Basic Principles of Music Rotation

Successful music radio is based on repetition, a relatively limited number of songs played over and over with various levels of frequency. The comfort of repetition is an innately human pleasure. If we like it, we want it again. Think back to when you were a child, you loved hearing your mother sing that one lullaby night after night as you drifted to sleep. Or think about a bedtime ritual with your own young children. You tell them a fairy tale each night. The child wants to hear the same one, night after night. You soon tire of the story but if you try to change any aspect of it, try to ‘freshen’ it in any way, the little one protests “that’s not the way it goes, Daddy.” As we mature and are exposed to more and more things, our tastes broaden, we seek and enjoy more variety but we are still most comfortable with things that are familiar.

Certainly, some humans have desire to hear a much greater number of songs than others. I believe those of us who are drawn to music radio as a profession are in that group. We love music, lots of it. We tire of new songs sooner than other people do. We, too, enjoy our familiar favorites but we really love the new ones, the joy of discovery, the ‘adventuresome’ new band with the radical new ideas. And, yes, we are the trailblazers. We find the new hits and give them to our listeners. But remember this always: If you get too far ahead of your audience, you’ll lose them. To use the old comedian’s term, you don’t want to be too hip for the room.

The principles of excellent music rotation are balance and consistency.

Balance can sometimes be called “flow”. Ideally, the flow should be like waves. Music tempo should rise and fall. Yin and yang. A soup comprised of familiar, satisfying ingredients accentuated with new and different spices which add different textures and gently surprise and stimulate the ears.

You may adjust the intensity of your station’s personality with the way you blend your music. If you wish to create a calmer listening environment, increase the rotation of the medium and slower tempo records on the playlist. Put them in ‘power’ rotation to control their exposure. If you wish for a hotter, more exciting environment, play the uptempo records on your list more frequently.

Within any format, you can adjust the familiarity of your mix by changing the percentage of new, recurrent and older songs within the hour. This can be done even if you are running and all-Oldies station by constructing rotation categories based on time-frames; 70’s hits, 80s hits, 90s hits, etc.

You must develop a firm idea about the “personality” of the music on your station. It is created more by the music mix and the songs you place in your Power rotations, both Power Current and Power Gold, than by the total number of the songs on your playlist. Making adjustments to define and refine that personality is easy to do. But you must see it in your mind’s eye before it can happen.

A youth-oriented Current Music station often has only five rotation Categories. 1) Heavy Current, the biggest hits of the moment. 2) Medium Current, comprised of newer songs that are gaining in popularity and songs that were in Heavy rotation and are now beginning to fade. 3) Light Current, the newest songs just added to the station’s playlist. 4) Recurrent and 5) Gold. This set-up is most common when the target is a teen-to-24 year old audience.

Again, “Recurrent” refers to recent hits that are no longer Currents. Gold refers to all the songs that are ‘older’ than Recurrents. There is no specific definition about when a song is no longer a Recurrent and becomes qualified as Gold (or Oldie). There is a general consensus within each format genre, but really the time frame is whatever the program director decides it is.

Some programmers will add two more categories by dividing their Recurrents and Golds into “Power” and “Secondary” groupings, then working with a total of seven rotation groups. This becomes more common when the target audience demographic is and older one.

A station that is targeting an all adult-audience, the 25+ demographics may use only two Current rotation groups, Heavy and Medium and then extra categories of recent and older Gold.

Generally, fewer rotation groups is better than more rotation groups. With commercials and other content requiring some time each hour, most stations average playing between 12 and 14 songs an hour. If you have nine different song categories and you are playing three Heavy Currents, three Medium Currents and one Light Current every hour, that fills seven of the 14 slots. If you then have six other Categories, well, you’re going to have to develop a lot of different format clocks to use them all, to maintain the consistency of your music selection, keep some variety in category sequence and still get everything played.

There are other ways to get things formatted in the mix. Let’s say you have 400 songs that you want to place into a Secondary Gold rotation group. And you want to play a Secondary Gold every 90 minutes, about 110 ‘plays’ of Secondary Gold each week. If you put all 400 into the group, each individual song would only be played about once a month. Knowing what we do about listening patterns, with the average listener only being with us for 10 to 15 hours a week, it means the typical listener might hear the songs in that Secondary Gold group only once, maybe twice a year. You might then decide to divide the songs into two groups, Secondary A and Secondary B and work them into your formatting clocks. But instead, you might try ‘platooning’ the group. What that means is to place 200 songs into rotation for three months, leaving the others rest. Then, after ninety days switching the songs out, and resting the first 200. In this manner, the songs will all get the same amount of airplay in the long run, but it will be easier to plan and manage your formatting hours using the one category for them.