“Stairway To Heaven,” “Summer Of ‘69” And The Myth Of Songs That Test Where They Aren’t Supposed To

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming,

For years, it’s been a programmers’ truism. Whenever there’s a question of whether a song fits on a radio station, somebody eventually comes forth with, “Well, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ would test in my format, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to play it.”

If you’re in record promotion, you’ve probably faced the “Stairway” argument when you were trying to get a PD to at least put a record in callout—often because that’s the only way to get them to acknowledge a song that’s already a hit in their market. I heard it more than once this year while working with programmers on their spring and fall music tests, particularly when the notion of testing anything at the edges of the format came up.

When a PD lobs the “Stairway” argument out there, it’s meant to be a discussion ender—as impossible to respond to as, “Well, you’re not my real daddy.” Songs on the cusp of a format are controversial inclusions for programmers, who don’t want to be confronted with whether to play them if they really do test. And you can’t fault a PD for having a clearly defined radio station in his head, or being protective of the product. But watching music tests roll in every day has convinced me that records usually get in only where they fit in. It has also made me wonder if some programmers don’t trust the audience enough.

Consider “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. Put it in a Hot AC test and it will come back on the first page, even if a station doesn’t have any particular image for playing the ‘80s. “Summer of ‘69” has doubtless provoked post-music test anxiety for numerous Hot AC programmers, particularly those who want to lean more alternative or more current. Those PDs, uncomfortable with a 19-year-old record by an artist who hasn’t been core to their format for a decade, are likely to dismiss it as a “Stairway”-type aberration.

But “Summer of ‘69” isn’t a record that tests well anywhere. Adams was a core rock artist for most of the ‘80s, but “Summer of ‘69” rarely comes back playable at Classic Rock stations. In fact, not many Adams records perform consistently at the format. But even at a station that can get, say, “Run To You” to test, “Summer of ‘69” still isn’t likely to come back useable when you’re researching only men.

Just as there are very few songs that truly test everywhere, there are also very few audiences that say they like all of the songs that are thought to transcend format.

Conversely, look at many of the Hot ACs where “Summer of ‘69” performs and then look at how many other ‘80s hits don’t test playable for those stations. Clearly, there’s a distinction between “Summer Of ‘69” and, say, “Jessie’s Girl” or “Hungry Like The Wolf,” both of which do well at certain types of Hot AC stations but not others. In the end, “Summer of ‘69” isn’t a record that transcends format. It’s a song with a reasonably fixed set of expectations as to where it will perform that has remained more currency than other songs from the same era.

What about Bob Marley? In the mid-‘90s, “One Love” showed up everywhere on Boston radio from Hip-Hop WJMN (Jam’n 94.5) to Mainstream AC WMJX (Magic 106.7). With Marley’s greatest hits now a fixture in so many homes and dorm rooms, I expected to see “One Love” show up in all sorts of places. The answer, so far, has been more cut-and-dried. Some Alternative stations can get six Marley songs to test in their top 100. But “One Love” didn’t turn out to be an AC staple in waiting, even with all its TV exposure.

Then there’s Sublime. Almost everything on their self-titled album will come back at the top of a test for Alternative and certain Active Rock stations. But even “What I Got” and “Santeria” have never translated at Hot AC—except at the hardest rocking Modern ACs. Same with the White Stripes: “Seven Nation Army” may have scaled the wall between Modern and Active Rock, but while Alternative hits often surprise Top 40 PDs by testing well without airplay there, “Seven Nation Army” never did.

Just as there are very few songs that truly test everywhere, there are also very few audiences that say they like all of the songs that are thought to transcend format. I recently worked with an adult-leaning Mainstream Top 40 that had a long heritage of playing more gold (and more rock) than the format norm. That station, if it had wanted to, could have played “Summer of ’69,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” or even “Wonderful Tonight.” But a lot of other warhorses didn’t come back: “Hurts So Good,” “Margaritaville,” or “When I Come Around,” for instance.

There was the Soft AC that still plays Michael Bolton and Kenny Rogers but decided to test some of the records that had migrated into the format at many comparable stations. “I Will Survive” and “Old Time Rock & Roll” did, indeed, come back playable. But “Don’t You Want Me,” “Tainted Love,” “Last Dance,” and “If I Can’t Have You” did not.

Then again, “Tainted Love” and “Don’t You Want Me” aren’t quite the multi-format monoliths they were a decade ago, either. Very few songs, in fact, show the research staying power of “Stairway to Heaven.” There was the Hot AC where a PD had avoided testing “In The Air Tonight,” believing that it would come back huge and he’d then be confronted with the question of whether it fit. Once it did go into the test, it came back well under the mean. And a lot of the secondary records in the early ‘90s programmers’ research stash are long forgotten: “(She’s Got) Skillz” by All-4-One, anybody?

All of which suggests that the audience is a lot more in touch with its own needs than programmers give them credit for. Having had time to study music tests at length, what comes back in a music test will usually conform to an audience’s expectations for a station, rather than violate them. For one thing, it’s hard to slip a record that doesn’t belong on your station past a respondent sample that’s 50% P1 to your station.

Radio has also learned the hard way in recent years that the audience wasn’t lying when they asked for more variety or less repetition in research studies. Somewhere between 70 spins a week on powers and 100 spins a week on those same records, Top 40 PDs finally realized that listeners weren’t crying wolf. And the success of broad library-based formats over the last year has proven that more variety was more than a utopian ideal for listeners—it just had to be familiar variety to be a marketable quantity.

So why is it hard to take the audience at face value sometimes? Often, listeners’ experiences are at odds with a PD’s frame of reference. Programmers were only 18 or 25 once and it’s sometimes hard to fully grasp just how many people are moving into the demo every year and bringing some once-unlikely records with them. Programmers have also been taught that not all the music they like should be on the radio. So the Sublime or Bob Marley songs that didn’t exist at radio as currents are hard for some PDs to hear as radio records now.

The songs that seem to transcend format are both vulnerabilities and secret weapons for radio, depending on when and how you use them. Norah Jones proved that. When “Don’t Know Why” was the right record at Top 40, the reaction it prompted was, “I love this song and I’m so glad I finally get to hear it on the radio.” But the second that song ran its course, the likely reaction for many of the same listeners became, “Hell with this: where’s 50 Cent?”

Likewise, the adult-leaning Top 40 that very carefully schedules “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is giving listeners a song they feel passionately about and showing its depth. The Top 40 that throws in “Pour Some Sugar On Me” while its young-end rival is playing “Lean Back” by Terror Squad, then segues into D-12, is incredibly vulnerable, wildly unfocused and, yes, at the mercy of its music test.

This isn’t a call for PDs to test hundreds of new titles with no apparent connection to their format, or to test “Stairway to Heaven” at Urban AC (unless it’s the O’Jays song). Usually when “Stairway” is invoked, the situation is less cut-and-dried—Active Rock stations that play Sublime and the Beastie Boys don’t usually look so different than Active Rock stations whose PDs are adamant that those acts don’t belong. And music tests are never meant to be implemented by just drawing a line between categories: programmers are supposed to decide how each song meets the needs of their station.

But putting the results of a music test, or any research, in the context of your competitive situation is different than telling the audience that they don’t really want what they’ve just asked you for. And as any PD who has waited for three years to get budget for a new music test, then had a great ratings book, can tell you, there are very few absolutes that you can expect from the audience over time. PDs who have research as a resource are given an opportunity not everybody has to ask questions—in that instance, one would hope they’d be at least somewhat open to hearing the answers.

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.