Music Scheduling 101

Music scheduling software is a tool for managing and scheduling music and and other audio content (station IDs, jingles, voice tracks, programs, etc). Information about the songs go onto Song Cards. The Cards are then grouped into different Categories, or rotation groups. The categories are then placed onto Format Clock templates in the desired order. The software runs a new schedule or playlist for each day of the week. User-defined formatting ‘rules’ are installed to control music exposure, repetition and flow. For example, the music director may set formatting rules that: Limit the number of Slow songs in the morning hours; Don’t schedule “this” type of song next to “that” type of song; Prevent songs by the same Artists from scheduling close together.

One of the first things broadcast by radio was a phonograph record. Some early pioneers would place a microphone before the speaker horn of an Edison phonograph player. This wasn’t very popular and was only used ocassionally as filler material between programs. As commercial radio developed in the 1920’s, the broadcast days were primarily filled with talk programs, drama, comedy and news. Musical entertainment was usually broadcast from live performances, most often in the radio station studios and/or from a national network.

Music radio as we know it was born in US in the 1950s. Immediately following WWII, television ownership exploded in the United States and radio’s top entertainers moved to the video medium at a rapid pace. Radio listenership plummeted, particularly in the evening hours. Concurrently a new style of music known as rock ‘n roll also exploded. Many radio stations reinvented themselves as ‘all music all the time’. Five or six disc jockeys took the place of station orchestras, announcers and actors.

Initially, each disc jockey had his own box of records and played whatever he chose to play. Within a few years, it became obvious that consistency of music selection and content was required if the station was to be successful. Music selection was placed into the hands of the Program Director or Music Director (often the same person held both positions). The template was: A limited number of records played over and over in high frequency rotation. Some stations did, indeed, play only 40 songs, adding three to five new ones each week replacing songs that were being dropped from the ‘current hits’ playlist. The biggest hits were retired into an “Oldies” category where they continued to be played, but with much less frequency.

Three levels of rotational frequency was became the standard. Category A (Hot Rotation) would be the Top 10 most popular songs of the day. Each song in the “Hots” would be played nine to a dozen times each day. Songs in the “B” or “Medium” group might be played 5 to 7 times a day. The newest songs would be added into the C or “Light” rotation group and played 2 to 4 times a day. In this way, the program director could see if listeners would indicate a liking for the new ones by calling in requests for a song. New songs that seemed to be ‘working’ would be moved to the B rotation, then the most popular moved to the A rotation group.

After some weeks in Hot, even the greatest of hits begin to fade in popularity. As listeners had begun to tire of hit songs, they were moved from A back to B and from there they might be moved into a limited-play Oldies category, or ‘rested’ for a while and removed from the airplay library entirely for several months.

In the 1970s, as modern audience preference research methods were put to use, we discovered that listeners didn’t tire of hit records as quickly as we thought they did. And the ‘resting’ of hit songs was a strategic mistake. A new kind of category came into being, named “Recurrent” for ‘recent current hit’. Now, the airplay-life of a hit song had five parts or phases; After it’s run in Heavy, Medium and Light Current rotation, the biggest hits were moved to Recurrent category and continued to receive seven to a dozen spins a week. From there into a “gold” or ‘oldie’ list where it would receive only three to 10 spins a month. These actually number of songs and the rotational frequencies of the categories varied widely from station to station, but the general game plan became the norm.

There were and are very many variations in rotational frequency across the music radio universe. Some high-intensity youth appeal Pop music PDs play their Hot rotation hits 150 times a week, literally repeating some songs every hour and fifteen minutes. Adult Pop Hit stations may spin their Hots only 30 times a week. An Oldie formatted station will not have a Current hit list, but still the basic template applies; songs are divided into at least three rotation groups, Heavy, Medium and Light. That is often extended to five or six groups, “Current Hit” Heavy, Medium and Light and “Oldie Hits” Heavy Medium and Light. Rarely are more than six categories necessary.

The first music rotation system was to arrange Current hits into three stacks of 45 RPM records, A-B-and-C (Heavy Medium Light). The disc jockeys played one from each stack and then repeat. Each time a record had been played, it was placed on the bottom of the stack, not to be played again until if worked its way back to the top. The program director or music director decided which records would be in each stack each week. Usually a colored stick-on dot was applied to the record labels so DJs wouldn’t mistakenly place a record into the wrong stack after a play.

The PD/MD would decide what the content of the hour would be. Maybe he’d want four Heavies an hour, five Mediums, two Lights and the remaining time filled and interspersed with Oldies. He’d put a 45 RPM disc on a sheet of paper and circle it with a pencil, drawing a circle for the Hour Clock. Then he’d draw pie-slices, each representing 2 1/2 to 3 minutes (the average length of Top 40 hits in the 50s and 60s) and slices for the commercial placements. Next he’d mark in the ‘category rotation’ indicating the order the categories were to be played in. So, the DJs would play something like Heavy Current, Heavy Oldie, Light Current, Medium Current, Medium Oldie, Heavy Current, Light Oldie, and so on, to insure his desired ‘balance’ of the musical elements.

