SSAR: Variety stations fill in for the average (white person’s) iPod

If the oldies stations don’t play music from the 1990s or early 2000s, and neither do contemporary stations, then why can you turn on a radio in any radio market and hear Train’s Meet Virginia?

This is where the rise of the variety station comes in. These stations started popping up near the turn of the century. In LA and other markets, the stations are referred to by a brand name “Jack”. In other places they show up as stations calling themselves something like “The 90s and now”, sometimes “with no rap” appended to the name to make sure you don’t accidentally hear any Kanye. I polled 4 such stations:

  • 93.1 Jack FM (Los Angeles)
  • 96.5 Jack FM (Seattle)
  • Mix 104.1 (Boston) “Boston’s best variety”
  • 104.7 (Charlotte) “More music, better variety”

Firstly, let’s take a look at what time periods are played. These stations fall into two categories according to their average time period. Jack stations skew much older:

These stations play songs with a tail into the 1970s, much different than the peaked distribution seen in classic rock stations. However, just like the classic hits station, they have a peak (in this case, the absolute maximum) in 1983. We’re starting to see that 1983 was a very special year in the opinion of a lot of listeners (or at least the station programmers). These stations play a fair amount from the 1990s, and almost nothing from the present year.

Although called “variety”, Jack LA doesn’t play a larger set of songs than oldies stations do, and barely plays more than classic rock stations do. 50% of airtime on oldies stations are the same 215 songs, and for Jack LA the number is still only 227 songs. 90% of Jack’s airtime are the same 580 songs, which is actually a bit less than an oldies station. The most played song on Jack (LA) was The Killers – Somebody Told Me, followed by Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart. For whatever reason, the station’s top 20 played songs includes three (3) songs by ZZ Top. If you’re my age, my guess is it’s a struggle to name even three such songs.

Click here to see the top played songs on Jack FM LA
Song % of total plays
Killers – Somebody Told Me 0.35
Coldplay – Viva La Vida 0.66
Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart 0.96
Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer 1.26
Jimmy Eat World – Middle, The 1.55
ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man 1.84
Berlin – Metro, The 2.13
ZZ Top – Legs 2.42
Tom Petty – Runnin’ Down a Dream 2.70
ZZ Top – Gimme All Your Lovin 2.99
New Radicals – You Get What You Give 3.27
Bon Jovi – You Give Love a Bad Name 3.55
Golden Earring – Twilight Zone 3.83
Judas Priest – You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ 4.10
Missing Persons – Walking in L.A. 4.38
Scorpions – Rock You Like a Hurricane 4.65
Don Henley – Boys of Summer, The 4.91
Aerosmith – Love in An Elevator 5.17
Coldplay – Clocks 5.44
General Public – Tenderness 5.70

However, all things aren’t quite equal with the Jack stations. In fact, the Seattle station played about a 30% larger variety of songs, with 50% of their airtime being 301 songs. The Seattle station gravitated to Santana’s Smooth, Lenny Kravitz’s Fly Away, and Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl, so there are some regional differences between the stations.

Click here to see the top played songs on Jack FM Seattle
Song % of total plays
Santana – Smooth 0.26
Lenny Kravitz – Fly Away 0.51
Jet – Are You Gonna Be My Girl 0.75
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘N Roll 1.00
Stevie Wonder – Superstition 1.23
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – I Hate Myself for Loving You 1.46
Tom Cochrane – Life Is a Highway 1.69
Candlebox – Far Behind 1.91
Golden Earring – Twilight Zone 2.14
Great White – Once Bitten Twice Shy 2.36
Motley Crue – Girls, Girls, Girls 2.59
3 Doors Down – Kryptonite 2.81
Black Crowes – Hard to Handle 3.03
Adele – Rolling in the Deep 3.25
Sugar Ray – Every Morning 3.47
Queen – Under Pressure 3.68
R.E.M. – Losing My Religion 3.90
Survivor – Eye of the Tiger 4.12
Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It 4.34
Green Day – Holiday 4.55

As far as artists, half of all airtime on Jack LA was the same 51 artists, no different than that of an oldies station, though much better than classic rock. The top played artists were Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Def Leppard.

Click here to see the top played artists on Jack FM LA
Song % of total plays
Van Halen 2.50
Aerosmith 4.57
Def Leppard 6.58
Journey 8.35
U2 9.97
Fleetwood Mac 11.48
Queen 12.93
Guns N’ Roses 14.32
Pat Benatar 15.71
Foreigner 17.04
Depeche Mode 18.34
The Police 19.64
The Cure 20.81
Bon Jovi 21.98
ZZ Top 23.14
Billy Idol 24.29
Rolling Stones 25.41
Duran Duran 26.50
Led Zeppelin 27.59
No Doubt 28.64

The Jack Seattle station was much the same, though U2 took the top spot, followed by Aerosmith and Van Halen.

Click here to see the top played artists on Jack FM Seattle
Song % of total plays
U2 1.75
Aerosmith 3.44
Van Halen 5.08
Def Leppard 6.41
Police 7.73
Fleetwood Mac 9.03
Rolling Stones 10.30
Queen 11.54
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 12.68
Journey 13.77
Red Hot Chili Peppers 14.83
Led Zeppelin 15.88
The Cars 16.93
Billy Idol 17.97
Bon Jovi 18.97
Prince 19.91
Pat Benatar 20.84
Duran Duran 21.75
Green Day 22.65
The Eagles 23.54

Apart from Jack, the other mix stations play stuff from 1985 to the present day, with a heavy slant toward more recent songs. They are basically an even blend of contemporary stations and the Jack style of variety mix. Below I show the distribution of years for the two stations. Note that the vertical scale is logarithmic, as otherwise it is hard to see the older songs.

