By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

There they were, separated by two other songs on my Classic Hits station…
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty and “You Got It” by Roy Orbison. Should I swap one of them out? Or were those songs only musically close to each other because of the perception that I brought to them? Because of subtext that no reasonable listener could share?

I put the question to my Facebook friends. Would you let those two songs play as is? Are they the same or was I failing the “Who Gives A ….” (WGAS) test? I also asked readers if they knew why I would flag those two songs.

WWCK Flint, Mich., PD Jerry Noble got it right away. To my question of “why are Roy Orbison and Tom Petty on my Top 40 station?” Jerry joked, “But maybe add a Traveling Wilburys code?” My concern wasn’t just that Orbison and Petty were briefly bandmates, but that these were two of a half-dozen hits from 1987-90, many of them now playable songs for Classic Hits, with the distinctive sound of Jeff Lynne’s productions from that era. (And, as it was later pointed out, Petty also co-wrote and appears on “You Got It.”)

And then we were off. “Yes, there’s the Wilburys connection, but I don’t think I’d change those songs out for that reason,” said Brad Lovett. “A thorough MD would have set up a code or special artist separation to prevent that from happening,” wrote John Clay.

John Davis said, “I would let it slide. I would separate a Wilburys song from both, but not the artists on their own.” Whereas, Scott Lowe added, “I would probably spread those titles apart a bit. It also bugs me when I see Nirvana and Foo Fighters too close together.”

But those were the broadcasters who were willing to consider this a legitimate concern in the first place. “Only us radio people who still schedule based on what our first PDs told us would obsess about something like this,” wrote Russell James. “Are they both great songs? Then let them buck where they may. I’m more concerned with rest and daypart rules.” “Classic PD(s) overthink,” wrote Dave Logan. “You’ve all said it, no one cares,” added Mike Peer. “Let it go. Means zero to the average listener,” said Don Tandler.

Several readers noted that any such concerns had been rendered meaningless if listening occasions are 8-9 minutes and average daily TSL is twenty. There was also the entirely valid point that those songs together would have been absolutely right on a Two for Tuesday or in some other theme set (or Spotify playlist).

In the end, the comments were about 3:1 in favor of leaving the two songs where they were. That group of readers was divided as well—about half understood my concern, about half found it risible. Then, WFEZ Miami’s Jeanne Ashley checked in. It was her job, she wrote, to overthink each quarter hour—considering both compatibility with each other and recycling issues. Besides, the PD was likely to change something anyway, so why not start out perfect?

In other words, Ashley gave me the validation so brutally denied me by my other friends and readers.  As it happens, I did swap out one of the two songs, because I could. Spreading songs isn’t just an issue of one quarter-hour. If you allow “Free Fallin’,” “Got My Mind Set On You,” “You Got It,” and “End of the Line” to all play within a few hours’ time, then you will have little representation of that (increasingly well-loved) sound for another day-and-a-half.

I’m not deluded about what other people notice or care about. If I had not seen or flagged Roy/Tom, I would have not been in any way devastated to hear it on the air later. I learned my lesson after I once e-mailed a Canadian PD to apologize for putting “Human Race” by Red Rider too close to “White Wedding.” He had never heard the similarity until I pointed it out. But now, perhaps you will…

But to some extent, the job of the person in the scheduling chair is to put together music with an artifice unavailable to the person putting together their own Spotify playlist at home. As recently declared in another column, programmers are supposed to create the stations they hear in their own head, even if guided by voices. A lot of niceties of scheduling, such as artist separation, have been waived in recent years, and shorter TSL is often the excuse. But are you sure that relaxed rules aren’t contributing to the decline in TSL?

That may be especially true for CHR and Hot AC at this moment when a lot of the music is concerning in its similarity. One reader, amused by the notion of sound coding for a shared producer, cited a recent Hot AC segue between two Greg Kurstin productions, Pink’s “Try” and Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge.” But I don’t have any hesitation about hearing those songs as two of the same—dense, sludgy, repetitive, both melancholy despite Pink’s intended message of uplift.

Personally, I would have forced some tempo there. But who knows with today’s music if I would have found anything else to play? And in that case, the songwriter/producer is a red herring. Because other current producers create songs with a similar texture. At least the issue with Lynne/Wilburys is that Jeff Lynne briefly created a distinctive sound that could only be his. “Too much of a good thing” is a fun one to debate.

“Too much of a bad thing” is the real scheduling dilemma.