The five factors that predict how quickly your listeners get to know new music.
Have you ever played a song for weeks, only to learn that many of your listeners still don’t know it? Meanwhile, other songs became familiar seemingly overnight.
Back in a simpler time, programmers often heard that a song should be familiar once they played it 300 times. In an era of infinite media choices, declining TSL for terrestrial radio and hit songs spanning multiple formats, simply examining how many times your station has played a song is too simplistic.
We examined how quickly various songs became familiar in our Integr8 New Music Research compared to market exposure of those songs. Our analysis revealed five different factors that determine how quickly listeners become familiar with new music.
The best way to contemplate these five factors is to think of familiarity as a leaky bucket:
1) Have you been playing the song frequently each week? Think of familiarity as a bucket with a slow leak in the bottom of the bucket. If you add water often, the bucket will eventually be full. Wait too long between adding more water, however, and you’ll always start with an empty bucket. Making listeners familiar with a song is like filling a leaky bucket. Thirty (30) spins a week for ten weeks and 100 spins a week for three weeks will both get you 300 spins. However, if listeners go too long between exposures, by the time your listener hears the song a second time, they’ve already forgotten hearing it the first time
2) Have you been playing the song long enough? When you’ve been playing a song every few hours for several weeks, it’s hard to imagine how listeners still don’t know that song. You’re already sick of hearing it. As we examined in our blog series comparing spins to exposures, even your P1 listeners may have only heard the song a few times. It’s not how often you play the song that matters; it’s how often your listeners hear the song. In your mind, you’ve poured gallons into the familiarity bucket, but for your listeners, it’s only been a couple of cups.
3) Are you playing the song in all dayparts? In the past, evenings were a great daypart to test out new songs: Teens tuned in while they did their homework and were quick to hit up your request line with their reactions to your adds. While in-car usage remains as strong as ever, at home listenership has declined as traditional radios vanish from young listeners’ bedrooms. Relegating exposure of a new song to evenings and overnights is like missing the bucket when you pour—most of the water spills outside the bucket and only a few drops go in. If you want listeners exposed to new songs, you have to play songs in dayparts when a significant portion of your audience tunes in. For stations that want to “play it safe” during at-work listening hours by dayparting unproven songs, afternoons is the new evenings for exposing brand new releases.
4) How much exposure does the song get elsewhere? For most formats, when several stations in your market are playing a song, listeners will hear it more often than they’ll hear a song only your station is playing. A Rhythmic CHR or an Alternative station might find that the songs it shares with CHR become familiar faster than the titles that are unique to their station, even if they play those format-exclusive titles more frequently. If a song is in a TV commercial, featured in special events such as an award show, or otherwise receiving exposure in mass appeal arenas, it’s going to catch on much faster than a song that only gets exposed to your market on one radio station. A listener’s familiarity bucket fills up much faster when many sources are filling it up. If your station is the only source pouring a new song into the bucket, it’s going to take longer for it to reach the rim of universal familiarity.
5) Are you still playing the song a lot? Some songs become such big hits that you’ll never forget them, even when you desperately wish you could. (Hey, Macarena?) For these huge hits, it’s as if the bucket freezes over and listener familiarity with those songs never leaks away. The fact is, most new songs never achieve that level of appeal. The more time passes without exposure to them, the less likely listeners will remember them. The water (familiarity) will eventually leak out of the bucket if you don’t keep topping it off by playing the song.
What’s the practical implication of these findings?
You’re better off betting big on a few new songs and giving them enough exposure to become familiar hits fast than you are hedging your bets and playing a lot of new songs infrequently.
Playing a new song in low rotation—or relegating it to evenings and overnights—ensures a new song won’t catch on with your audience. While the exact number of spins per week varies, depending on each station’s listenership and market dynamics, there is a minimum threshold where playing an unfamiliar song is simply a waste of a spin. Unless other stations in town or other music sources make that song a hit for you, your audience will never get to know it well enough to ultimately decide if they like it.
Legendary 1960’s Boss Radio programmer Bill Drake played 30 currents in equal rotation, meaning the #1 song played just as often (every three hours) as brand new “hitbound” songs. While rudimentary today, this system gave the same exposure to brand new releases that it gave to the biggest current hits, which helped new songs become familiar fast. It also helped Drake’s flagship station, 93/KHJ, gain a strong reputation for playing hip, cutting edge new music.
BOTTOM LINE: If you believe in a new song, bet big on it. Give it enough spins to win. Then, if it’s destined to fail with your audience, it will fail fast and you can move on quickly.