Statistical Snapshot of American Radio – Introduction


Any time I’m in the car and actually turn on broadcast radio, I always privately wonder: “god, how often do they play this song?”. Because it seems that no matter where you live, no matter what station you turn to, you’re going to hear the same few hundred songs. In some cases, like contemporary radio, the entire playlists strikes one as being maybe 25-50 songs. In any given day in the past year, if you had a Top 40 station on for 30 minutes you were going to hear “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore.

Whether you think that DJs are tastemakers, influencing what people like by playing songs, or that DJs play the songs that people want to hear, the bottom line is that a study of what radio stations play is also a study of America’s taste in music. To study this, I data mined the complete song play record of 15 different radio stations around the country. The final data set was 1,186,922 song plays, representing every song played on these stations between Jan 24 and Dec 10 of 2013, with the time and date when each song was played. It’s not a sample from those stations: it’s literally every single song played according to their website and when it was played.

The stations I polled represent a broad cross-section of large-market radio stations:

  • K-AMP Los Angeles (97.1 FM), Top 40 Contemporary hits.
  • Jack FM Los Angeles (93.1 FM), Variety/Adult Hits
  • KJAQ Seattle (96.5 FM), another Variety/Adult Hits
  • WKQC Charlotte NC (104.7 FM), “More music, better variety”
  • K-EARTH Los Angeles (101.1 FM), Oldies
  • K-Hits Chicago (WJMK, 104.3 FM), Classic Hits
  • KROQ Los Angeles (106.7 FM), Modern Rock
  • WBMX Mix Boston (104.1 FM), Hot adult contemporary
  • KZZO, Now 100 Sacramento (100.5 FM), hot adult contemporary
  • WPEG Power 98 Charlotte, North Carolina (97.9 FM), mainstream urban
  • KTWV Los Angeles, The Wave (94.7 FM), Urban Adult Contemporary (“Smooth R&B”)
  • WVEE “V-103” Atlanta (103.3 FM) urban contemporary. One of the highest-rated stations of the Atlanta radio market.
  • WNCX Cleveland (98.5 FM), Classic Rock
  • WSOC-FM Charlotte (103.7 FM), Country
  • EZ103 Palm Springs, Easy Listening

The data was mined from the websites’ own records and sanitized using a number of special tools I developed. This allows me to link it to a database containing all Billboard Hot 100 charted songs.

By calling it a “snapshot” I’m emphasizing that this is what American radio looked like in 2013. It’s one moment in time. In 2050, Thrift Shop may never get played at all, no songs before 1980 might ever appear on the radio. When I was a kid, oldies stations played songs from the early 1950s.

With the data in hand, we can answer a large number of questions. Some of those that sprang to my mind were:

  • How many songs are there on each kind of station?
  • How many songs are there totally in the zeitgeist? (About 7600.)
  • How old is the oldest song played on any station, or, equivalently, when does music history begin at present? (1956, excluding Christmas songs.)
  • What determines whether an older song is still played, and what older songs are played the most?
  • Relatedly, what recent songs should we expect to stick around for a long time, and which ones will fade away?
  • For stations that incorporate a large number of time frames (such as variety radio), what time periods get played the most? Was there a golden age of music, and if so when was that?
  • What are “oldies”, as opposed to “classic rock”, or are they really the same?
  • What songs appear on pop radio and urban radio? Do they have a common audience?
  • How does a hit song grow and decline in popularity throughout the year?

All of these and more will be answered in future posts. For now, you can peruse the major results in the database to get the broad strokes. Visualizing this data is a pretty big task, so I’ll need to develop a few new tools to integrate it into the site, but it will be coming very soon.

Here are some broad strokes, though:

The Billboard Hot 100 is a mix of urban and pop/rock, but there is very little cross-over between these two groups on any given radio station. Pop stations and urban stations have virtually no overlap in the songs they play. As little as there is there, country music is even more isolated. Nearly no song on country radio crossed over into the pop or urban stations, and vice versa. That being said, I will identify what overlap does exist.

Radio stations of all types very rarely stray from the Billboard Hot 100. If you make a list of the most played songs, the first 212 of them all charted. The 213th most played song, AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, is the first one that did not chart on the Hot 100.

Each of the stations has a quite small playlist when viewed on the basis of songs in regular rotation, rather than just the full list of songs played (songs played once during the whole year make the playlist look larger than it is). 50% of all airplays among all of the stations consisted of only 501 songs. I have more than double that on my iPhone. 90% of all song plays were just 2250 songs. About 500 songs chart every year, so that means most fall by the wayside.

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