There Are Hits That You Haven’t Tested: And Other Things I Learned From My Spring Music Test

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Coming in to any new radio station—particularly a gold-based one—there’s always that moment when the new PD asks, “Why weren’t they playing this? And this?” Then their first music test comes back, and they have their answer. Even then, though, there’s usually that one record that comes back near the top of the test that should have been tried a long time ago.

I’ve been working with a lot of Edison’s music test clients this spring to try and help find some new titles to test—using some national perspective on what’s coming back playable in multiple markets and my knowledge of their market history to try and find some songs that might have been overlooked. Through it all, I’ve been driven by some sense that the monitored lists of a format’s most-played songs, often the resource of choice at music test time, had become a self-fulfilling prophecy with a handful of respected stations setting the agenda for everybody else.

Through this process, I knew I would be divested of some previous notions—built up back when I was covering radio as a writer and could only extrapolate what the hits were from what those well-respected stations played—about what worked. I knew that many of my favorite lost oldies would prove to have been lost for a reason (although I did feel better after seeing “Mickey” come back playable for the one station I had the nerve to suggest it to). But there have, of course, been those front page surprises. All of which convinces me that:

Contrary to popular belief, there are new oldies. You just have to work really hard to find them and be prepared to have a lot of other songs not come back useable, because the new hits won’t necessarily be what you think they are. But the answer to, “Why doesn’t anybody ever play __?” isn’t always, “Because the rest of the world knows it’s a stiff.”

Contrary to popular belief, there are new oldies. You just have to work really hard to find them.

Songs do fluctuate over the years. A decade ago, broadcasters were finally realizing that Jimmy Buffett had an enduring appeal that went beyond having current hits, but few would have predicted “Margaritaville” as the multi-format research powerhouse that it became.

When you’re looking for new songs to test, the most likely hits are the songs that have emerged as hits at a handful of like stations after a period of format exile. “Jessie’s Girl” is a very potent record at some Hot AC stations, but it’s not a song that’s on every station.

Being in a TV commercial also helps. I’ve seen “Pictures of You” by the Cure come back playable at a Hot AC and “At Last” by Etta James to work for an oldies station. They’re not across-the-board huge, but they still came back with huge passion and enough familiarity to justify giving them some care and feeding for six months.
And as the first spring tests roll in, here are a few observations on what’s working:

You might have thought the ‘80s had been oversaturated by Hot AC and the subsequent generation of oldies stations that really fried them. But a handful of ‘80s titles are shaping up as really effective Hot AC records and they’re just as likely to be “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as “In The Air Tonight” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and the other songs that were getting fried even before the ‘80s boom. Based on what I’ve seen in the last six months, I’m again starting to view the ‘80s as the thing that Hot AC can own.

Grunge may have re-emerged over the last year, due partially to a vacuum of more recent effective titles at Modern, but it’s not golden across the board. In some genre analyses I’ve done, the other ‘90s Alternative acts (Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers) have just as many hits per capita as the Seattle crew.

Now that a new crop of ‘90s gold is back on the radio, some of them are indeed testing again, although the before-and-after is different enough to explain why few people thought there was a gold-based alternative hole before KBZT San Diego came along. But for every record that gets a boost from being put in front of listeners again, there’s still four “Seether”s that go from the bottom of the test to midpack at best.

On the other hand, there are at least three untested songs by Sublime that would come back useable for most Modern or Active Rock stations.

Ten years after programming an R&B oldies station and seeing how valuable the ‘70s were, even with younger listeners, there is now evidence of a generational split at some, but not all, Urban AC stations, particularly those that effectively use their currents when they’re currents. I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it, but there are stations where “Five Miles to Empty” by Brownstone comes back better than Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons.”

On the Oldies side, however, the pre-Beatles records are still valuable for those who’ll still test and play them. And some of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s songs that some stations are forcing in aren’t across-the-board honorary oldies just yet. I have seen Elvis really fry at some stations this spring, perhaps from the strain of being the only ‘50s rocker on the radio.

Still working your spring music test? (Or thinking ahead to fall?) Call Edison Media Research VP of music and programming Sean Ross at 908-707-4707.