Picking Songs for the Radio

What should go on the playlist?

I don’t think I’ve met a person, of any age, who isn’t up for a spirited chat about songs on the radio.

Radio’s pretty pervasive in the UK. 89% of the population listen to at least five minutes a week and even 82% of 15-24s tune in at some point. Music makes up a large proportion of what’s played, so it’s no surprise everyone has an opinion.

So what’s the best way to pick songs for the radio?

The most successful radio stations in the world combine a few elements but good research is the key.

New music can’t really be tested. It’s hard for people unfamiliar with a song to say it’s going to be a hit. For those first plays you need people with knowledge and experience to decide whether it’s a good tune, but perhaps most importantly to give it context to listeners as to why they’re playing it on the radio. In newer music stations this might be on specialist shows, and if there’s a response it might grow to be played more (or put on the list to test). For more mainstream stations it’s about what should then go on the list to test.


Sadly, the most talented music scheduler on the planet is not a Jesus-like figure. Even with all of the experience in the world they are affected by their own likes and dislikes. It’s impossible to shake them off. Research gives you perspective. You’re free to ignore it, but at least you can be informed by it.

However, the hill I’m happy to die on is that if you think music research is somehow beneath you or merely ‘radio by accountants’, you are an arrogant fool. To make assumptions about your audience whilst refusing to talk to them shows hideous self-obsession.

Research methodology of course depends on your format, and I’m thinking about a mainstream station here, but broadly, you want to test two things - current songs and the back catalogue.

With current songs, you’re testing for familiarity, likability and burn (being sick of a song). For most formats, unfamiliar songs prompt tune out. People also, shock horror, like to hear their favourite songs. As familiarity grows its suitability to be added increases. Likability helps guide how frequently you will play it. As likability grows, so does the burn. As people start to get sick of a song, when do you ease off it or get off it?

Also important - who are you testing? Existing core listeners are important, they’re your bread and butter, but target listeners are also important too. If Radio Weasel targets 25 to 44s, knowing what they like is important, but seeing what all the 25-44s in the market may like and seeing what’s different, is how you’ll grow your audience. Going a stage further and finding out which songs listeners to your competitors like, will also help you segment the market and work out what you need to take them on (or indeed leave them alone).

As with the new music example at the top, you can’t really decide whether you like a song until you’re familiar with it. The talented music programmer has the confidence to keep playing a song with low familiarity waiting for it to start to break through.

All of this thinking is very similar for a radio station’s back catalogue. The scoring is the same, and the cross-tabs breaking down different age groups is still valid, though the testing is normally done infrequently as you might be reviewing 500 songs.

This can obviously be down to budget - can you afford to do it every 6 months, annually, even that? It can’t change that much can it?

I think back catalogue is where assuming you know your audience and really talking to them can show up big differences.

There’s a great bit of work been done by The Pudding looking at the popularity of songs by different age groups - they broke them down to Gen Z (13 to 22s), Millennials (23 to 38s), Gen X’s (39 to 54) and Boomers (55 to 73). They were really looking for whether respondents recognised songs. You can have a go on the test yourself here.

When I did the test I recognised Baby Baby by Amy Grant (as did 69% of my generation). Only 11% from Gen Z did. Probably no great surprise there.

Something like Hit em Up Style from Blu Cantrel has 53% recognition from both Millennials and Gen Xers, Gen Z though, well, only 19% of those 13 to 22s recognised it. Kiss played it 11 times last month, based on these numbers should it still come round? It’s important to note that this data is worldwide, so the UK figs might be very different.

Familiarity with songs is driven by what we consume in our teenage years.

So let’s look at a song like TLC and No Scrubs. It’s from 1999 and if you talk to people aged 12 then (34 now) it has 90% recognition, ask someone who was just born when it came out - then recognition drops to 50%. That’s the difference between a 34 year old and a 21 year old

If we use that 12 years old/0 years old metric, some songs have huge differences. Stay/Lisa Loeb has 80% recognition for people aged 12 when it came out to 10% for those who were just born. Spice Girls Wannabe meanwhile is at the other end with pretty much 100%/90% recognition. People still really really want it.

Which songs have recognition across all age groups from 13 to 73? Ie what should you be playing at the wedding disco? I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston, Never Gonna Give You Up - Rick Astley, My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion, Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen, We Are The Champions - Queen, Take On Me - A-Ha, Dancing Queen - ABBA, Y.M.C.A. - Village People and Happy Pharrell - Williams. They all have over 90% recognition by all ages (do they like them? Well that’s another question).

Knowing What To Test

Music testing, however, is only as good as what you test. If you don’t test enough songs, how do you know what’s cutting through?

Today, younger audiences in particular, are more likely to be siloed in their media consumption than ever before. The amount of time given to shared experiences - like in the past watching something like Top Of The Pops - has reduced significantly.

Watching the charts can still be useful, but the complexities of their compilation produce strange results. The impact of Spotify and streams has generated a longer pop cycle, with tunes sticking around in the charts longer than they would have done in the 80s and 90s. How much of that is laggard, older listeners getting onto songs popularised by younger audiences? Does that skew what your radio should be doing?

At the Gen Z end of things huge amounts of music discovery is coming from TikTok and as such is spreading globally, faster. Record companies often aren’t even repping songs that are already break out hits. For radio this can be especially dangerous as they miss tunes until they see they’re hits and they scramble to test.

Kiss Breakfast

Kiss launched a new breakfast show this morning with Jordan and Perri, the latter of which does pretty well on TikTok. Glancing through the songs they played (and they managed 15 to 17 an hour) there’s everything you would expect to hear, but I thought there also seemed to be a bit more of a TikTok influence than their other youth counterparts.

The 9am hour was a ‘vibe’ hour, which I thought was a good, different way to give yourself permission to play recurrents. Appearing in there were definitely a few specific TikTok tracks (songs that are used by video makers a lot in dances/sing-a-longs/memes). This included Dua Lipa with Don't Start Now and Lil Mosey with Blueberry Faygo. These are tracks that Capital have stopped playing and Radio 1 aren’t really on.

My guess would be that on the research that they start trending down for 25s to 34s, but still retain a lot of familiarity and positivity from the younger 13 to 19 year olds.

Adequately keeping an eye on these new sources, just as programmers did when looking at the charts, YouTube and Shazam previously, remains an essential part of being a music programmer. Whilst of course not being led too much by your own favourites and assuming Black Street’s No Diggity is as still as popular as you remember it.

Further Reading