Commercial Radio and Popular Music

Processes of Selection and Factors of Influence


Source: Popular Music and Communication, ed. James Lull, pp. 78-84.
1987, Newbury Park (NJ): Sage.
Tops of new pages in the original are rendered here as the appropriate page number in braces, e.g. {78}

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The commercial radio industry in the United States is among the most powerful influences on contemporary popular music. While it is clear that popular music evolves within a tradition, answers to subcultural and generational experiences, registers the creativity of individuals and movements, it is also clear that “stylistic trends in popular sound recordings cannot be separated from the social organizations that produce them” (Anderson, Hesbacher, Etzkorn, & Denisoff, 1980, p. 42). I do not claim that by knowing the actions of the radio industry we can explain popular music, only that the actions of radio are a force in the system by which some music comes to be popular and other music does not.

Top of this document  Radio as the Popularizer of Music

The first issue to dispense with is the old story that it is popular songs that get played on the radio -- that radio plays the songs the public wants to hear. First, it is obvious to any social observer that radio airplay precedes, rather than follows, massive public popularity. It is then impossible for radio to use “popularity” as a criterion for play, for it is {79} not popular until after radio plays it. As Simon Frith puts it: “The BBC is contemptuously certain that Radio 1 satisfies its listeners, but it can only be so certain because its argument is circular... The BBC moulds as well as responds to public taste” (Frith, 1978, p. 91). This, of course, is clear in any of the studies of the operation of the popular music industry system (for example, MacDougald, 1941; Hirsch, 1969; Frith, 1978; Ryan & Peterson, 1982). McPhee (1963, 1977) models this as a system in which a cultural item, once chosen by and given exposure by media, gains popularity that motivates further exposure, which eventually exhausts popularity. Exposure multiplies exposure while increasing popularity until growth in popularity accelerates to the limit.

If radio broadcasters are simply responding to popularity, then their decisions need only be based on some indicator of popularity. The objectification of popularity is a “hit” list such as Billboard ’s “Hot-100.” But the hit list is made up of some combination of measures of radio play and sales (Hesbacher, Downing, & Berger, 1975), so that even “popularity” is not entirely dependent on the public’s vote. To the extent that these or similar charts are sources of information for programming decisions (and they are), radio airplay in part determines radio airplay. This is the multiplicative process McPhee (1977) discusses as leading to “abortions” and “runaways”.

The commercial radio music system has a measurable effect on the audience’s attitudes and behaviors. Erdelyi (1940), Jakobovits (1966), and Wiebe (1940) have examined the relation between radio exposure of songs and music sales, and popularity and liking, respectively. The relationship is an inverse-U with radio airplay as the leading variable in the time order. That is, increasing exposure, up to a point, leads to increasing popularity or affect, at which point further increasing exposure leads to decreasing popularity or affect.

Fathi and Heath (1974) find that their “mass culture listeners” (as opposed to “high culture listeners”) most frequently report the radio as the source of their original interest in music. Lull and Miller (1982) in their pre-MTV study of exposure to new wave music, report that 59% of their respondents cite the radio as their “principal source,” with 35% for records and tapes, 3% clubs, 2% concerts, and 2% television.

The 1981 Warner study of record buyers found that 61% of album purchases are planned, that 56% of record buyers most often go to record stores only to make a particular purchase, and that 63% of record buyers are usually searching for a particular record while in a store. For most record buyers, then, the record store does not serve as a source of {80} information about music. Consumers must be learning about the records they plan to purchase elsewhere and, given the evidence of other studies, radio would seem the most likely source.

Despite what some broadcasters say, then, radio does serve as a principal popularizer of popular music. As Duncan MacDougald put it long ago:

’The making of the majority of “hits” is largely predetermined by and within the industry. It is in direct contrast to the general opinion of Tin Pan Alley which clings to the ideology that the success of songs represents the spontaneous, free-will acceptance of the public because of the inherent merit of the number [MacDougald, 1941, pp. 65-66].

Radio, then, is the main machine of popularization.

