Don’t Overthink It!

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Consultant Tips” series, written by Charese Fruge on May 26, 2020

Charese FrugeAs the nation begins to slowly re-open for business after the lockdown from Covid-19, I have more and more conversations with Program Directors who are concerned about the tempo, messaging and “fit” of new music on their radio stations. Most of them are looking for up-beat “sun shiny type” pop songs as the summer approaches and the death toll and economic impact of the virus continues to increase. And while I completely understand the concerns, I’ve been a programmer for over 20 years, and I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) not to overthink things. Some of the biggest hits in the world are down tempo ballads or extremely deep songs, or even songs that got their start in an unexpected format because someone decided to take a chance on them.

Last week I witnessed an online Facebook debate about whether or not KROQ in Los Angeles should be playing Post Malone’s “Circles.” What’s the problem? The song is a hit, great for cume, and Post Malone is not exactly a stretch for the Alternative format. Hell, some Alternative stations have even successfully played Adele in the past. Let’s not forget that KROQ was one of the first stations in the country to play “Hey Ya!” by OutKast and KXTE in Las Vegas was one of the first stations to play “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Mass appeal songs cross formats all the time. Think about Lorde and Billie Eilish, originally Alternative artists, and now massive on all relevant formats.I’d hate to think what would have happened if programmers had ignored Prince’s “Purple Rain,” or Adel’s “Hello” or Lauren Daigle’s “You Say,” just because of the tempo or content. What about Bruno Mars “When I was Your Man,” Rihanna’s “Must Be Love On Brain,” Taylor’s “Lover,” and OMG, what if we had ignored Ed Sheeran’s very first single “A Team” or even “Thinking Out Loud” because of tempo or content?

Sometimes we overthink the lyrics or the message of a song and even the tempo too much. A good example of that is something I’ve experienced in my own career that was a little bit of an inside-out situation. Back in the day, when I first got my hands on John Mayer’s “Heavier Things” album, I fell in love with a single called “Daughters” The first single the label released on the album wasn’t really kicking in so I decided to start playing “Daughters” on my own. As expected, the phones were literally blowing up and women were in LOVE with this song. To my dismay, about a week in with me playing this song, I got a call from both the head of promotion of Columbia Records at the time and John Mayer himself asking me not to play the song anymore because John didn’t want it to be a single. He felt like it made him look like a sissy (in so many words). The good news for me was that I wasn’t one to program for politics or label agendas. My focus was to program for the demo of an Adult Top 40 radio station. There was no way I was going to have introduced a song with so much instant reaction by the audience to them and then stop playing it for them because John didn’t want it to be a single. Fast forward to a few months later and it was a Number 1 record for the format and John took home two Grammy’s for it Including “Song of The Year.”

There are so many stories like this I could share and I know I’m not the only programmer who has them. What it boils down to is, the success of a song on a radio station is equal to the amount of commitment it gets from Program and Music Directors. If the song is powerful enough, it will generate sales, streams, buzz, etc. And right now while people are using music to heal their souls during this crazy pandemic, it’s important not to overthink things like tempo and “fit.” There is a song out there right now called “Surrender” by Natalie Taylor that exploded on TikTok. It’s a beautiful, slow and deep song, and some programmers are nervous about it. But it BLEW UP on TikTok, so we know it’s making a connection and moving the needle with a very active audience. There is also an amazing song out there right now by James Blunt called “The Greatest.” It’s a powerful song with an amazing video, but it’s not a priority for radio right now. It speaks to the youth of our nation and provides inspiration to our healthcare workers and front liners. It’s extremely moving and a fantastic anthem for graduates out there. Hopefully it will get the attention it deserves. There are many songs like this out there right now, hopefully they all will.

Radio is changing so fast and it’s going to be so incredibly different as we move in to the future thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. As programmers we need to think out of the box, and be open to things that we weren’t necessarily open to back in the day. And I’m not suggesting we go completely out of whack and ignore the hits and basic rules of programming music formats, but we need to be more open to what we are putting on our radio stations. Yes, there are many core artists dropping singles right now, but everyone is going to play them, and that’s good radio, but that doesn’t make for a unique brand. If we don’t establish our brands by taking chances and making an intimate connection with our audience, we’re going to sound exactly like everyone else. We cannot afford that at this point if we are going to survive as an industry.

The “pandemic ratings” have already begun to prove that stations without live and local talent, content and depth are tanking. Taking chances on records that are unique and different is not a bad thing if they are placed properly into the music log and surrounded by the hits. It’s an opportunity for a brand to really take credit for being unique and awake to how the rest of the world is realistically feeling and communicating right now, and that means paying attention to the latest trends like TikTok, Spotify, House Party, etc. These channels are the future of music discovery, so listen to them, trust your gut and help pave the way.