Why It’s Hard To Avoid Two Of The Same posted on February 19th, 2015
It is the thing that I most often notice when I monitor radio stations.
It is the thing that I most try to avoid when I am scheduling music myself.
It’s hearing “two of the same.”
Sometimes, it’s two records that literally have a similar feel. With the proliferation of dense, midtempo records at mainstream top 40, it’s hard not to encounter “Jealous” next to or near “Blank Space” or “Style.” (At least artist separation keeps “Blank Space” and “Style” away from each other.) Country has its own glut of similar feeling titles— enough to result in the now infamous mash-up of “bro country” songs.
But even at gold-based stations, which aren’t at the mercy of current product, two songs that didn’t sound alike at the time can become two of the same. In winter 1977, “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas and “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith were both on top 40 radio and wouldn’t have sounded like the same song next to each other. But on the “Greatest Hits” station I schedule, they represent essentially the same thing. Even if era separation keeps them a song away from each other to begin with, it’s two of the more rocking songs on the station in close proximity.
Recently, I came across an aircheck of WNBC New York from fall 1978, a particularly mellow era for top 40, and a time when rotations were still managed by on-air talent. The first five songs were:
Abba, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Toby Beau, “My Angel Baby”
Ambrosia, “How Much I Feel”
Andy Gibb, “Love Is (Thicker Than Water)”
Little River Band, “Reminiscing”
The Abba and Andy Gibb songs are more intense than the others, but that hour was full of the lush, midtempo ‘70s music now parodied as “yacht rock.” Later in the aircheck, Donna Summer’s much peppier “MacArthur Park,” Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” all make an appearance. But by then, it doesn’t matter. The overall feel of the hour is sedate.
“Two of the same” is like the old joke about mismatched socks: if you have one pair, you have another pair that looks just like it at home. If you encounter two similar songs back to back on a radio station, you’re likely to hear a different example later on – the dreaded “stretchiness” that is always easier to detect in somebody else’s editing of a music log.
Earlier this week, I came across a twitter exchange begun by WLUP Chicago morning newsman Rob Hart, who wrote, “’Uptown Funk’ is a good song and all but it needs more airplay.” That led Ken Neadly of Southsidesox.com to respond, “I enjoy the song. There are very few new songs I like, so I don’t mind the overplay.”
I’m not burnt out yet on “Uptown Funk.” The Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit sounds like a lot of other songs: it’s practically an early ‘80s R&B mini-mix come to life. It’s also hardly the only example of retro R&B-flavored pop, which has become a subgenre unto itself in the last five years. But all those ‘80s R&B songs aren’t playing on top 40 radio. And the other retro soul songs at the moment tend to be ballads. So unless you’re hung-up on playing an ‘80s throwback next to the two Meghan Trainor songs that sound like early ‘60s girl-group records, “Uptown Funk” has a pretty good shot at not sounding like the song next to it on the radio.
And in that example, it’s easy to see how “two of the same” is subjective for most people, or happens even to PDs who feel they have thoroughly sound-coded their way around any problem. Should “Happy” and “All of Me,” two R&B throwbacks been kept away from each other, even with their very different tempos? “Habits (Stay High)” and “Blank Space” feel like two of the same to me. But lots of PDs undoubtedly have one coded as alternative and one as pop. And somebody somewhere probably still codes any Taylor Swift song as country.
Some PDs probably aren’t sweating these questions at all. Why not overindulge the “sound of now,” they might ask, especially if it will correct itself in a few months? Was it a problem when all the hits were 110 bpm “turbo pop”? (I think so, but it did bother me less when the two similar sounding songs were “Only Girl [In The World]” next to “DJ Got Us Falling in Love.”) Why wouldn’t you play one song people like next to another song they’re also likely to enjoy? Isn’t hearing similar songs the whole point of Pandora?
I can only say that if listeners don’t immediately sense what radio people do, that’s because they’re not supposed to. They don’t notice a lot of the detail work done by professionals in any field, unless there is something wrong. But seeing the “bro country” mashup take on a life of its own outside the industry suggests that listeners notice eventually. So do all the complaints about the stately pace of this year’s Grammy Awards, which were, like programmers, only working with the available product.
There are a lot of places, from Pandora to other narrowly drawn online stations, to hear two-of-the-same, if that’s really what you want. For the rest of the audience, offering a song-to-song variety of strong music isn’t just part of the reason we put work into editing logs, it’s increasingly one of broadcast radio’s points of differentiation.