Head or gut – or how much market research does music on the radio need?

Former Music Director of Antenne Bayern Justus Fischer

By Justus Fischer, On Air Digital

Music and mathematics are more closely connected than most people may think. As early as several hundred years B.C. Pythagoras experimented on a simple guitar and noticed that the basic musical intervals can be described by simple numerical ratios. In this way the first scale in history was created with the help of maths. And today brain research studies confirm that musicians have better spatial imagination and are more capable in the field of mathematics. Numbers and music have always belonged together, even if some people may find the connection between emotional music and dry numbers very strange.

Market researchers promise the nearly transparent listener and optimal market exploitation. But when it comes to radio stations that are confronted with research data for the first time, their reservations against this system often seem insurmountable. Music directors and editors worry that they will lose their creativity. They fear for their influence and dread letting music planning be influenced by a method they do not yet fully comprehend. They prefer relying on their experience and their gut feeling. Here, market researchers and consultants are sometimes challenged even psychologically in order to alleviate the program makers’ distrust. In addition to that, their best analytical abilities are required because the raw results which are presented in seemingly boring Excel tables have to be read and interpreted correctly.

Call-outs or results of an online test where listeners rate each track, Mapping studies which take a detailed look at a market, listening habits and musical preferences of listeners or continuous tracking with which the development in the market is monitored permanently – all of those methods cough up a vast quantity of numbers in the end.

But what amount and which kind of music research does a radio station need? On the one hand, this certainly depends on the necessary cash, but also on the market and the target group on the other hand. In a young and fast-paced segment it is advisable to look at numbers in the form of call-outs on a weekly basis. The results tell you exactly which tracks are particularly popular with the listeners at the moment and which current songs are already past their zenith and are no longer justifiable in heavy rotation. After all, such formats appeal to a dynamic audience that is constantly looking for new musical inspiration.

In an Oldies format, however, the popularity of individual songs normally will only change marginally over the years. Therefore a singular test of the back catalogue is sufficient to begin with. But a detailed Mapping study should be conducted to find out which music styles are relevant at all for the listenership targeted.

In a highly competitive radio market where many stations want a piece of the cake that’s as big as possible, figures gained from tracking are particularly valuable. They reflect the current market situation and provide precise information on the popularity of the music mix, the presenters, the news, the comedy or the current competition.

The only form of market research where numbers hardly play a role are focus groups in which a psychologist explores the emotional ties of the listeners to the station.

As a general rule you can say that the more intense the competitive environment is, the more advisable it is to conduct reliable research. Results from market research provide the coordinates for the right calculation of the route towards the target. All wrong tracks can be ruled out from the outset.

But as with the bible there is more than one way of interpreting research data. In an air check session or a strategic meeting adult people can argue for hours about one single number because even a decision based on plain figures likes to be made emotionally. Here it can be seen that music research is perfectly complemented by the often quoted ‘gut feeling’.

Music research is indispensible in the daily work of a music department. Nobody can afford to do without such figures. They provide the basis for decisions that make sense. But the interpretation of the results requires sensitivity and intuition. What’s more, market research does not provide information on one crucial aspect. Which impulse might be pivotal for the future of the station is still to be decided by the management on a gut level. A mathematical formula for success unfortunately does not exist yet.

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