< TV & Radio Yearbooks

Putting it together

How a radio playlist works

Most music-based radio stations use playlists - they form the supporting structure of a station's music output.

At first glance they look like simple lists of contemporary records. In fact, each title has been carefully chosen to act as a building block from which the station's 'sound' is built. The selection process varies from station to station, but usually it is the responsibility of the Head of Music. Music 'formats' in Independent Radio vary subtly from station to station, according to local audience preferences. Some may have a leaning towards soul, or rock, or 'easy listening'; others may be more predominantly Top 40.

The order in which records from each list appear in the output is then drawn up. The diagram illustrates the running order in a typical clock hour. This discipline not only determines the exposure of all listed records but also the musical balance across the day.

Each alphabetically labelled list is updated weekly and contains records representing a certain category of music. In ILR, for example, the A list is predominantly made up of current 'hit' singles. The 'B' list is usually new releases and chart 'climbers'. Some stations operate a 'C' list which might contain selected albums or releases at the more extreme ends of the musical spectrum. The 'oldies' are listed separately and are often referred to as 'golden oldies' or 'gold' for short. This list might be further subdivided (see diagram). Each list has a predetermined 'priority' which means each disc will be guaranteed a minimum number of 'plays' over the course of a day or week. A listed records invariably have more frequent plays than those on the 'B' or 'C' lists.

Strict rotation ensures that records are not repeated too frequently. The number of times a particular record, say the current No. 1, will appear in a day's output will vary from station to station. But it is unusual to hear the same record more than once in any three-hour sequence.

While playlists may form the supporting structure of a station's music output during the day, there also exists an element of 'free choice' for presenters. This means they can choose to include records they like within the broad framework of the station's music policy or 'format'.

The playlist system therefore provides for a convenient, consistent and updated approach to music programming. But it is in the selection of the actual titles that the art of a successful music radio station lies. Making the right decision involves a fundamental understanding of the likes and dislikes of the listening audience as well as the music itself. Obviously the compilers of playlists will use as much information as possible to help decide whether a new record deserves a place on the airwaves. However, to a large extent the decisions are instinctive or based on the elusive 'feel' which often comes from years of experience.

Information about the artistes is given, to varying extents, by the record 'pluggers' These are representatives of record companies whose object in life is to have all thencompany's current releases on the radio station's playlist. It is not enough for playlist compilers to comprehend the radio industry shorthand 'formats', A lists', 'climbers', 'oldies' and the like; he/she and the record company pluggers have their own strange language.

(Right: This diagram shows the order in which records from each list might appear in a typical clock-hour.)

Ambiguities abound. Statements like 'This record was No. 1 in America' could mean 'This record was No. 1 in the 12inch dance chart in Brazil.' Similarly, Are you sure you addressed it to me personally?' means 'I have your record and it was so bad I haven't got the heart to tell you.' 'I'm putting it forward for next week's playlist' could be 'I haven't listened to it yet', and 'I haven't listened to it yet' could be 'I've lost it.' Once a record is on the playlist the attitudes change. The 'plugger' can relax and the playlist compiler may begin to wonder if listeners' enthusiasm will begin to wane. If that should happen, it will not be for the want of trying by all those involved, whether in the radio or the music industry.