How To Be More Like Pandora

Years ago one of the major market radio stations I programmed used syndication tapes from Drake Chenault.

Every week at our studios off City Line Avenue near Philadelphia, a master tape arrived from Canoga Park, CA with the new week’s current music tape that we simply slapped on a Schafer automation machine.

But as a young program director I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I knew the owner was cheap – the company would have loved to operate today in the current atmosphere of repeater radio. But I didn’t.

The thing that pushed me over the top was when I heard a song included in the “currents” tape called “Walking My Cat Named Dog” by Norma Tenega. This wasn’t even a one hit wonder (#22 on the national Billboard charts probably with lots of payola).

It was just a wonder.

How the hell did it arrive for Philadelphia airplay?

They had to be kidding!

I called our Drake Chenault contact, a great guy named Lee Bayley and said, "what was this!" No Philly station was playing it. No one even heard of it. A cat in Philly is not necessarily the same thing as a cat in LA if you know what I mean. Is this a Philly sound?

Seems like the syndicator was tracking it from LA and it wound up on the tape. I turned to my trusty associate Mike Anderson and said – get rid of this for me, will you – and he sliced it out – along with the other songs that we knew would lay an egg with local audiences. We were forbidden to do this at that point in time.

I mention this because Pandora has the secret to success in music radio.

Pandora’s almost 50 million subscribers love customized radio partially because the formula Tim Westergren’s successful Internet streaming service employs is learning the tastes of listeners and comparing them to a set of genomes – or conditions that help Pandora suggest other songs they might like.

Meanwhile, back at terrestrial radio, it’s bad enough that 50 million people are in love with Pandora but local stations are doing the “Walking My Cat Named Dog” routine – playing the wrong songs for local listeners.

Radio people and researchers are getting pissy with Pandora these days and they’re doing all the usual things that radio people seem to do when they get mad. Just like the satellite radio days, some radio execs are trying to belittle Pandora as not big enough to present a threat.

That may have worked with satellite radio which was trying to steal terrestrial radio’s listeners – albeit it by asking them to pay for what they could also get for free. But it won’t work with Pandora.

Pandora is a powerful platform and smart radio executives give it the respect it deserves – after all their kids likely listen to it (or they may, also).

So how to compete with something this popular that is growing this fast?

One thing, for sure, don’t play the same music over and over again in an era when audiences clearly have become accustomed to larger playlists.

I know it is heresy for an ex-PD to say run a large playlist – and I’m not exactly saying radio needs to do that – but I am saying terrestrial radio needs to come up with a genome of its own – a local genome.

You and I know smart programmers who could do this.

Look no further than Pandora’s founder for guidance:

Pandora got a group of musicians and music-loving technologists together to assemble hundreds of musical attributes or “gene” into a large Music Genome. Things like “the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony.”

Radio programmers could do the same thing for local communities. I am convinced that people like Ron Jacobs, the legendary first PD of KHJ Boss Radio in Los Angeles probably did this in his head. Still, it can be done by others in a more methodical way.

Pandora said:

“It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like.

Since we started back in 2000, we've carefully listened to the songs of tens of thousands of different artists - ranging from popular to obscure - and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time. This work continues each and every day as we endeavor to include all the great new stuff coming out of studios, clubs and garages around the world”.

Boy, don’t we radio folks get too obsessed with who is buying music instead of what characteristics local music has that makes local listeners listen?

In other words, Pandora didn’t get to be a brand icon on a straight path upward by just creating yet another playlist. It did it by studying the elements that individuals who subscribe to Pandora when they begin to choose music.

While terrestrial radio cannot do exactly that, it can remove the focus from national one-size-fits-all playlists and start assembling local musical taste attributes that mass audiences in certain localities seem to want.

There are lots of great radio research companies sitting idly by while computerized playlists are ruining the day. Turn a project like this over to them in various local markets and you come away with some of the magic of Pandora.

I’m not talking about mere music testing – that has been around for years and you’ll note Pandora didn’t do music testing either.

Often readers ask me to make positive suggestions on how terrestrial radio can improve and grow audience. Today, I am making yet another one.

Codify the 30 or 40 musical characteristics that apply to your musical genre, the local heartbeat and your target listener.

Don’t try to be Pandora.

Be like Pandora in isolating the local music genome.

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