Eric Norberg's Weekly Commentary

A part of each issue of The Adult Contemporary MUSIC RESEARCH Letter is Eric's commentary.  Here's this issue's comment:

This is the first issue of the Music Letter in 2020, and included our annual "Oldies/Recurrent List for 2019"; if you are not a subscriber but would like to see the list, just e-mail us for it.  The top song of 2019 in our testing should clearly have been COLD (I'M SORRY...) by James Blunt on Atlantic -- it's very catchy, and after a couple of listens sticks in your head -- but we're not sure Atlantic has even released it int he U.S.; we received it from an international subscriber.  If they haven't, they should.  And if they have, they should actively promote it!  We cannot put it at the top of our 2019 list without wider exposure, since the primary value of "oldies" arises from familiarity, and you continually have new listeners tuning in to your station, so you don't want to use an "oldie" unfamiliar to them.  But the song IS potent for your adueince, and as a CURRENT track it continues to have exceptional value.  So it will remain on our "Recommended Playlist" for quite some time to come to take advantage of that.  

In the meantime, one of the two new "Recommended" tracks in our first test of 2020 is another James Blunt track from the same album; and, like the previous, it may well be an "exclusive" for subscribers in the U.S., so take advantage of that!  CHAMPIONS isnot as strong as COLD (I'M SORRY...) -- few songs are! -- but we have tested it twice on two separate occasions over the Holidays, and it unequivocally tests "Recommended" for Mainstream AC.  Also moving up to "Recommended", on being re-tested, is SOUTH OF THE BORDER ["acoustic version"] by Ed Sheeran and Camilla Cabello, also on Atlantic.

On another subject:  The FCC in the United States seems inclined to go ahead and let American AM stations go all-digital if they want to; they have pushed out a "notice of proposed rulemaking", using the iBiquity digital standard already in use (and which is pervasive in newer cars) in the U.S.  Although up till now (except for some testing) all U.S. AM and FM stations have used the digital system in "hybrid mode", with the analog signal predominating, and the digital signal embedded in it at a much lower level, which does work pretty well for FM -- on AM, the hybrid digital has been transmitted at such an extremely low power level that, in practice, a station can only be heard in digital at our above about the 16 mv/m contour.  When you reflect that the "city grade signal" now recognized by the FCC over the city of license is only 5 mv/m, you can see that, to attain much coverage, the basic station power level has to be quite high for the digital component to be widely received, and then over much less of the analog coverage area.  But the all-digital AM signal can replicate the station's full coverage area, and for car iBiquity radios that can receive AM digital in any form, they will receive this much-improved signal over the station's full "former-analog" coverage area. 

We think this is a great idea, particularly considering that AM radio's remaining audience has held up much better in cars than in the home, and that so many cars now on the road are already able to receive a full-AM-digital (stereo) signal!

In this space, from time to time, we discuss topics of relevance to those of us who program radio stations. . .

Those who receive the assignment to be a Program Director quite rightly expect to have some authority over the way their station sounds, and over those who help execute the format.  But something else usually comes with the job, and it's not always evident to those who are PDs:  It is that you become a de-facto part of the station's management, if not formally recognized as such -- and that carries additional responsibilities which may not be made clear.  If fact, they may not become clear until the Program Director is made a scapegoat, and fired, for some failing that somehow involves programming.

In the United States, the ownership and management of a radio station is considered responsible for what goes on the air, and that means that their Program Director is expected to be knowledgeable about FCC rules, whether they are ever actually told so or not!  And, with that, comes the expectation that all FCC rules that bear in any way on programming be followed.  Unannounced FCC inspections of radio stations still occur; and such things as "Issues and Programs Lists" are still required to be in the Public Inspection File (which these days are not in the station, but are put in digital files on the FCC website, which means the Commission is now much more aware when these lists are late or not posted at all!).  Those lists are usually the PD's responsibility, and have a mandated deadline.  Transmitter logs (for which airstaff still have some responsibility, making them a programming matter) should be complete and up to date for inspection, and the readings recorded should show legal operation (within license requirements), or there could be significant fines!  The PD is usually fired in such cases, as the first step in demonstrating to the FCC that "the problem has been found and corrected"!  There are many other things the PD needs to be aware and watchful of; we'll discuss a few more soon.


