Would Research Have Killed the Classics? Let’s Go To The Tape

A look at the early days of callout and what it means for 2005

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming


A few months ago, Dave Hoeffel of AllAccess.com and I had an e-mail exchange about “Stairway To Heaven” and its legendary (but perhaps apocryphal) ability to test in every format.
“Which leads to this question,” he wrote. “Would ‘Stairway To Heaven’ have called out initially, if callout had existed back in the day?” Hoeffel, who once examined this subject for former employer FMQB, speculated that with a song like “Stairway” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” that goes through multiple changes that PDs wouldn’t even have known what to test.

Callout didn’t exactly clear the decks for everything except Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles in the late ’70s, but it did replace the teenybopper schlock with adult schlock.

“Stairway To Heaven,” as it happens, was one of the early successes of music research. In the mid-to-late ’70s, it often resurfaced as a current on Top 40 stations that hadn’t played it in 1971, usually as a result of one of research’s new disciples moving to a new market. Even if the callout gauntlet had existed in 1971, “Stairway” had the advantage of famously not being worked as a single. Stations were able to find it organically and play it at their leisure over the course of a decade, instead of having to make it happen within 150 spins of its promotional impact date, or move on to another label priority.
But Hoeffel’s question, “How many songs that became classics would have survived the scrutiny that music gets today?” did start me wondering how other songs from that era would have fared. For songs from the late ’70s on, there’s relatively little suspense. By then, there were proponents of callout throughout the Top 40 and AOR formats. The only moment when callout’s influence waned was around 1983-1985 when CHR’s ascent and Rock radio’s doldrums soured some PDs on callout’s value. (In 1984, the MD of one very successful major-market Top 40 told me that he believed callout was for people who couldn’t hear the hits, and his station had double digit shares to prove it.)
The seemingly obvious casualty of callout’s rise in the ’70s is the quasi-novelty music that, for better or worse (and the author is in the former camp), defined Top 40 during the early half of the decade. It’s hard to imagine “Kung-Fu Fighting,” “Little Willy,” “Seasons In The Sun,” and “My Ding-A-Ling” as callout monsters. Callout didn’t exactly clear the decks for everything except Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles in the late ’70s, as anybody who remembers “My Angel Baby” by Toby Beau can attest, but it did replace the teenybopper schlock with, well, adult schlock.
One also has to look at some of the music that rarely tests well today–even with the listeners who grew up with it–and wonder how it would have fared at the time:

  • What about the more eclectic rock that comes back at the bottom of any Classic Rock test now? Any progressive rock beyond Pink Floyd and Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America”? Any Dylan besides “Lay Lady Lay” and “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”? Any Paul Simon beyond his first two albums or Steely Dan after “Reeling In The Years”?
  • What about Joni Mitchell–a distinctive voice embraced by a generation, but not necessarily those subsequent? Or her Country counterpart, Emmylou Harris?
  • What about ’70s funk? If “Stairway To Heaven” seems hard to distill into seven seconds, try Parliament’s “Flash Light.” Then try to imagine how its (barely) controlled chaos would have sounded over a phone line in 1978.