He would use some basic math to figure the number of records each group would require to get the desired spin-count or number of plays the songs in each group would receive during the day, week, month. Ten songs in the Heavy rotation would produce ‘this many’ spins a day if the station played three Heavies an hour. With that plan, each song in Heavy would repeat every 3 hours and twenty minutes. The best PDs carefully figured the rotations for each category; total number of songs divided by total number of times the category was used in the hour/day/week = X-number of spins per song.

They were also careful to devise the rotation plan for each group so that songs in the groups would not repeat in the same hour or time of day in succession. The songs in a Heavy rotation, for example would be repeated in each DJ show (a four or five hour time-slot) at least twice every day. The PD wouldn’t want the songs to play in the SAME hour two days in a row, however. So he could work the numbers in his rotation plan so that if “Help” by the Beatles played at 7:10am on Monday, it would come up to the top of the next-play stack on Tuesday in either the 6am or 8am hour. For the Oldies rotations in which songs might be repeating only twice a week, he’d work the rotation pattern so each one would bounce around the various “dayparts”. If the old Elvis hit came up in the middle of the day on Monday, it would next come up for play sometime Thursday evening.

Other music formatting tactics also had to be considered. The stations’ library would have a mixture of fast, medium and slow tempo songs. The PD might not want to play too many of one tempo in a row. And/or, he might want the music mix to be adjusted to the time of day; in the morning maybe a more “peppy” mix with no more than three ballads an hour and he might want those three slow ones to be spaced out with at least three medium of fast tempo songs to follow any Slow one.

Another consideration was musical genres. Early Top 40 radio was a potpourri of many styles of music. Rock n’ Roll, Rhythm n’ Blues and Country were the primary ones but “adult” artists like Sinatra, Nat Cole and Dean Martin were also in the mix. Then there were many instrumental hits and an assortment of Novelty songs and the occasional Folk hit by Peter, Paul and Mary or the Kingston Trio. It was important to spread the genres through the hour and day. If it happened to be that five “Country” records were hits on the Top 40 charts at one time, the PD usually wouldn’t want several of them to play close together, etc.

The PD had other considerations, as well. Singer Tony Bennett might have a new song in play that the PD felt appealed only to his adult listeners, so he might not want it to be played in the evening hours at all as his audience at that time was predominately teenagers. On the other hand, he might have another record that had little or no adult appeal at all which he wanted to play only in the after-school and evening hours. Limiting a song to airplay at certain times of day came to be known as “departing” a song.

Another consideration was Artist Separation. There would often be a song by Elvis in the Heavy rotation when he released a new one that was added to the Light rotation. And perhaps his previous hits would be in the Oldies categories. The PD usually wouldn’t want two or three Elvis songs to be played within the same hour.

Next thing to think about was Hour and Daypart flow. Naturally, Current hits being played with such frequency would show up in the same daypart numerous times during the week. Maybe each individual song in the Medium rotation group might be scheduled ten times between six and 10am during the week. We wouldn’t want five of those plays to be between 7 and 7:30am. Rather, then 10 spins should be well-placed among all the hours of each individual daypart. If the current hit by Elvis played at 7:10 on Monday, then the morning spin on Tuesday should ideally be in the 9am hour, on Wednesday in the 6am hour, Thurday in the 8am hour and so on.

Various ways were developed to control the music flow which would allow all the songs in each category to be played with the planned frequency while also maintaining the desired mix of genres and tempos, artist separation and other formatting considerations. If you’d like to know more about how I controlled music flow and airplay frequency before the age of computers and music scheduling software, you can download the document “How to Schedule Music By Hand” from the M1 website.

No matter what the format, style or genre of music you play, the fundamentals will be much the same. Songs will be grouped into the various categories you create. The categories will be added to format clocks. The clocks will be assigned to specific hours in one or more DayFormats.

The individuality or “stationality” that sets your station apart from others which play the same type music is much determined and defined by the way you group your songs into categories and how frequently you repeat-play them.

The standard Top 40 music radio categories can actually be applied to any musical format.

The Heavy-Hot-A Category is to contain the most important songs in your library. They are the ones you play the most frequently. Usually it has the fewest number of songs of any category.

The Medium-B Category contains the next most important songs. These songs receive the second level of rotation and airplay.

The Light-C Category is for the third level of rotational frequency. This is the group where “new” songs are commonly introduced on most Current Hit music radio stations.

The D-Recurrent Category is for “Recent Hits”, songs that were recent favorites. Big hits are moved into Recurrent after they drop out of the Current (A and B) rotations. Eventually, songs will move out of Recurrent into one of the Gold or Oldie categories.

Even if you’re playing no Current hits at all on your station, the basics of the formatting plan still apply. Your Hot rotation category might have only a two plays a day, or maybe only two plays a week.

So, Category A is for your most important songs, the ones you will play most frequently, it will generally have the fewest number of songs in it. Category B is for your second string, more songs in this group than in Category A but fewer than are in the other categories below it. Category C is the third most important group of tunes, etc.

It could well be that three-to-five categories will be all you need. By comparison, with only three primary colors of ink, a printer can produce every shade of color imaginable. It’s simply a matter of how the mix of the ‘dots’ from each of the three tanks are sprayed onto the page. Similarly, some radio music programmers may be able to devise an excellent and ever-changing, well flowing music mix with only three rotation groups. In most cases, however, a few more rotation groups will be required to properly control the mix to your liking.

Download the report: Formatting Music Radio here.