If you’ve ever listened to the radio in the last few decades, you will have undoubtedly noticed that many radio stations play the same songs over and over again. Of course, there is a bit of variance, as a country radio station likely will not play a rap song. However, even these radio stations tailored to a specific genre have their own songs that are played ad nauseam. Have you ever wondered why that is?
The Business Model of Radio
It should be no surprise that, like newspapers, radio thrives on the profits of advertising revenue. One of the biggest annoyances people complain about with the radio (aside from the repeated song lists) is the number of commercials they are likely to hear within an hour.
The truth is that many radio stations would not be in existence if it wasn’t for national corporations and local businesses opting to run a commercial on the radio station, as most public broadcasting stations are not privately funded. How does this tie into having to hear the same songs all the time?
The Luring Mechanism
If radio stations rely on advertising to thrive as a successful business, the most important thing for the advertising model to work is to have as many listeners as possible. There are a few methods radio stations use to attract listeners.
The first overarching method to lure in listeners is by making the radio station tailored to a specific music genre. It’s a well-known fact that every music listener has a unique profile of music tastes. Some people may prefer modern pop music, while others may enjoy oldies, and still, others may opt for country or classical music. By tailoring their station’s playlists, they can guarantee an audience.
The reason why you are likely to hear the same songs over and over again is due to the fact that most listeners will only tune in for about 15 minutes at a time. To keep the listening audience, radio stations will opt to play songs that are more well-known and established. By playing audience “favorites,” stations can generally keep people from touching the dial to change the station.
What Determines Which Songs Get Played?
Radio stations typically generate their song rotation in two different methods. One is by choosing to only play songs that are popular in the current season/year. These stations tend to be radio stations that particularly only play Top-Hits type of music, playing what is currently trending in the music market. Stations tailored to older music will again, usually only play well-established hit songs.
Another method is through the use of a dedicated music director. The music director will tend to listen to over 300 different musical works in a week. The result is usually a song rotation that is curated with a personal touch, rather than a generalized rotation that uses only top hits. It should be noted that most radio stations that utilize a music director in this manner tend to be more boutique stations that operate independently outside of the massive radio station conglomerates.
Many radio stations are owned by broadcasting corporations much in the same way that television channels are owned by a parent company. This helps radio stations financially and helps to guarantee a better broadcast reach as the overhead costs to keep the station afloat do not rest solely on an independent owner.
Unfortunately for music listeners, this tends to mean that radio stations become increasingly sterile and generalized with their song rotations, as the parent company will likely dictate the acceptable music to be played on the station. This also means that many of the stations will be very similar in nature in regards to the songs that are actually given airtime.
In an effort to paint a picture of the landscape of radio media, the United States was reported to have 15,445 commercial radio stations in the year 2020. With broadcasting corporations factored in, the statistics look something like this:
- iHeartMedia, Inc. owns 858 total stations
- Cumulus Media, Inc. owns 429 stations
- Townsquare Media owns 321 stations
- Entercom owns 235 stations
Similarly, in the UK, it was found that 60% of national commercial radio stations were owned by two companies, Global, and Bauer. To take it even further, these same companies were reported to own 70% of all local broadcasting channels.
This is quite obviously a different landscape of radio than what was found in the golden age of radio. In the past, radio stations would typically play music as dictated by music directors as well as disc jockeys who would curate music for their own shows. Traditional radio has been forced to change due to the internet providing the convenience of being able to listen to any song at any time.
Alternatives To Commercial Radio
It goes without saying that having to listen to the same songs can be quite uninspiring, especially if you’ve listened to a particular radio station so much that you can correctly predict the next song being played. If you’re tired of having to hear the same songs over and over and are looking for the excitement of listening to something you’ve likely never heard before, there are a few options available.
College radio stations can be a great way to discover new music. These stations are owned by college campuses and are operated by students. Quite often, students will have their own radio shows featuring a curated song rotation.
These stations still abide by the FCC broadcasting guidelines. However, you are likely to find songs by local artists as well as a selection of songs that otherwise would not be heard on traditional commercial radio. This is largely in part due to the fact that these songs are personally selected by people according to taste, and not necessarily selected for the purpose of generating the largest number of listeners to suit the corporate radio model.
One of the biggest advancements of radio technology has to be the advent of satellite radio. While most of these services require an annual subscription, the music channels offered with these services generally tend to have no commercials.
What does this mean for the listener? Well, not being advertised to is always a plus. However, because these services rely upon the subscription fees (as opposed to advertising revenue like traditional radio), you are likely to hear music that you would otherwise not hear.
Many satellite radio stations conceptually operate similarly to traditional radio. However, these services have the benefit of being able to provide channels that have even more of a specific music genre than seen with traditional radio.
For instance, traditional radio is generally categorized into country, rock, oldies, classical/jazz, modern pop, soft hits, etc. Meanwhile, some of the stations you might find on SiriusXM (a well-known satellite radio service) include stations for radio hits during specific decades, artist-based stations (including Phish, The Grateful Dead, Elton John, Billy Joel, and more), and stations that cater to specific music genre subsets (such as reggae, jam music, 1990s-2000s hip-hop, house music, and more).
Internet Radio And Streaming Platforms
Another popular way for people to enjoy music outside of the standard rut of traditional radio is through the use of streaming platforms and internet radio. Again, many of these services are subscription-based, but, like satellite radio, are able to offer music that falls outside of what is typically heard on commercial radio stations.
Many streaming services offer their own radio stations. Some will even allow you to listen to a radio station based around a certain musical artist. These work by generating a playlist of music by similar artists, incorporating songs that are similar as well as songs by the artist that the radio station is based from.
Why Do Radio Stations Play The Same Songs? Final Thoughts
Many people have called traditional commercial radio a dead format. Of course, with the wide range of radio stations available worldwide, this is obviously something that will likely be around for some time in the future. Unfortunately, the revenue model of commercial radio requires the same songs to be played time and again. Luckily, for those that tire of the same old song and dance, some great alternatives can be found, bringing a sense of exploration and enjoyment back into the activity of listening to music.