Stars Are Releasing Singles Faster Than Ever. That’s a Problem for Radio
Pop radio program directors, the men and women whose decisions govern the casual consumption of 100 million listeners every week, are currently buried under an avalanche of Ariana Grande songs.
“I’ve got three currents and another two in recurrent [rotation],” says Nathan Graham, program director for the Philadelphia Top 40 station WTDY. “And I still want to play her older stuff — ‘Side to Side.’ I will literally play her every 15 minutes if I have all those titles in rotation.”
Grande is not the only artist forcing programmers to juggle multiple hits at once: At urban radio, which plays rap and a smattering of R&B, Cardi B is a presence on the top three singles this week, and she has a fourth release with Bruno Mars scurrying up the charts. In fact, this sort of ubiquity might be considered a prerequisite for modern stardom. Real juggernauts, from Drake to Post Malone to Grande to Cardi B, are a geyser of hits.
But for years, radio was focused on amplifying one single by an artist for weeks on end, extending the life of an album like Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream track by track for more than 18 months. Now program directors are scrambling to support multiple singles simultaneously. “The challenge is not whether to play a record that’s really popular that the listeners want,” explains Mark McCray, the VP of programming and operations for KBFB and KZMJ in Dallas. “The challenge is making sure those records are separated the best they possibly can be so the radio station doesn’t sound like ‘97.9, Cardi B radio.'”
The urban and rhythmic radio formats — rhythmic encompasses hip-hop, R&B, pop, an occasional dance hit and some Latin music — have already been trying to master this balancing act. “In the 2010s, a few times we’ve had several songs by popular artists all being in rotation at once,” explains McCray. (One of his charges, KBFB, is a rhythmic station.) “This has happened with Rihanna, with Drake several times, with Beyonce.”
But now pop radio, which reaches the most listeners of any format, is being forced to handle similarly fast release schedules. That’s because artists like Drake and Post Malone, who would be considered urban radio fare five years ago, have become so big that pop programmers have to at least try to play them. Not only that, rappers have been so successful with never-ending-waterfall release strategies that pop stars, including Grande, are trying to do the same thing.
“It’s a fairly new problem for us,” Graham acknowledges. “You used to have a single go for three months, then the next one. Now it’s a drop every other Thursday. [Grande]’s revolutionizing that for pop radio.”
What’s the big deal? Well, radio playlists are tighter than they once were — fewer songs are in rotation, so each spot is more heavily contested. And pop programmers center their attention on a tiny handful of songs. “A Top 40 radio station is playing five songs 120 times a week every week,” one longtime radio promotions veteran told Rolling Stone last year. Those spots traditionally go to a Swift or a Grande or an Ed Sheeran.
If each of those marquee artists start pushing four or five singles at once, that would make it difficult for anyone new to get major radio play. This can be especially dangerous at Top 40 radio, further decreasing variety in a format that’s already struggling with what one former promoter calls “lack of diversity.” “It’s hard to make room for other artists,” Graham acknowledges. “I have talks with labels all the time: I would love to get to your song, but when Ari is dropping something [or three somethings], or Bruno and Cardi are coming out, those take the place of other new songs.”
There’s another issue for radio when it comes to stars spewing singles. Programmers try to apply “archaic radio rules about artist separation,” according to Michael Martin, SVP of programming and music initiatives for Entercom, which owns over 200 radio stations in the U.S. “Artist separation” is the idea that, say, “we only wanna hear one Ariana per hour, or once every 40 minutes.” If she has five hits, adhering to this rule is no longer possible.
And while pop artists — or, more likely, their labels — were once concerned with how programmers would separate their singles, that may not be the case for much longer. Graham saw Taylor Swift buck the trend first when she released three singles in three months before Reputation. Justin Timberlake tried a similar strategy, gushing three singles in less than a month before Man of the Woods.
This can clog up the radio pipeline. “You may find that [pushing multiple singles to radio at once] reduces the overall spins for those songs as you’re trying to answer the question of artist separation rules,” says Terri Thomas, operations manager and program director for KMJQ (urban adult contemporary) and KBXX (mainstream urban) in Houston. “Then if an artist brings out a more mediocre song, even if they’re a core artist, you’re not in a rush to go and get that. I can totally see pop getting stressed about a gazillion Taylor records.”
This hasn’t hampered Grande, though. She had three radio hits from Sweetener, and two of those were still in regular rotation when she started the campaign for her next album. In the wake of Thank U, Next she has two of the top four hits at Top 40 radio — with more than 30,000 spins last week between them — and a third one climbing.
Graham thinks urban and rhythmic radio still have a tougher time than Top 40 when it comes to achieving separation in their playlists. That’s because of features. While it’s unusual for singers like Grande or Swift to contribute a guest verse on someone else’s hit — at least for now — this practice is common in rap.
Big Von, who handles the weekday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. shift at KMEL in San Francisco, calls this “hot-person syndrome.” And while this approach can help line the hot-person’s bank account for the time being, it can also backfire. “If you keep playing that person, you can burn them out,” Big Von says. “People will be like, ‘Fuck, I don’t want to hear this shit no more!'”
But nothing can stop Cardi B, who has two hits of her own, verses on hits by both City Girls and Pardison Fontaine, and another verse on the remix to Blueface’s hit “Thotiana.” And as more artists go on these multiple-hot-singles-at-once streaks, Entercom’s Martin suggests programmers might want to toss out the old rulebook. “Artist separation doesn’t mean what it used to mean,” he says. “Radio is supposed to reflect pop culture in real time — how the audience is consuming music at the rate they’re consuming music.”
This means that, moving forward, pop radio will likely be even more reflective of the streaming services. That’s a potential blow for those who believe diversity in listening is better for music, since streaming is highly concentrated — a statistic released by the data company BuzzAngle suggested that just 10 percent of tracks account for 99 percent of all streams in 2017.
But, as Martin puts it, “if the audience are shotgunning tunes, we have to reflect that.”
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