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FORMAT X-RAY: AN AC MUSIC SCHEDULING ANALYSIS (1)

by Thomas Giger of www.radioiloveit.com

Music genre, artist gender and tempo flow are all important factors in music scheduling. How could all of these influencers work together even better?

Every experienced music director knows that a great music log (and a successful music station) doesn’t depend on your playlist selection alone; it also matters in which order you play them! The right variety of genre, gender and tempo will help you to create music sweeps that will keep people tuned in. Here are a couple of thoughts, based on analyzing the midday logs (11 a.m. – 2 p.m.) of a major market German AC station.

Resources: Download aircheck notes in Microsoft Excel format (.xlsx)

‘THE MORE RULES YOU HAVE… THE MORE COMPLEX IT BECOMES’image-01

A ‘completely perfect’ music flow as seen above eventually becomes ‘almost perfect’ as factors like song rotations and scheduling rules, come into play (image: Thomas Giger)

SERVE YOUR ENTIRE DEMOGRAPHIC

Before we dive into this music scheduling analysis, some general thoughts. Adult Contemporary is a mass-appeal format, and programming for a broad 20-49 year-old demo (like our case station does) means programming with a challenge. First of all, you want to reflect your entire format in any given 20-minute segment — or, as listening sessions get shorter, every 10 minutes.

‘Every time I tune in, they’ll play a great song, or they’ll play it soon’ is what you want your desired audience to (sub)consciously think! These positive listener expectations drive ratings by keeping loyal P1 listeners happy, and, over time, convert occasional P2 listeners into more regular ones as they keep sampling your station and liking your music. A way to go about this would be dividing your demographic target into smaller sub groups.

CALCULATE YOUR CATEGORY RATIOS

AC is also a ‘balance format’. You want to create a good mix of eras & genres, based on carefully defined ratios. One factor is obviously listener age. You can divide your music catalogue into Recent Classics versus Older Classics. Say your target audience is 20-49, then you may want to serve 20-34 and 35-49 equally (or, to sound a bit fresher, put a slight emphasis on 20-34). As people mostly connect to music during their teenage years, an AC station can (in terms of non- current music) attract 20-49 year-old people by playing classics between 10 and 40 years of age.

In 2019, your oldest songs may be originating from the late 70s. To achieve era balance, your Recurrents could cover 2018-2019, Recent Classics 2000-2018, and Older Classics 1979-1999 — but it depends on how you wish to separate (and expose) your era groups. Another way to define audience segments is by music taste. If your mapping study shows a large cluster of Pop fans, a medium cluster of Dance lovers, and a small cluster of Pop-Rock heads, then you might play a ratio of 3 Pop songs : 2 Pop-Dance songs : 1 Pop-Rock song.

FOLLOW YOUR MUSIC MAP

Your desired genre ratio should be reflected in any random 20-minute (or ideally 10-minute) segment. If, for example, your #1 target audience music cluster is Pop, basically every second song you play should be Pop. If your #2 cluster is Pop-Dance and your #3 cluster is Pop-Rock, then you don’t want to play two Pop-Dance songs in a row; certainly not two Pop-Rock songs in a row (nor in close range from another). Hence, align your music scheduling rules with your music cluster strategy.

In our example, Pop, Pop-Dance; Pop, Pop-Rock; Pop, Pop-Dance (and then repeat from the beginning) could be the perfect music flow. Of course, that’s theory! In daily practice, many more factors come into play. A major one is song rotation, which is influenced by category load (how many songs are in each category) and category exposure (how many times does each category appear in your clocks), as well as separation rules (such as song, title & artist separations, plus tempo, gender & mood separations). The more rules you have… the more complex it becomes. The AC station that we’re looking at now, has an interesting song exposure and music rotation.

‘MAINTAIN A CONSISTENT SOUNDING STATION FROM HOUR TO HOUR’

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This station could improve its balance of artist gender and genre feel, and/or how songs are positioned, thus achieving a more consistent sound during the day (image: Thomas Giger)

BALANCE YOUR GENDER PLACEMENT

Going over our aircheck notes column by column, what immediately stands out is a male artist dominance. Especially in the first hour, where 10 out of 12 songs are sung by males, and seven of those playing back-to-back! Of course, the ideal ‘male; female; male; female’ gender flow isn’t easy to realize. For example, if your station plays mainly current music, and your Current and Recurrent categories are mainly filled with male artists, you’ll get many songs with male lead vocals in your music log.

That should not be a problem for this AC station, as it’s playing a mix of current and non-current music. Plus, it’s easy to avoid gender sameness when you use content from other categories to compensate a temporary (gender) imbalance in some categories. If your Currents are mainly male songs, you can rely more on the female parts of your Recurrent and Classic categories (as long as they’re available). There’s no excuse for playing seven males in a row. Even if, for some reason, you can really only play two or three female artists an hour, you could (use a gender rule like ‘maximum four male singers in a row’ to) position a female title after/around every fourth male one.

TWEAK YOUR MUSIC LOGS

Adult Contemporary formats can reach many listeners during work hours, as their mass-appeal format often makes them ‘the station that everyone in the office can agree on’. Therefore, for daytime hours like we’re analysing here, it’s essential to check prescheduled logs and repair scheduling inconsistencies. Swapping an equally-categorized ‘male’ and ‘female’ song within the same hour twice would have been a quick & easy fix here.

