Paper cite:

   Burns, J. E. (April, 1996). The creation and following of public opinion: A history of music choice in radio programming.
Paper presented at the Central States Communication Association annual convention, St. Paul, MN.
Paper presented at Central States Communication Association annual convention, St. Louis, MO.

© Copyright 1997 Joseph E. Burns, Ph.D.


The Creation and Following of Public Opinion:
A History of Music Choice in Radio Programming


There is a belief in the music and radio industries, that radio airplay has the ability to make songs hits and, in turn, create sales. This paper discusses the history of how music radio programmers, and the music industry, selected songs for airplay. Those songs that were chosen were the songs that were given the ability to become the next hits. Audience involvement in this selction of new music is also discussed. Audience input has come full circle from no involvement, to the directing of what music to play, and back to little, if any, involvement today.


     Music radio programmers have a belief that radio airplay has the ability to make songs "hits" (Maxwell, 1995; Novia, 1995; Kinosian, 1995; Kojan, 1993; Breen 1991). This belief has been upheld in academic research throughout radio's history. Early books such as The Psychology of Radio (Cantril & Allport, 1935) and The People Look at Radio (Lazarsfeld & Field, 1946) applaud the medium's ability to make music popular. Later texts by Claude (1979), Rich (1990), and Keith (1991) continue to uphold the belief. It has also been suggested that radio's hit-making ability is not unlike agenda setting with stations possessing the ability to impress a specific rank order of song popularity (Burns, 1995). If radio does have this ability, then the choice of what songs to play on air is an important one. Those songs are given the airplay that may enable them to become the next big hit.

      This purpose of this paper is to attempt to trace radio programming's methods for choosing what songs to play. In addition, the listening audience's influence on those decisions will be discussed.

     It is important first to illustrate a constant variable throughout the life of music radio, the music industry song-plugger.

     The song-plugger was, and still is, the go-between for music companies and radio programmers. The job consists of aquiring radio airplay for music company product. The logic of the song-plugger dictated that the more times a song was played, the better chance it had of becoming a hit and selling copies.

     Radio has always been seen as the catalyst for those sales (Maxwell, 1994; Shallett, 1990; Baldwin & Mizerski, 1985; MacDougald, 1941). This logic created the position of song-plugger in the late 1930s (Lazarsfeld, 1941). Although then the concept was to sell sheet music rather than records or CDs.

     Academic research regarding song-pluggers from the 40s upheld the belief that radio airplay made for sales of music. Wiebe (1940) and Erdelyi (1940) both found evidence that the more songs were plugged, the better the chance the song will be popular and sell sheet music. Peatman (1942-43) stated that no less than 10 weeks of airplay were required on the show Your Hit Parade for a song to reach hit status.

     No better research project was created to demonstrate radio's perceived selling power than the 1941 ASCAP versus BMI court case (Lazarsfeld & Stanton, 1942-43). With ASCAP banned from network and most independent stations, BMI was the sole supplier of music to radio. ASCAP represented Tin Pan Alley's music and represented most songs that made it to music charts. Yet during the time that ASCAP music received no airplay, BMI swept Variety magazine's "Best Sellers of 1941" list (Variety, 1941).

     Proprietary and academic research results have solidified the position of song-plugger and it has remained a viable and well documented position through music radio's payola scandals of the 1950's (Smith, 1989), the rise of AM rock in the 60's (Passman, 1971), the rise of FM in the 70's (Staff, 1973), and the modern radio formats (MacFarland, 1990). Today the position is better known as record representative or promoter (Keith, 1991).

     Throughout music radio's history, the decision of what songs to play has remained a central question. Regarding new music choice, MacFarland (1972) writes that if a radioprogrammer makes correct music choices, he or she can do just about everything else incorrectly and still have a competitive radio station.

     The question of whether to involve the audience in the decision of what music to play, and by what criteria a song is chosen, has not been as constant through history as the song-plugger variable. In the early days of radio, late 1920s through the mid 1940s, music was not the dominate product on radio as it is today (Lazarsfeld & Kendall, 1948). In 1938 music on the radio covered slightly better than half of air time (Peatman, 1942-43). A station that broadcast music exclusively, such as WNYC in New York, was seen as the exception rather than the rule (Lazarsfeld & Stanton, 1941).

