What ‘Play More Variety’ Really Means

“We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.” – Bono

I’ve been reading some interesting comments and observations lately that brought me to a thought: Are we asking the right questions?

Even though this is going to take more than a minute, let’s start with the question of why people like to ask that question and draw the inference that it means a larger playlist. Let’s understand what “variety” means to a listener.

First, you have to remember this is a question that always has the same answer as, “Would you like to have more money?  Or more health? Or more happiness?  More time with your kids? Or more upbeat music?

The answer is always yes.

Alright, done deal.  Let’s get my favorite bands, “Hercules and the Chicken Fat People” back on the air!

But that’s not what they’re saying, it’s just what we want to hear.  My experience is that they’re thinking “More variety of myfavorite songs.”  Not your favorite songs, or my friends’ favorite songs and not even everybody’s favorite songs.  Theirfavorite songs.

The challenge is that “everyone” seems to have 200-250 songs in common.  After that the glue that holds an audience together – consensus songs – begins to break down.

John Frost and I were once working with a station that was having huge complaints about music repetition. I read some of the comments, and noticed some of the complaints were about current songs.  So, we recommended that to reduce the complaints about repetition they should cut their playlist.  You can imagine the look on their faces.

So, we did a music test, and found the 200-250 songs their listeners in their market loved…and cut the playlist.  And complaints dropped dramatically.  What listeners were really saying was that there were certain songs they didn’t like, so playing them once or twice was too much repetition.  They never complained about “I Can Only Imagine”.

Which reminds me of those great older songs you never hear on the radio.  The format’s been around since the 70’s. Listenership grew dynamically from 2000 up, so all those 70’s 80’s and 90’s songs are poorly produced unfamiliar songs compared to the favorites.

If you’ve ever been to a Christian radio test you’ve noticed the listeners rarely rate a song in the hate or dislike range.  They’re just not going to give a thumbs down to a song about Christ.  So, they rate it in the middle, where neutral and lack of emotion lives, proof of our theory that when it comes to our music, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

Which effectively means adding all that variety reduces the passion for the station.  Which is rarely the goal.  So, the answer to more variety lies in your music testing…and being OK with playing the music your listeners love.


With over forty years of experience in radio management, Alan has a passion for people. He’s been influential in several formats, including Smooth Jazz and Contemporary Christian. Most recently, he served as President for Educational Media Foundation.

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