The Thorough and Pointless Results of My Radio Station Presets Study

image of an antique wooden radio
This is not my car stereo. Image CC0 Public Domain Pictures.net

I would just like to preface this article by saying that everyone who starts writing for GeekMom is assured that “whatever you geek out about is a good article topic! It’s the geeking out that matters! We want to see your passion!” Let’s see how far I can stretch that promise!

I spend an inordinate amount of brainpower on exclaiming or complaining about whatever the radio is playing. A few weeks ago I wrote here about how I had obsessively started annotating some lists of all the music being played on the radio. Now I believe I have thoroughly analyzed all the results, so the time has come to share.

Introduction and Procedures

This all started when I innocently looked up a radio station playlist to find out the name of the last song they’d played. Then I realized I could copy all the songs on the playlist into a spreadsheet and analyze them, and the listing obsession kicked in. I wanted to compare several stations, so I focused on the stations I listen to most often, i.e., the stations I have on in the car.

There are six primary presets on my car radio:

  • The former Oldies station, now “Classic Hits” station, in Pittsburgh
  • The local Oldies station that pretty much just serves Washington County (south of Pittsburgh, where I live)
  • The “We Play Anything” station in Pittsburgh
  • The Classic Rock station in Pittsburgh
  • The Alternative Rock station in Pittsburgh
  • And the Classic Rock station in Wheeling

I was able to download the playlist for the entire week from the We Play Anything station.

I could not access an online playlist for the local station at all, which is a shame, because it definitely plays the broadest variety, and would have been really interesting. But my days of sitting next to the radio writing down each song that comes on are far behind me.

The other four stations are all I Heart Radio stations, and their websites all have the same format. If you go to their recently-played lists, you get the ten most recent songs and a “load more” button. It takes a lot of loading more to see a full day’s worth, so I made multiple trips to each of those websites over the course of a week until I had a full week’s worth of music there.

That’s not entirely true. I forgot to look at the alt-rock station for awhile, because I figured I’d just stick to the stations closer in format to compare, but then I got curious… so I ended up collecting just two days’ worth of playlist from that station, just to see what patterns emerged.

I put all the data into separate sheets of an Excel workbook. I sorted the lists by artist and title, then counted duplicate songs, making a new column for the number of times each song had been played, then deleting all the duplicates so each song was listed once with its play count beside it. Then I assigned each station a pale cell color before pasting its playlist into another worksheet to combine all the lists. I sorted and looked for duplicates again, but this time, not only did I put the total number of plays in the next column, I took note of which stations had played the song and assigned it a new color, which was usually some sort of mix of the original stations’ colors to make it easier to visualize. (But since this resulted in a lot of browns, I did make a key for myself).

Now that I had a master list of everything played, I gave each song a 1-5 rating, based on how I am likely to react if it comes on while I’m driving:* 3s are the songs I can take or leave. I gave a 4 to songs that make me genuinely happy to hear, and 5 for the songs that are an automatic I-don’t-care-what’s-on-the-other-stations-my-channel-flipping-ends-here. Likewise, 2s make me groan, and 1s are I’d-rather-listen-to-a-commercial (and it takes a lot to drive me that far).

And since a lot of my curiosity here started from the so-called Oldies station neglecting ’60s music, I wanted to see which decades of music these stations covered. I looked up the release years for every song on the list—I know, but by searching by artist this was easier— a lot of songs were on the same album, so technically I looked them up all at once.

THEN I transferred the ratings and release dates back to each individual station’s list so I could run stats on each. THEN I made several more spreadsheets so I could look at artists rather than songs, and to compare the two classic rock stations more directly, and… well, there are 17 sheets in this workbook, now.

screenshot of bottom of an Excel workbook, showing a lot of different sheet tabs
That’s a lot of spreadsheet tabs.

While I was doing this, ADDitude Magazine tweeted an article captioned, “Micro-focusing: the habit of zeroing in on small, fruitless distractions at the expense of bigger tasks.

Your point?

Look, it’s possible I may have made some actual findings about the radio I listen to here! It’s marginally interesting!

