Friday, February 22, 2013

Death to Rotation (Long Live the DJ, Part I)

Perhaps the biggest complaint voiced about broadcast music radio stations in the U.S. is the practice of playing a narrow list of songs repeatedly.  Known as 'rotation', it's a staple of adult contemporary, contemporary hit radio, and urban contemporary programming at stations across the country.  A typical rotation might feature 40-60 songs -- including 10 or so that are the most recent releases from major record labels -- that are to be played over a 6 hour span.  The playlist itself may be sub-divided into 'new', 'current', 'oldie/classic', and 'recurrent' (a hit released within the past 6-12 months) sections, with 'current' songs receiving the most airplay.  Promotional efforts; e.g., ad buys, by record labels also influence which songs receive the most plays.  The commercialized aspects of radio promotion
and rotation are seen by many artists, music industry pros, and fans as de facto 'payola'; a breach of artistic ethics and an illegal act in broadcasting.  Nevertheless, radio stations employ rotation more today than at any point in history, rationalizing the practice as a reflection of satisfying listener demand.

I started in radio at a time when individual announcers had considerable influence over the music they broadcast over the air.  Disc jockeys (!) were the heartbeat of a music radio station; artists entrusted with introducing to the public new music acts and their releases consistent with the prevailing (if not vague) artistic standards of a given genre.  Top DJs knew their milieu upside down and inside out, aided by a network of record label owners, promoters, music venue operators, musicians, and fans.  It wasn't uncommon for a DJ to moonlight in nightclubs or by spinning for private parties.  The social contacts and extracurricular activity worked to develop the DJ's ear for gauging their audiences' preferences.  DJs who could tap into the public zeitgeist for anticipating or covering in-depth music audiences would embrace rewarded their stations with big ratings numbers.

Deregulation of the broadcast radio industry has eaten away at what was once the province of the DJ, reducing the role of today's on-air talent to that of talking head.  The emergence of corporate groups operating multiple stations in multiple markets triggered a generic comformity in music programming content corporate radio executives love, but music radio fans hate with a passion.  All the songs in a given station's rotation seemingly sound the same, regardless of the artist, as playlists are determined by the centralized division of a parent company.  Those songs deemed unsuitable for popular
consumption -- or whose artists/labels can't afford to buy enough ads to justify their entry into rotation -- receive no airplay.  The result is shallow playlists offering little by way of diversity or imagination.  As a parent company often owns or operates multiple stations in a market, the strategy is implemented at all their affiliates whereby the music across stations of supposedly different formats sounds remarkably similar.  Their effect upon radio's creativity and entertainment value is chilling.  Now when we tune in to our favorite music radio station not only do we hear the same rotation over and over again, the few songs in rotation are indistinguishable from one another.

Short of the FCC resurrecting strict limits on radio station ownership -- especially for a single market --  broadcasters face little pressure to innovate.  We're not likely to see a local origination requirement placed on radio broadcasters either, given the public's cavalier attitude toward the concept of public interest.   Modern broadcast radio executives and managers see their roles as selling proprietary time and space to content producers.  They aren't artists.  They aren't curators or patrons of music.  They continue to fight against paying performance royalties as do satcasters and webcasters (perhaps a moot point as nearly every broadcaster also streams their programming over the Internet for which they do pay performance royalties).  On-air talent has been reduced to 'labor'; disposable (and therefore inexpensive) human assets.  I seriously doubt today's commercial AM and FM music
stations will empower announcers or program directors to act as A&R reps or otherwise have much input in programming.

Still, it should be noted playlists serve a legitimate function, and formats, although at times hyper-segmented, have value to broadcasters, advertisers, content producers, and audiences.  Rotation, generally speaking, has its merits within the context of commercial radio.  My concern is the adverse effect narrow playlists featuring songs in rotation 4, 5, 6 times per day have upon creativity at AM
and FM music radio stations.  I'd like to see playlists at these radio stations expanded to include more local and indie music, and a reduction in the maximum number of spins  new or current hit songs receive.  I'd also like to see individual DJs be permitted more input and discretion in the songs
selected for airplay.

But maybe AM and FM music stations are on to something by focusing their programming at a large center mass.  There's a place in the music radio market for 'latest hits' programming.  Presuming I'm correct, it may explain satrad and web radio's emergence in the market as supplements to broadcast radio, rather than competitors.  In fact, much of Radio 2.0's branding of Internet and satellite radio emphasizes the greater content diversity delivered by those channels.  Web radio and satrad outlets serve up wider and deeper archives of music content; programs are often hosted by traditional DJs who are free to experiment with music from indie acts as well as probe niche formats in depth.  The result is a radio landscape that despite its quirks offers something for both casual music fans and enthusiasts.

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