You’re Listening To Today’s Best Complete Lack Of Variety

I can complain all day long about how uninspired and repetitive Canadian radio is, but at the same time I’m well aware that our American friends often have things much worse. And as this terribly depressing article points out, it’s getting even worse than ever as traditional broadcasters figure out how to compete with modern technologies like streaming services and digital music players.

You’d think (or at least I’d think) that the obvious response to people having access to giant playlists filled with an endless variety of music would be better news coverage, more engaging personalities and wider playlists. But apparently, not so much. Thanks for nothing, Portable People Meter.

The intensifying repetition is largely a response to the way radio stations now measure listenership. Six years ago the industry began tracking listeners in many radio markets with pager-like devices called Portable People Meters, which monitor all the stations that selected listeners hear throughout the day—in their homes, cars or public spaces. Radio programmers can watch how many of these people tune in and out when they play a given song. In the past, the same listeners recounted their listening habits in handwritten diaries that were far less detailed or accurate.

Programmers also take other research into account when building their prime-time playlists, like listener surveys and social-media buzz, since people-meter data—based on relatively tiny sample sizes—isn’t perfect. But the numbers are impossible for advertisers to ignore, and because more listeners generally tune out when they hear a song they don’t know, radio stations have carved out special time slots for new music so that they can keep familiar tunes in the regular lineup and preserve their ratings.

Basically, it’s our fault that radio sucks.

One thing I’m curious about though is whether or not they keep track of how many people tune out during familiar songs as a way of gauging when something has at long last been officially beaten to death. To me, that seems just as important if you can determine it even close to reliably.

This is hardly the only problem with the PPM system, even though I’ll grant you that it’s somewhat more preferable to the old way of doing things.

If you work in or visit offices or stores that play music over the radio, you’ve likely noticed that it’s usually a shitty station. Unfortunately, if you happen to be participating in the ratings, you’re counted as a listener even if there’s no way in hell you’d be caught dead anywhere near 91.5 the Beat willingly, for example. They don’t cover that in the story, but it’s still worth pointing out since it has the unfortunate consequence of artificially inflating numbers for certain stations, making things appear more popular than they truly are. And when things seem more popular than they are, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and starts doing what the other guys are doing because everyone wants that now. And when that happens, radio as a whole is dragged down just a little bit further.

This quote from Hot 97 vice president of programming Ebro Darden sums up everything wrong with everything radio in one tidy line.

In the new intensely scrutinized world of radio, said Mr. Darden, “taking risks is not rewarded, so we have to be more careful than ever before.”

I think I just died a little inside.

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