On another subject -- yet somewhat relevant to the observations above -- veteran and perceptive radio journalist Sean Ross recently published a column called "Where did the listeners go?" -- referring to listener voices on the air.  After all, radio is the most personal and intimate of all media; we ourselves have always liked to play contests on the air with listeners -- which included putting them on the air to make a choice, and for a little interaction. 

Sean writes, "Even when listeners have found other ways to communicate, an actual voice or two makes a difference. . .  Listeners reinforce immediacy, and the notion of radio as community. . .  Listeners ratify our programming decisions, and sell other listeners more convincingly than we can.  The power of the on-air host as spokesperson has long been rediscovered.  We would never edit that endorsement down to three-word fodder.

"At this particular moment, listeners reinforce broadcast radio itself.  For the last decade, radio's story has depended so heavily on the size of the audience.  Can we not produce at least one listener to back that up, every now and then?"


Many of our recent discussions with broadcasters have focused on ratings, and their deficiencies.  No credible national radio rating service has ever had more deficiencies than Arbitron/Nielsen, in our opinion -- both when using diaries and when using people meters.

But radio and advertisers seem always to be focused on "share" in any radio ratings report, and that is an artificial projected figure, based upon the cumulative audience for each station -- projected from the measured sample, combined with the average amount of time listeners in the sample listened.  Cume is inherently based on a better sample than average listening span, as a result.

The first point to make is that print media have always loved that radio sells share figures (either "persons" share, or an abstract number) while print sells "circulation" -- which is equivalent to cume persons in radio, and that guarantees that print looks better in the comparison!  Unless local print media is willing to reveal their "average readers per page", you cannot compare their circulation with your share.  So sell locally with CUME!

We used to do ratings analysis for major and smaller market stations which restored the data to more or less what it was to begin with, in the survey -- and which made it clear what the ratings were saying.  We ranked stations by cume -- and then showed each's "average listening span" (per demo, per daypart).

If you want to do the same, the formula for calculating this is:


Changing the subject, a longtime radio friend of ours recently sent us an opinion piece by a respected industry veteran who essentially advocated throwing in the towel on AM radio, and disposing of the band and moving all the stations in it to a “new FM band”, or something like that. 

With due respect, we think this guy is just echoing the general industry dismissive attitude towards AM, which unfortunately has been endemic for well over thirty years now, and by which broadcasters have trained listeners to think of AM is inferior, when they would probably not have come to any such a conclusion by themselves.  Putting fringe-interest programming on AM, mainly of a non-music nature, has surely not helped -- even though the American public has never demonstrated much understanding of quality broadcast audio and video anyway, and really still doesn’t.  CD’s do sound better than MP3s, but nobody seems to care!  

Two points he apparently has forgotten, or perhaps never really understood:

1)  FM nearly suffered the fate he encourages for AM.  Although early FM commercial broadcasts dated from the 1940’s, FM was badly hurt by the decision of the FCC to change the FM band from 42-50 MHz to 88-108 MHz after early broadcasters had signed on and listeners had started  buying radios.  The new band really was  better suited for FM than the older one; but making everybody who had gotten interested in FM buy another new radio to hear it, while requiring the stations to build a new transmission system to transmit it, nearly killed it.  By 1957, there were fewer FM stations on the air each successive year -- and if James Gabbert hadn’t put KPEN/KIOI FM on the air at San Francisco in 1957 with a “hi-fi” format, to appeal to fans who had FM tuners -- and started getting sponsors, thus showing a possible path to success for FM -- it is possible the FM band would have simply gone away.  Every year after KPEN debuted in 1957 there were more FM stations on the air, and more listeners.   

2)  Until the later 1960’s, the only rating service that would even RATE FM’s was Hooper; FM listening would all go into “miscellanous”.  FM radios were hard to find, too.  But FM found ways of attracting listeners -- progressive rock was the second  new path to FM success in 1967 -- and FM eventually succeeded.  AM still  has more listeners and radios than FM did then!  But this industry veteran may not think so, because Nielsen will not allow public publication in its radio ratings results of any rated call letters that don’t subscribe; and most AM’s don’t!