I was also curious about ’70s disco. After 15 years in exile, ’70s dance music re-emerged about a decade ago as one of the most potent genres in AC radio. But the rise of research seems to coincide in timing with the disco backlash and some of its Rock radio proponents were definitely riding the anti-disco bandwagon.
We decided to turn this question over to some of the programmers who were there at the time as early proponents of music research, trying to get a better handle on what did and didn’t test at the time–something that’s not easy to remember on a record by record basis when you’re talking about songs that are 25-to-30 years old. Often, the answers are what you expect them to be, but not always.
“‘Stairway’ was a current before callout was being conducted regularly, but it did tend to test well as a recent gold, even with pop-leaning Top 40 partisans,” says Todd Wallace of Infinity/Phoenix. Wallace was one of callout’s early supporters at that market’s Top 40 KRIZ in the early ’70s.
“‘Stairway’ indeed tested huge, as did ‘Nights In White Satin’ and ‘Kashmir,’” recalls John Sebastian, PD of Country WSM-FM (the Wolf) Nashville, and an early callout booster at Top 40 KDWB Minneapolis, where ‘Kashmir,’ which was never worked as a single, became a power, and KHJ Los Angeles, before moving to the AOR side with the success of KUPD Phoenix and WCOZ Boston.
“In my view, callout brought quality to most formats,” says Sebastian. “It showed that the novelty songs were strictly request [and sales items] and, for the masses, were not even hits in some instances.” Callout didn’t always render the goofy ’70s hits unplayable, Sebastian says, but it did make the songs that were “A”s for everybody else into “C”s for him.
What about the Bee Gees and other disco hits in the callout era? “Those were legitimate hits and they tested very well, particularly the melodic ones,” Sebastian says, although he now recalls “More Than A Woman” as more of a callout monster than “Stayin’ Alive.” “‘Brick House’ tested well. Any legitimate record that had legs, whatever its genre, tested well. ‘Always and Forever’ couldn’t stop testing. It was a power forever.”
Likewise, Wallace remembers that “most disco tested reasonably well when it was a new pop genre.” The turning point, he says, was Steve Dahl’s anti-disco rally at WLUP Chicago, which “quickly turned this style of music into a huge negative. ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was, at one time, a strong testing pop hit, but it soon became the poster child for a fad.”
Sebastian, of course, would make “no disco” a rallying cry for WCOZ–a station that also helped cull a lot of the softer music from the AOR format, although he would then champion the latter music at his early-’80s “Eclectic Oriented Rock” outlets. “There was a time when ‘Moondance’ was the No. 1 AOR song of all time, just to show you how much things have changed,” he says. While “everybody was concerned about making the demos younger,” he also says that a lot of the more difficult ’70s rock that doesn’t test well today “probably never tested that strong with the mainstream audience.”
Unlike today’s relatively narrow callout screeners, Sebastian remembers that his stations tested men and women, as well as teens, “probably 15-plus.” And despite his Rock stations’ “kickass” image, Sebastian says that being female friendly that gave AOR its primacy in the late ’70s/early ’80s. That era of Rock radio reverberates now with the rise of the Jack/Bob format and its roughly even female/male demo split.
Clear Channel regional VP of programming Kevin Metheny remembers “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago, another one of callout’s early success stories, being a power “at my first three programming jobs in three markets, spanning almost three years: WNOE New Orleans, KMJI San Diego, and WZZD (Wizzard 99) Philadelphia.”
Despite callout’s tendency to slow things down, however, Metheny also remembers some records performing in research instantly–just as songs often do today. “Elton John & Kiki Dee’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ video played one time and one time only on NBC-TV’s ‘Midnight Special’ and tested top 5 in research begun the following Monday,” he recalls. WZZD added Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” out of the box and saw it come back at No. 1 about 10 days later.
“I was in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh at the peak of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and all of its music tested well. As did ‘I Will Survive,’ ‘Disco Inferno’ . . . ‘Shake Your Groove Thing,’ ‘Best Of My Love,’ and ‘I Love The Night Life, but as you know Philly and Pittsburgh have pretty distinctive and deep R&B roots,” Metheny says.
“Callout pretty much killed ‘The Night Chicago Died’ by Paper Lace and ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’ by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods,” Metheny recalls. Although, he says, “if we had focused on [younger demos], they’d have worked.” But at that time, the goal was to find “the more difficult to lure young-adult audience.” Wallace says, “Usually these songs tested, but with higher negatives than most songs, but also higher faves. They also tended to burn out much faster than other songs.”
There’s an interesting perspective on reaction records that emerges when you talk to Country Radio Broadcasters president Ed Salamon, then PD of WHN New York. That station was known for championing reaction records, and Salamon says that it was having callout that gave him the confidence to play them, because he knew he could cut his losses quickly if he was wrong about a record.
So even tearjerker novelties like Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” (about truckers and a handicapped orphan) or Paul Evans’ “Hello, This Is Joanie” (about a man listening repeatedly to his girlfriend’s answering machine message after she dies in a car crash) scored “huge favorites in callout” at WHN, although, not surprisingly, they burned quickly, Salamon recalls.
Fast forward to 2005: callout has, in most instances, moved beyond its original goal of reaching “passive” listeners, who wouldn’t be represented in sales or request tallies, with PDs opting for 50% P1s, or more, each week. Songs are capable of showing high average scores right away–and they don’t have to be “Just The Way You Are” or “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” The flip side is that many records look like ’70s novelties, with only an occasional “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” showing the sort of high week-after-week scores that used to typify any legitimate smash.
These days, if there’s any genre of song that has a hard time testing, it’s the sort of mainstream uptempo record that used to be the easiest to peg as a hit. Active records do not find themselves as consistently penalized, although there are exceptions. Some of the records that have given Country its excitement back in recent months have been middling testers, e.g., “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy).”
The notion that music research is supposed to be only one weapon in an arsenal is oft repeated by programmers, but rarely taken to heart. That was probably true in the early ’80s when Rock radio’s research-only secret weapons eventually took over the format, leaving the records that people actually cared about to Top 40. It’s certainly true now when Country clearly needs songs like “Save A Horse,” used intelligently.
The ability for research to provide a closed loop became clear in the early ’80s and again in the early ’90s and remains a danger today. How callout is used often serves as a Rorschach test for the PD, and it still reflects what gets on the air. If a Top 40 PD keeps deciding not to power the hip-hop record at No. 2 in callout in favor of the teen idol pop record at No. 8, there will probably be a time when the teen idol records test better at his station, albeit for a smaller audience. Somewhere between the two extremes of interpreting the research literally and the cognitive dissonance of trying to bend it to the results you want is the right way to listen to the audience.

