The Care And Feeding Of Variety: Building A 1,000 Song Library

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

“Everybody knows how to play 30 currents. He knows how to play 50 currents.”

That was consultant Jerry Clifton talking about then-WYLD New Orleans PD Ron Atkins in the late ’80s . In an era when Churban stations could pretty reliably damage a heritage Urban just by being more hit-driven, Atkins’ WYLD had recaptured the format lead from Clifton-consulted WQUE (Q93) not by simply battening down the hatches, (as many Urban stations would do eventually), but by out-hipping Q93 with the right new music.

Use national airplay as a shopping list or to jog your own memory. But don’t expect to find a “safe list.”

Over the years, there have always been programmers who somehow knew the art of being conservative and aggressive at the same time. There have always, for instance, been a handful of Oldies PDs who loved their format too much to just throw the format’s “safe list” on the air and call it a day. Now, after having been indoctrinated against being musically aggressive for 25 years, the American land rush into the Jack/Bob format means that PDs in all formats are being given not just a license but it seems, an imperative to increase variety. And some are having a harder time of it than others.

If increasing variety is your current challenge, here are some thoughts on building a 1,000-song library. Many of them apply to adding “throwback” cuts to a mainstream R&B outlet or “legends” songs to a yesterday-and-today Country outlet as well.

1) National Airplay Data Is Not The Final Arbiter

Programmers have always over relied on using national most-played data to figure out whether their stations were missing anything at music test time—some PDs are more likely to test the 500th most-played song in the format than a song in the top 30 at their competition. But programmers have always had a reasonable expectation that the No. 200 most played song nationally was a hit for more people than No. 500 in most formats, and that they were getting some of the benefit of other stations’ music testing.

Few such guarantees exist in what Mediabase is calling the “Variety Rock” format. As stations rush their Jack/Bob-style hybrids on the air, the deliberately iconoclastic decisions of a handful of programmers are being institutionalized nationally. Suddenly, Loverboy’s “Loving Every Minute Of It” and Kiss’ “Lick It Up” are being passed around the country and “Waterloo” is suddenly the second-most-played song by Abba. While there are undoubtedly markets where, say, “Loving Every Minute Of It” is a research secret weapon, the only thing most PDs can count on is that another PD thought it would sound good on the radio again in a format that was constructed to accommodate it.

So use national airplay as a shopping list or to jog your own memory. But don’t expect to find a “safe list,” which is a little inimical to the concept of this format anyway. In its first years, the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid has grown because so many new programmers brought something new to their particular version of it. CFWM (Bob FM) Winnipeg added the first level of whimsy to a “rock for women (that guys can also enjoy)” hole that WMVX (Mix 106.5) Cleveland had uncovered five years earlier. CKLG (Jack FM) Vancouver gave the format its attitude by popularizing, “Playing What We Want.” Joel Folger’s American Bob-FMs added a media hook by rephrasing the positioner as, “We Play Anything.” In a three-year-old format where most proponents have had both successes and relative disappointments, nothing can yet be taken as gospel. And programmers should be looking to embellish the model—not clone it.

2) Before You Break The Rules, Know The Rules

With the incursion of Jack/Bob in the U.S., many programmers have adopted a template where the most-played song is spinning only 3-4 times a week and even those songs aren’t the ones that you’d expect to see at the top of a music test. A few stations are testing their music. Others, seemingly, have decided that testing their music is beside the point. At this point, a lot of smart PDs are more concerned about familiarity and compatibility than strength when making song decisions.

Even as somebody who lives to hear new songs back on the radio for the first time, it’s a little hard for me to accept that the new format offers total liberation from having to play the hits more than other songs. And until “we play anything,” it didn’t even necessarily offer PDs a mandate to do so. In the early days of the format, the genius of Jack/Bob was being able to take the best songs from two formats—it was only the Canadian content that kept stations playing songs that weren’t hits somewhere. Otherwise, the variety was hearing “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”—two songs that weren’t hard to hear on Classic Rock or Hot AC respectively—on the same radio station.

