Trouble Where You Least Expect It

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

It’s hard to remember now, but Pink’s “Get the Party Started” wasn’t an instant callout smash two years ago. In many cases, Top 40 programmers, thrilled to have some actual, by God, pop/rock balance on their stations, held their breath and waited—playing it a rotation, or two, higher than it might have deserved initially, because it was a record they wanted to work.

In the long term, Top 40 PDs made “Get the Party Started” work. And by making Pink a core artist, they were rewarded with two consensus hits: “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Just Like A Pill.” That’s the only reason most were willing to stick with the more difficult fourth single, “Family Portrait,” as long as they did, but there were even a few weeks where that record looked okay.

So how is it that even “Family Portrait” was a bigger hit than “Trouble,” the new Pink leadoff single that peaked in the mid-teens after just five weeks? Even after the disappointment of “Feel Good Time,” a soundtrack single on another label, “Trouble” seemed to have many of the same plusses as “Get the Party Started”—tempo, energy, and stylistic balance—and now she was a core artist.

Some PDs pounded “Trouble” right away in anticipation of reaction that never materialized. But many, surprisingly, were reluctant from the start. Even with access to five Mainstream Top 40 stations in the course of my two-hour daily commute, I’ve heard “Trouble” less than 10 times on the radio. And three of those plays were on the Internet. And two of those were on European stations. At some Top 40s, “Trouble” never got past 14-16 spins per week. And the week it peaked, it was only in the mid-20s on the audience chart—a more telling indicator of a song’s true reach.

Of course, just as it was falling apart nationally, “Trouble” also began to show signs of life in callout for at least a handful of stations. The results were not, by any means, across the board. And some of those stories did not sustain in following weeks. But there were enough top 10s and top 5s for a record that was, after all, barely a month old, to at least raise the question of whether “Trouble” will join a long list of records, including Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” or John Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland” that started to look real a week or two too late.

For some PDs, including initial advocates of the song, there’s little ambiguity. “I thought the record would be so big, I added it straight into sub-power out of the box. Wow, did I miss on that one,” says WAKS Cleveland PD Dan Mason. Unlike “Dirrty,” he says, “This isn’t even the case of a huge phone record that took a minute to call out. Our audience was just apathetic about it from the start.”

“We played it more than 150 times. That, coupled with the amount our competition played it was a significant amount of market airplay,” says WPXY Rochester, N.Y., PD Mike Danger. “It never tested out of my bottom third in research.” “Dead last in callout for us,” adds Infinity Top 40 format captain and KMXV Kansas City PD Jon Zellner, who thought it was “just an average song.”

“There was just no reaction,” says KBKS Seattle PD Mike Preston. “It sounded like it would be active and react quickly. But that didn’t happen. So you keep it in a conservative rotation until you see some sign, any sign of life. And the result [was indeed that] a lot of stations never got it out of new music rotation.” Preston also cites Internet callout that showed the song “over 80% familiar and near the bottom of the pack.”

KRBV Dallas APD Alex Valentine wonders if listeners other than the artist’s core fans even knew it was Pink. WQEN Birmingham, Ala., PD Johnny V. can jokingly offer only, “Maybe it’s just because she dyed her hair black. That’s it! I blame the tatts and the dye jobs.”

But WNTQ Syracuse, N.Y., OM/PD Tom Mitchell says, “At 93Q, we treated ‘Trouble’ as an automatic… After 210 spins, we have decent callout on it. Is it possible that a large group of CHRs resisted the song, either ignoring it entirely, or relegating it to very light rotation? It seems that many stations never gave it a real shot.” For Mitchell, “It’s hard to understand why a significant number of programmers wouldn’t want to give this song more of a chance.”

But how PDs look for their hits these days offers a few hints. One is that many, unlike 93Q, have no 25+ mission any more. Two cities over, WKSE Buffalo, N.Y., PD Dave Universal says, “Female 25-plus, it’s huge. But kids aren’t really into it,” an assessment that parallels other callout stories the author has encountered. And, as Universal notes, “There are a lot of stations focused on 12-24 who pulled back.”

There’s also the growing reliance on Internet callout. On-line research has helped programmers find some records that might not have responded to regular callout right away. (“Stacy’s Mom,” in particular, seems to have proven its mettle there.) But if you’re looking for the record that doesn’t make the phones ring, but eventually insinuates itself into the audience’s good graces, you’re probably not going to find it there. That said, WHTS Davenport, Iowa, PD Tony Waitekus went back to his Rate the Music in early November “and what do you know, it’s showing top 5.”

There is never a sure thing.

WAKS’ Mason also raises the intriguing possibility that the audience that likes pop/rock may be eluding top 40’s research net. While 5 of Mason’s 10 best testing records are now rock, something once unthinkable for Kiss 96.5, there are other records—particularly power-pop—that don’t perform. After several years of leaning rhythmic, he thinks “it took awhile to get those rock fans back and in the callout sample.”

“Trouble”’s trouble may also be a function of PD expectations. The few subtle records, such as Matchbox Twenty’s “Unwell” that become Top 40 hits do so because nobody expects a definitive answer in six weeks. Ironically, a record that sounds like a hit is under much more pressure to perform. WXLK Roanoke, Va., PD Kevin Scott suggests that rather than being pounded right away, a song like “Trouble” “should be put in like any other new song and allowed to become familiar and grow naturally and not be forced.”

“Back in the ‘80s when we had superstar artists instead of songs, a lot of follow-up hits were played on faith longer and thus got the time they needed to make favorable impressions with the audience before programmers got their first glimpse at research, and didn’t have a [monitored airplay] chart to worry about,” says WBLI Long Island, N.Y., APD Al Levine. “That’s a thought that occurs to me almost every time I see something come back in an auditorium test 6 months later that never got the airplay to match.”

“You wouldn’t be doing this subject enough justice by writing anything less than a novel,” says KHFI Austin, Texas, PD Tommy Austin. (Look for ‘Pink: The [Sub-] Power and the Potential Scores” on newsstands next month.) “I don’t know if Pink would ever have called out, but Top 40 needs to recognize music that it can own, and in some cases throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” That, he says, is especially true when top 40 owns a song and isn’t getting help warming it up from other formats.

But it’s hard, as Preston points out, to just swallow hard when you’re dealing with no phones plus discouraging Internet research and networking with other PDs who see the same thing. The PD of a 12-24 top 40 is likely to network with like-minded stations, regarding an 18-34 top 40 as an aberration, not an indicator of a song that might work down the line. It’s entirely possible that “Trouble” just wasn’t a hit, proving, Preston says, that “there is never a sure thing.” But it’s also possible that the late-blooming song that exists only in callout is more elusive than ever in a format that screens younger and tighter than ever.

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.em>