Radio doubles down on non-discovery

An interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes the divide between the music-discovery advantage of music services compared to radio, but also spotlights what might be an odd competitive advantage of radio’s increasingly narrow playlists.

Citing metrics from Mediabase, the WSJ discovered that the top songs of 2013 were repeated twice as much on the radio as the top songs of 2003. The programming tactic, according to the WSJ, is based on research showing that listeners want to hear what they know, and are more likely to tune away from unfamiliar music. Putting aside the chicken-or-egg conundrum inherent in that reality, the strategy seems to work. One consequence of keeping hits on the air longer is that artists are discouraged from bringing new material to market at the same pace they did a decade ago, delaying new music releases.

Strategy aside, some of the repetition trend can be attributed to structural changes in the broadcasting field — the number of Top 40 stations has increased, while rock and jazz specialty stations have dropped in number, which would certainly affect playlist trends. But that industry trend itself must be driven by consumer preference for familiar hits, at least on the broadcast side of the listening fence.

Hit-driven music consumption is not foregin to online music services, despite their huge on-demand song catalogs. The top stream charts in any of those services are more or less identical not only to each other, but to Top 40 radio playlists. Last year Spotify released the startling fact that 20 percent of its music catalog was never played by a single user. So the vaunted “long tail” is great for adventurous listeners, but deep discovery is not necessarily a mainstream value.

Brad Hill


  1. I’ve always liked that quote, and I get what you mean — that this research could be used by radio to justify narrower playlists.

  2. It’s true as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. I don’t think you fight choice with less choice. I think you fight it with more curation, experience extensions… I suppose that’ why they make chocolate and vanilla;)

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