Top of this document  The System

If we locate radio within the context of the popular music industry system, its function as a popularizer of music is clarified. The first use of the concept system to characterize the popular music industry was probably made by MacDougald (1941). In recent times the roles in the system include the recording musicians, the record producers, the record company policy-makers, the record promoters, radio programmers, and both the record buying public and the radio listening public (Hirsch, 1969, p. 18; Ryan & Peterson, 1982).

Hirsch (1969) has characterized the industry components of the system as a preselection system -- a system for anticipating or preselecting the public’s selections. This is a sequential, staged filtering of an overabundant product in anticipation of an uncertain demand. Recorded musical products move through the system in a linear manner, being filtered at each stage -- either rejected or passed on to the next stage. The filter criteria at any given stage are based upon the past successes of similar items at later stages. That is, decision makers try to anticipate what will be successful at later points in the system by using feedback about what has been successful in the recent past (for use of feedback information, see Hirsch, 1969, 1972; Peterson & Berger, 1971, 1975; Davis & Willwerth, 1974). As products move through the system each role acts as a surrogate consumer for the previous role (Hirsch, 1972). The activators of roles early in the system work to offer goods that will be successful with activators of the next role in the system rather than {81} the ultimate consumer. Record companies are at least as interested in offering records that are of interest to radio programmers as what they think will be of interest to the public. The system works in both a value-added and power-added manner so that later role activators -- such as radio programmers -- have much more influence on what will be popular than do earlier roles -- such as record producers.[1]

Top of this document  Making Money

Radio stations are in the business of making money, not the business of playing music. It is clear that people that are attracted to radio as a place to work are often people who love music, but few if any people own a radio station because they love music. People own radio stations to make money. If there is any doubt about this aspect of the radio business, it can be laid to rest quickly and easily.

There are three principal types of things that are broadcast on American commercial music radio stations: songs, advertisements, and talk. If for one reason or another a song that should have been played was not, let us say the disc jockey made an error or an emergency weather report interrupted the music, there would be no mention of it, no apology, no adjustment of the playlist to see that the song got all of its allotted airtime. If an announcer didn’t say everything that he or she meant to say during a particular break, that also would receive no notice. But if an advertisement is not played, or is interrupted, or placed next to a competitor’s ad, repair work must be done. Inmost stations the disc jockey on the air at the time must make a note on the station log and fill out a form. Later what is called a “make-good” must be run. This is a free repetition of the advertisement during equally valuable airtime. This indicates with perfect empirical clarity that advertisements are the most important portion of the broadcast program.

Top of this document  Managing the Means for Making Money

If radio stations are owned for the making of money, where does the music enter? Clearly, music is a part of the means for making money. Commercial music radio will be invested in financially to the extent that it is more attractive than other ways to make money. (Exactly what constitutes an attractive way to make money is surely highly variable; it may have to do with personal taste or personal history as well as efficiency in the light of tax structures.) As long as a radio station is {82} owned because it is a more efficient way to make money than some other equally available options, then the efficiency of broadcasting music as a means for making money is important. Many of the ways in which the structure of the commercial radio industry in the United States affects the range of available popular music has to do with increasing the efficiency of the radio station operation.

Broadcasters earn their money, as Meehan (1984) points out, not by producing messages, or even audiences, but by selling ratings points to advertisers. Advertisers buy time slots that represent a certain number of ratings points for certain types of audience; presumably an audience similar to the one described by the ratings will be attending the advertisements placed in the purchased time slots. The music that is played on commercial radio stations is designed to attract audiences that contribute to ratings that are attractive to advertisers that are in turn attractive to radio station management. It must be noted that some demographic categories, such as young males, cooperate less with the ratings companies and so produce apparently lower ratings for the same size audience. Also, some advertisers are more interested in some demographic categories than in others. And, station management may be more interested in some advertisers than in others -- this would have to do with market strategies as well as matters of taste.

Just as any other activity, these processes can be efficiently performed to the extent that they can be standardized. It is to the economic advantage of commercial radio stations, then, to make predictable choices in what music to play. This not only increases the efficiency of station operation, but of audience flow--the audience attracted by one song will stay tuned for the next. To the extent that the audience is predictable, the ratings will show patterns. To the extent that these patterns are attractive to advertisers, the station will be in a good position to make money by playing music.