There’s a parallel here with the early days of the Oldies format. When that format came into its own in the late ‘80s, it took about a year for PDs to figure out that “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” by Boyce & Hart wasn’t a reliable power record for the ages, it was just a song that sounded really good on the radio after 20 years of exile. A few years more, of course, and PDs had decided on 300 songs that suddenly became the only Oldies allowed by law—a model that worked well for a while, but not indefinitely.

So I understand if PDs of the new Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrids are determined not to destroy proven hits “Jessie’s Girl” or “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by overplaying them. But it’s perhaps better for listeners to remember hearing those songs more than once in the new format than, say, “Right Down The Line” or “Suicide Blonde,” just a few of the songs that aren’t such “oh wows” for me anymore after a few months of Jack/Bob-mania. And even a PD skilled in library management might still want to know what the hits are, if only to know what type of balance they were offering listeners.

Some of the songs returning to the radio after two decades have been gone for a reason—others were just never tested consistently. There’s definitely a case to be made for having a music test to know what you’re starting with, and to have a benchmark for how those songs respond to airplay in six or 12 months. Having been a disciple of Guy Zapoleon’s “spokes of a wheel” theory—where having strength every other record gives you some room to maneuver—I would still want to know if I am playing a strong song every second record or every fifth.

3) Don’t Let Selector Set The Rules

You see it in a lot of formats: the record getting airplay disproportionate to its test scores because it’s uptempo and it’s easier to schedule than other songs in its category—perhaps because there are no other songs by that artist on the station. So is playing “Kung-Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas three times a week, which a few Jack/Bob/etc., stations are, really part of the new format’s mystique? Or is it happening because its tempo and energy are “5”s and nobody will ever play the follow-up, “Dance The Kung-Fu”?

There are also new variety rock stations whose late ‘90s titles are the fastest-rotating gold titles on the station. For some stations, that’s undoubtedly an aesthetic choice, but it does create the danger of a station sounding like just another AC. And, again, it’s hard to know whether programmers want to rely so heavily on Faith Hill and Fastball, or whether they’ve created too many calls for the number of available titles.

4) Use Variety To Bring Out What’s Important About The Station

The Jack/Bob format’s oft-repeated “mile wide and an inch deep” mantra isn’t always what’s on the air. However you feel about “Waterloo” and “Lick It Up,” they seem to represent at least an inch-and-a-half of depth. And some of the new stations are relying on first-generation modern rock titles that were hardly universal hits at the time—not just KCBS (93.1 Jack FM) Los Angeles where those songs have market history.

But if you believe that this format still has to begin with a core sound and a musical opening in the market—usually Classic Hits, ‘80s pop/rock, or some combination thereof—it makes sense to use the variety to support that core sound. Some new stations that feel like they have no center. The trainwrecks aren’t strategic, they’re there with every other segue. And what you’re left with is just a very broad AC station. Ideally, “oh wows” don’t just prove that a station plays anything. They prove that a station is expert at a certain type of music that its audience likes and has been deprived of for a while.

5) Stop When You’re Finished

In the same way that there cannot and should not be a safe list, there is also no perfect library size. Being able to tout a 1,000 song library may have some consumer press value, but it’s no more a magic number than 185 was in 1992 or 450 is for most of today’s Country stations. And even a Classic Hits/Hot AC-hybrid that just took 300 great-testing songs from each of its component formats would still sound fresher than most of what it is competing with.

After deciding what the hits are, programmers should look for the image records that make a statement about the station. If doing so brings you to 1,000 songs, that’s okay. If you run out before then, give yourself a few months’ vacation from digging. And if your clocks are demanding more depth than what makes sense, then change your clocks.

