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How Many Songs Should I Be Playing?

Mike Joseph Invented The Tight 1958.

The question comes to me with some regularity.  How many songs does a successful music radio station have in its library.  My half-joking reply is: Probably half the number of songs you are now playing. There really is no winning number.  Top rated Current-Hits stations play fewer than 500.  Stations going after older demos play fewer Currents and more Oldies. The winners run with 800 to maybe 1200.  Once a station gets past the one thousand tunes mark, the less likely it will be able to maintain a large audience.  There are exceptions, sure. But not many.  


I can explain the Why of this fact, but it gets wordy. At its core, the small library works best because it forces the station to cut all the fat. Whenever a listener hits the station, there is a "favorite" song playing; a Hit song.  If you have never looked at the "skip" statistics in Pandora, consider this.  Their listeners hit the song-skip button within 15 seconds of its beginning and a high percentage of them do it within 5 seconds.  


The first radio "format" was Top 40.  It first took root in 1954 when Todd Storz switched his Omaha station to all Rock 'n Roll All The Time.  I don't know why nor how Todd settled on that number, but it worked and soon there were All-Music and DJs stations across the USA.  Whenever there were two Rock'n Roll stations in town, the one with the shorter playlist was invariably the one that had the higher ratings.


The greatest practitioner of the tight list was Mike Joseph; the very first radio programming consultant.  Mike never played more than 30 records.  That's it.  No Oldies. No Recurrents.  And bear in mind, the hit records of the day were all under three minutes, many were just two minutes.  Every one of the thirty songs played again about two hours later.  I share this 1982 article on Mike Joseph from Radio Only magazine.  At the time, he had just launched his "Hot Hits" format on WBBM-fm in Chicago.  I looked back at the Arbitron ratings to seed what happened.  The ratings doubled within a year. In the third largest radio market in America, that was worth a couple million a year in advertising dollars.