Top of this document  The Format

The way that this standardization or predictability has come to be institutionalized is in the format. A format is a style or genre or system. Formats define the boundaries of the types of music that a station will play and the general guidelines for presentation of that music.

The format, however, is not a choice dictated by musical concerns, but by business concerns. Formats were invented as mechanisms to manage audiences:

Formats are not sought by radio stations to provide diversity for its own sake... Nor are they provided in order to satisfy listeners’ demands. The purpose of these formats is to enable radio stations to deliver to advertisers a measured and defined group of consumers, known as a segment [Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 61].

Formats can be used as ways to avoid competition; consultants often recommend that radio station management choose a format that is not duplicated by other stations in the market (see Routt, McGrath, & Weiss, 1978). In this way the total radio audience is divided up among the radio stations within a market in order to minimize competition among stations.

But as Glasser (1984) points out, format choices are based on expected ability to maximize profits, which is not necessarily the same thing as avoiding competition. This means “a station will duplicate an existing format [within a market] rather than produce a unique format if its share of the audience for a duplicated format yields higher profits than the profits generated by the entire audience for a unique format” (Glasser, 1984, p. 129). Maximum profits are not even tied to maximum audience size, but to maximum attractiveness of the ratings to those advertisers that do the most radio business.

For the concerns of this chapter, however, the point remains the same. Whether used to avoid competition, to maximize audience size, or to maximize profits, the format is a mechanism for managing the audience and selling airtime to advertisers; it is not a musical concern.

Once a format choice is made, however, the songs that will be played within that format still have to be selected. The effect that commercial radio has on popular music depends first on formatting and second on choices within formats. Since songs need radio exposure to become popular, record company decision makers will try to anticipate what radio station decision makers want to play when they are producing and releasing records. Since radio stations work within formats, this serves as a form of pressure for record companies to work within formats as well. Records that fall between formats, or that overlap formats, may be perceived as belonging to no format and so receive no radio play. With no radio play the chance of a financial success on the scale of a popular music hit is almost none. The “crossover” hit is that rare, apparent exception -- the song that becomes a hit in more than one format.[2]

Top of this document  The Nature of the Decision Makers

To specify the nature of radio’s influence on popular music further we should examine those persons who have decision--making power within {84} radio stations -- the gatekeepers. The more systemic concerns already raised should be kept in mind, however, for there is always an extent to which “the organization is the gatekeeper” (Bailey & Lichty, 1972, p. 229; see also Whitney’s 1982 review).

The disc jockeys on the air do not usually have significant decision-making power regarding the music that they play. Both radio station format and song selection within formats are decisions made by owners of radio stations, managers of radio stations, and radio consultants. These people may have entered the radio business because they loved music, but they have risen into decision-making positions by, among other things, never letting their love of music interfere with the moneymaking functions of a radio station.

As Elliott (1979) points out, one approach to the study of media organizations is to focus on occupational roles. This would include studies of recruitment, socialization, and career paths. Such information would be useful to know in the cases of the consultants, trade sheet editors, program directors, music directors, and record promoters that influence and control popular music radio. In the absence of such information we can turn to a Program Director’s Handbook (Paiva, 1983). Here we note that in 160 pages of text only one 12-page chapter is given to music. Even that little consideration is cast in management and business terms, not in musical terms. The point, here as above, is that music is a management tool in commercial radio stations. Employees who accept and understand that may be given decision-making power, others will not.

Top of this document  The Taken-for-Granted

Just as any other form of work, radio programming poses certain problems, some of which occur regularly. When solutions are found to recurring problems, the solutions often become part of routine work procedures and are taken for granted. They become a part of the way things are done unreflectively so that they are performed as if they were the only way of getting things done. This form of taken-for-granted knowledge is very resistant to change (see Schutz, 1970).