These two stations track quite well above 1996. K104.7 (“more music, better variety”) also has a hump at, you guessed it, 1983. Aside from that, the stations play a song roughly half as much for every year in the past it was. So, 2010 songs account for only half as many as 2011 songs, and so on.

The most played song on 104.1 (the station that doesn’t play as much 1980s music) was Phillip Phillips’ Gone, Gone, Gone, followed by Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men, and I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons. Half of all airtime was dedicated to the same 37 songs.

Click here to see the top played songs on Mix 104.1
Song % of total plays
Phillip Phillips – Gone, Gone, Gone 2.60
Of Monsters And Men – Little Talks 5.11
Mumford and Sons – I Will Wait 7.48
Lumineers – Ho Hey 9.76
Fun. – Carry On 11.94
Imagine Dragons – Radioactive 14.11
Bruno Mars – When I Was Your Man 16.08
Sara Bareilles – Brave 17.75
Emeli Sande – Next to Me 19.41
Maroon 5 – Love Somebody 21.01
Anna Kendrick – Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone) 22.57
Maroon 5 – Daylight 24.09
Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines 25.57
Capital Cities – Safe and Sound 26.96
Phillip Phillips – Home 28.32
Florida Georgia Line – Cruise (Remix) 29.66
Avicii – Wake Me Up! 30.99
Lorde – Royals 32.29
Imagine Dragons – It’s Time 33.55
Fun. – Some Nights 34.74

104.7’s top song was also by Phil Phillips, although this time it was “Home”. Following that up was Ho Hey by the Lumineers and Try by Pink. 50% of all airtime was 92 songs, more nearly triple that of Mix 104.1, but still less than half that of a Jack station.

Click here to see the top played songs on 104.7
Song % of total plays
Phillip Phillips – Home 0.99
Lumineers – Ho Hey 1.93
P!nk – Try 2.85
Bruno Mars – When I Was Your Man 3.68
Fun. – Some Nights 4.50
Owl City – Good Time 5.33
Bruno Mars – Locked Out of Heaven 6.14
Train – Drive By 6.94
Maroon 5 – One More Night 7.73
Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe 8.52
One Direction – What Makes You Beautiful 9.30
Adele – Someone Like You 10.07
Gotye – Somebody That I Used to Know 10.82
Neon Trees – Everybody Talks 11.56
Taylor Swift – I Knew You Were Trouble 12.30
Gym Class Heroes – Stereo Hearts 13.02
P!nk – Blow Me (One Last Kiss) 13.74
Jessie J – Domino 14.44
Katy Perry – Part of Me 15.12
Maroon 5 – Daylight 15.80

Once we get into the artists is when things turn ugly for these stations. Mix 104.1 spends 50% of their airplay time on just 18 artists, Imagine Dragons and Bruno Mars being the top two (together accounting for almost 10% of the entirety of the year).

Click here to see the top played artists on Mix 104.1
Song % of total plays
Imagine Dragons 4.38
Bruno Mars 8.52
Phillip Phillips 12.49
Maroon 5 16.45
P!nk 20.22
Fun. 23.93
Of Monsters And Men 27.22
Mumford and Sons 30.30
Katy Perry 32.65
Kelly Clarkson 34.97
Taylor Swift 37.27
Lumineers 39.54
Train 41.75
Justin Timberlake 43.78
Emeli Sande 45.67
Ed Sheeran 47.50
Sara Bareilles 49.23
Anna Kendrick 50.79
Robin Thicke 52.28
Capital Cities 53.66

K104.7, since it includes a wider time frame, has roughly twice as many artists making up half its total air time. The top 3 artists are Pink, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars, but the top 20 also includes older artists like Journey and Michael Jackson.

Click here to see the top played artists on 104.7
Song % of total plays (cumulative)
P!nk 3.59
Katy Perry 7.03
Bruno Mars 10.32
Maroon 5 13.52
Kelly Clarkson 16.67
Lady GaGa 18.96
Adele 21.12
Train 22.85
Rihanna 24.46
Madonna 26.05
Taylor Swift 27.64
Journey 29.19
Daughtry 30.69
Michael Jackson 31.99
Bon Jovi 33.27
Prince 34.52
Goo Goo Dolls 35.73
Taio Cruz 36.91
Fun. 38.03
Uncle Kracker 39.14

Let’s summarize all this:

% of all plays
Jack LA Jack Seattle Mix 104.1 104.7 Charlotte
50% 227 301 37 91
90% 580 744 244 267
100% 1207 1468 775 456

One thing that’s notable about Variety radio, though, is that it’s clearly aimed at a white audience. This may be obvious, since many of these stations specifically say “no rap” in their taglines, but it’s borne out in the statistics as well. Below is a Venn diagram representing the songs played by Variety, Contemporary, and Urban stations. You can see that while Variety radio shares about 40% of Contemporary’s songs, neither Variety nor Contemporary stations share many songs in common with Urban stations at all. (Mouse over the regions to see prominent examples):

Contemporary stations have only 9% of their songs from the Urban playlist. Variety has only 2% of its playlist in common with Urban, whereas 20% (ten times as many) of Variety’s songs are Contemporary. So while Variety stations may be a broadcast substitute for a person’s iPod, it’s mostly white people’s iPods that they are shooting for.

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