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.


Read other articles by Sean Ross

5 replies
  1. Axl Nemetz
    Axl Nemetz says:

    Awesome article! Digging into one of radio’s “urban legends” … and proving it mostly true! Thanks Sean (and Dave!)

    Reply
  2. Dave Anthony
    Dave Anthony says:

    As a strong fan of callout methodology since Todd Wallace took a chance on hiring me at KRIZ in Phoenix in 1974, I implemented it at every contemporary station with which I was affiliated and discovered many interesting things. First, not to use it to add some songs. For example, reaction records were most effective the sooner you added them in most cases and I never knew whether they would last a few weeks on the air or a few days. A very few artists were automatic adds and likewise, they were added with much the same philosphy as reaction records … before research could show anything. And likewise, they might be massive hits and would stick around as a Power for months or they just might be duds, core artist or not. Callouts provided the quickest read. Disco and rock generally tested well, whereas some ballads that did well elsewhere never quite made the grade. In that respect, some small differences did exist from market to market and callouts were a smart way to help me learn the market quickly when I came to town. And in the markets I worked — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Tucson, I needed the competitive advantage that weekly research results provided. Mistakes? Definitely some. But did the callout methodology improve my batting average overall? Clearly. Thanks for the article.

    Reply
  3. Cary Pall
    Cary Pall says:

    Sean:
    The trick to making the hook for a song with lots of changes is to try to capture the essence of them all, even if the hook length has to push the boundaries a little. This isn’t always confined to a long song, either.
    I was doing the hook tapes for WNOE in 1976. When “Take The Money & Run” by Steve Miller was new, I wasn’t sure which hook was going to be noticed first, so I spliced them together in beat…”This here’s the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue (edit to:) “CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP” (edit to) “Go on, take the money and run” (fade).
    Sometimes, the hook isn’t the title at all. If you test “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and you don’t include the beginning of the Raphael Ravenscroft sax solo, you’ve missed the signature sound of that song.
    If you don’t have the right audio, your research will be flawed. You’re all listening to those hook tapes with a critical ear, right?
    Cary Pall

    Reply
  4. Dave Hoeffel
    Dave Hoeffel says:

    My initial question regarding the viability of classic music if it had been subjected to the research scrutiny used today was asked in the context of analyzing the “sameness” of much of today’s music. My point at the time was that many artists, producers and labels seem to be making music that, instead of being unique, creative or different, seems to be designed to test well. As a result, we wind up with a bunch of similar-sounding Pop-rock. I won’t name names, but you know the sound…a meandering opening verse leads to a highly-polished, heavily produced hook that almost seems to be designed to wow ‘em in the research.
    Granted, we had edited and “cleaned up” versions in the old days, and radio stations have always done their own editing, pitching up, compressing and eq-ing of music, but now it seems that format customization is happening in the A&R process, resulting in three or four mixes of the same song (guitars up, guitars down, rapless, hornless, etc.)
    Suppose “Bohemian Rhapsody” had been released like this? We’d have a mellower “guitars down” version for the Chicken Rockers (Prehistoric Hot ACs for those who weren’t around back then)and and maybe an “Operaless mix” for the AORs.
    So I’ll re-frame my original question: If artists, producers and A&R types were even THINKING about this kind of stuff – as they obviously are today – would some of the music that we now deem to be “classic” ever have seen the light of day? And how many potential classics are being buried right now?

    Reply
  5. Adam Jacobson
    Adam Jacobson says:

    Sean,
    Once again another great column. Oldies PDs that want strong 25-54 numbers in the next five years should read this and take notes. I’ve been advocating the need for Oldies stations to move into the 70s for about eight years now, and this proves that there is no “brick wall” at 1977 if you program your station correctly and move the clock forward from a music and imaging standpoint. Remember — KRIZ was still a top-rated station in Phoenix when Doubleday sold the 1kw AM. And there’s a reason 96X and Y-100 in Miami are remembered to this day.

    Reply

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