     During this time in music radio's history, the choice of what music to play rested solely in the hands of the radio programmers. The influence of new music popularity, public opinion, moved from the radio to the public as people looked to the radio to hear, and learn, what was popular (Peatman, 1941). Music research and audience participation in the process was virtually non-existent for two reasons.

     First, radio was network oriented. Decisions of what music was broadcast, except for a few locally produced hours, were made by the networks (Claude, 1977). Local stations simply carried what was sent over the phone lines. Network programs were also often created by advertising agencies as a vehicle to sell product (Wrzesinski, 1979). Listener satisfaction was measured in sales rather than requests or research.

     The second reason is the sheer number of songs played each evening. Early music radio played a tremendous variety of music rather than certain songs over and over again (Peatman, 1942-43). There was not a regular playlist to create so the audience needent be contacted to gather information regarding what people deemed popular. The large variety music was meant to cover the various tastes of the audience members. The average number of songs broadcast each evening in 1941 was more than 350. Some of today's music radio stations have entire music libraries smaller than that (Pavia, 1983; Alexander, 1994; Kelly, 1994).

     The exception to this type of programming was Lucky Strike's Your Hit Parade, which aired from 1935 until 1953 (Hickerson, 1992). It was the first of many countdown-chart style shows.

     Your Hit Parade was a network program that played the 10 most popular songs of the week (MacFarland, 1979). What songs were most popular was determined based on sheet music sales, jukebox plays, requests to orchestra leaders and radio performances (Peatman, 1942-43).

     It might appear that the choice of what to play was taken out of the hands of programmers and put into the hands of the public. However Peatman (1942-43) points out that radio still influenced the audience by introducing new music rather than reacting to public tastes. The research data that Your Hit Parade collected always showed that songs had received significant airplay before turning up in the research totals. Erdelyi's (1940) provided evidence from his own research that significant airplay must have occurred before the public was aware of the latest songs.

     The arrival of television was responsible for radio's first major transition in programming, and Your Hit Parade, was the model for the change. As networks turned their attention, and ultimately their funds toward television, money for orchestras, writers, and network programs was cut. Music radio was forced to begin paying for itself as a local medium (Wrzesinski, 1979).

     The record was the technology that provided the solution to music radio's money troubles (Claude, 1977). The record lowered costs and could be played again and again. Orchestra were no longer needed. The next step was an announcer who would play these records and talk to the local audience. The disc jockey was born (Ennis, 1992; Morthland, 1992).

     Contrary to popular belief, the disc jockeys of the early 50's were not doing a top 40 style format. That came later, and would ultimately contribute, along with the payola scandles, to the personality disc jockey's demise (Smith, 1989).

     The disc jockeys of the early 1950s, the personality jocks, affected how music choice was made. Disc jockeys were responsible for their own shows. They alone decided what music would be played (Passman, 1971). Now the role of picking music was in the hands of one person, and that one person was more in touch with his, and sometimes her, audience than ever before.

     This was also the time of "race" records, songs recorded by African-American artists, and white artist covers of those songs. (Morthland, 1992; Christgau, 1992). It is important to remember here that the race records were not plugged by record companies with the same vigor, or if at all, as records by white artists. But it was the race records that would provide a turning point for the audience's involvement in new music choice.

     There were many disc jockeys, but one in particular, Alan Freed, epitomized the new flow of public opinion in music choice. Freed was a disc jockey on WJW in Cleveland, Ohio and was playing white artist records in much the same way other jocks. When a local record dealer informed Freed of his sales, he reported it was not the white cover records that were selling, but rather the race records (Morthland, 1992a).

     Freed began programming race records against the wishes of the song-pluggers, and the Moondog Show began playing what its audience wanted to hear rather than what Freed wanted the audience to hear (Ennis, 1992; Smith, 1989).

     Other disc jockys followed and the audience, now mostly young people, had a vioce in what was played. They could suggest a song by either purchasing it or calling the radio station. The flow of opinion between radio and audience had turned. The audience was now dictating to one person, the disc jockey, what should be played. For the first time, the audience was a driving force regarding music decisions.

