Friday, July 31, 2009

Radio, Radio: A Scientific Study of Cities 97

To start, I want to make it clear that I'm not going to write a comprehensive screed about the state of modern radio. Whatever problems radio has, it's had them for many years, and there are people who are much more informed and insightful on the topic than I am. Of course, you may wish to apply the conclusions drawn below more broadly, but that's out of my hands.

Instead, this piece is a scientific experiment of sorts, a detailed analysis of Twin Cities station Cities 97 (KTCZ-FM), a Clear Channel joint.

Why, you may ask, if I didn't not have a theory to prove about the state of radio, did I decided to perform this experiment? Well, basically it comes out of 10 years of tumultuous Twin Cities radio. When I first moved here in 1999, there were a few good choices for hearing new pop and alternative music. There was 104.1 The Point. It didn't last long and soon became an '80s station called Mix 104. Now it's 104.1 Jack FM. The 105.3 signal was Zone 105 when I moved here, a good mix of new music and older alternative. It changed to a smooth R & B format (V105) briefly before going back to alternative (Drive 105). Currently it's an oldies station called Love 105. And I witnessed the birth of public alternative station 89.3 The Current, which has its supporters and detractors (I lean more toward the former). The one constant through all of this has been Cities 97. I've had a lot of time to study this station.

Cities 97 is one of the longest-running pop radio stations in the Minneapolis / St.Paul area, having started out as an AAA (adult album alternative) format in 1984. In the mid-'90s the format shifted to AC (adult contemporary), which despite its misleading name means that they started playing more light classic rock. For several years now the station has been attempting to find a balance, which they label LA (light alternative). That mission is spelled out in their motto: "Music from then - music from now."

I admit that I was not the most objective of scientists. I had some opinions formed previous to my experimentations. Or rather, I had some questions that I thought I knew the answers to. See, Cities is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) pop radio station in the area. It's certainly one of the most visible, with a series of live samplers that sell out each year, and a huge annual two day block party at the downtown Minneapolis Basilica of Saint Mary. Its listeners are often rabidly faithful (including some folks I call friends).

Before I get to my questions, let me give some a clear disclaimer. I am not at all attacking the type of music Cities 97 plays. I enjoy and own many albums by the artists they favor (U2, Counting Crows, Coldplay, etc.) This study was not done out of snarky hipster condescension.

The questions I chose to investigate are as follows:

1) What is the balance of new music to old music on Cities 97?
2) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain artists?
3) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain songs?
4) Is the station really "about the music"?

What I Did:

I listened to Cities 97 for approximately 12 hours over the course of two two-week sessions. The first was this past March. The second was this month, July. I listened at various times of the day and days of the week. As I listened I wrote down the song title, the artist, and the year the song was released. I entered this information into a database that allowed me to sort the information in a variety of intriguing ways.

As I listened I heard 205 total songs (including repeats), and countless ads for Leinenkugel's, Slim 4 Life, and Hair Restoration of Minnesota.

The Results:


Let's take these question by question.

1) What is the balance of new music to old music on Cities 97?
Let's count any song as new if it was released in 2008 or 2009, okay? There are a couple of numbers to look at here. First, let's look at them without repeats. The station played 30 new songs out of 155 total songs. That's 19%. With repeats included, the percentage goes up a bit. Those 30 individual songs actually accounted for 51 out of the 206 total plays. That's 25%. That means that when the station writes its motto ("Music from then - music from now"), the "then" should be three times as big as the "now."

To be a little fairer about this, let's look at the breakdown by decade (not including repeats). Then things seem a little more balanced.
Number of songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s: 39
Number of songs from the '90s: 43
Number of songs from the '00s: 73

I listened on two New Music Mondays, a self-explanatory weekly event. Despite the name, the station did not play more new songs on these days. The only difference was that the DJs seemed to make more of a special point to mention that a song they were going to play or had just played was new.

Finally, let's get to the most disturbing aspect of the new song issue. 25 songs Cities 97 played were older tunes by an artist with an new album released in 2009. If you expand this out to artists who had a new album out in 2008 (remember, we're still counting those as new), the number jumps to 34. Of that 34, only one new song was played in addition to the old ones (Jack Johnson's Go On). This just seems wrong to me. The station obviously has favorite artists that its listeners love (more on that in the next section), so why not play their new material? This is my sorest point with the station.

2) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain artists?
I put the word overplay in quotes because I realize that it's a relative concept. If you are obsessed with a song or an artist, as tends to happen, you can't hear or get enough of them.

So, yes, the station makes little secret of the fact that it has pet artists. Its billboards and website even advertise them: Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Sarah McLachlan, U2, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, Matchbox Twenty, John Mayer. In my 16 hours of listening, I heard 108 different artists. That's not bad, right? But consider the following: Of those 108 artists, I heard 20 of them more than 3 times. All told, these 20 artists accounted for 82 of the 206 total songs. So, basically, 19% of the station's artist pool is responsible for 40% of the songs played.

