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I Like The Safe List, Because It Isn’t Always Safe

Cyndi Lauper Time After TimeIt began because Mike Riccio, moderator of a New York oldies message board, had asked me to vote in an annual “Top 77 of All Time” countdown. Because the countdown was mostly ‘60s and ‘70s, the songs that topped last year’s countdown weren’t necessarily radio staples anymore, but they were certainly the songs that used to be—“Hey Jude,” “Suspicious Minds,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “American Pie”—and a few like “Piano Man” that still are.

Trying to come up with ten songs or even list an all-time favorite is always arbitrary. I can’t promise you it means anything more than ten favorite songs that I conjure at this moment from a universe of thousands. So it was an interesting exercise, looking for oldies-era songs that were big enough not to be a wasted vote (e.g., not “Shake” by Shadows of Knight) on a list that was mostly hits. When I worked my way down last year’s list, I started to see things like “I Fought The Law” that were big enough to vote for, and that I had somehow never gotten tired of.

Then I wondered what kind of all-time favorites list would I put together if I were working with the songs that are radio’s most-played now? I went to the top 300 most-played songs in all the major formats that had a significant gold library—Classic Rock, Classic/Adult Hits, Mainstream AC, Adult R&B, Country. I also went to the top 100-150 or so of those formats that are less library-based—Mainstream CHR, Hip-Hop/R&B, Rhythmic CHR, Hot AC.

This is what I found:

There aren’t that many songs, even among the megahits, that I truly can’t listen to anymore. I came up with that list a few years ago, then asked for yours. They tended to be a handful of songs shared between Classic Hits, Adult Hits, Classic Rock, and Mainstream AC—often at the rate of 10x (or more, sometimes a lot more) per station: “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” “Jack And Diane,” “In The Air Tonight,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” etc. As a programmer, I have no trouble playing them in power rotation for an audience that has no such issues. But they’re hard for me to sit through, even monitoring a client station.

There are far more megahits that I can still listen to, there’s just no excitement in hearing them anymore—“Tainted Love,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Take On Me,” etc.

There is still plenty within the “dreaded top 300” of most gold-based formats—that area where programmers consider themselves to be playing songs that are ratified by other radio stations in major-markets and thus safe—that I still actively enjoy hearing. I’d increased my chances by including multiple formats, but there’s no format where I would have had a problem voting a top 10, even if I restricted myself to crowd-pleasers.

And while this might thus far seem like an exercise in deep music geekery, there is actually a radio programming realization or two in all this, specifically:

There are only a few songs that have been rendered unlistenable for me, because there are only a few songs that have the critical mass to become so. In the PPM era, programmers have doubled down on a relative handful of songs. In the same way that I find I have rarely come across any song at CHR that has not yet reached the top 15, all formats are more heavily pyramided these days in terms of what you will actually hear. For that reason…

There is a lot on the “safe list” that is not really safe. Even though some broadcasters and even non-industry people still use “top 300” as a synonym for “safe and often overplayed hits,” other readers are likely to think that 300 titles is too large a consideration set these days. But even if I had gone only to 200 songs, there are a lot of titles that I don’t think of as always-reliable crowd-pleasers after seeing more than 15 years of music research.

To some extent, there are a lot of records that radio has just always decided to play. In the mid-‘00s, when Oldies/Classic Hits was becoming a ‘70s-based format, you could count on seeing a half-dozen ‘70s Chicago titles among the most-played, but I never saw anything similar in my testing at the format. These days, it’s ‘80s Huey Lewis & the News titles that PDs force in because they are fun, uptempo, and seemingly format-defining, even though they don’t test proportionately well with listeners.

“Don’t Come Around Here No More” is one of my favorite Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers songs, but I’ve seen only a handful of playable tests on it, even after Petty’s death. But it’s a top 200 song at Classic Rock this week. Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” was always a song you could count on not to test, no matter how reliably “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” and “You Give Love A Bad Name” were dominating a music test’s front page. This year, I finally saw a good test or two on “Bad Medicine,” and as late ‘80s/early ‘90s kids get to vote more, that may happen more frequently. But it still surprised me to see it lurking just below Classic Rock’s most-played top 200.

Airplay on songs that are middling or poor testers can be inflated because of tempo. Looking through the most-played songs in various formats, it is often inflated on newer songs (which is to say ‘90s and ‘00s) at formats like AC where those eras are relatively thin, so that a station can fill up a category. And then there is the false promise of the safe list itself—look at a monitor of a format’s most-played or even major-market stations you trust—and you’re looking at results from some stations that may have done research, but also guesses based on other people’s guesses.

Regular readers know that I’m in favor of “hits plus”—enough hits to allow yourself an occasional spike, enough spikes to keep the hits fresh. But that begins with knowing what the hits are. As somebody who works in music research, I’m not an entirely neutral observer, but I also recognize that those stations that don’t do it are getting a skewed view of listener preference.

Meanwhile, here’s my all-format top 20, at least for today, of songs that are among radio’s most-played, in some format. Not all are powers, but a few are, starting with….

  1. Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”
  2. Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way”
  3. Guy, “I Like”
  4. Toni Basil, “Mickey”—always a favorite, but never a “safe list” song until recently
  5. Journey, “Any Way You Want It”
  6. Adele, “Rolling In The Deep”
  7. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf”
  8. TLC, “No Scrubs”
  9. Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down”
  10. Taio Cruz, “Dynamite”
  11. Kenny Chesney, “All The Pretty Girls”—pleasantly surprised to see this as an enduring hit at Country instead of just the quality song that was allowed to be a single eventually
  12. Blink-182, “What’s My Age Again?”
  13. Prince, “Raspberry Beret”
  14. Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride”
  15. Mary J. Blige, “Real Love”
  16. Lady Gaga, “Poker Face”
  17. Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  18. Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
  19. Al Green, “Love And Happiness”
  20. MGMT, “Electric Feel”

I chose these songs from about 150 candidates. Check out the entire playlist on Spotify.

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  1. paxman356 says

    Nice list. There were a couple there I hadn’t heard before, but a quick listen and I approve… until this:

    Taio Cruz, “Dynamite”

    Sean, please, blink twice if you are in trouble. I mean, it’s not unalienable, but it’s just so generic to me.

  2. Sean Ross says

    When “Dynamite” was new, it was the perfect hit single at a great moment for Top 40 music. Then it was overexposed on the radio and at every party/event. Then there were a hundred similar party rock anthems. But like “Rolling In The Deep,” I can enjoy it again at its current rate of airplay.

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