Most broadcasters have heard the (perhaps apocryphal) story about Todd Storz and the birth of Top 40: the Omaha bar patrons who played the same songs on the jukebox repeatedly, and the waitresses who played them again after the customers had left. Here’s how that story plays out in 2007:
You have undoubtedly noticed businesses in your town that have switched to satellite radio for their in-store music, either from terrestrial radio or, as likely, from Muzak and similar services. In my suburb, it’s the gym (XM) and a local restaurant/pub (Sirius) where I most often encounter satellite radio.
I’ve contended in these pages for a while that Sirius and XM have gotten more hit-driven and more mainstream over the years. But with more opportunities to hear them at greater length recently, I have still been surprised just how how hit-driven they were.
Because it was one of the Sirius Classic Rock channels that prompted this observation, I decided to monitor both Sirius Classic Vinyl (’60s and ’70s) and Classic Rewind (’70s and ’80s) and their counterpart channels on XM: Top Tracks 46 and Big Tracks 49. The idea was to measure their depth vs. what you might hear on a commercial Classic Rocker, in this case New York’s WAXQ (Q104.3).
I chose Q104.3 because it’s a little unusual by Classic Rock standards. Being in New York, it has always had more of a Billy Joel/Elton John lean. It has also heavily publicized its variety in the last few years–particularly when WCBS-FM was doing the Jack-FM format against it.
My benchmark was Mediabase’s Top 1,000 most played Classic Rock songs of the week. Not every song on that list is a record that you can reliably expect to perform well in research for a Classic Rock station, but it’s a pretty good dividing line between a song that still tests playable for some stations and one that would show up mostly in special programming. Not every song that makes the Top 1,000 is “Sweet Home Alabama” or “More Than A Feeling,” but those songs are usually “safe” programming to some extent.
Even outside the Top 1,000, one encounters a lot of songs that have slowly dropped off the radio because they don’t research well but don’t seem obscure. (“Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” by Genesis, which we’ll encounter later, is a good example.) A Classic Rock station that was loaded up with those songs would still be taking a chance from a programming standpoint, but it might not have a very high “oh wow” factor for listeners.
That said, I once heard somebody express amazement at hearing “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number,” hardly a song that I considered obscure. So “oh wow” is very much in the ear of the beholder.
We’ll start with Sirius’ older-leaning Classic Vinyl from 11:15-12:05 p.m. Songs that do not make Mediabase’s Classic Rock Top 1000 are asterisked:
- *Faces, “Memphis” – A true rarity. No commercial airplay anywhere this week;
- David Bowie, “Suffragette City” – Second tier in terms of Bowie’s airplay at the format, but still in top 1000;
- Eagles, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”;
- Grateful Dead, “Truckin’” – Rarely tests, but within the Top 1,000 here, usually because PDs feel the need to have one token Dead song;
- CSNY, “Ohio” – The act’s hardest rocking and most played song at the format;
- Three Dog Night, “Mama Told Me (Not To Come) – This act is usually on the other side of the Classic Rock/Oldies divide, but as a party song–in multiple senses of the word–this is the one that makes the cut;
- *The Who, “The Seeker” – Another true depth cut;
- Lou Reed, “Walk On The Wild Side”;
- Rolling Stones, “Tumbling Dice”;
- *Cream, “SWLABR”;
- Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”;
- Badfinger, “Day After Day”;
- *Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” – Dylan is usually represented at Classic Rock by 2-3 songs, of which this isn’t one, regardless of where it is in the Canon for Dylan fans;
- Kinks, “Lola” – The Kinks’ most enduring at the format; a classic, but also one that perhaps got some durability by becoming a Rock hit again in 1980 via a live version.
