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:

new songs were tested this week, and THREE reached our "Recommended" level for Mainstream AC playlists in their first test.  I WANT YOU BACK by 5 Seconds of Summer on Capitol is NOT the same song the Jackson Five hit big with a third of a century ago -- and we only recommend the "clean" version, which differs from the original version only by the removal of a single "F-bomb" clearly audible in the first verse, which seems to have no purpose in the song itself (it is applied to the weather!) -- which suggests there may be some sales advantage in inclujding an obscenity in a hit song today, which is sad.

WOLVES by Selena Gomez with Marshmello on Interscope, and ADDICT written and sung by Tim Moon with no label indicated, round out the week's "Recommendeds".

We also re-tested six previously-tested songs, but none of them moved up.

Recently we heard from a very longterm subscriber, who sent us a link to an article by the well-known radio journalist Sean Ross called "The Format With One Current".  You can probably guess what format that would be.  Yep, Adult Contemporary! 

Sean observed in that essay, "Now adults are again looking for new music they might like; the difference is that it's become easier for anybody to find music for themselves."  That puts radio outside the realm for listeners of where they expect to find new music.  That is not good.

To continue the comment we began two weeks ago, about just how we all got into this situation...  When Eric had the opportunity to move from Top 40 to AC by becoming the Assistant Program Director of KMPC in Los Angeles, under the late Mark Blinoff, he found traditional Top 40 music research methods could give results for AC radio, but the results would be wrong -- because, unlike in Top 40, the bulkl of the key listeners to whom the music must appeal are not responsive in such surveying; they seldom called in a request, and kthey did not buy singles.  How, then, to identify the music they want to hear?

Eric was still working on the problem when he was promoted within Golden West Broadcasting from Asst. PD at KMPC to Program Director of KEX in Portland, Oregon.  It was while he was there at that RAM Research began auditorium testing and developed a list of songs for AC use.  This syndicated and expensive list clearly showed that those songs we in AC programming already knew were particular favorites of our female listeners tested well, even if they didn't show as well in the trade charts, and that many of the Top 40 "softer" hits we assumed they'd like just didn't have much appeal to them.

So, this "RAM list" had instant credibility.  But it would have been prohibitively expensive to constantly test NEW music in auditoriums -- and these songs could not have been tested properly there, since the use of "music hooks" depends on the subjects being familiar with the songs the hooks are part of, and thus is not done, and the immediate reaction from AC radio was to move in a recurrent/oldies direction.

But, the fact remains, what distinguishes AC from the oldies radio that would love to eat our lunch IS THE NEW MUSIC!  This paradoxical problem is still with us.  More next week.


On another subject, a comment with regard to our "oldies/recurrent list" for 2017, which subscribers received in our first issue of 2018:  We are disappointed, as no doubt you are as well, that in recent years there have been so few songs to place in these lists -- compared to our earlier annual lissts, which often ran more than a full page in length, as still presented in our "Book of Research".  Is it because fewer and fewer songs are released that have appeal to the Mainstream AC core listener?  Obviously not, as we are able to give you the same lengths of current "Recommended Playlists" each week, and often the same number of new "Recommended" songs, as we did in our earlier years.

No, the problem is the same one that has bedeviled Billboard magazine in compiling its charts in recent years -- HOW people are listening, and what they have been exposed to in each avenue of listening, has vastly splintered the audience; and the WAY they consume the music in many of these new ways is often considerably different from how they listen to the radio, and what they still EXPECT of music radio.  So much of that disparate data is irrelevant to radio, yet it's mixed in to the trade charts.

Music streaming is far different in showing real comittment to one song over another than any form of sales, or even requests.  Access to streaming varies from service to service, usually requiring a subscription, or exposure to ads.  Sales data began going screwball for radio sue when labels switched long ago from a singles approach to an album approach; albums made more money for them, but which of the songs on them that people really liked was no longer clear.

How much more difficult is it, then, to interpret preference levels on songs heard in random streaming, and to find any real value of songs exposed through social media!

So, commonality of preference for AC core listeners is harder than ever to establish in conventional chart and test data.  The AC trade charts really cannot tell you.  And it is "commonality of preference" that make oldies/recurrents useful in AC radio!  Thus, our shorter annual lists. 

We continue to develop that "commonality of preference" for new and older songs that nobody else does -- data which makes programming currents a positive audience attractant for AC radio.  But we are not sure it will ever be possible, as a result of this splintering of the avenues of listening, to return to being able to offer a longer annual "oldies/recurrents" list.


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' music without having a GMR license, since Beatles songs were routinely credited to "Lennon-McCartney".  For more of the songwriters they claim to license the music of -- and the list has been increasing weekly -- visit that 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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