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What Can Callout Do In 2019

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to current music rotations and the role of callout research vs. other metrics.

When pop music was at its worst last year, callout couldn’t do much for PDs except to confirm that 18-month-old songs, even mid-charters, were better than the currents that you might be holding out any hope for. Watching “No Promises” or “Let Me Go” creep back into power just confirmed it. These bringbacks weren’t “Red Red Wine” or “What I Like About You”—great overlooked songs that eventually became the smashes we always thought they were—they were just the best of what’s left.

Things are decidedly better now. There’s more tempo and excitement. PDs are willing to play more than one song from a hot artist—at least if it’s Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, or Camila Cabello. Post Malone is in a better mood. The glut of summer releases had barely slowed before we started to get the next rush of product queuing up for Q4, even if holiday sales mean less in a streaming world.

Programmers are still inconsistent with the way they bring new music through the system. Some songs move into a “power new” category almost immediately, but others confound. Just as the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” graduated to power rotation, “Cool” came along and quickly perched right below the top 10. Then “Only Human,” an even better radio record, seemed to go on to a more traditional “waiting to be ratified by callout” track. “Human” seems like the kind of song that will be ratified by callout eventually, but it felt like radio missed the excitement of a summery record with tempo by a star act.

Likewise, some other artists who might have been well represented by more than one song on the radio never got there. Shawn Mendes deserved both his slots at radio, but why couldn’t they deal with more than one Lizzo song, given her obvious stardom? Why wait to see if Taylor Swift’s “Lover” or “The Man” is the next single if Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits is featuring both? Why does the willingness to deal with two at once only there if the label asks radio to play two at once, as they did this week with Camila Cabello? When there are only 18 songs in play at CHR, is there not room for a nineteenth?

To some extent, the questions of how to develop new songs, and how to use callout, comes down to radio’s relationship with streaming. Is it a valid early warning system? The new request line? Still a metric manipulated by label bots on behalf of R-rated Hip-Hop novelties that wouldn’t sound right on your station anyway?

I threw the question “what can callout do in 2019” out to Facebook friends. Australia-based consultant Craig Bruce best summarized the discussion with his answer. “The fact that no one has the definitive answer on how to value streaming vs. research is a challenge for anyone with a CHR. All I know is that we have to think differently because the consumer model has changed and radio is now a part of the machine, not the center of it.”

Here’s what I’m thinking now:

If I were a program director at a current-based station, I would still definitely want to see callout. I absolutely believe in knowing what the hits are. And although I do make my living from music research, I’m not directly involved in callout these days, so it goes beyond being pro-research.

I don’t know if research can still be the absolute arbiter of whether any song belongs on radio for more than three weeks. Many programmers will tell you that it never was. But we’re in a good place if “You Need To Calm Down” can find its perch and sound good on the radio for seven weeks without having to worry too much about whether it’s a “real hit.” The strength of a format’s current music isn’t its powers, it’s whether there’s a steady stream of available “B”s, and that’s a big part of what got better this year.

I don’t think “power rotation” is as simple as taking the top 3-4 testers anymore, especially if those songs are in different places in their lifecycle. At this point, “Senorita” and “Sucker” do different things for the radio station—both have strength, one has tempo, one still has freshness. Are they still most useful in the same rotation? Ideally, powers have both hit insurance and excitement. If “Dancing With A Stranger”—or some other now neutral record—bounces back into your top three for a week, it’s a safe thing to play, but is it a power?

I still like callout best when it ratifies programmer enterprise on new music. When PDs take it upon themselves to find prospective hits, there is more for callout to do, rather than decide between “Let Me Go” and “No Promises.” Programmers don’t like to ratify the stories that Sirius XM or streaming creates because it legitimizes the competition. Fine. Find your own stories. And, as Jay Lawrence of Newfoundland’s CHOZ notes, use callout to hold on to the right songs regardless of what happens nationally.

As for streaming, I’ve found it most helpful when it ratifies common sense. Of course, radio should be acknowledging new superstar product right away. Of course, radio should play more than one song by Lizzo. Of course, U.S. PDs should be aware of “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I. One secret of reading Today’s Top Hits is that “Dance Monkey” and, say, “Bruises” by Lewis Capaldi, are already international hits ratified by radio elsewhere. They’re songs that U.S. radio once would have found sooner through its own enterprise.

Those are my thoughts on callout vs. streaming in 2019. What are yours?

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  1. Steve Varholy says

    I’d always welcome more data.

    As you said, we are in an age where the public can discover music as fast or faster than a radio station that relies on research and what the label is pushing.

    The audience will tell you the hits. You just need to know where to look and how to evaluate the information.

  2. Sean Ross says

    Thanks, Steve. Going back to the early days of callout, the idea was always that the active audience would be represented anyway. What we’ve had for the last few years–as some actives turn to streaming, not the request line–to voice their choice is a number of formats where only passive listeners get to vote.

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