Here’s Sirius Classic Rewind (the “newer” of the two) from the same time frame:
- Queen, “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” – Along with “Old Time Rock & Roll,” probably the best example of a song that remains strong, but massively burnt;
- *Genesis, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” – A good example of a record that was hardly obscure at the time, but rarely gets played now, particularly this long version;
- Guns ‘N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
- Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”
- John Cougar Mellencamp, “Jack And Diane” – Like Queen, very safe, increasingly burnt, and now shared with even Mainstream AC;
- *George Thorogood, “No Particular Place To Go” – Have never heard this on the radio as an oldie (and been a while since I heard the Chuck Berry original anywhere);
- Bob Seger, “Against The Wind”
- REO Speedwagon, “Take It On The Run” — There’s an odd unwritten rule in Classic Rock radio that this one still rocks, but somehow “Keep On Loving You” is too wimpy to even test;
- Van Halen, “And The Cradle Will Rock”–Not first tier VH, but well represented;
- Police, “Spirits In The Material World” – Again, secondary (or tertiary) Police, but still represented at Classic Rock;
- Foreigner, “Feels Like The First Time”
- Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing In The Dark” – These days, Springsteen does better in the Northeast than elsewhere. As such, you don’t hear a ton of depth at Classic Rock radio.
Then I switched between XM’s Top Tracks (early Classic Rock) and Big Tracks (newer) between 12:05-12:55 p.m. Here’s Top Tracks:
- Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Fire”;
- Allman Brothers, “Whipping Post”–Towards the bottom of the Top 1,000, but in there;
- Boston, “More Than A Feeling” – A safe universal record, even at AC these days;
- Bob Seger, “Mainstreet”;
- Pink Floyd, “Speak To Me/Breathe”;
- Procol Harem, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”;
- Eric Clapton, “Cocaine”–Clapton’s most enduring at the format, even in weeks when his autobiography isn’t being published;
- *Beatles, “Hey Bulldog”–On the”Yellow Submarine” soundtrack; not usually a radio staple;
- Kinks, “All Day & All Of The Night”;
- *Graham Nash, “Chicago-We Can Change The World” – A one time trademark record for the format, but not for the last 30 years or so;
- Chicago, “Saturday In The Park”;
- Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”;
- Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride” – One of the most enduring songs of its era.
And here’s XM Big Tracks:
- Def Leppard, “Photograph”;
- *Joe Walsh, “A Life Of Illusion” – I’ve heard it a little more in recent years because of the Jack- and Bob-FMs, as well as its placement in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” A great-sounding programmer’s favorite but is usually found at the bottom of most music tests;
- Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again”–Reliable at Classic Rock and Hot AC these days;
- Rush, “Freewill” – Second tier Rush, but not unplayed;
- Tom Petty, “You Wreck Me” – A rare instance of a post-Nirvana hit from a heritage rock artist that endures;
- *Glass Tiger, “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” – A big hit at the time, but long ceded by Rock radio to Hot AC and Jack-FM;
- *Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) – Again, for most, this hasn’t been a Rock record for 24 years, but it’s hardly obscure;
- J. Geils Band, “Centerfold”;
- Cars, “My Best Friend’s Girl”;
- Van Halen, “Why Can’t This Be Love” – Third tier VH, but the biggest of the Sammy-era;
- Pat Benatar, “Heartbreaker” – Her most enduring song at Classic Rock (her other harder rocking songs have disappeared);
- Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
- *Loverboy, “When It’s Over” – Loverboy actually places three songs in the top 1,000, not just “Working For The Weekend.” But this isn’t one of them;
- Bob Seger, “Night Moves”
Finally, here’s WAXQ (Q104.3) New York between 1-2 p.m.:
- Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”;
- Chicago, “25 Or 6 To 4″–Chicago’s most rockin’ early hit and thus its biggest at Classic Rock;
- Van Halen, “Jump”;
- Elton John, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”–not everybody goes this far into ballad Elton, but it is among the Top 1,000;
- Pink Floyd, “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. II”;
- * Bob Marley & Wailers, “Get Up, Stand Up”–The one true surprise this hour. Marley tests in a variety of formats and probably did test for Q104.3. But many Classic Rock stations won’t even test him. (Alternative stations think of him as less of a stretch.);
- AC/DC, “Hell’s Bells”–Second tier AC/DC, but I’m hearing it more lately;
- U2, “New Year’s Day”–Their third most played song at Classic Rock–a good example of a song that some Rock stations resisted when it was new that became a staple;
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, “What’s Your Name”;
- Guess Who, “No Time”–Again, most Classic Rockers don’t go beyond “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” and “American Woman” because of texture, but this does make the Top 1.000;
- Pete Townshend, “Let My Love Open The Door”–Like many Who songs, probably bigger in NYC than elsewhere; third tier at the format;
- Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar”–We rap up with one of the format’s signature songs.