The Patterns and Habits of My Radio Stations

Over one week (or, two days in the case of the Alt-Rock station), I collected data on 7,724 plays, made up of 1,797 individual songs performed by 771 different artists. (“Different” was determined by name. For example, “The Beatles” and “Paul McCartney” count as two separate artists, but “Paul McCartney” and “Paul McCartney and Wings” just count as one. On the other hand, “John Cougar” and “John Mellencamp” also count as one, because. Do I need to explain this further? I don’t think.)

The clearest pattern emerged on the We Play Anything station. On average, each song was played twice a week, and by that I mean 989 of its 1,241 individual songs were counted exactly twice, with 57 songs squeezing in 3 plays and 187 making it in once. Meanwhile, seven particular songs, each released in the past two years, must be on the push list, as these were played twice a day.

The I Heart Radio stations tended to repeat songs more often (resulting in fewer individual songs played—they averaged around 400 songs each), with less division between “this is a new song being pushed right now” and older songs that simply get played a lot. The Pittsburgh Rock station’s top plays did go to four 2019 releases, each played between 10-11 times, but then there are six decades-old hits with 9 plays, five with 8 plays (there’s a 2018 release in that bunch), seven songs ostensibly played daily, and a large majority played between 4-6 times. The Oldies station and the Wheeling Rock station didn’t play any new songs, but they each had about 20 songs played between 10-13 times (so, a little less than twice a day), followed by a very gradual decrease in plays among the rest.

This is where I really wish I’d collected a whole week’s data from the Alt-Rock station, as they play more new music than all the others, and I really can’t figure out their pattern from my two days’ worth. They are obviously pushing Coldplay’s latest, “Orphans,” because it had 13 plays in just those two days, but the next highest is 8 plays for the Interrupters’ “She’s Kerosene,” which I, being Old, would consider a “new” song but actually came out last year, and THIRD highest (with 7 plays) was the Raconteurs’ “Steady, As She Goes” which is older than my KIDS (and my oldest is in middle school). There were 70 songs played at least three times, which would indicate they were played twice a day at least once, but there’s no pattern between old and new there.

One thing makes the Pittsburgh Classic Rock station stand out, though: a whopping 210 of its 526 total songs played just once. This is undoubtedly because they were having an All-Request Weekend the week in question.

Decades

I know the local station (which doesn’t publish their playlist online) regularly plays music from the 1950s up through, well, today, really (usually only when an old artist has a new song). But the more commercial stations that I actually looked at stretched back only as far as 1963. There were four songs total from ’63, and the oldest, released March 25, was the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA,” which was played by the We Play Anything station. That station was also responsible for two of the other three 1963 songs, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (April 19) and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” (August 8). The so-called “Oldies” station played just one song from 1963, the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which was released in July in the UK but technically wasn’t even released in the US until ‘64.

The two Classic Rock stations had the same oldest song, the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from 1965. The Alt-Rock station actually stretched back to 1976 to play the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The Ramones were apparently a special case on that station: the only other ’70s song is “I Wanna Be Sedated” (1978), and then the list jumps ahead to 1987 and REM’s “It’s the End of the World…” and every year after that is accounted for. It occurred to me just last Sunday—because I was listening to that station on a Sunday for the first time in a while—that if I had a whole week’s worth of data for it instead of a Wednesday and a Thursday, I would have seen a lot more older songs on the Alt-Rock list, because the station devotes its Sunday mornings to what it calls “Prehistoric” music: punk, new wave, and lesser-known artists that would probably be considered “Alternative Rock” if they came out today.

As it stands, of all 1,797 songs played by these 5 stations in the time period I counted, the numbers fall like so:

  • ’60s: 96 songs
  • ’70s: 527 songs
  • ’80s: 636 songs
  • ’90s: 277 songs
  • ’00s: 152 songs
  • ’10s: 108 songs

(That’s counting a decade from 0-9 instead of 1-10— it’s just easier to keep track of, pedants!)

The good news is, my former “Oldies” station was exaggerating in its recent promos that it “ONLY plays the hits of the ’70s and ’80s,” since 12% of its playlist is split evenly between ’60s songs and ’90s songs. It also, curiously, played Uncle Kracker’s cover of “Drift Away” (2002) seven times, which you’d think, if they’re advertising themselves as a ’70s station, they’d just have played the Dobie Gray version. But yes, the ’70s and especially the ’80s (a full 59% of the playlist!) do dominate. I think my former “Oldies” station is now officially the ’80s station.