     The Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University interviewed disc jockeys and music industry professionals to investigate the position's influence on popular music. McPhee, Ennis, and Meyersohn (1953) concluded that the disc jockey was a follower rather than a leader of public opinion.

     Disc jockeys of the 50s were known for holding dances and introducing talent from the area (Smith, 1989). They researched the music tastes of their listening audience in order to gain insight into what was popular, but popularity was not the only motivation for airplay. Song pluggers were beginning to offer money and gifts for playing a certain record.

     The payola hearings of the early 1960s ended the personality disc jockeys and their brand of music radio (Morthland, 1992a). Listeners barely noticed because a new form or radio programming was drawing audiences. It was called formula radio, or Top 40, and it was taking the process of choosing new music back out of the hands of the audience (MacFarland, 1979; Wrzesinski, 1979).

     Todd Storz is credited with creating formula radio after watching a waitress put quarters in a jukebox all day and only play a small number of songs again and again (Ennis, 1992; Smith, 1989). Stortz compiled data from music sales and audience requests and created a playlist of the top 40 songs. The test station, KOWH in Omaha, began to play the list of songs over and over.

     The format was successful and spread quickly to stations in New Orleans and Kansas City. Soon radio stations outside of the Storz radio chain, such as the Bartelli stations, repeated the format and continued its spread through the country (MacFarland, 1979).

     The model of research put forth by Your Hit Parade was used extensivly in the early 1960s. Radio had become much like the jukebox Storz witnessed in creating his format. Broadcasting magazine (October 16, 1972) proclaimed 1960s radio nothing more than a long hit parade of the air.

     The 1960s saw some specialization of music formats and the concept of large scale radio promotions was created, but for the most part, radio "marked time" with its formula winning ratings (Passman, 1971, p. 257).

     It again took a new technology to reinvent radio programming and the way songs were chosen for airplay. By the early 1970s FM radio was beginning to abandon classical music to play a new brand of formula radio (Staff, 1973; Staff, 1976). The decade saw new research connections with the listening audiences and a technological return to the networks of the 1940s.

     A new form of music research, the call-out interview, was started (Balon, 1991). Listeners were contacted and a portion of a song was played for them. They would then rate the song. This call-out method was also new in that an audience member did not have to purchase a record or call the station to be counted in the music research. The station was now contacting them.

     However, the early 1970s also offered a glimpse back to the days of network radio. Drake-Chenault Enterprises, along with 17 other companies, began having success marketing automated formats (Staff, 1974). Stations subscribing to these services purchased recordings of the songs the company perceived were popular. An automation system would then play the songs according to the order set up by the company. Again, as in the 40s, the choice of new music was completely in the hands of the programmer and without input from local listeners.

     The 1970s also offered a glimpse back to the days of the personality disc jockey with free-form FM formats (Pond, 1987). Input of what to play came from everywhere and so did the music. The new FM band was experimenting and offering new forms of radio programmming and new music research..

     Toward the end of the decade, radio began to take on a shape resembling what we know today. Broadcasting magazine announced a trend in programming termed "specialization" (Staff, 1977, p. 115). Stations began programming not only the hits, but specific types of hits. Formats such as Black, MOR, Progressive, and Oldies were being programmed more regularly

     In 1987 Steve Pond, a writer for Rolling Stone, asked the question, what's wrong with radio?. Pond was reacting in the same vein as many other critics, listeners and programmers. The 1980s had taken music research to its most precise levels. Music radio had become "safe" radio (Rutkowski, 1989, p. 11).

     Pond attributed the creation of highly researched, very conservative, formatics to a relatively new position, the consultant (Pond, 1987).

     Pond was not alone. A radio trade paper, Radio and Records published articles reacting to the trend away from local research and back to network style programming (Helton, 1985; Helton 1985a).

     Consultants took the position of the network. They chose what records were played, or had a very strong hand in the decision. Rothenbuhler (1985) quoted a midwestern programmer as saying "Let's call god in Atlanta," before having to run his playlist picks past the consultant.