Q104.3 was, despite its quirks, the most hit-driven of the stations I listened to (although, to be fair, if I had continued into the next hour, the first two songs would have been “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles and “Bat Out Of Hell” by Meat Loaf). That said, the satellite services were a lot less eccentric than their reputation. The most aggressive among the Sirius and XM channels had four “oh wows” per hour–meaning that even in satellite radio, somebody is thinking about giving the listener that well-balanced quarter-hour that is such a tenet of terrestrial programming.
Interestingly, on either channel of either service, the songs that most deviated from the Classic Rock norm tended to be either deeper ’60s or deeper ’80s cuts. The ’70s are, after all, the center of the format for most Classic Rockers and where there’s likely to be more consensus. The only service that ever went for more than a song or two between smashes was XM’s Big Tracks, which actually went for four songs (between Rush and the Eurythmics) without anything on the “Carry On Wayward Son” level. (“Sweet Dreams” does have that level of ubiquity–just not at Classic Rock.)
Anecdotally, my sense of Sirius and XM was already that their library-based were relying more on “music that tests,” or at least “music that you would hear on a mainstream commercial station in the same format.” The exceptions were the stations that were either designated for deep cuts, or for genres where there aren’t already mainstream commercial stations to establish what the hits are, e.g., reggae or chillout music.
Okay, you may have noticed so far that there has been no mention of XM’s Deep Tracks 40 or its Sirius Counterpart, the Vault. To be fair, those two channels are also designed to be truly deep and are. I listened to those stations alongside the four whose monitors appear above and neither played any song in the Top 1,000. The Vault went from Peter Frampton’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” into the Kinks’ “Milk Cow Blues.” Deep Tracks did a Springsteen “then-and-now” where the “then” song was “War” and the “now” was not “Radio Nowhere,” but another cut from the new album. And Q104.3, by the way, has a Deep Cuts channel as its HD-2 offering.
And here’s where my version of the jukebox epiphany comes in:
In all of my recent exposure to XM and Sirius, I’ve come across the two Mainstream Classic Rock channels a lot. I’ve also heard XM’s Modern AC Flight 26 and various Alternative channels in public, or heard about them from co-workers. I’ve also recently come across XM’s relatively wide pre-Beatles Oldies channel on in public. But I’ve never heard either of the deep cuts channels playing anywhere. They flesh out the slate of available offerings, and bolster the variety image. But on their mainstream channels, Sirius and XM mostly play the hits. And even Sirius and XM customers choose the hits.
Terrestrial broadcasters should not, in any way, be smug about that. In certain ways, it’s more disconcerting that somebody would pay money to hear a lot of the same music they can hear on mainstream radio. Broadcasters have responded to the advent of satellite and the rise of the iPod by taking more calculated musical risks, but if the calling card isn’t depth and variety, but instead commercial free music and, perhaps, knowing that the deep cuts or reggae channel is there when you want it, that’s something else altogether.
And Satellite broadcasters have known for a while that depth and variety would not be the only calling cards–that’s why they began signing up Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, and sports. If none of those things have put either satellite service into pre-merger profitability, they’ve still siphoned off listening that terrestrial radio would rather have. For terrestrial broadcasters, the first line of defense would be to understand what motivates those listeners who do make the move to satellite. But at a time when not every broadcaster can ask enough questions about their own product, that question is likely to go unanswered unless satellite goes through another growth spurt.