I recently learned how some of the larger commercial country stations determine which songs will receive airplay. Market surveys are made in which short snatches of songs are played to randomly chosen participants over the telephone. These participants are then asked to rate the song they've heard on a 1 to 5 scale with 1 signifying a high rating and 5 the lowest rating. The songs rated lowest do not receive airplay. What surprised me is that the ones rated highest are also excluded from airplay.
Researchers have determined over time that songs generating strong positive reactions in some people elicit strong negative reactions in others. This reaction would prompt people to hit that button on their car radios to select a different station. On the other hand, playing a blander selection of music encourages listeners to keep listening, at least for the short term. This is, after all, the entire point of commercial radio. Commercial stations are in the business of delivering as large an audience as possible for their advertisers. In most cases their dedication to the genre represented in their formats is entirely tied to the size of the audience generated by that genre.
Such practices will, I believe, eventually erode the vast fan base that country music currently enjoys. People don't often consciously choose to hear aural wallpaper. Sooner or later most will abandon music that lacks sufficient passion and substance.
This approach represents one extreme in the programming spectrum. At the other end of this spectrum are programmers, probably working out of college or public radio stations, who are true believers and feel their mission is educational. In old-time radio, programmers of this type may emphasize field recordings or other specialized niches on their shows.
This approach unnecessarily restricts the appeal of their shows, and limits the potential size of their audience, ultimately threatening the viability of their shows. It also does a disservice to old-time music by misrepresenting it as more narrow in scope than it really is. I'm continually amazed by how inclusive and wide-ranging old-time music is. A balance should be struck between these extremes that best fit the expectations of the potential audience, the ambitions of the station and the needs of the music showcased.
On my show I encourage feedback in the form of comments, song requests, play list requests, and music source inquiries. By planning my program in advance I can field telephone calls during the show, research the desires of my audience and craft my show accordingly. By providing easy access to the host I help to personalize my relationship with my listeners.
I vary my programming between Carter Family-style vocals, solo and group instrumental numbers spanning a full range of old-time instrumentation, new commercial performances of both traditional and original materials, archival and revival sources, home and field recordings, sacred and secular themes. . . you get the idea. In this way I can retain the interest of a broad segment of my potential audience by providing something especially appealing for them in variable intervals. At the same time my audience experiences a wide sampling of the various styles that make up old-time music.
I used to concentrate the various styles I presented into regular discrete segments in order to promote a regular listenership, even if that listenership was made up of audience segments that only tuned in to their favorite portion of the show. Now I program the show so the styles are more evenly dispersed throughout the program. My intent is to keep as many listeners as possible tuned in for the whole show or longer. In time this approach may change, too.
Individual programmers should decide what works best for their own circumstances, and what works best may well change over time. Part of the continuing challenge and excitement in radio involves this process of learning how best to serve the various constituencies that allow an old-time radio show to exist and flourish. The concerns of the station, the needs of the listeners and the programmer's responsibilities to the music are important parts of the programming process.