There are still ways of attracting and holding AM listeners!  Just one would be by going 100% stereo HD, as we recently have been advocating.

On that subject, we notice that Hubbard Broadcasting has been granted by the FCC an experimental license to broadcast on a Maryland AM station entirely and ONLY in the "HD Radio" digital format.  Hubbard has been an innovator for most of the history of broadcasting, having been early in programming AM radio (early 1920's), early in FM, early in TV, and they had the foresight to apply for the very first "direct from satellite" TV broadcast licenses, even though they did not have a clear idea of how to actually use them yet. 

As a result of that successful application, they wound up with the satellite licenses that DirecTV needed to begin its DBS service in the United States in 1994, and Hubbard made a bargain: We'll sell you our licenses, if you grant us some 40 channels in your service, for us to use for our own service.

The deal was made, and DirecTV got started -- with a partner, "USSB", which had already secured the rights to most of the premium move channels, including HBO!  The early DirecTV subscribers had to separately activate service for DirecTV and for USSB, and from USSB they got a month of free service on their 40 channels -- which was usually enough for subscribers to start paying for their service, after their free month ended.

Eventually, DirecTV bought out USSB and the USSB contracts with HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime/Viacom -- but Hubbard retained the right to have up to two channels on the DirecTV service, and they have been using one of them for a number of years for their "Reelz" movie-oriented network. 

Hubbard Broadcasting has always had an impact on broadcasting beyond the markets in which they competed with broadcast stations.

Now, in applying to "test" fulltime exclusive HD broadcasting on an AM channel, Hubbard is pursuing a good idea that we have been advocating recently also.  Exclusive HD broadcasting has been tested under an FCC experimental license before, on KRKO near Seattle, and in the tests done with that short term testing license, it was shown to be robust -- much more so than the hybrid AM/HD system in use today, which uses phase modulation to run a very weak embedded HD signal within a conventional higher-powered AM signal.

Without the AM part of the signal using most of the station's power, the HD signal can go up to the full licensed power level without increasing interference to other stations, and yield HD coverage that pretty much matches the previous AM coverage of the station.  And, the AM band still gives better coverage than FM per watt in mountains and other uneven terrain, and in areas with high ground conductivity, too.  HD digital AM offers FM quality audio, and in stereo!

Is there a risk to going "all-digital" for an AM station?  For AM's that still have big ratings, yes -- they could lose some audience (but they also could buy another AM in the market, and put the all-digital duplication on that one).  For AMs with little or no audience today, the risk is in NOT doing it, when you consider that there are millions of HD car radios already in use on the road today, and every one of them can receive a 100% HD signal from an AM station.  The audience is there; give them a strong signal!

With declining AM audiences, this is the time to revive the century-old band with a 21st Century 100% HD radio our own, and Hubbard's, opinion.


We've been checking the Global Music Rights website, and while they initially played very coy about who their represented songwriters actually are, they now have enough big names that they are flaunting them, and it looks like ANY pop music station had better take out their provisional license, extortionate as it might seem, simply to avoid being sued for "copyright violation".  If you play a song by any songwriter whose catalog they now license, without having one of their licenses, your station could be successfully sued for over a million dollars, and "ignorance is no defense under the law", as they say.

Among the songwriters GMR says they now license -- at -- are such luminaries as Bruno Mars, Bruce Springsteen, Boz Scaggs, Billy Idol, Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, John Mayer, Jon Bon Jovi, three members of Journey, two members of Fleetwood Mac, and JOHN LENNON.  With Lennon's compositions all now represented by GMR, you can now play practically NONE of the The Beatles' songs without having a GMR license, since Beatles tunes were routinely credited to "Lennon-McCartney", regardless of whether both wrote a given song or not.  For more of the songwriters they claim to license the music of -- and that list has been increasing -- visit the hotlink above on a regular basis.


