Why Callout Hits No Longer Have Legs

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Callout research used to be marked by those songs that continued to test well forever. That was as one would expect—callout was meant to measure those audience members who were only really starting to like songs around the time a station’s air staff got sick of them. Only when monitored airplay data first became available in the early ‘90s did the industry fully realize just how far the audience’s acceptance of a hit song lagged behind the labels’ timetable for moving on to a new single.

But when Top 40 PDs talk now, one of the frequent topics is just how few songs are testing well for a sustained period. There’s still a “Yeah” by Usher every now and then—a winter release that hung in long enough to make one Top 40’s recent list of top summer songs. But program directors who had already gotten used to songs debuting at the top of the page (“Has Callout Become The New Request Line”, Ross on Radio, October 22, 2003) are now dealing with scores that look like the weekly box office or SoundScan figures with many songs showing their best scores at the outset.

Consider this large-market Top 40 where the only long-running songs in the top 10 are Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” and Nelly’s “My Place.” Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved”—the sort of song that would have topped callout forever at one time and last week’s No. 1—has already trailed off to midpack. In the bottom 10 already: Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces Of Me” (at about 30% burn), Avril Lavigne’s “My Happy Ending” (27%), Usher’s “Confessions, Pt. II” (35%), Jojo’s “Leave (Get Out)” (with 40% burn), “Turn Me On” (only 20%), and Nina Sky’s “Move Ya Body” (41%).

There’s a medium market where the top 10 songs include Terror Squad’s “Lean Back,” Seether’s “Broken,” Ciara’s “Goodies,” and Black-Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started.” The bottom 10 songs include Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved,” “Confessions, Pt II” “Pieces Of Me,” “Yeah,” Christina Milian’s “Dip It Low,” Mario Winans’ “I Don’t Wanna Know,” and Maroon 5’s “This Love.” Burn on the last title, now nine months old at most stations, is around 50%.

Pre-release testing has certainly helped determine what songs are released as singles, or even which projects are worked. And while some of the pre-release testing methodology includes exposing the audience to a song more than once, any bias is going to be toward records that click with respondents after a few plays, not 300 spins.

There’s another medium-market client where the bottom of the page looks a little more like you’d expect, with only a few established hits (Lil’ Flip’s “Sunshine” and Nina Sky) and a larger number of new records that haven’t connected. But that’s only because the station experiences such high burn that songs come out of callout relatively quickly. None of the previous Usher hits are still being tested here. In fact, “Pieces Of Me” is gone already. And the top 10 are similarly new with the longest-running titles being Linkin Park’s “Breaking The Habit,” “Let’s Get It Started,” and “Broken” (a hit here sooner than in most places). “She Will Be Loved” has, again, slid to mid-pack.

There is one medium-market Top 40 where “Pieces Of Me” and “She Will Be Loved” are still in their top 10, which is also interspersed with newer titles. The bottom of the page features a few long running records (Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven,” “Leave [Get Out],” Usher’s“Burn,” “I Don’t Wanna Know”) but includes unproven titles and non-starters as well. Not surprisingly, this is a station known for its relative conservatism.

As that would suggest, Top 40 rotations of the last few years are a likely culprit. Some PDs have backed their powers down slightly over the last few years: the average spin on “She Will Be Loved” at mainstream Top 40 was 67x. That number is down from a high of 70x earlier this year, according to Airplay Monitor. But 11 of the 18 most-listened to Top 40s in the country are still spinning their top song more than 80 times a week. (Only WSTR (Star 94) Atlanta and WNKS (Kiss 95.1) Charlotte, N.C., are in the mid-60s and they, of course, are more adult leaning than other Top 40s.) And even Top 40 PDs who wanted to hold the line on spins have had to deal with new competitors in the last few years—sometimes stations whose specific mission included burning out their competitor’s music.