The Classic Rock stations devoted more time to ’60s music than any other station, about 9% of their playlists. The We Play Anything station played more individual ’60s SONGS than any other station, but it also played more songs in general, and from the entire range of dates, so that only works out to about 4% of its playlist.

So basically, the radio is where you should turn for ’80s music. Again I ask, where on the dial can you get a ’60s fix?

Artists and Songs

That said, two of the top three most-played songs are from the ’70s— “Sweet Home Alabama” comes in first with 33 plays, and “Carry On Wayward Son” comes in third with 29. In the middle, with 30 plays, is “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, who also have (one of a 3-way tie for) the 4th place song, “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

Surprisingly then, Bon Jovi is only 9th most-played artist overall. The first place honor goes to Aerosmith, with 163 plays. Tom Petty and/or his Heartbreakers, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and Journey round out the top five. Led Zeppelin had the most individual songs on the list, 24.

Naturally, the more radio stations that play a song or artist, the higher their ranking, usually. The top 28 played songs were all played on at least 4 of the five stations. Only one song, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” was played on all five stations, with 22 plays, but that makes it tied (9-way) for 17th place overall. The song played the most times by only three different stations was the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” tied (4-way) for 26th place with 21 plays. Only 2 different stations? Rush’s “Limelight,” 16 plays.

Then there’s a bunch of 13 plays on only one station, mostly whichever songs that station is currently pushing. What’s interesting is that none of the stations that are pushing new songs are pushing the SAME new songs.

The Pittsburgh Classic Rock station is pushing some straight-forward rockers, while the Alt-Rock station goes a little more, well, alternative. The Anything station is pushing new-ish adult contemporary and pop, but the two songs on their frequently played list that show up on any other station’s list, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and Panic! At the Disco’s** “High Hopes,” aren’t being pushed any more by the Alt-Rock station because they’re not from this year. Like I said, we middle-aged types have slightly different definitions of “new” than you young’uns.

I did find tracking the overlap between stations interesting. If you had suggested to me in the ’90s that someday the Oldies station and the Alt-Rock station would play any songs in common, I could not have believed. Granted, they had just two songs in common: “Under the Bridge” (of course since that was played on every station), and the Cranberries’ “Dreams” (which was also played on the Anything station). But still! That’s somewhat hilarious!

Obviously the biggest overlap was between the two classic rock stations, so here it was more interesting what they didn’t have in common. Their top ten artists were almost identical, but in different orders: they have the same top six mixed around a bit (Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Queen), then the Pittsburgh station ranks Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard #7 and #8, while the Wheeling station pushes those down to #12 and #13. The next two are the Stones and Journey—bumped up 2 slots on the Wheeling station since their ’80s hair band duo is lower. That station rounds out their top ten with Bon Jovi and Van Halen, the latter of which is #11 on the Pittsburgh station, but the former of which is much less popular, tying for 20th place with Motley Crue.

The Beatles are far more popular on the Pittsburgh station, what is wrong with you, Wheeling; and the Wheeling station also didn’t play ANY Springsteen, Cream, CCR, or Elton John, which were all fairly popular on the Pittsburgh station, and the only David Bowie they played was “Under Pressure,” which I almost missed since it was listed alphabetically first under Queen. Bob Seger got a huge boost on the Pittsburgh station because he was in town for a concert that week. And, contrary to any West Virginia stereotypes I may have developed living in SW Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh station was also way more into Southern Rock than the Wheeling station. The Wheeling station actually played way more Foo Fighters, and had, curiously, more newer music in general, although it wasn’t pushing or even playing any music from the 2010s. It also did much better at giving its female artists airtime, which needs to be addressed in its very own section.

Female Representation

I noticed how greatly outnumbered female artists were while first sorting the lists, and decided to see exactly HOW outnumbered. The results are quite sad. I counted all the female and female-led artists and even threw in all the groups where lead vocals are shared between male and female, and came out with 134 of 771, or about 17% of the total artists represented. Actual airtime given to female artists (counting mixed groups) was 770 out of 7,724, or just under 10%. TEN PERCENT! I mean, Aerosmith alone gets 2% of airtime! All the female-led airtime including in mixed groups is just 5 Aerosmiths!