Among these routines is a peculiar pattern I have observed -- that radio personnel tend to treat records as if they were already sorted into four categories. First, records are either current or not current (this has to do not only with how recently they were released but with their continued popularity). Second, records are either played on the air now, or not played on the air now.

{85} As the radio station personnel categorize the albums they isolate those that are problematic. A decision must be made about those that are current but not played now. Are they something that won’t be played or something that is not played yet? If the latter is the case, when will they be considered for airplay and how seriously?

But this system does not just isolate the problematic albums, it defines some albums as unproblematic, and this means they will not be thought about as requiring a decision. Whatever they were first considered is what they will remain. This sort of unreflective acting can completely block some records from being given airplay without any careful decision having been made about them.

The same style of the taken-for-granted routine operates in other aspects of the decision making. Certain performers will never be considered for airplay because they are categorized in a taken-for-granted manner as being outside the format, or too new, or too different. This is most likely based on their past, not on the sound of their current music.

Perceptions of the audience and perceptions of the competition work the same way. In 1982, MTV Music Television was new. The Music Director and Program Director at the radio station I was studying at the time told me that they didn’t compete with MTV, it was television after all, and that the performers that were becoming popular there -- predominantly new-wavers in those early months -- were too weird for their midwest rock and roll audience. These inferences were logically based on their previous experiences and could naturally be taken for granted -- and be taken confidently for they were the rock and roll station in the market; they controlled the scene.

But six months later one of the new bands regularly featured on MTV, the Stray Cats, sold out a show in town without ever receiving any radio airplay! This violated the programmer’s taken-for-granted knowledge. This sort of violation is what is required to call old routines into question, to reproblematize the taken-for-granted. A few weeks later they were paying close attention to MTV when making their programming decisions.

Top of this document   Song Selection in Rock and Roll Radio: The Division of Labor

The decision-making process in radio programming is a two-stage system. This is the same as has been found in other gatekeeping systems, {86} and has been posited as a general attribute of such systems by Dimmick (1974).

In the case of music programming on radio, there is a universe of potentially useful albums from which the decision makers choose those that have the greatest potential for being useful. This choosing is the first stage of the decision making and is what Dimmick (1974) calls the sensing process. Those albums that are chosen by this process are then given serious consideration for airplay. Their worth is considered relative to (a) the “space” available to use them (that is, how many available spots of what size there are on the playlist), and (b) the other albums available, which have the greatest potential for becoming a hit, which fit into the format. This consideration of airplay worthiness is the same as the valuation process in Dimmick’s conception of gatekeeping.

Someone at a radio station -- usually a music director -- is primarily in charge of the sensing stage of the decision making and is responsible for gathering the necessary information for the valuation process. At the station I studied a few years ago, this meant the music director built a list as the week wore on of the accumulating records that should be considered for airplay and made notes of evidence as to their usefulness to the station. He also kept track of all the songs they were currently playing: who else was playing them and how much, what were their sales figures, if they were getting requests, how long they had been on the playlist, whether or not the disc jockeys were tired of them, and so on.

In the sensing and information-gathering processes the agenda is set. The reduction in the size of the population of albums made at this step of the decision making is remarkable. Of the 467 albums that were available during 10 weeks of my earlier study (Rothenbuhler, 1982), only 81 received serious consideration for adding to the playlist (<17%). Of the 81 albums considered, 35 received airplay (43%). In other words, the sensing process, which was primarily the music director’s job at this station, reduced the size of the potential universe by a factor of almost 6, where the valuation process reduced the population by a factor of just over 2. Overall, only about 7% of the albums available to the station in those 10 weeks got any airplay at all.

Top of this document  The Routine

The programming task is cast into a weekly work routine (see Rothenbuhler, 1982, 1985). The actual playlist decisions were made on Tuesday afternoons at the station I studied; as far as I could tell at the {87} time this was also true of all or most other Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) stations in the country. Directors of a Contemporary Hits station in the same market tended to wait until Wednesday to make up their playlist -- perhaps to see what the other stations in town were doing. The few stations I have observed since then also make their decisions on Tuesdays or Wednesdays; this appears to be a general pattern around the industry. This pattern is useful for information sharing, among other things.