But it isn’t just power rotation that’s burning songs out sooner. It’s also a function of:

  • So many songs debuting strongly. Whether it’s because of exposure from other formats, exposure from video play and alternate media, such as the Internet or satellite radio, or because of an existing fan base, the early support for songs can push them into a “power new” category almost immediately. That airplay, at some stations, is as heavy as power rotation once was. And while programmers are more attuned to potential scores than ever, the early acceptance of active listeners doesn’t always seem to correlate to how the rest of the audience will respond to a song, as evidenced by how many songs fall apart a few weeks after a strong debut.
  • Top 40 stations getting to certain records too late in their lifespan (“When Is A Hip-Hop Record Ready To Cross Over,” Ross On Radio, July 1). With multiple Hip-Hop/R&B stations in many markets now, those records have the potential to burn a lot sooner, which probably helps explain the relatively short shelf life that many have at Top 40 now. But it’s not just Hip-Hop that PDs are looking at late. The stations that played “Broken” two months ago, when it was still a Modern Rock hit, were seeing results with it, suggesting that it already had traction with listeners, if not Top 40 PDs.
  • On-line research. By now, it’s generally agreed that the on-line version of callout gets you super-active listeners. That can also force songs into “power new” early. And with 70% burn on some songs, it can also influence when PDs consider a song unplayable.
  • Finally, we have to look at the impact of pre-release testing. With at least three major services offering some sort of pre-release research and most major labels being amenable to it in some form, pre-release testing has certainly helped determine what songs are released as singles, or even which projects are worked. And while some of the pre-release testing methodology includes exposing the audience to a song more than once, any bias is going to be toward records that click with respondents after a few plays, not 300 spins.

Is there anything wrong with that? You certainly can’t blame a label for wanting to take its best shot in a world where the cost of each project is daunting. They’ve also been forced to adapt to Top 40 programmers who are looking for a song to perform in callout after just a handful of spins as well as a retail market where the first few weeks are an album’s sweet spot. But Top 40 listeners are no longer getting the chance to grow into a song—a process that has given us some of the biggest hits in recent memory.

Consider the kind of records that have been enduring callout monsters over the last 5-6 years:
The not so obvious pop smash. Records like “Hanging By A Moment,” “Wherever You Will Go,” or “Unwell” faced initial skepticism from rhythmic-leaning major-market Top 40 PDs and were developed by those smaller-market or adult-leaning stations whose spins were a lot slower. Because the rhythmic-leaning mainstreams didn’t play these songs until they were practically top 10, they were spared the “power new” treatment until late in their development. And as relatively subtle records, there’s no sign that these songs would have kicked in with the audience any sooner if they were pounded right away. They had to grow on listeners—then they were favorites forever.

The record that PDs bailed on too early. Some of the most enduring gold titles of the last few years are songs that never got to be all they could be on the Mainstream Top 40 chart, from “Ghetto Supastar” at one end of the musical spectrum to “My Own Worst Enemy” at the other. Because they fell apart on the charts just as some stations were starting to have success with them, they never got the sort of concentrated airplay that fries out a hit record. Consider the scores that some PDs are getting back even now on mid‘90s rap songs that didn’t cross over, from “Ready Or Not” by the Fugees to “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G.

Even today, some of the titles with the most sustained callout results are those that developed slowly, e.g., “Broken” or “You Don’t Know My Name.” The latter is the type of mainstream R&B ballad that Rhythmic and Mainstream Top 40 PDs have been most reluctant to embrace in recent years, precisely because it doesn’t connect immediately. But the few records of that sort that do make it through the gates often become major hits, if they get the chance, because they’re filling an unmet need.

So what can a programmer do to get more spins out of the hits? Being aware of the crossover hits from other formats sooner is one suggestion—“power new” on a record that’s already being pounded in the market is not the same as “power new” on a brand new title that generates passion, but only among the 42% of the audience that knows it. There’s also using “weighted positive” scores as a reality check. Sort the results at our large-market station that way and Maroon, Ashlee, and Avril have top 10 songs again. But it’s hard for PDs to swallow hard and overlook the burn scores.

If PDs feel like they’re taunting the audience by holding on to songs longer, they should remember that (despite promising summer trends in many markets) the Top 40 audience is culled considerably from what it was at its peak four years ago. The listeners that are making up 50% or more of your callout sample now are considerably more active than the audience that most PDs would like to lure back (or keep from discovering a resurgent Country format). Top 40 works best when it’s a mix of not only genres but also active and slower developing records. And these days, neither labels nor programmers are geared to develop the latter.

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.