Radio & Satellite

Why Radio Plays Same 20 Songs: The Sad Truth Of Media Consolidation [INFOGRAPHIC]

PayolaIf you’ve ever tuned into terrestrial radio in your car, at home or at the office, then you’re well aware that commercial radio stations tend to play the same songs in rotation over and over again. Is it because these songs are so hot that people are just demanding stations play them? Hardly. The sad truth of the matter is that only six companies control 90% of the media: GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner (compared to 1983 when roughly 50 companies owned the media).

Consolidation of media has lead to far less diversity in programming and ownership, with far fewer voices being heard. Media consolidation has heavily affected the balance and diversity of today's music on terrestrial radio. This is great news if you’re Drake, Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga and the like, but not so great if you’re just about anybody else.

The below infographic, first presented by Frugal Dad, displays exactly what the consolidation of our media looks like:

Click on image to enlarge

Media Consolidation Infographic

Source: Frugal dad


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  1. Great article! Yeah commercial radio is a bore when you hear 20 bands and all of them sound alike. Sad really but with the internet being free this is rapidly changing. What will happen is the free web as we know it will become co-mingled with cable and the big companies will limit by charging a fee to control the market once again. So support local music and do all you can to join the fight to keep our internet free forever!

  2. This is a really cool diagram. I don’t agree with what it means though.
    Terrestrial radio is consumed by casual listeners, who make up most of the market. These casual listeners can’t and don’t want to mentally comprehend/digest more than 20 songs at once (the same reason why even serious music fans have trouble comprehending big albums like 69 Love Songs from the Magnetic Fields)
    So the top 20 changes when those songs get played out, and a new bunch is always there to replace them. This yes, is partly a result of top-down marketing (big guys pushing a few songs), but most of it is just based on listener response and opinion. If people wanted more songs, they’d ask for more songs. But that’s not what they want. And that’s why the stations that play the hits are the biggest.
    Terrestrial radio isn’t inherently bad or good for music, and it’s not run by evil programming geniuses. It just plays the songs that its listeners want to hear during their casual 30 minutes of consumption wherever it may be.

  3. these guys are already looking for a way to do that to the internet. it is depressing to say the least. Maybe the people will own the music and art but they will still own the satellites.

  4. BAD MATH ALERT: 232 Media Executives controlling the information diet of 277 million Americans would be one exec per 1.193 million. Secondly, the fact that Clear Channel owns 1,200 stations is WRONG. They did at one time, but have slimmed down to the neighborhood of 850 stations today. And, the fact that they do own such a large number can’t be compared to 1995, as the ownership caps were changed when Bill Clinton signed the Telecom Act into law 1996. If you’re unhappy about media consolidation and wish to pursue an agenda, at least use the FACTS honestly. Finally, the figure of 80% similarity in station playlists as applied to the entire industry is impossibly high. Within certain formats, that number is somewhat reasonable, but your graphic leads one to believe it’s the broad metric of all stations. However, if it gave your artist a reason to draw the cute little Mrs Robinson cartoon, then I’m happy for him/her. But, why do you think there are similarities between station playlists and programming approaches in radio? Because that’s what the audience wants. Plenty of experimental formats have been attempted by the companies that create America’s radio stations, and the ones that find a large enough audience stick around. The ones that don’t attract a following don’t survive. We respect the vote of the audience as indicated to us by the ratings. They vote with their ears, that’s where WE become the listener.

  5. “We respect the vote of the audience as indicated to us by the ratings.”
    THAT’S what needs to be fixed. The arbitrary terrestrial radio ratings system. It went from bad to worse when Arbitron switched from mailed out diaries to Portable People Meters.
    Radio programmers have to cater to a flawed ratings system.