The worst offenders were the two Classic Rock stations, for whom apparently only four female artists have ever made rock music: Heart, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett (and her Blackhearts), and Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac got counted in the overall female score as a mixed band, but the only female-led Fleetwood Mac song played on the Classic Rock stations was “Gold Dust Woman,” so still, Stevie Nicks). The Pittsburgh station is the worst, as only 2% of its entire airtime was given to female artists (that’s one ENTIRE Aerosmith! Actually, this station’s top artist was Led Zeppelin, which commandeered 4% of its airtime, so all the female artists were only HALF a Zeppelin!). The Wheeling station managed to slip in one more female artist—go Blondie—and did a lot better at giving those five artists airtime…or, twice as well at least. 4%. BUT it gets some bonus points since the most-played song on that station, period, was “I Love Rock and Roll,” played 13 times, which is almost half the total times it was played across the board (27).

In fact, “I Love Rock and Roll” is the most-played song by a female artist total, and it’s tied (three-way) for fourth-most played song overall. (The second-highest female-led song is “Edge of Seventeen” at 19 plays, which puts it in a 7-way tie for 33rd place overall, so it probably stops being interesting there.) Because they’re not completely ignored by the classic rock stations and the other stations play them, too, Heart is the most-played female-led artist (64), followed closely by Pat Benatar (62). Heart is the 21st most-played artist overall.

Since the formerly-Oldies station is mostly pop, and the We Play Anything station is, well, anything, they did a lot better with female representation…but still pathetic, when you realize over half the population is female. The Oldies station had 18% of its artists female-led, 15% of its airtime. The Anything station had 20% female artists, 17% female airtime. Again, I wish I had a whole week’s worth of data on the Alt Rock station, but from two days’ worth, 6% of the artists represented were female-led, but they got only 4% of the airtime. Still, a step or two up from the classic rock stations. Girls are getting a teensy bit more respect in rock circles nowadays!

My Opinions

Now, I didn’t go about giving each song a personal rating for nothing. When I plotted out the percentages of Good Songs (4 or 5 ratings) to Bad (1 or 2), I discovered that my Good Songs were getting about 38% of total airtime, while Bad songs got only 17%. Not too shabby!

And maybe my no-longer-Oldies station doesn’t play enough ’60s music anymore, but its GOOD music plays outranked everyone: 51%! Over half the music it plays isn’t just tolerable, but actively brings me joy! And just 7% of its airtime went to Bad Music!

Generally, the other stations stuck close to the overall Good Song/Bad Song percentages, except for the Alt-Rock station, which flipped it. 17% Good, 37% Bad. How do I end up listening to this station so much? I wondered when I saw this. Then I realized it hinges on the 3-rated songs. Because the Alt-Rock station’s playlist has the least in common with all the other stations, I’m less likely to have over-heard its take-it-or-leave-it songs. If I’m choosing between two 3-rated songs, I’m going to pick the one played on only one station over the one I hear on three other stations!

The top played song I’ve rated as a 5 was “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie (come on, you know you can’t help belting it out the moment you hear it, too), 24 plays (6-way-tied for 10th most played song). The top played song I’ve rated as a 1 is Def Leppard’s “Animal” at 11 plays (I’m sorry! But why is Def Leppard so popular still?!); the top played 2-ranking, more glaringly, was John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” which edged out “Under Pressure” by one play. Crappy Jack and Diane.

I wanted to see how my favorite artists fared overall, too. The Beatles I suppose did decently in general, they’re 32nd-most played (58 plays total, 17 different songs), but come on, they’re the BEATLES. They could’ve easily been way higher. And 19 of those plays were all “Come Together,” which was the only of their songs played by 4 different stations. That’s the best you can do? Sure, it’s the first song on my favorite album, but of all the Beatles songs you could play? Of course, my very favorite song WAS played 5 times by two stations, so I’ll live.

My second-favorite band, Pink Floyd, did very well, numbers-wise, ranking 7th-most-played (123 plays of 17 different songs— if a band had a lot of different songs on the list, it tended to be 17 for some reason), though mostly due to radio stations thinking The Wall is their only album, which is a peeve of mine (it’s overrated. Can I say that? I TOTALLY JUST SAID THAT***). Their most-played song, predictably and boringly, was “Another Brick in the Wall pt 2” (sometimes with “Happiest Days of Our Lives” played first, sometimes not) played 18 times (also the only of their songs played on 4 stations). Their top four most-played songs are all from The Wall, and their top nine songs from The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon (the other album most likely to be known to exist, but I like it better than The Wall). But one of my absolute-favorite-but-rarely-played songs, “Fearless,” snuck in a play there, too, so I’m pleased.

