Sean Ross: The Return of Ross on Radio
Updated: Sep 7
Sean Ross is back to talk about radio and records. He answers my burning question: What happened to the hits?
We also talked about the lost factor, whether "Join the Conversation" radio has run its course, and those songs of summer. We also talked about Radio Days North America, the lack of programming related radio conferences, and why Taylor Swift is as big as the Beatles.
Also sign up for his free Newsletter to give yourself a heads up on some really fun columns like this which discussed what was better... 1983 or 1984? And this.... which discusses some of the specialty programming radio is doing this Labour Day Weekend.
We spoke about the Lost Factor and Sean has a Spotify playlist.
Tara Sands (Voiceover) 0:02
The Sound Off Podcast. The show about podcast and broadcast starts now.
Matt Cundill 0:12
This week, it's the return of Ross on radio. Now forgive the not so subtle Star Wars reference here. It's been just over three years since Sean was on the show, about the same amount of time George Lucas would allocate to space out his Star Wars films. Sean is the author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. He's been working in consulting with radio stations across North America, and he works with edits and research on various station projects. You can find him on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter, where he comments on music trends and identifies those moments of music scheduling bliss. Sean is one of the more popular guests. And by that, I mean, whenever we ask people who should be on the show, Sean is one of the more common asks. And now Sean Ross joins me from Maplewood, New Jersey. How have you been Sean?
Sean Ross 1:00
Matt Cundill 1:01
I missed seeing you at Radio Days North America.
Sean Ross 1:04
I was there.
Matt Cundill 1:06
I was there too.
Sean Ross 1:07
You should have come to jukebox jury, you're probably in the PPM session.
Matt Cundill 1:13
You know, I find that there's a lot of choice. And there's a lot of FOMO with these things now. And bad decisions get made.
Sean Ross 1:21
Well did better than the alternatives, which has nothing to go to. But yeah, it's you know, more than a lot of other conventions.
Matt Cundill 1:32
And you and I were at the former Canadian Music Week, which was still coming out of the pandemic, but then the next year, it became Radio Days North America. And I know you've been to a lot of these things. So how did it compare? How did it perform? And how much did you like it?
Sean Ross 1:45
I was so happy to see people in the halls again. I think Ross did a great job. I think Ross they think the radio is people do a great job. It is certainly a cut above any recent CMW radioactive. I'm glad they're trying to draw an international audience. I actually think it needs to be more Canadian. I am more excited by seeing Canadian programmers centerstage than I am seeing European or US consultants who aren't necessarily draw downs. But I enjoyed it. I think it's headed in the right direction. I am certainly doing everything I can to help them get the word out to American programmers. This is a good successor to the the radio show, which I miss.
Matt Cundill 2:51
And I'm glad you raised that because there's very few programming conferences or sessions left, we had the disappearance of the worldwide radio Summit and now the All Access audio summit that's obviously not going to be taking place in the future. Conclave has gone away. It feels like there's not a lot of places for programmers to get together and have great conversations.
Sean Ross 3:17
It's sad, watching legendary stations shut down. It's sad watching legendary broadcasters retire or pass away and it's sad that they're less infrastructure for the industry and All Access is a part of that. All Access, you know has a lot to do with keeping the record and radio relationship in play. And I worry about what's going to happen without it. Right we are already at this point where labels don't seem to want to promote records to radio. They want Tik Tok to be the decider and that will come to Radio One some with some. And I'm not seeing that as a good situation for anybody, including artists, including the labels themselves. We have half the hits we had three years ago and that was the pandemic year when we were talking about how nobody was releasing on your records. Now we have half of those I'm not sure how to better but yes, I miss all access. I never gotten to go to a worldwide radio summit in person. Certainly as a website, I am hoping that radio winds were my columns appear will be a resource to even people now and help facilitate that belong to be the place where people will see right.
Matt Cundill 5:01
So I always thought this podcast would be a great place for record companies to spend money to play a new song and get the song into the ears of programmers. I've had maybe one or two little nibbles of some indie promoters who would make that podcast advertising purchase. But as I found out at Radio Days North America and I spoke to record reps, yeah, we're not doing that anymore. And then comes a note from Joel Denver, about the prevailing headwinds and that money kind of kind of drying up. So what are the record companies doing? Are they really going to double down on Tik Tok and that's it.
Sean Ross 5:40
I think there's some disappointment with Tik Tok, but I don't know what's replacing it. There are articles in Billboard including today about how labels don't find Tik Tok to be promotable and how Tik Tok is playing less music and feeding people. Music, but I don't see it, you think replacing it. And every now and that it helps with a record. The radio can play anyway. Like Noah Kahan - That Old Drunk. This week, there is a record called Lil Boo Thang by Paul Russell, which samples Best Of My Love by the Emotions and that song is being upside it, speech reinforced by Tik Tok and that's a pretty good radio record, but yeah, every night with that, just as often you get a sign with a title, I can't even repeat it here and radio doesn't know what to do with it.
Matt Cundill 6:49
What happened to all the hits?
Sean Ross 6:51
People have busy lives, they can't do radio, just job and the record companies and break them all. Okay, usually they can find something and you share with friends, occasionally something can become phenomenal, and so on occasionally something that has the help five years of TV commercials like mckeeva, but he got up to about this summer. Occasionally a record like that can come back and it's usually not organic anyway, it's usually TV or movies, or some sort of calculated effort and the result is we have half the hits we still have we have half the hips we had even three years ago. The consultant Guy Zapoleon keeps a list of how many powers there were at top 40 every year. And in 2020, which was certainly a slow year there were 30. This year, they're going to be about 20 if we're lucky, maybe 18.