  6. Viacom owns CBS. They just have it operate separately. So technically its just 5 companies and not 6

  7. We have to deal with a lot of flawed systems. Deal with it. If you’ve got a better mousetrap, I’m sure radio folks, who cannot stand the system in which they work, will jump all over it.
    Look, here’s the simple truth. For the casual listener, they do not miss what they do not hear. Therefore, what is played, is well researched, and designed to not make them turn that knob. (Nickelback being the exception that proves the rule) I love certain groups that will never see the other side of a radio speaker. Do I miss them when I have the radio on? Nope. Just as long as I don’t hear something that will make me turn the station.
    As for your Mrs. Robinson example. That’s a cleaver way of making statistics lie. There are roughly 8760 hours in a year. There are roughly 10,455 radio stations in the US. Mrs. Robinson has been out since 1968. Got that? So 10,455 stations, filling 8760 hours (each) of programming for 44 years equals… Wait for it. 4,029,775,200 hours of programming in those 44 years. Now, You claim Mrs. Robinson has been played enough to fill 33 years worth of programming. But that’s assuming there’s one station doing the playing. Once you spread that out over the 10K+ stations, the song is played, on average once every 14,376 hours. Meaning, if you heard it on your fav. station in January 2012, on average you’ll hear it again in September… 2013.
    Thank you and good night

  8. correction: National Amusements owns both Viacom and CBS and have them operate separately

  9. It sucks! Big time! It makes it more difficult for newer, fresh voices to launch their music career and it narrows the mind of the fans and the music listeners and it makes them idiots when it comes to music. After a while, they won’t want to listen to anything else but the same crap.
    In comparison, just look at the International market. Everyone else has variety, but the U.S. The only variety we see here is J-Lo and Pitbull, which comes like a breath of fresh air after listening to Kelly Clarkson, Gaga, and Lil Wayne all the time.
    Also, if U.S. would be more open to letting fresh music from other countries enter this country, without the stupid licensing obstacles in the way, it would provide a lot more variety, it would educate the listeners a lot better, and it would certainly provide an incentive to the American artists to better themselves and maintain variety. But what they do reminds me of the old days, more than 20 years ago when I was living in Romania, under communism, when the regime wouldn’t let any entertainment from outside the country in. You would only be able to listen what was created and published inside the country. Total monopoly. We’re not that far now here. So sad.

  10. Regardless of the “math” being done properly. Everyone gets different facts and numbers who the importance of this article is that it is true that media is controlled. The 90’s was the ending of it all. I haven’t heard good radio programming in years. There is no way for local talent to break through unless the sign some deal that’s affiliated with a major label. it makes no sense that a local artist really has no way of making the top 10 of a radio station anymore. now there’s all this hoopla about controlling the internet which if in face happens we are all fucked to a controlled media environment to its entirety which simple upsets me.

  11. Sure, there’s only some much space in people’s minds for brands or songs. This is the top 40 effect. That aside, do you have any comments about the consolidation of the media into 6 primary channels? What about Clear Channel? What is your definition of ‘evil programming geniuses?’ Surely those calling the shots have *some* understanding of marketing.

  12. Nope, a comment above points out that people want this kind of monopoly. It’s all their widdle brwains can handwle. NOT.

  13. I think that I would have a problem with media consolidation if that internet thing hadn’t been invented yet. I couldn’t care less what Clear Channel is doing. They push product that people want, to people that want it.
    If I don’t want to listen to the radio, I don’t. I can get new good music from blogs, pitchfork, rateyourmusic, etc. and I can have all this stuff on my mobile phone to play at home, at work, or on the go.
    Of course Clear Channel understands the market, but it’s a market I need not see. I couldn’t care less what they do. And that’s my whole point.
    I’m leaving work now, and on my two minute walk to the subway, I’ll have downloaded a full album, recommended to me through a blog, to my Rdio account for offline play. That kind of thing makes me forget the radio exists.

  14. Your argument so detailed! Too bad it doesn’t change the fact that these six companies do have a powerful grip on the flow of information in all of North America despite some of the misinformation provided in the diagram above. The details don’t matter because these media giants’ influence is visible to the just about anyone who lives in the western world. I happen to be unfortunate enough to be forced into listening to the radio at work, and guess what I don’t like the music on there, but I guess my vote and many others just don’t seem to count these days. Don’t tell me people actually like Lady Gaga, because they don’t most of her fans have been brainwashed. After all her music is jammed down our throats everyday of the work week.