Other notable observations on my favorite artists: Billy Joel ranked surprisingly high, 11th most-played, 100 plays— almost twice as many plays as the Beatles, THINK about that! I was mildly amused that my husband’s favorite band (Metallica) was tied with the Beatles on plays, though. The not-Oldies station now thinks Chicago only did ’80s love ballads, but the Anything station got some of their earlier rockers in. And further in the lack-of-female rep, Carole King was played just once (“It’s Too Late”), and the Mamas and the Papas didn’t make the list at all. Neither did the Carpenters, but that’s less surprising when it isn’t Christmastime.

The Anything station really did have the broadest variety, playing 1,241 different songs from 610 different artists, with 660 songs— over half—not played on any other station. Those songs alone are already over 100 more than the next-highest variety station had total: 526 songs from 177 different artists. It’s sort of frustrating that the former-Oldies-now-mostly-’80s station plays such a high percentage of GOOD music but only out of 467 different songs: why can’t they spread their good taste out more?

Of course, my own collection (just counting what’s on my computer) has 1,854 different songs, ranging in date from the 18th century forward, and ranging in genre from Gershwin to the Animaniacs soundtrack, and it’s definitely over-heavy with tracks that would be rated 4 or 5. No radio station could possibly match that.

I was curious to see how my collection overlapped with the radio results, so I marked those, and even went through my husband’s CD collection to mark the ones he had but I’d never bothered to steal for my own computer’s music folder. So, 472 songs on the list are owned and playable by this household— that’s a whole I Heart Radio station playlist on its own. That includes the 54 songs from my husband’s collection that I hadn’t already stolen from him, and there were a few songs I was surprised I hadn’t already stolen, but I DID give 26 of those 54 songs ratings of 2 or lower! But it should be noted that there are 15 songs that are in my OWN collection that I’ve rated 2 or lower, because not every CD track is a winner, dangit.

The most shocking and SAD discovery from comparing this list to my own collection is how many songs I always ASSUMED I had that I do NOT. Primarily, these are songs I used to have on cassette tape or record, and because they’re played often enough on the radio, I never realized I didn’t have them anymore. GASP! There are so many shockers. One of the most stunning, I don’t have TWO of the only 17 Beatles songs that were played on the radio! That’s “Revolution” the single version— I have “Revolution 1” and “9” if that counts, but the single version is the flip side of “Hey Jude,” which is on the 1 album, but the B-sides weren’t included. And also “Twist and Shout,” because the earliest actual album I have is Help! and “Twist and Shout” was ALSO not a number-one single i.e. on the 1 album.

But I’m listening to my own collection on shuffle right now, and thinking what an amazing radio station that would be: it just played seven songs in a row that not only were not played on the radio that week, but I’ve only heard two of on the radio ever: Aretha Franklin’s “Think” (that’s been on the radio lots of times, but only “Respect” and “Freeway of Love” made this list), Parry Gripp’s “I’m a Crazy Weirdo and I’m Calling You,” “One Hand One Heart” from West Side Story, Green Day’s “Whatshername,” George Harrison’s “I’ll Have You Any Time,” the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” (which used to be played by the Oldies station all the time when it was an Oldies station), and “Perry Pier” by the United States of America. None of those are even the same genre or style as each other! Oh, sorry, “My White Bicycle” by Tomorrow, that’s two heavier-psychedelic-pop in a row. But still, not played on the radio. And here’s one of the Animaniacs songs! And some indie garage rock my cousin sent me! Oh, okay, we finally hit one from the radio list, the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” (8 plays). I’ll stop now.


*I have mentioned before that my ADHD requires me not to be bored while I’m driving, and in order for me to stay properly stimulated, I do have a habit of flipping radio stations in the car. A LOT.

**Why do both the artists in question have nonstandard punctuation? Just to make Grammarly freak out at me for that sentence?

***Granted, I’ve given four of the six Wall songs 4 ratings, so it’s not like I’m suffering from it.

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