It is pretty obvious these days that broadcast radio is unable to compete directly with online music services that allow each listener to customize a playlist; yet radio still seems locked into minimizing the use of locally-immersed air talent content and music hosting, especially outside of morning drive -- even though that sort of content is highly prized by the mainstream AC core listener.  So much so, in fact, that -- so far -- that content seems to be the main thing that saves ACs from drastic permanent declines as a result of the Christmas Music format change that they all too often indulge in, starting before Thanksgiving each year.  (Although we have personally seen AC core females abandoning their normal AC station for others that have not switched to all-Christmas in greater numbers than ever before, this year, in our home base of Portland, Oregon.)

The appearance of a big ratings boost for this stunt stems mainly from the widespread use of these stations at this time for background music in stores, where the Nielsen people meters pick up the tones indicating listening -- but where the sound is turned down too low for people to hear the ads.  That's the same problem that untimately doomed the Beautiful Music format a couple of decades ago; these stations all had strong ratings, but ads on these stations didn't work becasue few listeners had the music turned up enough to hear them -- and in the end, even the ad agencies stopped buying ads on them.

In fact, AC core listeners are NOT fond of constant Christmas Music until perhaps a week before Christmas, but they do tend to stick with the same station for the air personalties and the news anyway, even as they chafe about the music.  That does not constitute a free pass for such stations; it is simply a safety net.

But, if radio is to remain relevant, it has to be more than just a music machine, since music machines are now easily available on the Net.  That means that relevant local content, personality interaction, announcement of songs played, and creating positive expectations that the station can meet, are essential to draw listeners along and bring them back.  Part of that is positive surprises.  Always getting what you like is way too easy without radio, now -- but hearing new music you like with some regularity is something AC core listeners do look forward to.  So, for AC radio, playing the right NEW music is more important than ever. 

And, since the trade charts never have, and still do not, reflect AC listeners' preferences and tastes -- they simply show what stations have chosen to play, which is based on programmers' preferences, record promotion, and ... the charts! -- we continue into our 33rd year of weekly testing and publication, the only consistent source anywhere, in that third of a century, of what AC core listeners really like of the new and current music available.


Some time ago we shared with you details of an elaborate study conducted for Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters in Los Angeles in the 1970s which actually did show that radio ads can be more effective in generating accurate ad recall than television ads.  Despite that validation of the effectiveness of radio advertising, and despite radio ads costing just a fraction of what TV ads do, the GWB gift to the industry of the results of this expensive study were almost completely ignored, and to the best of our knowledge a similar study has never been conducted since.  It was ignored at the time probably because the study was seen as benefitting GWB and its own approach to radio more than it did radio as a whole.

In reality, however, it meant much more to radio in general than was perceived at the time, and it should have become (and could still become) an important part of the arsenal of anyone selling radio.  Just as one can use rating info selectively, one could do the same with this study, concentrating on the "overall radio/overall TV" comparisons, if one chose.

In fact, the "all radio" and "all television" figures -- "for accurate recall of at least one advertisement broadcast by a given radio or TV station in the past hour" -- were almost exactly the same, at around 20%.  In this verified recall study, radio ads worked just about as well as TV ads, and for a fraction of the cost.  That was, and still is, very valuable information to have in selling radio advertising. 
There was a substantial increase over "all radio" in the accurate ad recall for the Golden West station, KMPC, due to its "personality" approach -- but instead of making KMPC look transcendant, the study showed the same effect applied to KLAC's country format and any other station in the market using a "personality" approach to air talent presentation.

That, too, is vital information even today -- and validates what many have these days come to believe: That the use of LIVE, LOCAL, interesting people on the radio, particularly as hosts in a music context, build a relationship with the listener, which results not only in greater station loyalty, but also increases the effectiveness of the radio advertising in that setting by up to 50%.  In radio, AIR TALENT can still make a huge and quantifiable difference in a station's ad effectiveness, and thus in the station's revenue -- and you can take that to the bank!


We recently reminded programmers that one of the most-often-identified unmet needs of radio listeners -- especially AC core female listeners -- has been well-known for decades, because it keeps turning up in research.  The late Bill Gavin, our mentor, made the point clearly as early as the 1970's:  Announce what you are playing!  Tell them what the song and artist are!  They want to know, so tell them.  