  15. We had a station in the late 90’s in St Louis come out with an alternative classic rock format (heavier more metal directed). One of the DJs who left the ‘main rock station’ actually mentioned on air that the rights to the new station were bought by the old one; within months of it beginning its broadcasts. County music here is the same way, two stations with exactly the same format. You have to listen to the outliers and know where to find them on the dial to still get a good mix. True with all generes here and most other markets I have traveled to. If people are simply ‘casual listeners’ digesting what they hear in 30 minutes of radio time every day then how do the other community stations keep their listeners? There are even a few new stations popping up that play a bigger variety. Perhaps independent owners are realizing there is money in playing variety. Of course with outlier stations you have to hear the farm report and news from places you’ve never heard of.

  16. i disagree completely. AND, the whole “listeners only listen for 30 minutes” is a bunch of crap. i have, on many occasions, reguested for a certain song to be played by my local radio stations, and not once have they EVER played that song. somewhere, some person, who i will never meet, is telling somebody to play whatever songs are played. big record companies pay radio stations to play their hits to get it out there so people will buy their CD’s. Radio stations are basically just advertising companies for major record companies. NOW, the major issue that i have with radio stations, is that common sense would say that people DONT want to hear the SAME freaking songs over and over again. what rational human being actually enjoys the same crap over and over? the playlists of these stations has nothing to do with what their listeners want, and anybody who tells you that it does, is wrong.

  17. i just have one question…in the year 2012, with technology where its at, why cant radio stations offer some sort of email/text alert service to send to their listeners whenever their favorite songs will be played? cable stations offer online detailed programming schedules, so why cant radio stations? it would be awesome to get a text alert saying that song X will be played at 2:30 pm. i think neverybody would like to have that option available to them…and NOT having that service is where i lose a LOT of respect for the radio stations in my city, and i hope that they go out of business tomorrow, because they have a really CRAPPY product.

  18. Most radio playlists, even those of the “Classic Hits” variety (60s-80s) are like a treadmill or a merry-go-round. They rotate the same “burnt to a crisp” songs every 36 hours or so, and think that is what we listeners want. Yet they still like to pretend to take requests.
    Radio hasn’t been “fun” for many years… and the
    listeners pick up on that. Unfortunately, the bean counters don’t understand the fun and entertainment value of radio. All they know is the green backs.
    “Lost Pop Hits” is a lively Facebook group with about 800 members so far. We have a blast sharing You Tube songs, music trivia and chart stats! We will roll out the red carpet for anyone from this board!

  19. Gee did the suits every think that maybe the reason their listeners are 30-minute casuals, is because they can not tolerate more than 309 minutes of it?
    Back in the 60’s & 70’s (and even in the 80’s) most people I know would turn on the radio and leave it on all day, or most of it. Then came consolidation with their wonderful 20 song theory. Next came the casual listener!

  20. It does suck that only a handful of groups own so much of the media, but they won’t control what you think unless you let them. So that’s what the focus should be on. Keeping the media at bay, always being aware, and ALWAYS critically thinking.
    Although, maybe the first step is ditching cable/dish. Sure you forfeit sports and newer shows. Get Netflix and Hulu. You save money, get basic sports with a digital tuner (built in nowdays) don’t get tons of commercial-channels, and don’t get commercials at all! It’s a compromise, but if everyone does it, it’ll really shake things up.
    Altogether stop supporting things like reality television, which are easy for executives to churn out since they lack thought in production…

  21. The 80s was the last good decade of radio. By the 90s it was in decline and now radio is hardly tolerable

  22. The writing was on the wall when the FCC was officially deregulated in the 90’s. Do some history and look up the name HEARST and how he did the same thing. All be it was some time ago, he did OWN the paper mills and most of the newspapers. He did not like you it was over for you. I reference Fatty Arbuckle and his “trial” that was played out in Herst’s papers. Like Dickens said “What is Past is Prologue”

  23. Thats alll you got from this? Wanting to know when your favorite song wll come on?
    probably every 15-30. Monopolies and marketing is the subject.

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