It’s not just your imagination. Not only that, but it’s a worldwide phenomenon. I’ve seen articles about it from the Uk to Australia and all over the United States and Canada. Radio stations definitely do play songs over and over and over again. They do it on purpose. But why?
Radio stations are free to listen to, and so they have to make money through advertising. The more audience they have – the more pleased their advertisers are. So, radio stations play appealing songs over and over again to capture the casual listener who might not otherwise stop on their channel.
Is it really that simple, though? No. And when I first read that in a small 3 paragraph article, I was not completely convinced. I was correct in my assumption. Sure, the answer is valid, but it’s also a bit more nuanced. Let me explain.
The Common Misconceptions and Truths
Radio stations are banking on people who don’t listen all day. They want to grab listeners by playing familiar, good music when they are briefly listening, so playing those songs in high rotation ensures that.
You see, radio stations assume that if you’re not immediately hearing your favorite new pop hit upon turning on the radio, you’ll tune out and switch stations.
In order to ensure people hear their favorite pop hit anytime they might be tuning in, stations play the odds and keep repeating it throughout the day. This has become part of the radio business model.
Here are some things to understand.
A casual listener is someone who doesn’t always listen to that particular radio station but happens to find it and maybe come back to it on occasion because they enjoyed something that was playing.
A P1 radio listener is a fan of that particular radio station, someone who likes the DJs, likes the vibe, and the format. Someone that spends the majority of their time listening to that particular station is a P1 listener.
Coined by Nielson, these “P1 listeners” or super-listeners are just 10 percent of the overall radio listening audience but account for over 35 percent of total market listening.
If you listen to that radio station enough to notice that they are over-playing certain popular songs, that means you fall into the category of the P1 listener. You’re already a fan and you are noticing the playlist or popular songs because you’re around long enough to hear the repetitiveness of it.
But you see, you are not their target audience. They already have you as a fan. A radio station plays the same songs over and over again to pull in the casual listener. To bait those people, they are playing songs that people like and are popular.
When you get frustrated over your favorite radio station playing the same songs over and over again, just keep in mind that radio is free for you. You get popular songs, fun radio shows, localized advertising, announcements, and content geared toward you, sometimes with accompanying streaming services for free.
If the radio is free for you, that means money has to be made elsewhere, right? They still have to pay the bills. That means they have every right to overplay popular songs to get those casual listeners to become P1 listeners.
Radio stations try to get as much audience as possible there to listen to not just the music but to stick around for the advertising. Ads support the station – which brings in money to pay for all of the hours, equipment, and other things the radio station has to pay for.
Advertisers go to the radio stations that have the most audience.
Where it gets “hinky” –
Keep in mind that iHeartMedia, Inc. (formerly Clear Channel) owns most radio stations in the United States and Canada. They are also into the promotions of tours via LiveNation.
So if an artist that has been touring under their umbrella engineers a song, they want to try and make it a hit, so they play it everywhere they can and very often. The song catches on, by simply being played so much that it grows on the casual and P1 listeners. In all honesty, this seems like it has become a cycle.
Someone decided to ask the question in 2019 on Quora and boy did they get a response from an industry insider! The entire response relates to this topic. If you’d like to dive in, please do by clicking this LINK. But in the meantime, what really grabbed me was this quote:
Most corporate owned stations follow strict playlists that are created through meticulous “testing.” One music director will dictate what every station running a particular format will play, and often times, one DJ will remote voicetrack shows for all the stations in that format across multiple markets. Many locally owned, small market stations operate differently, but with much the same results. Rather than following orders from the corporate office, they subscribe to a music service that does all the music programming for them (and usually voicetracks the shows as well) based on similar – if not identical – research the big clusters use. Other stations do operate independently and program their own music, but they typically mimic the other stations by at the least basing their playlists on some of the same industry research.Steve Sisson, Operations Manager at Sheridan Media / Response to a Quora Question in 2019
Hence you have a double layering of the same things happening over and over and over again. And it has become such a problem in my neck of the woods, that I have lost interest in songs that I once enjoyed. I have begun turning off the radio all together and opting for Pandora or even YouTube. Some of my friends have SiriusXM for a reason.
So, you could say it’s become a double-edged sword, this tediously boring business model that radio stations use. On the other hand, they are still in business.
The Cycle Still Works
Let me be clear. They don’t just overplay songs after they know these songs or artists are popular with fans. No. Radio Stations work in coordination with record labels and have specific data analysis tools that help them pinpoint the next hits.
