Here’s an observation that began in an unusual way–with a Washington Post article about likely candidates for the 2014 mayoral election. One entrant, who has already established an exploratory committee, is the city councilman for my old neighborhood. So I followed the links on Tommy Wells and ended up at a Post article from 2011–giving his personal playlist in the “Play Favorites” column.
Councilman Wells’ tastes, the article said, “run the gamut from classic rock to jazz.” That means the Grateful Dead on weekends, Norah Jones and Diana Krall at night, and “songs from my youth” in this at-work playlist:
Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”
Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear The Reaper”
ZZ Top, “La Grange”
Cat Stevens, “Peace Train”
Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”
Eddie Rabbitt, “Suspicions”
Jonathan Edwards, “Sunshine”
Golden Earring, “Radar Love”
Doors, “Riders On The Storm”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll Stop The Rain”
Industry readers will note that Councilman Wells’ eleven songs include nine that you would still expect to hear on the radio today. A few (“La Grange,” “Don’t Fear The Reaper”) are a little more commonly heard than others (“Riders On The Storm”). Most of those nine would be played on Classic Rock stations. Some would be played only on Classic Hits. None would sound obscure on either.
Then there are the two outliers: “Words” is a garage band classic. The flip side of the Monkees’ better-known “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” it went to number 11 by itself in 1967 (when the councilman would have been about ten), then disappeared from the radio forever.
“Suspicions” was Eddie Rabbitt’s crossover breakthrough in the summer of 1979, shortly after Councilman Wells graduated from the Univ. of Alabama. Today it sounds more like Smooth Jazz, thus confirming the howls of protest from Country purists it provoked at the time. “Suspicions” is also hard to find the radio, although you might encounter it on a Classic Country station. It was remade a decade or so ago by Tim McGraw. And, along with the song itself, you can enjoy this appreciation of “Suspicions”–if you speak Japanese.
In other words, Councilman Wells enjoys a lot of songs that many people his age like, and a few sentimental favorites that didn’t hold up for most listeners. And my decade of tracking music preference at Edison has shown that to be pretty typical. The Monkees and Grateful Dead were supposed to be antithetical to each other at the time, but of course people grew up with both. Even people with mainstream musical tastes enjoy a handful of less known songs. The radio programmer’s challenge is that it’s never the same handful of songs.
For years, radio programmers dealt with this issue by playing the songs that everybody could agree on and ignoring the others. When Bob- and Jack-FM confirmed that listeners liked “a little bit of everything,” they made the stylistic breadth work by going a little deeper in only one genre, Classic Rock. Every now and then, stations would program “listener playlists” that contained an out-of-format oddity or two for veracity; that practice seems to have ended with PPM in most cases.
When Pandora came along, listeners no longer had to agree with the rest of the audience on every song. They could augment their nine Classic Rock consensus smashes with two deeper Classic Rock songs. But it’s still hard to imagine a Pandora playlist seeded with Classic Rock that comes up with “Words” and “Suspicions.” But you could get Spotify to give you that mix. Or follow somebody else’s playlist through their equally likely and unlikely musical journey.
Programmers like to think enduring songs do so for a reason. Beyond “I’m A Believer” and “Daydream Believer,” what eliminates the Monkees catalog from the radio? Musical Darwinism. Except that a movie or TV tie-in can rewire the process; (even helping “I’m A Believer” cement its place on the radio). So can personal recommendation. A few months later, the Post columnist wrote about the favorite songs that she’d discovered from reporting celebrity playlists. One of them was the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up,” a song which turned out to be a tribute to the power of word-of-mouth. Another was “Suspicions.” “Who knew Tommy Wells liked Eddie Rabbitt?” she wrote.