Answer Man

Overplaying new songs is an old radio tradition

Q. Can you explain why radio stations play new songs every hour all day until you can’t stand them anymore? Then it seems that you rarely if ever hear them again.

— J.R., of Belleville

A. Trust me, I’ve felt your pain. But if you’re in my generation you know this kind of thing has been going on since Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” ushered in the rock ’n’ roll era when it hit No. 1 on July 9, 1955.

I’m not exaggerating. Remember the scene in the movie “The Buddy Holly Story” when Buffalo, N.Y., disc jockey Madman Mancuso locks himself in his studio and plays “That’ll Be the Day” over and over until the police break in? That was pure fiction, but it was based on a real stunt. On July 3, 1955, DJ Tom Clay on WWOL-AM/FM, perched himself atop a billboard in Buffalo, N.Y.’s, Shelton Square and played “Rock Around the Clock” over and over until he came down — and was promptly fired.

My personal horror story came in the summer of 1964. Anybody with the slightest knowledge of rock music knows the Beatles had begun taking the U.S. by storm earlier that year. And older readers also know that the biggest (and just about only) source of pop/rock music back then was KXOK 630-AM. I still remember my weekly stops at The Record Bar on my walks home from Central Junior High to pick up the station’s Top-40 playlists with song lyrics on the back.

So it was mid-July when the Fab Four released “A Hard Day’s Night,” which I think KXOK played every 15 or 20 minutes for a couple of weeks. Oh, I know, it probably wasn’t quite that often but my family and I grew sick to death of it in a couple of days. I swear the nerve cells in my ears still bear the scars.

So why do they do it? I think I can boil it down to two basic reasons: A station has to strike while the iron is hot, and it has to please its audience to keep it tuned in.

I would argue that, like bread and milk, songs and performers have a certain shelf life for any station that doesn’t play an oldies format. Through research and music sales, stations must stay on top of what’s popular so listeners don’t suddenly say, “Oh, that is so yesterday” and turn the dial. As a result, as soon as, say, Taylor Swift or Maroon 5 issue their newest singles, stations are going to jump on those while slowly letting songs sliding down the Billboard chart fade. After all there are only 24 hours in a day to play those stacks of wax as they used to say.

It’s a sad and, as you’ve found, an annoying fact of life that extends to areas far afield of music. How many times do we see an athlete or politician burst on the scene only to disappear from the headlines? Remember when Gary Hart was the 1988 Democratic presidential frontrunner until his tryst with Donna Rice quickly turned him into yesterday’s news? Similarly, music stars may be on every magazine cover and talk show for a time but find themselves in the discount bin if they fail to keep producing hits. Most people seem to want what’s new and what’s hot.

So to keep those who want to stay on top of the latest music happy, stations are going to put trendy, newer songs into their rotation more often so listeners become familiar with them. This, of course, has led to established megastars (the Stones, Madonna, etc.) as well as lots of what-were-they-thinking? ( “Disco Duck,” “Convoy,” “Afternoon Delight,” etc.) There’s no telling what will catch the public’s momentary fancy, but a station must respond.

So, fine, play the new songs, but why so often? Simple: Stations want to please as many of their listeners as they can, but most people do not listen for hours at a stretch unless they’re trapped in a dentist’s office or supermarket. Instead, a certain segment may tune in early in the morning. Another may listen during the lunch hour. Still others may want to jog to it in the afternoon or relax in the evening. To make sure all of these groups hear the new songs, the station must play them at all times or risk its popularity.

So while you may hear a certain song many times because of your listening habits, the station likely is betting that most listeners will hear it just once or twice a day. Some wise guy on Quora figured out scientifically that a station must play a song dozens of times a week for its primary listeners to hear it just three times each. I’ll spare you the equations, but you can find it at www.quora.com/Why-do-radio-stations-over-play-songs if you’re interested.

Now, if only I could solve an even more annoying headache: Why must we be buried in daily presidential polls 14 months before the election? Alas, I fear some questions are unanswerable.

Today’s trivia

What musical instrument can you play without making any physical contact with it?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Remember the addictive aroma of Testor’s model airplane glue? Unfortunately, unlike chocolate or freshly baked apple pie, sniffing it for long periods and in concentrated amounts can be harmful and even deadly. It contains toluene, a toxic hydrocarbon that can negatively affect just about every system in the body. In the 1960s alone, there were at least 110 cases of sudden death from this type of solvent abuse. So with increasing reports of youngsters buying the product just for the “high,” the Rockford-based company in 1968 began adding the pungent oil of mustard to discourage sniffing. Abuse of the company’s product reportedly quickly fell — as did sales, apparently showing how prevalent the problem had become. Since then, however, hundreds around the world have suffered similar fate using other substances.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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