Have you ever listened to a song on the radio and thought, “Well, I don’t like it, but the rhythm is kind of catchy.” Next thing you know, you’ve heard it every time you get in your vehicle and you’re vibing to it?
Yeah, you’ve just been hoodwinked. According to Mic.com –
“Once a worthy song or artist emerges from the data, radio conglomerates have mechanisms in place to ensure that music will connect with an audience. Clear Channel’s “On the Verge” program is one of the most talked about. When a song is dubbed “On the Verge,” every station in the Clear Channel network has to play it at least 150 times — blasting it to a potential network of about 245 million listeners. It’s a cycle. As reported by the Atlantic, ‘Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago.’”
This is why you wind up getting a song stuck in your head like an earworm! I mean, after commuting for a week, I think I’ve heard to the point that I know every word. And I don’t necessarily love the song. It’s not just radio stations! Watching trailers or ads with pop songs in them will have you looping it in your head.
TikTok – if a song is trending in a social media community, it gets used over and over again, am I right? This all feeds into the monster of mainstream pop music – where songs begin to sound so similar to one another. It’s not just an annoyance for some of us. It’s planned.
How do they choose that song?
So how do radio stations choose which songs to play? Which is going to be the next hit? Does the audience really have any choice in that anymore when it comes to mainstream media, particularly where terrestrial AM/FM radio is concerned? Well, it’s all about that “testing” and “research” that was mentioned above. And that’s a whole other article waiting to be made.
A lot of these decisions are based on the format of a station (what genre and age demographic they are catering to). But it’s so much more about advertising and making money than it is about the music.
There are tons of artists and labels that have never had a song on these commercial radio stations. Why? Because major labels are the ones with relationships with the owners of the radio stations.
Also, they have the money. It can take anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars to market a song that might already be a great hit. The marketing is the main cost – a great video, releasing it all over social media, radio, and etc…
Major labels have more money to support this kind of marketing.
These companies have people who have worked for them or in the industry for years and years. They have relationships with a lot of the marketing, program, and sound directors in the radio stations. This is even easier a route to see, now that most of those stations are owned by one firm.
So, these major record labels simply promote their artists’ work to those directors or regional staff that actually push a premade playlist to the stations.
Most other labels, especially indy labels, have absolutely no access to these kinds of people. You can try and be persistent in sending them emails and leaving messages or even sending in promo material for your artists, but there is no guarantee of airtime.
I know I mention getting to know who the program director of your local radio station is and communicating with them to get your song played in my other article, “How Do Artists Get Songs On the Radio?“. Of course, you can still do that.
Just keep in mind that they have to push your song in around a playlist that has been sculpted by these older relationships or by program directors who are above those at your local station – district and regional level directors and their pals over at major record labels. DJs are no longer the gatekeepers. So it can be tough.
In 2017, a lifestyle blogger named Annaliese posted about her experiences as a radio DJ in Contemporary Hit Radio format on her blog Southern Belle in Training. She really gives us some insight into how much or how little control DJs actually have in what gets played these days.
I want you to take a look at her article “Radio 101: Why Do I Hear The Same Songs Over and Over On The Radio?” for some down-to-earth understanding of the technical side of radio programming (or maybe we should call it pre-programming?). Anyway, it might help you understand why songs get overplayed and how it’s not the fault of the DJs.
There are very good artists out there that cannot get radio play. And to be clear, you can tell that listeners actually like variety by seeing what they stream and watching them go for that variety on streaming services. Unlike streaming services, terrestrial radio is not a level playing field. And so, many independents get overlooked there while making bank elsewhere. In some cases, an artist gets lucky and crosses over.
And even streaming services (looking at you Spotify) have had a nasty history of pushing money back into the major record labels and not giving artists, especially artists under independent labels, a fair shake. So please do your research on which streaming services to use that will help the artists most.
I began my website/blog Untapped Sound because there are so many people who are talented and amazing out there that do NOT get a chance to be on mainstream radio.
I feel like the general public (all of us listeners) as well as artists who do not get airtime on mainstream commercial radio stations are being dealt a shitty hand. We don’t get a say on what goes on radio stations. It’s chosen for us. Some of that music might be good and you might love it, sure. But don’t you feel the least bit manipulated into it after reading all of this?
As always, if you want to share more, or feel I’ve missed something, let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
AND – If you are looking for more great artists to learn about and support then be sure to check out my other articles here.