     Radio playlists became very short in the 1980s (Ross, 1988). Garrett (1989) wrote that country music playlists were down to as few as 25 songs in rotation, a significant drop from 40. In addition, consultants tended to program music after someone else in the market waiting for another stations to break, or first play, a record (Ross, 1988a). The logic was to allow another station in the market to familiarize a song for you. Once the song was familiar, it was safe to play.

     This led to relativly few consulants and major market stations undertaking research for the remainder of the business. The consultant would not play a record until the larger market station broke it first. (Negus, 1993; Rutkowski, 1989).

     Such practices created very slow-moving playlists that continued to play the same songs until someone else took the chance and played a new record (Wood, 1990).

     Kelliher (1981) studied this process of programming records in terms of gatekeeping and found that industry orientations including, artist familiarity, consultants, and record promoters were what made up the decision making process. The audience was offered very limited involvement. Keith (1991) wrote that 1980s music choice relied heavily on national radio playlist charts and trade publication information. The audience was seldom consulted.

     The 1980s took the research that had become popular in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and moved it to centralized locations. Consultants would attempt to pin-point national trends, and then advise their local stations to act upon the results.

     Although this is more efficient than each station performing its own research, centralized research moved the new music decision process farther away from the audience that would hear it. Local audience dynamics were not taken into account and network style programming became the norm.

     The question of what new songs should be played, and how they should be selected, is still being debated today. Industry publications carry articles every week about how another station creates its playlist.

     Although it is still be too early to make broad statements about the 1990s, some methods are proving to be most popular.

     The role of the consultant has changed. Consultants are being hired as more of a sounding board for ideas rather than a dictator (Alexander, 1994). They are being hired for their ability to offer suggestions and research in the local markets rather than national (Kinosian, 1994; Helton, 1994; Denver, 1994). Consultants are even selling themselves as contributors (Stark, 1991).

     The song-plugger, or record promoter as it is called today, is still involved in the process to varying degrees (Alexander, 1993; Kojan, 1991; Love 1994).

     Research is still heavily discussed, but not in terms of new music. Research, especially call-out research, is being used after a song has been added to a playlist (Alexander, 1994a). Harris (1994) describes music research as a valuable tool for interpreting the past, but not as good a tool for predicting the future of music popularity.

     Requests are not receiving as much weight as they have in the past. They are described as biased information coming from only a small active portion of the audience (Denver. 1991; Harris, 1994).

     The catch-phrase in the choice of music, across formats, seems to be "gut instinct" (Denver, 1993, p. 34; Love, 1994a; Alexander, 1993a). New music choices are made by drawing on past radio experience. Research is used for checking new song picks for mistakes.

     Some, like Love (1993), criticize particular formats for a conservative nature, while others formats such as New Rock or Alternative pride themselves on large playlists (Alexander, 1993a). The 90s are offering listeners a very wide array of differently programmed stations.

     One hold-over from the 1980s is the almost complete lack of audience involvement in choosing new music. Research, as stated above, has been moved to testing records after they have been added (Kojan, 1992). Programmers are proclaiming their ability to make their own choices, and the choices are being made without the audience involved.

     The above discussion makes many generalizations and there are exceptions to these statements such as stations now holding call-in hours where listeners rate records (Love, 1993a). But for the most part, the audience has very little, if any, involvement in the choice of new music. Kinosian (1992) quotes a programmer attributing this to economic reasons. It would be costly to go on a listener's whim.

     This is not criticism of the lack of listener involvement in choosing new music. Research holds that the medium has been very successful in choosing their music and impressing popularity on an audience.

     As stated earlier, there is a belief in the business of music radio that radio has the ability to make songs popular. But in order for that song to be made popular it must first be selected.

     It stands to reason that if a song is chosen with input from the audience and then becomes popular, the process can be seen as a somewhat equal distribution of opinion influence. The audience helped make the original decision to play the record through whatever research was conducted.

     However, if a song is chosen for airing with no input from the audience, as is happening today, and that song becomes popular, then a hypothesis can be drawn that the influence of music popularity opinion is again flowing from the medium to the audience. Research should then be performed to measure the strength of that influence.


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