This decision-making schedule fits neatly with the publication schedule of the trade sheets -- one of the major purveyors of information in the business. The trade sheets come out late in the week arriving in the mail at radio stations sometime between Friday and Monday. The trade sheets provide general record and radio industry news, lists of record airplay and sales aggregated nationally, sometimes broken down by market, sometimes by station. Some sheets list versions of station playlists, and lists of what stations added what songs to their playlists the week before. Most trade sheets also publish schedules of upcoming record releases, artist tours, and promotional events. The sheets also print tips from the editors and quotations from radio programmers and record promoters evaluating new records, artists, industry trends, or answering a question of the week. These types of information are vitally important to programming decision makers and the sheets are carefully studied beginning the moment they arrive.

Most stations also gather local market information. Usually this means that on Monday afternoon someone compiles all of the telephone requests that have been logged in the last week and by one means or another gathers data concerning local record sales.

Most of the record promoters that visit radio stations in a given week do so on Monday or Tuesday. They come bearing copies of records, promotional items to be given away to the audience, more sales and airplay data, information on what other radio stations have been deciding that very afternoon, and a sales pitch.

Late in the day on Tuesday or early on Wednesday the playlist decisions are made while, or shortly after, conferring with any consultant the station may be using -- and consultants are no longer unusual. Someone makes sure there are sufficient copies of the record in the studio and contacts the promoters for more copies if needed. The rotation cards, or whatever system is used, are changed in the studio so the disc jockeys know what to play. A version of the playlist in terms of “heavy, medium, and light rotation” (referring to the amount of {88} scheduled airplay) is typed up for public release, and a version in full operational detail is documented for internal use. The music director or program director reports to the trade sheets providing their portion of the information that will be published later in the week. At some point the promoters call back to see how their product fared in that week’s round of decision making.

Top of this document  Sources of Information

Radio programming is an information-devouring task in an information-starved environment. To predict the future has always been difficult. To predict the future of the capricious and seemingly random behavior of mass media audiences can be frightening (Goodhart, Erenberg & Collins, 1975; Headon, Klompmaker & Rust, 1979). Though programmers claim to be able to hear a hit when it comes along, their job in fact demands information that doesn’t exist. Given this fact, they become information sponges. They clutch for information. They grab at information. I have seen a song boosted into higher rotation because the program director heard his little sister turn up the radio when the song came on (Rothenbuhler, 1982). Another time at the same station, a second song from an album was added to the playlist because the music director had seen the girl that cleans up at the barber shop singing along with the first song, and she knew every word. These examples are typical of the atmosphere of a popular music radio station.

The sharing of information holds the industry together. The consultant’s role also can be conceptualized as a link in an information network. The trade sheets serve as organizers and distributors of information. Programmers and promoters compete to be quoted in the sheets. Long distance phone calls are more common than office memos.

Trade sheets, the gathering of local market information, and meetings with colleagues and consultants have already been mentioned as sources of information. The promoters also work as a source of information. Promoters are salespeople. What they say about an album will be viewed with skepticism, sometimes contempt. But what they say can also be taken as advice. A variety of promotion situations offer information to radio programmers.

Most promoters work with more than one album at a time. In their presentation of albums to stations there is an implicit rank ordering. Albums are presented one at a time in a given order, each is given a {89} different amount of time, some are accompanied by promotional items and advertising buys. Promoters also sometimes offer an explicit rank ordering. They may say something like, “this one is our priority... if this other one catches on, OK, we’ll be behind it, but we think this one has a better chance out of the box.”

Promoters offer advice. This advice can be positive or negative. First, they tell the programmers which “tracks” or “cuts” (particular songs) to listen to and therefore establish the impetus for a “consensus cut.” Second, they can tell programmers not to worry about a particular album, saying such things as “nobody else knows what to do with it” or “there probably won’t be a tour.” This sounds like odd behavior for a salesperson, but it does happen. This sort of negative advice is rare; it probably serves to maintain the promoter’s credibility.

