LOS ANGELES, Nov. 30 — For the millions of Americans who listened to Top 40 radio last week, it was almost impossible to miss “Apologize,” the string-tinged elegy performed by the modern rock band OneRepublic and remixed by the eclectic producer Timbaland.
The song’s success is more than yet another sign of Timbaland’s prowess — it’s the third hit from his latest album, “Timbaland Presents Shock Value” (Interscope), a compilation of genre-bending collaborations with everyone from Elton John to Fall Out Boy.
It’s also a sign of how radio stations are responding to the competition for listeners as radio’s audience fragments and rival entertainment choices abound. While the overwhelming majority of Americans still tune into traditional broadcast radio each week, they are listening less. And they are increasingly drawn to the dizzying choices of music and other programming available on iPods and satellite and Internet radio.
But many pop radio programmers appear keen to repeat the biggest hits as much as — or more than — ever. “Apologize” surpassed a record that had been set only in July by Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” according to the data. Of the 10 songs that have notched the most plays in one week, 8 joined the list in the last three years. And the oldest of the 10, Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” dates only to 2002. (The all-time most-played song across all radio formats is Santana’s “Smooth,” with more than 1.1 million total plays since it was released in 1999.)
Tom Owens, the executive vice president of content for Clear Channel Communications, which is the nation’s largest owner of radio stations and a big influence in the Top 40 format, said that “Apologize” deserved such heavy airplay because it had received “off the charts” results in listener research testing, and added that the song is devoid of content that might prompt more conservative pop stations to limit its airplay. Mr. Owens also said that Radio & Records and tracking services are counting slightly more stations than they used to, making it easier for big songs to break the record.
Even so, executives at some individual stations say they are playing hits more heavily than they did even two years ago. That is not so much out of concern over digital competition as it is a desire to respond to listeners’ busy lives, said Kat Jensen, music director for KKMG-FM in Colorado Springs, which played “Apologize” 78 times last week. “There’s a very limited window. If they’re going to listen 15 minutes a day, you want to make sure they hear their favorite song in that 15 minutes. It’s really the fast-paced life style that we all live.”
Many stations are also trying to keep up with listeners — and trying to draw new ones — by integrating their over-the-air broadcasts with social networks on their Web sites and other online features. But that comes against a backdrop of an eroding audience. The amount of time people tune into radio during the course of a week has fallen by about 13 percent during the last decade, according to data from Arbitron, which measures ratings for the radio industry.
Some analysts say that responding to the decline by repeating the big hits even more will set broadcasters on a path to losing listeners.
“What most of these folks do is retreat to a more safe position, and in radio, the safer position is to play fewer songs more often,” said Mike Henry, chief executive of Paragon Media Strategies, a consulting firm in Denver. Mr. Henry, whose firm helped develop a wide-ranging radio format known as Jack FM in the United States three years ago, added that the increase in plays of songs reflected “a fear-based response. That will only take you so far.”
While, “there will always be people who are just fine taking what they’re given,” Mr. Henry said, more and more people will be enticed by “programming their own media.”
For now, however, radio is regarded as the most powerful promotional tool when it comes to exposing new music — even if the connection between popularity on the airwaves and popularity in record shops is not as direct as it once was. OneRepublic’s album, “Dreaming Out Loud” (Interscope), sold roughly 75,000 copies in its first week on sale, a solid if less than remarkable debut. But the “Apologize” remix, which is included as a hidden track on the album, brought in sales of more than 140,000 copies on digital services like iTunes for the week that ended Nov. 25, for a total of almost 1.6 million copies of the song.
Not a bad comeback for OneRepublic, which was formed by high school friends in Colorado Springs and suffered through a near-miss with fame — including losing its previous record deal with Columbia Records — before the band’s popularity on MySpace helped it land a new contract with Timbaland’s imprint, Mosley Music Group, which is distributed through Interscope. “Even though radio does seem like it’s kind of an archaic behemoth, in terms of actually being able to pay the bills, it’s still one of the best ways,” said Greg Wells, the longtime producer who oversaw “Dreaming Out Loud.” “I’m aware of how fickle this kind of attention can be. Songs like that are rare for anybody.”