Gold songs are awesome for this purpose, so you can avoid affecting rotation patterns of higher- repeating Recurrents (and even faster-reappearing Currents). I’d first try to replace two Secondary Gold songs (or two Power Gold songs) with another to maintain format consistency throughout the hour as much as possible. Should that not work, you can simply take a male song out, and insert a compatible female song in its place — as long as it doesn’t heavily affect the rotation patterns of those songs. Again, preferably do this with songs from low-rotation categories.

IMPROVE YOUR GENRE EXPOSURE

The next column in our aircheck notes is called ‘genre feel’. Feel, because many of today’s songs include many musical influences (like a Pop song with a touch of Rock and some Dance beats). Even this subjective classification may give you a clear impression of the genre exposure on this station. You’ll see that Hour 1 not only has an imbalance of artist gender, but also regarding genre feel (with six Pop songs, versus only one and three in the two following hours). And that there’s a Pop- Dance spike in Hour 2, which could be forgiven because it’s (branded as) a ‘request’ hour, so people may expect that it’s different from regular hours. Outside specialty programming, you want to maintain a consistently sounding station from hour to hour.

If this AC would usually play up to six Pop songs an hour, Hour 1 would not be so extraordinary as it seems. Considering the four Pop songs playing right after another during the first half of that hour, the music director could do an even better job regarding how and where songs are scheduled. Over the course of three hours, there is actually a very nice balance between Pop, Pop-Rock and Pop-Dance, it’s just that most listeners won’t stay tuned for three hours in a row! The fact that the station just plays a few Pop-Urban songs is understandable, as it’s an AC format where many HipHop and Rap tracks quickly become borderline cases. But our case station could position its Urban tracks a bit better throughout the day.

‘A SECRET OF GREAT MUSIC SWEEPS IS TO GRADUALLY INCREASE YOUR TEMPO’’

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A good tempo balance from hour to hour matters as well — in this case, it could be better, as we compare Hour 2 with other hours (image: Thomas Giger)

SPREAD YOUR SIMILAR SONGS

This German station doesn’t seem to play much national product. Over the course of three hours, we’ve found five German productions (1 Pop-Dance; 2 Pop-Rock; 2 Pop-Urban). Just two of those are in German; the other three are in English. For music variety, you want to (use music scheduling rules to) separate similar songs from another. In Hour 2, the station plays 3 German products, with two German artists going back-to-back. That could have been better scheduled. Luckily, the latter songs are both sung in English, and many listeners may not know or care about the fact that both Mark Forster and Reamonn are German acts. Lyrics are more relevant.

To separate foreign language records; songs in a language, dialect or accent that is different from the one heard in the majority of your playlist, you may want to use a language code, and set a rule for it (like ‘keep a minimum of 35 minutes between two German-language songs’). If a certain language, dialect or accent is a minority within your music universe, you could make that rule ‘unbreakable’. This station may have set a German-language separation already, as those records performed in German are already positioned apart from each other well.

KEEP YOUR COVERS APART

You’ll notice two covers, both from 80s songs, going back to back in Hour 1: Total Eclipse Of The Heart and Fast Car. For an Adult Contemporary station, where many listeners know the original versions of cover songs, it’s good to separate covers with a generic ‘Cover’ code & rule, and/or to use specific ‘80s’ code & rule (when your playlist not only features many 80s hits, but also many modern interpretations of those. Used this way, an ‘80s’ code & rule can also prevent that 80s covers are being surrounded by actual (80s) Gold songs, which is luckily not the case here.

The ‘Cover’ code & rule can also be applied when only a recognizable part of a work, such as a vocal sample or melody line, is included in the newer song. An alternative to applying the ‘Cover’ codes & rules is using Secondary Artist name fields in your music database. In terms of playing the exact same song (like two versions of Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman and Jonas Blue) back to back, your Title Separation rule — set lower than your Power Current repetition time in order to avoid scheduling conflicts — should do its work.

OPTIMIZE YOUR TEMPO FLOW

Finally, let’s have a look at tempo feel. Again, this is a very personal impression. Jonas Blue’s interpretation of Fast Car does include some uptempo parts, but overall it feels more mid-tempo. Looking at totals over three analyzed hours, we see only three slow titles (nicely divided; one each hour), and an almost equal ratio of mid-tempo versus up-tempo songs. However, you can notice the significant difference between individual hours. Hour 3 is excellent and Hour 1 is reasonable, but Hour 2 could have been way better scheduled in terms of tempo flow. It includes four times as much up-tempo as mid-tempo songs!

Looking at individual segues, we see three mid-tempo titles going back-to-back in Hour 1 and Hour 3, and six up-tempo titles following each other in Hour 2! A few tempo rules can make it easy to achieve more variety and better flow. A secret of great music sweeps is to gradually increase your tempo (like slow; mid; up, and repeat), instead of decreasing it (like up; mid; slow, and repeat), as the first option creates growing excitement and forward momentum. The exception is when you come out of a break, and kick off a new music sweep — then you often want to schedule an up-tempo (or at least a mid-tempo) song to inject a musical steroid.

In the next part of this AC Format X-Ray, we’ll look at rotations & clocks!

31a8ca497da06282eb497b8005c82431 (1)Thomas Giger is a European radio broadcasting specialist and publisher of Radio))) ILOVEIT, based in the Netherlands, and serving the radio industry worldwide.