To what extent do programmers get information from or about their audience or the people that make up the local market? At one point in my field notes for the 1982 study I listed 35 different types of contact the programmers had with the social environment outside the station. Of those 35 only 8 could be considered as sources of information from or about their audience. At another point in the same study I listed 42 factors that I had observed as potentially influential in programming. Of these 42 only 4 could be considered as having something to do with the audience. Except as a mental image held by the programmers, the audience enters little into programming decision making.

It could be argued that the broadcasters do not have good sources of information about their audiences. That is probably true. But the sources they do have are the ones they have institutionalized; and even these are not used. Even when information about the audience is available, it is dismissed, rationalized, misattributed, or interpreted strictly in terms useful to the routine contingencies of the radio world.

For example, my informants tell me that you can’t tell much from requests, the people who call in are not representative of the audience. But when phones are for something that’s new that the radio community is hot about, they are reported enthusiastically in the trade sheets and used as evidence for additional airplay.

My informants also say that you have to be careful with sales data. People might buy records for different reasons than they listen to the radio and not everyone in the audience buys records. But every station collects sales data, all the trade sheets report sales data, individual stations cite sales data in their trade sheet reports, and most important, {90} when there is a disagreement about the worth of an album, sales data are marshalled in support of one or the other side.

When faced with evidence of the popularity of music that is not played by a station, its programmers will ignore it. An Album-Oriented Rock station music director once told me about new wave fans “[they’re] not our audience,... just look at the way they dress. We’re a rock and roll station.”

Top of this document  The Consensus Cut

One outcome of the characteristic uncertainty and information sharing of the industry is the consensus cut phenomenon. No one knows what song on a new album or which of the new albums the public will want to hear most, if any. So they look around to see what everyone else is doing -- this is one of the main functions of the editor’s tips and the quotations of industry players in the trade sheets.

If an album receives none of this sort of attention it is almost precluded from consideration for airplay. Even if an album receives a lot of attention, but that attention is divided over different songs, unless the album is by a superstar its chances of becoming a hit are decreased. This is because cautious stations or stations in markets without direct competition will put the album in a lighter rotation or not play it at all until they see some consensus on which cut to play. In markets with competing stations, many different cuts could well be played and the audience’s attention divided. The national aggregate airplay will be considerably less for any one song than what it takes to make a hit.

If, however, all of the attention given to an album is devoted to one particular cut, a hit is almost guaranteed. Given this industry consensus, everyone feels confident predicting a hit. They slide the record right into heavy rotation. It becomes a hit and is seen as yet more evidence of programmers’ ability to predict public taste. The result is that only what everybody plays will anybody play.

Top of this document  Effective Criteria

The question here is what makes a difference when it comes down to the point that some songs get played on the radio and some do not? Baskerville’s handbook lists five “factors that will influence a station’s programming”: (1) habit; (2) competition; (3) trade charts; (4) record promoters; and (5) change of management (Baskerville, 1981, pp. 365-366). {91} Where is the audience? It is presumed; conditions of audience taste are not as important as conditions of industry. For example:

The first decision was which cut to use from the albums that were being added. This decision was made between MD and PD [the music director and the program director] when there was a perceived choice, and primarily based on the sound of the cuts and what cuts others stations were playing. Consensus on cut is very important. A visitor one day asked: “do you always play what they [record companies] recommend?” PD: “usually... if you don’t and everyone else does you end up looking stupid.” Asked about trade sheets and recommended cuts, MD said: “Yeah, if you don’t know what to go with..., this gives you a consensus cut... if you need a reason to play this and not something else, you can say this is a consensus cut.” “[We follow] programmers with supposedly good ears.... or a station where you know the people and you know what they’re doin’ and they do well in their market, then you look to see what they’re playing” [Rothenbuhler, 1982, pp. 66-67].

Subsumed here are a number of reasons to play a song, but only one has the remotest connection to the audience. This quotation makes clear the extent to which programmers work for each other. They worry about “looking stupid” in front of their peers. The audience members do not read the trades so how could they know what the other stations are playing? How could they make a programmer feel stupid? The one reference to the audience in this quotation is cast strictly in radio terms: “They do well in their market.” They are not looking to the members of their audience for advice; they are looking to their coprofessionals in the radio and record business.

