In the early years of Top 40 Radio, song rotations and music formatting were way different than what we know today. It was common for a station to play the #1 song of the week every hour. WABC in New York, the biggest Rock ‘n Roll station in the whole wide world at the time did that until the fall of ’68 when “Hey Jude” in all it’s 7 minute glory stayed #1 for nine weeks and the whole staff came near revolt.
My first PD also played a Pick Hit Of The Week every hour at :45. This was the early days of the Beatles, Stones, Animals, Dusty Springfield, Simon & Garfunkle, Motown, Mamas and Papas, so there was a lot to pick from. One week, I couldn’t find the previous week’s pick hit in the control room. I’d really liked it and asked PD Buzz who told me he’d pulled it. “Why?” “Well, not everything we like is going to be liked by listeners. What they like is the important thing. So, I play the record every hour for a week, then I pull it out and see if anybody notices.” “What?” “Well, if they like it enough they’ll notice they haven’t heard it in a while and maybe call in a request. If we get some calls for it, I’ll put it back in.” I think he then gave me a copy of the 45 to take home.
Buzz said hit stations play hit music and the two things that tell you a record has radio programming value are first, Sales and second, Requests. The phone calls come first because that’s where people find a new one they like. But you gotta pay attention to WHO is calling. Are different people calling or is it just one or two request-line junkies? If an adult called, that is more important than a teen call. Counting the requests for the songs in the playlist is important. Knowing something about who is asking for songs is equally important. My first lesson in the difference between quantitative and qualitative.
Sales are the main thing, he said. “The dollar spent to buy the record is the single most important indication that the record has radio programming value. The ones that sell big are the one’s we’ll still be playing as Oldies in the future.”
The first record promo guy I remember talking to was Moe Preskell, a legend in his trade. Short, round, bald, Jewish, cigar, a distinctive somewhat gravelly voice. A total pro at what he did. My little station in Arkansas was a Gavin Reporter, one of only about 50 at the time and, by far, the smallest of that elite club. For those on the young side, The Gavin Report was the first radio-focused trade sheet. It’s chart was where hit records were launched. There were three record stores in my town and when KOTN added one that Moe was working, he’d mail five 45’s to each of them with a note that it was getting play on the station and here were some free copies for them to have on hand if any customers came to ask. A week or two later, Moe would call the stores to see if any sold. If so, he’d then crow about it to every other station on the Gavin reporter list. And he’d begin pitching hard and heavy to larger markets nearby, Shreveport, Jackson, Memphis, Little Rock. Smart.
A few weeks back, I read an excerpt from a new book about product success in the marketplace, “Hit Makers”. It has a few paragraphs about a record promo guy who gets a station in Victoria Texas to play a new song, then he plugs into a data tracker from Slacker, the app that can listen to a few bars of any song and instantly tell you what it is. The record guy watches to see if his new song is getting Slacker’d in that little Texas town. If it is, then calls stations in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas and tells them the story: Listeners heard it. Listeners wanted to know what it was so they could hear it again. That means this may be a hit record that is good for you to be playing, too.
It’s always true. To build and maintain an audience: Play what your targeted group of listeners like. Watch for what they respond do. If they take action to hear a record again, pay attention. That action can be a request, a record sale or download, a lot of ‘shares’, or significant Slacker hits.