This comment drew a response from a longtime reader, Buzz Brindle, who gave us permission to quote him by name...

Your commentary reminded me of something that surprised me when I sat in on an auditorium test for an oldies station in the early '90s, which was reinforced when I was programming an oldies station a few years ago.  I sat in the back of the room as a test participant, and wrote down my responses to the hooks like everyone else (my responses weren't included in the test results), just to get a sense of a respondent's experience.  Oddly, the moderator didn't prevent participants from verbalizing their reactions to the '60s and early '70s oldies which were being tested, so people were excitedly shouting out artist names and/or song titles as the test progressed.  These were P1s and P2s for the station, and the songs being tested were the perennial hits which had been played many thousands of times on the radio -- so I was amazed at how often they misidentified the artists and songs.  They were even getting wrong such highly identifiable artists as the Beach Boys and the Beatles!

Flash forward to the early 2000's, when I was programming an oldies station in our cluster.  Like most radio folks, I presumed that my oldies-partisan listeners woulod have a high level of awareness about the titles and artists of the '60s and '70s hits they'd heard hundreds of times during their lifetimes.  But, again, I discovered that I could not take that for granted.  Consequently, we started backselling title and artist information for those oldies, just as one would (or should) on a station which plays current music.

Another observation I made, and which I believe has been noted in the Music Letter in the past, is that it's much more effective from the listener's perspective if the title/artist info is backsold, rather than provided just prior to playing a song.  It's more likely that the question they're asking, if they've been listening all the way through, or tuned in halfway through a song, is "what is that?"  At the beginning of the song, it's more likely that their decision to stick with the song will be based on how the way it sounds satisfies their needs at the moment, and the title/artist info is less relevant.

Thanks Buzz!  If it's either/or, then yes -- the place to put the announcement of song and artist is after it has played.  Because that IS the next thing they want to know.  But we have always advocated introducing AND backselling everything played.  Nobody tunes out because you are telling them what you are playing, and many really do want to hear it -- even if they think they know, your announcement confirms it for them.

And here is one more thing to remember:  Stations that don't announce the music they are playing are showing that it is of no consequence to them -- that's it's just filler between the commercials.  The station that respects both the music and the listener enough to tell them what the music is shows a respect for the music AND the listener that makes a difference in how the station is perceived! 

In all the angst we have been reading in the trade press lately over how Arbitron's "People Meters" are seen as upending previous rating trends and undermining niche formats, one point seems to have been overlooked: Arbitron's diary rating method is the most inaccurate ever used by a national rating company, subject to more limitations and skews than any other.  Although placement and cooperation issues still skew Arbitron's results, the meters at least seem to measure actual listener behavior, so they represent one step closer to reality

And we remind you that your goal as a programmer should not be to build
SHARE, which is simply an efficiency figure, but CUME -- which is actual circulation information, comparable to print circulation figures. 

If your cume is high but your share is low, advertisers simply have to buy more ads to reach your huge audience.  Big share and low cume means that just one ad will reach most of your audience, so advertisers only need to buy a few, and can save their budget for the station with the big


A longtime colleague in radio forwarded us a news item about a study conducted by Mark Kassof and Company about AM radio.  It shows that the format most associated with AM radio is Talk.  Surprise.  WE did that to our audience; just because listener expectations of engagement and interesting content are still more centered on AM than FM (as explained in depth in Eric's still-available book "Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy") -- expectations that make talk programming still more welcome there -- broadcasters for over a quarter of a century have been creating a vast wasteland, with no music, on the AM band.  Listener expectations are based upon what we as broadcasters do!!!  So, we trained radio listeners not to expect music there, and sure enough they don't.

However, we remind broadcasters that in the late 1950's and the first half of the 1960's, most people didn't even HAVE an FM radio, which made it hard for FM to compete with AM radio.  At least today, even if they are mostly listening to FM, most people do HAVE an AM radio.  As with FM then, give them something they WANT to listen to, on the band they are not tuning in, and you can still get them to listen.  (And, for 80% of the available audience, that's music.)