Elsewhere I have estimated a variety of statistical models to predict airplay based on the various forms of information available to the programmers (Rothenbuhler, 1985). Based on those analyses and qualitative observations it is clear that the most effective criteria in programming decisions are industry factors. Information about the local market, whether in the form of record sales, requests, or what other stations were playing, was shown to be of little utility to the decision makers. Rather, such industry factors as national airplay as reported in trade sheets, artists’ track records, the consultant’s recommendation, and the fit of the song being considered with currently available space on the playlist (how many other songs of nearly the same style are currently being played, and so on), and whether or not the program director thought it sounded like a hit, were the predominating factors in the decision.

{92} The end result of all of the above, and especially the fact that national industry system criteria so outweigh local criteria in the final playlist decision-making process, is that a very small proportion of the music recorded is selected for massive amounts of broadcast exposure, in every market across the United States, at about the same time, to about the same extent. It is inevitable that most of the selected songs become hits while few if any of those not selected do. As entire industries are oriented to capitalizing on hit songs, it is inevitable that what becomes a hit today will affect what is offered as recorded music tomorrow. As the degree of concentration and control in the recording end of the system continues to increase (see Peterson & Berger, 1975; Rothenbuhler & Dimmick, 1982), these effects will be exacerbated.

Top of this document  Conclusion

The conclusion is straightforward: Given contemporary commercial radio’s place in the popular music industry system, the huge audience for broadcast programming, the repeated playing of songs that has become typical, and the influence of such factors as formats, trade sheets, promoters, and consultants on the decision making that tend to reproduce the same choices at station after station -- given all this, commercial radio cannot but have a profound effect on popular music. Second, given such system attributes and decision-making criteria as imitating success, following track records, waiting for consensus, formatting, promoters’ influence, taken-for-granted work routines, and the business orientation -- given this and the above, contemporary commercial radio’s influence on popular music must be limiting and conservative.

Top of this document  NOTES

1. The remainder of this chapter focuses on radio and its workings in this system. The discussion is based on my readings of the extant literature, a study of radio programming decision making I conducted in 1981-1982, and my less formal observations and experiences in and around rock and roll radio since that time. Passages of this chapter reproduce in a slightly revised form passages of my Radio and the Popular Music Industry: A Case Study of Programming Decision Making, unpublished Master’s Thesis, Department of Communication, Ohio State University, and various convention papers based on that work.

{93} The earlier study (Rothenbuhler, 1982) included eight months of observation in a commercial Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) station in a large midwestern American city. The first five months of that period were devoted exclusively to in-depth participant observation of the radio station, its personnel, their visitors, and their work. The center of this observation was the programming task itself; the study focused on how what songs were picked to play how much. The last three months of the study were devoted to a set of quantitative measures of factors that had been identified by the qualitative study as influential in the programming decision making. The full report of that study is Rothenbuhler (1982); portions of the study are reported in Rothenbuhler (1985).

2. Anderson and Hesbacher (1979); Hesbacher, Clasby, Clasby, and Berger (1977); Hesbacher, Simon, Anderson, and Berger (1978), provide information on the attributes and market performance of substream musical styles and cross-over hits. Baskerville (1981); Hesbacher, Clasby, Anderson, and Berger, (1976); Hesbacher, Rosenow, Anderson, and Berger (1975); Lull, Johnson, and Edmond (1981); Routt, McGrath, and Weiss (1978) give background information in varying detail on contemporary formats and radio programming strategies. Fornatale and Mills (1980) provide a short, standard, and useful history of the radio formats. Baskerville (1981); and Warner (1981) give information on record buyers.

Top of this document  REFERENCES

  • Anderson, B., & Hesbacher, P. (1979). Country and soul hits: Manufacturer strategies and crossover characteristics. Popular Music and Society, 6, 284-292.

  • Anderson, B., Hesbacher, P., Etzkorn, K. P., & Denisoff, R. S. (1980). Hit record trends, 1940-1977. Journal of Communication, 30, 31-43.

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