Has Callout Become the New Request Line?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

At its inception, callout research was supposed to help radio stations identify the listeners who it wouldn’t reach through other methods—the people who would never buy singles or call a request line. As a top 40 PD in 1977, you might have used callout to glean that “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Women” were as strong as the singles from Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors.” You probably wouldn’t have needed it to get a read on “Da Doo Ron Ron” by Shaun Cassidy—younger-end reaction records did a pretty good job of announcing themselves.

Today, only a few PDs still put much stock in requests. Singles sales haven’t been a useful factor for a decade and album sales aren’t looking so good themselves. Meanwhile, programmers have started to expect callout results after only a handful of spins; they’ve lowered the demos they’re testing, sometimes to include teens; they rely heavily on potential or passion scores; they’ve added in more musically aggressive Internet samples; and, to paraphrase “Star Trek,” they’ve set the screener to stun—never less than 50-60% P1s and sometimes a lot more.

The result is that callout is in danger of becoming the new request line—used to cull potential hits quickly, and programmed by PDs to search out songs that will react, rather than the songs that will, if given the proper care and feeding, be useful forever. The record that wouldn’t die used to be a benchmark of a format’s strength—now, some PDs are alarmed if there’s not enough churn at the top. What was once a tool for inclusion has become increasingly focused on a smaller clump of listeners.

It’s a little contrarian, of course, to suggest that a station can do too much to make its P1s happy. But it happened a decade ago in top 40 when PDs, mindful of the much-quoted 80/20 rule, halved the format’s numbers. And when they were done, top 40 had hardly become a TSL-driven format, even though the remaining listeners should have been happier than ever. Not casting a wide enough net has, over the last decade, had implications for oldies (which is only now reacting, or perhaps overreacting, to having become a 45-plus format); country (which watched its 18-34s leave without doing much to keep them): and, almost certainly, top 40, again, where PDs can’t be sure if “P.I.M.P.” is testing with adults, or just the adults who are left.

Even a few years ago, the nature of what performed well in callout had already changed. In top 40, it wasn’t surprising to see rhythmic and alternative crossover product do well from the beginning. That was certainly understandable in light of the spins those songs had already received in the market. And it showed how many programmers tended to let potential hits sit until labels were ready to impact them at top 40.

But over the last 18 months or so, something else happened. The modern rock and hip-hop records started opening huge and then tapering off. It made you wonder if the greater availability of these records at mainstream top 40 (and on radio overall) was destroying their halo, particularly for hip-hop. The active listener, we had been told, was increasingly new-music savvy, and radio wasn’t getting to records soon enough for them. Now it looked like familiarity, to paraphrase an old programming saying, might breed contempt, not content.

Now that I’m seeing multiple stations’ callout on a regular basis, I’m sensing something else. A lot of songs are testing instantly, then falling apart, and they’re not just the songs that have already been warmed up in a market.

Some songs open big and stay there: Dido’s “White Flag” and, more recently, Sheryl Crow’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” at Adult Top 40. Some songs open big at multiple formats, e.g., Nickelback’s “Someday,” then start to slip (although just a little in most cases) at hipper formats (active and modern, in this case). But some songs you’d hardly expect to open at the top of the page do so, then work their way down as the rest of the audience gets to know them. Guster’s “Amsterdam” looked great at multiple stations in three different formats in its first weeks, but didn’t sustain. And, in various formats, I’ve seen similar patterns with such acts as Radiohead and Thursday. The numbers decline as more listeners become familiar with a song, and they don’t necessarily rebound.

Sometimes you can see a record’s results spiked for a few weeks by an outside stimulus: AOL First Listen, a TV awards show, or the release of an album. But what most of these early spikes have in common is being by acts with a hip image and a passionate following—the same factors that might drive the request lines early on. And, in a world where people do in fact have other places besides radio to discover new music, there are certainly listeners who are legitimately familiar with and passionate about these songs right away. But it’s harder than ever to extrapolate how these songs perform early on to how they’ll test when 100% of the sample gets to know them.

Callout is in danger of becoming the new request line—used to cull potential hits quickly, and programmed by PDs to search out songs that will react, rather than the songs that will, if given the proper care and feeding, be useful forever.

Because while some listeners are finding new music before radio can bring it to them, there are also audience members who are busier than ever and have less time to search out new music. Both types of listeners have become clichés in recent years. Both very much exist. And from the tendency of some listeners to stake out a record early on that the rest of the audience never warms to, you have to wonder if this is one more piece of evidence that P1s are agreeing less with the rest of the audience.

None of which, again, is meant to minimize the importance of P1s. But it should raise the question of whether stations are casting a wide-enough net: whether the growing ranks of 3-4 share format leaders in a market is an inescapable result of fragmentation or just a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researching only your cume, as most stations do, might seem like a no-brainer, but in a format down-cycle, the former cume might offer as many answers as the current listeners. And Edison Media Research has, over the last year, helped one station in a top 10 market significantly improve its ratings by testing non-cumers as well.

It’s been widely bandied around in recent years that callout is less useful. What may have changed, in fact, is the use that people are looking to get out of it. Music research is, increasingly, a mirror held up to a younger, more active audience. And chances are you already had tools, whether it was the request line or your own experiences, to know that audience was fickle.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.