Recommendations For “Recommending” New Music

In recent years, many programmers have come to believe that music radio will maintain its place in listeners’ lives as a curator of their music collection. The logic suggests that if radio is no longer the only place to discover music, and can’t compete for the deepest offerings, it will still have the role of digging through that dizzying array of now available music and bringing the best of it to the listeners who aren’t as seduced by infinite choice.
What radio has the power to do under this scenario is to recommend new music. And in this day and age, the concept of recommending music makes a lot of sense. It’s the thing listeners still wish DJs would do (although most of them haven’t actually heard jocks pick the music in their radio lifetimes). It’s the power of’s recommendations that made a surprise success out of Eva Cassidy without radio and Norah Jones before radio.
And the power of the recommendation is also a lot of the sexiness of Pandora, which had hit an all-time high in listenership on the first weekend of its new iPhone app. With the new iPhone bringing The Infinite Dial into more listeners’ pockets Pandora is one of a relative handful of stations with the advantage of prime real estate and ease-of-use – something we’ve warned broadcasters about recently. But if radio has any interest in fighting for the “recommending new music” franchise, the time is now.
That challenge isn’t just complicated by the sexiness of the new competition, but by a decade of radio being imaged as a gatekeeper, not a curator. Radio itself has played into that with the diminished role of the Music Director and the smaller number of stations that were actually willing to go off the menu of songs being promoted to them and indeed find new music that listeners might enjoy. Pandora can still guess wrong – yesterday it somehow thought I wanted to hear a cut from Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me” album! But a musicologist classifying songs somehow comes off as far less restrictive than asking 100 listeners with similar tastes what they like – something that radio can never get P.R. credit for, no matter how predictive it might be.
So with all of that, how would radio get credit for curating and recommending music?
First of all, by using the word “recommended”–the word often associated with an Amazon or Pandora. The stager that merely identifies “new music” is, at this point, just as lost on listeners as promising “another long set of songs in a row.” And now it runs the risk of being used to stage a song that the listener does not think of as new. (Somewhere this week, there’s a Top 40 station identifying “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay as new music and a sneering listener who’s heard it for two months already.)
But recommending music doesn’t just flag it as new. It does touch on the “jocks pick the music” aspect of radio that strikes a chord with some listeners. It suggests more of a relationship between station and listener. And something doesn’t have to be brand new to the listener for a station’s endorsement to matter – throughout the election process, the Presidential candidates will seek out endorsements in hopes of swaying voters who are already well familiar with them.
If a station is still lucky enough to have an off-air music director, it’s time to make that person a more visible part of the radio station. In fact, in the same way that “program director” has given way to “listener advocate” on many a signature bloc, it’s probably time for “MDs” to become “curators” The MD should be part of the on-air process for introducing new music – popping in at various times when there’s an important new song: not just a superstar release but a heartstrings song or a different sounding song that needs to be staged properly anyway.
Part of letting the MD function as a curator is letting listeners see that there’s actually a process taking place on their behalf. Three years ago, we suggested making the playlist process transparent on the air or on the Website – having a blog that talks about why a station is playing a song, for instance. But it’s also letting listeners know when the station went and found another cut off an album, or a song that wasn’t yet being promoted to it. (For that to work, of course, stations would actually have to start doing that again on a larger scale.)
Stations should also use listeners as curators. If the 17-year-old who cares enough to complain that a station isn’t playing his or her favorite band still exists, that person should be put-to-work helping stage their new song for listeners when it finally does hit the air.
An Urban or Top 40 station’s mixers are curators, too. The new music they bring to a station (usually despite a PD’s best efforts) often plays for 73 seconds, barely gets identified, and is often heard and forgotten before making it in to regular programming. Despite this, mix shows remain such an important part of so many stations; that’s clearly another vote for the DJ as curator, and one that stations could much better utilize.
No matter who introduces it, there’s the overarching need to make sure that when listeners do discover great new music through radio that there are vivid memories created. “This is for everybody who’s going through a problem in their relationship now,” or “I want you to look around you and remember where you were the first time you heard this song” is still potentially very powerful. Hearing a song for the first time on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance, comes with its own visual. But tagging new music is a function that many programmers have been willing to relinquish to a produced sweeper, or to a display on the Website and streaming media player.
Even if these were mere suggestions for more effectively staging new music, that would still be something radio could stand to do a better job at. As it happens, there is something larger at stake, and programmers shouldn’t be lulled into any false sense of security if radio’s fragment of the music discovery market is still larger than anybody else’s. The job here isn’t just to be acknowledged for playing new music, it’s to be actively appreciated for finding it. In that, radio has to deal with being taken for granted by listeners, but also its own benign self-neglect.

