What Listeners Think of Music Variety

Perhaps the most misunderstood programming concept for music-based formats is defining what music variety really is.

Radio stations spend tens of thousands of dollars on research, and overwhelmingly, listeners respond saying they want “more variety”. What do they mean? Do they define it the way we think they do? The way we do? The way we’d like them to?

Often, to justify the cost of the research, programmers are tasked to give the audience what they want. So they interpret the research literally, but in a vacuum.

They add more titles to the library. They expand the eras to be deeper. And they stretch the music genres in the mix.

Then, they run endless messages on the air and in external marketing campaigns proudly proclaiming that we are the station for the most music variety or the best mix of music. This is often tagged with “so you can listen longer” or “that everyone can agree on”.

The problem is, we misunderstand the meaning of music variety. In almost every competitive situation that I’ve found a music variety issue, the solution was not to add more songs. In fact, the remedy is often to reduce the playlist.

As Kevin Cassidy, President/CEO of Strategic Solutions Research says:

Music variety is not the opposite of repetition. If you achieve variety, does it lower repetition?
The answer is “no”. In fact, quite often achieving actual music variety on the air leads to very poor results.

Common Music Variety Mistakes

In the absence of research (or sometimes even with it), programmers over-react to a weak ratings period by assuming their music is off target. Time spent listening decreases, and the knee-jerk reaction is that the library is burned, or “we’re not offering enough variety”.

The opposite is more likely. Listeners don’t get tired of their favorite songs. They tire (and tune out) of songs they don’t like, or songs that don’t inspire or interest them.

Depending on format, programmers typically respond to the music variety issue by:

  • Adding more songs to the library, usually songs that were weaker testing and far less popular.
  • Broaden the range of music genres on the air, going wider into secondary and tertiary sounds that are less popular than the core desires.
  • Expanding the era of songs allowed on the air, on the theory that those “oldies” have more appeal than they actually have.
  • Introducing more new music categories, believing that the audience has a higher tolerance for unfamiliar music than they actually have.

In nearly every case, when stations broaden their playlist, moment-to-moment appeal is compromised. Adding weaker titles weakens the sound of the station right now. And that is how the audience uses the radio when choosing a music station: right now.

Music Variety: A Reality Check

The problem is that listeners don’t know how to speak our programming language. They are unable to put their comments into terms that can be applied literally. We have to interpret their comments, and that can be tricky.

When they complain about repetition or lack of variety, they usually mean:

“You play too many songs I don’t like.” (Nobody complains about hearing their favorite songs).

“You play weird music that I don’t understand.” (One spin of that clunker from the wrong genre is one spin too many).

“Everything you play sounds the same.” (Repetition in sound is fatiguing, and to a casual listener, often sounds like the exact same song.).

“It’s monotonous and not very interesting.” *(Are you managing music flow so the station has a consistent, yet diverse range, like a pendulum?)

“You play the same 10 songs over and over” (To them, maybe you do. Have you checked into your horizontal and daypart rotations? Do your clocks need to be adjusted?)

Music Variety With Alternate Clocks

Since listeners are creatures of habit, they typically listen to the radio. Of course, it’s important to insure that songs rotate through different hours each day. But there’s another way to promote more variety to your audience.

Multiple format clocks that rotate through hours are easy to create. Changing the category position from day to day increases the chances of habitual listeners hearing different songs when they tune in.

Setting Up Alternate Clocks

Once your master clock is perfected, and you’re happy with the music flow, duplicate the clock.

Then, maintaining the same song sequencing, shift the categories by 2 or 3 positions. You may need to adjust the clock slightly to accommodate stop sets, or insure that power category songs fall in certain positions.

Once the second clock is fine-tuned, duplicate it again and follow the same process.

How many clocks do you need? At least two, but consider five clocks so the song sequence in the same hour is different each weekday.

This practice is a good idea for any music station, but the tighter your playlist (CHR, for instance) the more important it is to offer multiple clocks. Doing so adds variety to a limited playlist and expand your brand’s appeal.

Music Variety Conclusion

Perceived music variety is an important image. Stations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to become the variety leader. Managers pressure programmers to add more songs to the library in an effort to satisfy complaints and discover the magic formula that unlocks massive time spent listening.

The problem is, we often put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Achieving positive perceptions for music variety is a cumulative exercise, not a logical tactic with a cause and effect.

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