by Matt Wardlaw, Envision Networks® Director of Operations

“Play some unheard classics. Deep cuts, rarities… Something to set yourselves apart from the pack.”

That’s direct feedback that came from a listener. As a music fan, it’s not hard to understand their frustration.

As we’re aware, there’s a delicate balance between serving the desires of listeners who want to hear alternative tracks while still maintaining enough familiarity that the average listener won’t tune away. But one of the things that made the freeform programming style of the ‘70s so exciting was that you had the potential to hear all sorts of different songs, regardless of genre, on the same radio station.

The New Radio Station is Owned by the Listener
While today’s commercial radio stations largely operate with a more tightly managed playlist and programming philosophy, it can be argued that the spirit of what freeform radio once was is still very much alive and well. The control has simply shifted directly to the listener who has nearly endless possibilities when it comes to what they’re listening to. They no longer need to wait to hear their favorite songs—they can stream them on demand on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube. Many services also give them an option to create their own “stations” and curate a continuous mix of music based on artists and songs that they like.

Yet you’ll still run into plenty of people who appreciate listening to radio stations where they can hear something different. They still want to be able to grab onto that experience of hearing the music that they love, while also being organically introduced to songs and artists that they were previously unfamiliar with—both new artists and deeper tracks from artists they already know.

Classic Rock that Really Rocks
Whether it’s a “Block Party Weekend” or a Memorial Day “Top 500 Classic Rock Songs of All-Time” countdown, one of the things that makes those events so much fun to listen to is the musical nuggets slotted in next to well-known hits. Here in Cleveland, the “Saturday Night House Party” on WNCX-FM, hosted by the appropriately named “Mr. Classic,” has been a local fixture on the weekends for more than 25 years. The program kicks off at 7 p.m. with a pair of regulars—the live version of “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party” by the J. Geils Band and John Prine’s “Illegal Smile,” and wraps up five hours later with “Maggot Brain” by George Clinton’s Funkadelic. In between those predefined lines, it feels like the rest of the show is in the hands of the listeners.

Mr. Classic fields calls from a devoted cult of fans who dish out a wide variety of requests. On a recent Saturday evening, those callers lobbied for plenty of classic rock staples—“Still Loving You” by Scorpions, “Burnin’ For You” by Blue Oyster Cult, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers—but listeners also heard album tracks like “Spread Your Wings” from Queen, “Slipped My Disco” by the Tubes, and “Lakeside Park” from Rush.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road and Your Hands on the (Programming) Wheel
Interestingly, looking at a recap of what was played across the five hour shift, the overall mix of songs never strays too far beyond the lines of what would be considered familiar. But in the moment, the House Party delivers an exciting experience with just enough variety to make you grab your phone on occasion to Shazam and find out what a particular song is. With an average of eight to ten songs per hour, generally only a couple break from the normal format.

And that’s something that we’ve seen as a common thread with programmers who want to give their jocks a bit of space to open things up and slot in a couple listener requests that are outside of the normal box. Tools like Song Bug can make it an interactive process so that fans can not only submit the songs they want to hear via your station’s website, they can also find out when their favorite bands will be played on your station.

How are you keeping things interesting for your station’s listeners? We’d love to know—drop us a line and share your story.

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