Because of the availability of AM radios, it is still easier to get people to tune in AM today than it was to get them to tune in FM back then!  The music testing we do can and has made pop music work -- work well -- on AM.  But, it has to be programmed a bit differently from how it is on FM.  We can help.

For those wondering, we test each song from the beginning (no hooks), and keep playing the song in the testing process until the panel is ready to move on.  If the test reveals that the AC core female listener doesn't want to hear a song all the way through yet, it cannot yet be "recommended", for obvious reasons.  If there are no negatives to the song, though, it is scored as "borderline" -- meaning, don't play it yet -- but we will keep re-testing it for possible increased appeal with exposure.  Perhaps 5% of "borderline" songs eventually move up; most don't, so it is NOT a good idea to give airplay to a song that tests below the "recommended" level.

Yet another album has been released in Africa by NiaNell!  Suffice it to say that the only artist in the world that we know of, who can be compared with Celine Dion for the AC format -- but who also composes and produces (and owns) her own recordings, and has the highest hit percentage on all her albums than any other artist we've ever tested -- offers her seventh album, "Just Be".  Since this album is currently completely unavailable on CD in the Western Hemisphere, we are happy to send a stereo broadcast-quality MP3 of her currently-"recommended" song TO THE LIGHT to any radio station wanting to consider it for airplay (or label interested in considering releasing her in the Western Hemisphere).  Just e-mail us and ask us for it.  You will need to give us an e-mail account to send it to that can accept at least a 12 MB e-mail

Publishing is not shown on the tracks we receive these days, which means we cannot warn you when a SESAC song turns up as "recommended" in our testing, most of the time....  So, stations without a SESAC license should do careful homework to make sure they play no SESAC music!  SESAC is owned by lawyers, and they subscribe to station-monitoring services, and they have already won a judgement of over $1,000,000 against a station that didn't have their license for "copyright violation".  The station played a few songs by Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan, relying on label notations that these songs were licensed by ASCAP.  SESAC paid a million dollars each to these gentlemen late in the last century to move their ASCAP compositions over to SESAC, so even if the label on the record says their compositions are ASCAP copyrights, they no longer are.  Jim Brickman's compositions are licensed by SESAC.  Plus, there are a few other releases, largely in the Country field, that are licensed by SESAC too -- as well as a lot of religious music that may turn up on paid Sunday morning religious programs.  A word to the wise.

                             SPECIAL UNRESTRICTED DOWNLOADS
One of 2009's top AC hits, recommended as a "recurrent/oldie" to use for years to come, is "I DREAMED A DREAM" -- the astonishing live audition of an unprepossessing 47-year-old Scottish villager, Susan Boyle, for a TV program called "Britain's Got Talent".  The YouTube video scored over 60 million views, and in addition to its great appeal to the AC core female listener, it was the subject of TV coverage and news reports around the world.

This LIVE performance was never commerically released as a CD single, but since you'll need it in your future programming for years to come, you can download a ZIP file containing the MP3 audio of this performance by clicking HERE.

In August of 2012, to commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of the biggest star the U.S. Public Television Service ever had -- Julia Child -- PBS created an astonishing digitally-modified tribute to "The French Chef" called KEEP ON COOKING, and posted the 3:43 track on YouTube for public performance. We tested the audio track, which features excerpts drawn from 40 years of Julia's PBS-TV broadcasts -- modified to make them song lyrics with Julia as the "singer", accompanied by a memorable and catchy tune, and found the core AC female listener in the U.S. LOVED it...not just as a tribute to Julia Child, who passed away in 2004 (and was the focus of a Meryl Streep movie, "Julia and Me", in 2009), but as a piece of music!  We are now recommending that this track go into your permanent Christmas Season playlist.

A novelty song?  Certainly -- but an actual song, which will have "legs" because it is enjoyed as music as well.  For your convenience in auditioning it and considering whether to use it on the air, the track is posted HERE as a ZIP file containing an MP3.  If you would like to review the actual YouTube video, which makes it clear that Julia actually said every word "sung" in it, here is a link to that video:




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We've saved some recent past commentaries which seem to us to have ongoing relevance; click here to check them out!

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