
    than English…AND the Youngest by default.


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