Why Do Radio Stations Play the Same Songs Over and Over?

March 29, 2021

I think it’s safe to say that the number one complaint that most people have against even their favorite radio station is that they play the same songs over and over again throughout the day. After interning at a radio station in college, working part-time on and off for years, and even giving sales a try for a year – I can safely say we heard it all the time. And we know! But it’s not our fault or unique to a certain station… all stations besides particular time period stations (oldies, classic rock, etc.) will have this complaint from frequent listeners. Notice I said frequent. Casual listeners don’t usually notice, but if you’re listening every day or for a good chunk of time, you are bound to hear repeats.

I think there is a huge misconception that the DJs pick all the songs that play and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Back in the day, they could play songs of their choosing, and Program Directors, the main person in charge of that particular station, had a lot of freedom as well. Yes, DJs can still throw in a song or two for requests or if they have a request hour built into their normal schedule, that’s accounted for. But overall, that week’s playlist is chosen by the parent company at least a week in advance.

Radio playlists are made up primarily by what songs are charting nationally on the song charts in the genre of the radio station. Streaming has added a whole other element of charting, but traditionally a record label and their rep would essentially ‘sell’ their artist to the various Program Directors at the appropriate radio stations throughout the country. They’d send advanced copies, special merch, and sometimes stop by in person to pitch their artist’s new release. New artists, especially, are ‘sold’ more than established artists and might even stop by in person, do a live interview, event, etc.

Now though, most radio stations are owned by huge conglomerates and are not locally owned and operated like they were back in the day. As I write this, iHeart Media has 858 radio stations, Cumulus has 429 and third up is Townsquare Media with 321. I worked initially for Townsquare Media, but our stations were sold to Cumulus shortly after I started my internship. With the big conglomerates like this, there is more syndication and cohesiveness between similar genre’d radio stations. A rock station in Illinois owned by the same company will probably have the same songs playing as a rock station in Texas. Now, each genre has a Vice President that decides what new songs will get played vs individual Program Directors. I know they do have meetings with the program directors and do take their input, but ultimately it is up to the parent company.

How often songs get played is a little different. Songs at the top of the charts are always in heavy rotation. They are really trying to appeal to the casual listener by making sure they hear that hot song the one time they might tune into the station. The top 5 songs or so will usually be played about once an hour. Throughout the day, older but still popular songs will also play to mix things up, which are either “Recurrents” or “Golds” – depending on their age. Recurrent songs are songs that used to be the top hits but are slowly moving down the charts and are on their way out. People still like them, but not the “hottest” song right now. Each genre has different qualifiers for how they determine a song is recurrent or not. A “Gold” is a song older that everyone knows when it comes on and that was at the top in its heyday.

So, long story short is that the radio station plays the same songs over and over again to appease the casual listener, and if you’re noticing, that means you are a “P1 radio listener” for that station aka you listen to that station more than any other. You’re likely to hear their repeats, which we understand can get annoying, but I ask you to keep a few things in mind:

  • The radio station is free for you! Free music and localized content is provided to you via your car radio or even streaming device. You either love the format, DJs, or some combination to listen as often as you do.
  • The radio station has to make money! To stay in business and remain free for you, the radio must make money. Having the hottest, most popular songs play frequently for those casual listeners improves the chances of them sticking around and listening for longer and then hearing the paid-for ads.
  • Wear your P1 listener badge with pride! If you’re noticing the playlist schedule, you are certainly a P1 listener or at least pretty dang close. Cut the station some slack, I promise they aren’t doing it to annoy you. It’s just best practices for the overall business.

Well, there you go! A very long explanation for a very common question/complaint about radio stations. I also found a good video on the topic, as well, so check that out below. Did that all make sense or are you still going to change the station next time that song comes on again?

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