9 replies
  1. Human Numan
    Human Numan says:

    Hope you are well. You are so right about this…and we may agree even further, because the delivery system will only get easier and easier to the user…its that content that companies must begin to think of owning as their source of life.
    It’s your soup…not the bowl.
    Talent will be sought out, in programming and especially behind the mic that will make the great companies of the future. Those that can build a stable of entertainers-the best of the best- will be able to provide the consumer what they cannot get otherwise in the jumble of noise on the net. Somebody will come along and become the MGM or Warner Brothers of audio entertainment and buy up all of the talent and KEEP buying as new commodities become known. People will always want to hear great entertainers and programs, that will never change. There are two great jobs coming on the horizon. Talent scout/aquisitions and the audio entertainer. The company that understands this and buys it up will flourish.
    Human Numan
    SIRIUS Hits Noon-5
    Totally 70s PD

  2. Cliff Blake
    Cliff Blake says:

    Love the column this week!
    “Curator” sounds too ‘museum-like’ to me though, and makes the MD appear like Mr. Peabody guarding the catacombs of dusty old discs.
    how about air names like
    “Forward-looking Phil”
    “Highbeams Harry” or
    “Stephanie Farseer”

  3. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Keep The Power To Recommend

    With all the press this week about the new iPhone’s radio apps and about Pandora in particular, it’s important to remember that radio has the power — or perhaps the imperative — to recommend new music, too. With many broadcasters…

  4. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    I’m a big fan of sampling Pandora to find unknown music that I’m likely to enjoy. This working on a broad level still can’t match the reach of CHR radio, but for my listening time it has been a great way to find new music.
    It’s not all unknowns — there was a new Bob Seger song I found on there maybe six months ago that I loved. The odds of me hearing that song on commercial terrestrial radio were slim, but it could also be a worthwhile outlet for established artists looking to push new music.

  5. Lu Valentino
    Lu Valentino says:

    Once again Sean you hit it right on. One thing that I found that would have never been possible when some of the vets in the industry, like yourself, (lol) were NOT able to do back in the ‘old days’ of radio? Cruise through radio stations MYSPACE/Facebook, etc, links, see what (new/old) music they have on their “Project Playlist”.
    Like Lou P, I’m a huge fan of Pandora.
    Radio companies can save a crap load of money if they just STOPPED relying so much on the ‘auditorium testing’, or ‘call outs,etc.. when they have it right in front of them with a click of the mouse. They may be amazed by WHAT our listeners are REALLY listening to, and how “NOT SO NEW” that new song is.
    The ideas are ENDLESS on how to utilize these (music) sites.
    Lu V
    “Future Stephanie Farseer”

  6. Rex MCneill
    Rex MCneill says:

    I think what you will see and hear….are the best
    of the best. Radio that’s interactive and serves
    the audience , what they are looking for . entertainers will still be needed.Elvis said in an interview , that people were looking for
    something different. Radio needs to be different
    now…..Companies that embrace that will grow,
    those that don’t will disappear like a playstation 3.
    Rex Mcneill

  7. Paul Wilson
    Paul Wilson says:

    “Somewhere this week, there’s a Top 40 station identifying “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay as new music and a sneering listener who’s heard it for two months already.”
    That could very well be my station (KALZ/Fresno). And for each of my listeners who may be “sneering” I’m betting there are two or three who don’t know the name or artist yet, even though Alice has played it for 8 weeks.
    Remember, we’re playing to the masses…not the uber-hip.

  8. Michael Bryan
    Michael Bryan says:

    This is so spot on. As Paul Mentions above, we ARE playing to the masses. However, these “masses” aren’t the same masses of days gone by.
    Our audience is leaving us. And, it’s because we’re forcing them out. They’ve changed… we haven’t. It’s time.
    Michael Bryan
    Program Director
    XL 106.7-Orlando

  9. CJ
    CJ says:

    Great article. More people listen to radio than Pandora. More people discover music via the radio, than any other platform. Radio is the taste maker. And now it’s time for the applications…


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