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Why Does Pop Radio Replay the Same Songs Over and Over?

Updated on August 19, 2020

Whenever we get into the car, my kids immediately connect their phones to play their YouTube Music playlists. Even on short trips, they listen to their music rather than the radio. It's not because they're hipster snobs who thinks they're above pop music. The reason they give is that pop radio plays the same songs over and over. One day when we got into the car 'No' by Meghan Trainor was playing. An hour later we got back into the car. 'No' by Meghan Trainor was playing. So I became curious. Why exactly do radio stations play a few songs over and over?

This chart will give you an idea of how bad the problem is. As I write this, these are some of the 50 most played songs on pop radio. You can see there's a huge difference between the number of spins the #1 song receives versus the 50th song.

Difference from #1
I Took A Pill In Ibiza by Mike Posner
Never Forget You by Zara Larsson & MNEK
Cake By The Ocean by DNCE
Wild Things by Alessia Cara
Hands To Myself by Selena Gomez
Team by Iggy Azalea
Cheap Thrills by Sia
Oui by Jeremih
Might Not f/The Weeknd by Belly
Somebody To Love Me by Tryon
Get You Home by Nick Fradiani

Three hundred and seventeen songs were played on KIIS FM in Los Angeles on May 10, 2016. With that amount of spins every song in the top 50 on the radio chart could be played about 6 times. In fact, it should be enough spins to play more than 50 songs 3 or 4 times a day and give even more young artists a shot at success. This table shows how many times some of the biggest songs were played that day.

# of Spins
I Took A Pill In Ibiza by Mike Posner
Stressed Out by Twenty One Pilots
Can't Stop The Feeling by Justin Timberlake
7 years by Lukas Graham
Pillow Talk by Zayn

Just 5 songs took up more than a quarter of the day's spins. So why play these 5 tracks over and over? People typically start to hate songs when they're hearing them too often, so it would seem like this strategy would backfire. And why even stick with 50 songs? There are plenty of pop songs that won't ever be played on pop radio at all.

In 2003, the top 5 songs got about 2 million spins. A decade later in 2013, the top 5 songs were getting more than 3 million spins. Digital Music News points out that this "means that there are few winners, though the songs that are played are blown into the stratosphere." This leads to a smaller number of successful songs and artists although the successful few become massive. This may also explain why so many songs nowadays spend several weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 compared to the 1970's when songs usually stayed in the #1 spot for only 1 to 2 weeks.

The Girl by Hellberg is a radio friendly pop song released by an indie label that wouldn't be able to afford the costs of radio promo

Why has this happened? Mainly because most radio listeners are casual listeners. If someone is only going to listen to the radio for 30 minutes a day, programmers want them to hear the biggest songs that have done best in their research. They don't want to throw too many new songs at listeners fearing they'll tune out. New songs will climb slowly but surely in spins until they become familiar enough to be played several times a day.

This brings up a question though. Did the narrowing of radio playlists create casual listeners or did a rise in casual listeners lead to a narrowing of playlists? Are many people casual radio listeners because it would get incredibly boring to listen to more than 30 minutes of radio a day? Or do people have so many entertainment options nowadays that radio has lost it's importance forcing radio stations to reduce the number of songs they play? The narrowing of radio playlists happened around the same time as radio deregulation although it's hard to know if that was the cause or purely a coincidence.

When I was a child, I often listened to hours of radio a day. I would hear top 40 hits and oldies on the same station. I would hear pop, dance, rock, and country songs. Songs weren't being overplayed, so I didn't get bored. My own kids listens to hours of music a day too. They love music but wouldn't get enough diversity from pop radio, so they don't want to listen to it at all.

Surprisingly, radio is still an important source of music discovery, so declining access to radio could make it more difficult for new artists to break out.

"Even in the digital age, nothing else comes close to broadcast radio's influence. Sixty-one percent of people told Nielsen they discover new music through terrestrial radio...The next-most-cited discovery mechanism after radio was friends and relatives (45 percent), then movies (31 percent), audio or video streaming apps like YouTube (27 percent), social media apps (25 percent) and television (23 percent)."
-- While Radio Still Reigns, Concerts Are an Important Source of Music Discovery, says New Report,


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