Being able to work on expanded libraries for the Classic Hits/Hot AC has been very rewarding for those of us who grew up with the music that disappeared from the radio (at least in this context) for 20 years. As the format continues to grow, one can only hope that the PDs who find themselves working with it will also find it rewarding, not rote.

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 Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

Read other articles by Sean Ross

7 replies
  1. Ed Salamon
    Ed Salamon says:

    Ironically, some of the first PDs to realize the value of the expanded library, were some of the very same PDs that were at the forefront of short playlists back in the 70’s: Scott Shannon with his syndicated True Oldies format and John Sebastian with The Wolf (WSM-FM) here in Nashville, to name a couple.
    Ed Salamon

  2. Bill Cloutier
    Bill Cloutier says:

    I love the Jack format. But, as usual, radio operators are jumping on the bandwagon with little or no thought as to how to maintain the station’s legs once the novelty wears off. As the Research Group folks constantly reminded us old war horses, it’s what’s between the records — the so-called “stationality” — that separates great radio stations from those that play great music.

  3. Ron Sterrenburg
    Ron Sterrenburg says:

    Having listened to a number of Jack stations in the USA, and being a radio consultant and researcher in Europe, I’m surprised it took so long for this format to develop. Most European stations that focus heavily on Gold songs, have been playing 1500 songs or even more in Europe for many years. But, then again, there aren’t any markets here with loads of stations that all want (and need) to reach a slightly different demo.
    I am, however, a believer of only playing the best songs and have never seen 1,500 (or 1,000, for that matter) well tested songs come out of research and, therefore, fear that the Jack format will cease to exist within a few years or, at the least, will have changed into aformat with less (700?) songs.
    I also have objections to the variety of the format and, while understanding that it can be fun to hear Abba’s “Waterloo” again, I can’t believe that these songs will remain popular with most listeners if they’re played a lot. Even it’s just once per three or four days.

  4. Mike Shannon
    Mike Shannon says:

    I have said this for years, a big selection to choose from will keep listeners happy. I have over 2000 titles in rotation now and have had up 5000 when doing an MOR/Oldies mix. We had a 7+ share 12+ for a stand alone AM and beat the heritage AM station for the first time in more than 15 years.
    If blended and presented well, you can play songs from the late 50s through the very early 80’s and keep em’ happy. It is the 300-400 song list stations and oldies radio satellite formats that have killed oldies radio as we know it. While lean to the side that gives Jack a shorter life span (2 years or so), I do salute them for taking a chance and breaking out of the box. Let’s hope JACK/SAM/CHIEF/(insert your name here) doesn’t end up like the All 70’s format or Jammin’ Oldies format.(just be a passing fad)
    Mike Shannon
    Director of Broadcasting

  5. Dave Anthony
    Dave Anthony says:

    The rules that large playlists break aren’t merely established radio rules, they’re rules of human nature. Trying to continually forcefeed unpopular songs on a radio audience will have the same effect as feeding unpopular meals in a restaurant … business will decrease. Human beings want what they like and the majority of your audience doesn’t have 1000 favorite songs. After the novelty effect is gone, Jack and Bob will be another fad to joke about.

  6. Steven Bise
    Steven Bise says:

    Your example of Kung Fu Fighting being they type of song that might be overplayed on some stations was perfect; monitoring for the first time the new “Max” station in San Francisco I hear Carl Douglas hacking his way across the airways within minutes of tuning in. Pretty funny.
    I can understand a station presenting itself with the carefree “we play anything” position, and going wide and a little deep with the music can work in the right situation, but I’d like to believe no self-respecting station/PD would truely just toss a thousand-plus songs on the air with no system in place to highlight the relevant songs. However, if I hear Carl Douglas again within the next couple of days I’ll know I’m wrong.

  7. Clark Smidt
    Clark Smidt says:

    Reduce clutter, deliver great local presentation, produce targeted variety in the music…what a concept! Time for radio to take a giant step forward, reconnect with listeners and show results to combat the satellite hype.


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