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Artist Separation – History, Theory and Music Radio Today

For the first 25 years of modern Pop Music Radio, artist separation was an hour. It wasn’t a format rule, it was a sensible policy. If Elvis had two new songs on the playlist, probably the majority of people listening at any time would love, love, love to hear both of those songs back to back. But the DJ would play them in different hours, knowing that listeners were coming and going all the time and an hour later a whole bunch of different people would have tuned in, so the DJ wanted to be sure those listeners would get their Elvis-fix, as well. The informal one hour separation was standard until the coming of music scheduling software in the early ’80s, with one exception.

In January, 1964, The Beatles hit the American charts and they had a solid two years worth of hit songs in their repertoire. The first week of April, on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, The Beatles held the top 5 positions. In order, the songs were: 1) Can’t Buy Me Love, 2) Twist and Shout, 3) She Loves You, 4) I Want To Hold Your Hand and 5) Please Please Me. They had seven more songs on the Top 100 that week. The next week, one record dropped off the list but two more came onto it.  The third week of April Billboard listed thirteen (13!) Current singles by one group.

The ‘oldest’ song on the first April list was “I Want To Hold Your Had” which had entered the chart just ten weeks prior, on January 18th.  Most Top 40 radio stations at the time played about 50 Currents; their own Top 40 plus five or a dozen new adds and ‘Pick Hits”. Imagine your Current list is 40 and the eight hottest records on your request line are by one group!  Is Artist separation a problem here?  Not at all. Some stations were promo’ing “A Beatles song every fifteen minutes!” That ran about half a year. It was a unique moment in music history, never to be repeated.  But the fact remains true today: When an artist is hot, their fans can’t get enough of them. Look at people’s personal playlists. They always heavy-up with songs by their fave singers.  We are radio and we don’t make ‘personal’ playlists. We make playlists to please a bunch of listeners at the same time and to please them enough that they’ll remember to come back to listen more.

As the 1970’s came, the informal rule for one-hour artist separation became more formal. If Elton John had one new song in Current rotation and there was another by Elton in the Recurrent category, when both came to the top of their stacks in the same hour, the announcer would switch the Elton Recurrent with the Recurrent slated for the next hour; a simple move. Then, the first music scheduler came out in 1980 and music directors became slaves to the machine; it was expected that the MD should spend at least two hours a day “editing the log”.  Selector had an Artist Separation rule that had to be set. Realize, anything with a “rule” takes on new gravitas, becomes thought of as a more important thing than it otherwise would be. If an artist is big and popular, listeners want MORE of the singer.  The only reason for artist separation is to ensure that songs by the popular artists are heard by each ‘new’ group of listeners. An examination of data about radio listening patterns shows it is primarily done in short sequences of less than an hour per engagement.

When planning song category rotations and setting music flow rules, keep an eye on your average time-spent-listening; the TSL.  If your listening statistics indicate your average listener spends 75 minutes with your station each day, then a ninety minute artist separation should be quite enough.

But, there’s also this: While the ‘average’ may be an hour’s listening per session, there are those who are with the station for many hours every day. If I’m a Classic Rock station, I wouldn’t want anyone to listen to me for three hours and not hear a Rolling Stones song. Let’s say my Library mix is such that each day about six by the Stones will be scheduled. If I have a one-hour separation, there is a possibility that three Stones might get scheduled between 6am and noon, and only one or none between noon and 6p. So, a ninty-minute separation for the group would be in order as it would ensure the Stones songs that were scheduled between 6a and 6p would be better spaced across the daylight hours.

On the other hand, one can set Artist Separations that aren’t workable. If this Classic Rock station has a library/format mix that is going to average scheduling seven Stones songs each day, one would think a 3-hour separation would be fine.  Seven songs times three hours = 21 hours. There’s 24 in a day, so this could work?  Nope.  Because each time a Stones song scheduled, it sets a six-hour block; three hours before and three after where no other Stones song could schedule.  A two-hour separation would work without giving the music director too many Artist-Separation edits for the Stones during the scheduling runs. If an Artist is typically going to be played five or more times a day, anything more than a 2-hour separation is usually going to be problematic.

About “Guest” Artists

It’s a thing, now, for singers to bring along a pal. The “artist” becomes “Katy Perry/featuring Pharrell”. Does this song need to be separated from others by both Pharrell and Katy? Sure, we can do it, but it’s a Katy Perry song, Pharrell is a ‘bit’ player on it and adding him as the second artist will subject the song to two artist-separation restrictions. Multiply this with other ‘duet’ songs in the library and it could result in an abundance of rule violation stops during scheduling runs. With most of these type of duets, I’d just use the main artist on the Song card, leaving the Artist2 field empty.

Artist Separation is of little importance to listeners. It is important to us only in the sense that if we are going to play five songs by an artist each day, we ideally want one of the five in each of our five dayparts.  A two or three hour separation on the artist will assist to that end. However, if we have some artists that will have six or more songs scheduled each day, then anything more than a three hour separation rule will give some frequent rule-stops in the scheduling run. And a four-hour separation simply would not work.  Remember, Music 1 is designed to schedule every song in a category before re-scheduleing any one of them. It is common to get a few Artist separation edit/stops when M1 has worked its way down to the bottom of a category. Those will need to be manually scheduled or flipped. But if you are getting a dozen or more Artist-stops with each scheduling run, the separations for those artists are too broad for the library content rules that have been set.

The best thing to do is to have Music 1 set a ‘computed’ separation on all of your artists. Here’s a video about how to do that.



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