I'd say that means certain artists are overplayed.

But who got the most plays? U2 is the far and away winner. Even without a SINGLE SONG from 2009's No Line on the Horizon (still upset about that), the boys from Dublin were heard 10 times! David Gray comes in a surprising second with 6 plays. Jack Johnson and John Mayer tied for the bronze with 5 plays each.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned here. Cities 97 features VERY little racial diversity in the artists they play. I only heard 8 songs by non-white artists. That's a measly 3 %.

3) Does Cities 97 "overplay" certain songs?
In short, yes. In total, 49 of the 206 plays were repeat plays. That's 1/4 of the total playlist that was not unique.

The three month gap may account for for some of the repeats, especially the songs that were played twice. It's entirely possible that Big Head Todd and the Monsters' Bittersweet was only played two times between March and July, and I heard them both. But, given what I know about the station, it's also entirely unlikely.

Which songs were played the most? Crack the Shutters by Snow Patrol (from their 2008 album A Hundred Million Suns) was the winner, with 5 plays. The runner-ups all tied with 4 plays each: U2's Beautiful Day, James Morrison's Nothin' Ever Hurt Like You, and Colbie Caillat's Fallin' For You.

Three of those four songs are new, so the repetition is understandable. People request the songs, DJs are usually required to play them at least once a set. And frankly, drilling a song into an audience's consciousness is what creates hits.

But the older songs that get continuous plays? That seems unnecessary. I understand comfort songs and the power of familiarity, but there are literally thousands of hit songs that fit within Cities 97's format. I like U2's Beautiful Day, but do I need to hear it once every 3 hours? Not really. And there's no reason for me to hear Howard Jones' Things Can Only Get Better, Tom Petty's Free Fallin', or Sting's Fields of Gold twice (each) when all of these artist have catalogs of excellent songs to choose from.

4) Is the station really "about the music"?
Cities 97 likes to use the tagline "It's about the music." And yes, it really is. Despite all other complaints one might make about Cities 97, they do stay focused on music. Their morning show doesn't center around practical jokes, call-in topics, or inane discussions of celebrities. They do have entertainment news and recipe segments but they're thankfully brief. Much more time is spent discussing the latest concert ticket giveaways or music news.

The station heavily promotes their endeavors, like the aforementioned Basilica Block Party. Often they air Studio C performances, where artists come in and do live sets for a small audience. These sometimes include artist interviews as well. Additionally, Cities 97 is also locally famous for their annual sampler, a collection of those Studio C tracks and other live tracks, often from artists the station rarely plays. The proceeds go to charity.

Sundays Cities 97 deviates from its usual format. There are also two one-hour shows devoted to local and independent music: Minnesota Music and Freedom Rock. The day begins and ends with Acoustic Sunrise and Acoustic Sunset. This has proven popular enough that the station has instituted an Acoustic Cafe everyday over the lunch hour. The problem here is that the DJs don't seem to quite understand the definition of the word acoustic. Often to them, it just means live, even if the instruments are plugged in (as was the case when I heard Tim Mahoney's fairly rockin' Talk to Me) or "light" as in the case of the Beatles' Because, which features an ELECTRIC harpsichord as its only instrument.

But anyway, yes, quibbles aside, the station really is true to the music. For this, I applaud Cities 97.

In Conclusion:

Cities 97 actually fared better than I expected in nearly every category. However, they have some big improvements to make. Here are my suggestions:

1) If you aren't going to play a larger variety of artists, at least play a larger variety of songs by those artists.
2) If one of your pet artists has a new song out, PLAY IT!
3) Play more non white artists, for god's sake.
4) Look up the definition of acoustic.
5) Keep it about the music.

6 comments:

Christena said...
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Christena said...
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Jess Sanders said...

Stumbled into this post when I googled "Cities Sampler Wrong Playlist" (I just ripped the newest sampler and every song comes up as something totally different. But I digress...). As a loyal if not frequent Cities 97 listener I have a few beefs with the playlist myself (for God's sake if I hear Bob Marley or Sting ONE more time in a given 1-2 hour session I might scream). Totally agree. But overall, the station is decent and has more depth than some of the alternatives (104.5 anyone?). You summed it up nicely! So did you ever hear back from the Cities crew?

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These sometimes include artist interviews as well. Additionally, Cities 97 is also locally famous for their annual sampler, a collection of those Studio C tracks and other live tracks, often from artists the station rarely plays. The proceeds go to charity...

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What an interesting idea. Ive always been into sociology, mixing that with music and finding results as the author did without conducting a poll, is frankly astonishing. Lots of hard work.

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