Matt Cundill 8:07
So I always thought that for a song to be a hit it just had to get above 40 in the charts. At least that's what the CRTC was telling me for many years on how to score you know what a hit is. So how does somebody like Guy determine what a hit is?
Sean Ross 8:22
I think from everything I've learned doing the column called Lost Factor and also working in radio, I think something really has to empower, which means Top 10, Top Five. These days top three to be a record everybody knows and verybody remembers. And the old hit-non-hit, 40 is certainly not the dividing line anymore so it can go top 15. You can't be sure everybody will have heard it, but even that is hit hit. There were some fun loopholes. Here Comes The Sun, never a simple nine hit the Beatles and Tony Sheridan doing My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, got up to 20 something I think maybe 32 at the height of Beatlemania That's a hit. Somebody would be damned if they went to 50.1% Platinum and silver. And yeah, most people don't even know it exists unless you lived through Beatlemania.
Matt Cundill 9:45
Hit non hit , maybe the last time we talked about it on this podcast and may it rest in peace,
Sean Ross 9:51
You know, it kept things interesting and maybe not in a good way. And you talk about the endurance of record, there were toward the end, plenty of good non hits. 'What I Like About You', I Melt With You Things that peaked at 42. And then there is things like 'The Edge of Heaven' by Wham!
, which nobody would even remember if it weren't even on here. So it just shows how sometimes don't enter equally.
Matt Cundill 10:26
Or unless of course you've seen the Wham! documentary, which is phenomenal.
Sean Ross 10:31
Well the documentary was phenomenal, but for all the great songs on the right, it's mostly 'Careless Whisperer' and 'Wake Me Up'. And for the phenomenal album that George Michael had it's mostly 'Faith' and 'Father Figure'.
Matt Cundill 10:50
I think one thing about that documentary that amazed me was just how short the radio window was with Wham! where it's kind of starts with 'Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)' and it's done just a little bit after 'Freedom' in 1985 and also, it's surrounded by some of the best music ever created for radio. It's a short wild ride.
Sean Ross 11:13
Well, and it was an embarrassment of riches. If you know, George wanted to make a different corner or later play for time, something that was a fun radio record. Radio would find their fun radio record. They didn't have to deal with it. It's you know, it's interesting now, in this year, Jake Goldenhour, our Steven Sanchez and Billy Eilish, and so many records that our atmosphic and ethereal and fun and up tempo. It's interesting to think that some of George Michaels more experimental songs could have been bigger hits.
Matt Cundill 12:01
Yeah, and I too, am thinking about that 1989 album or the 1990 album as well, which listen I without prejudice, which we all did.
Sean Ross 12:10
Yeah, well, you know, people tried to like that record and radio tried to like it and for a couple of years, he didn't want to be a rock star. And for a couple of years, Alannis didn't want to be a rock star. And you know that's how he got supposed for. Eventually they all came back, I can want them to be rock stars, in that record had other choices.
Matt Cundill 12:38
So we're talking about the lack of hits this summer, but I look back and I read your columns all the time, and I'm thinking that it was 1984 was really peak hits. You know, the most punch the most superstardom. Am I right to say that was the one that was the year where every song was really can't miss?
Sean Ross 12:59
Yeah, I've just written a column about whether 83' or 84' was better. And there are partisan disfigured for both. Certainly 83' has a pretty clear winner for saw the summer. 'Every Breath You Take' 84' Is it 'When Doves Cry?' Is it 'Dancing in the Dark?' Is it 'Ghostbusters'? Could be round and round by round? There are so many choices and so many fun up tempo records. No wasn't the worry. No, there were so many things and all of them sound like they would be much bigger than a lot of what's out now,
Matt Cundill 13:45
As we record this as late August and I think back to 1984 and the song that really sort of captured a couple weeks, right around now is Tina Turner and 'What's Love Got To Do With It'. I can pretty much parcel and segment. Each one of those songs that you mentioned by week throughout, you know, June, July and August. The correct answer, by the way is 1984. I enjoyed 1983 As much as anyone else. Somebody on Twitter responded 1985 which was a big mistake.
Sean Ross 14:15
Matt Cundill 14:15
Although you know, some Power Of Love from Huey Lewis And The News was a great summer song from from 1985 1985
Sean Ross 14:23
loses points for broken wait. I know some people love that song, but that to me is the beginning of the descent back into Yap.
Matt Cundill 14:36
Something else about 1985 when I go over it, I look at the charts and especially AOR charts and it's really the number of epic bands. Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Paul Rodgers is releasing record. Everybody who was successful in the 70s is now releasing solo records into 1985. And it's just a factory of music coming at us from multiple formats.
Sean Ross 15:01
And they've all listened to each other. It's like 1967 with beige is Motown, Dylan, Beatles stop playing off each other. In 1984, Before Springsteen gets remixed by Arthur Baker and all of the music sort of meets in this you know, this place that isn't rock, isn't pop, isn't r&b. It's all of the above.
Matt Cundill 15:34
Do you have one song that you will look at throughout the history of all summers and say that is the quintessential summer song? So when you go to look at this year in 2023, you'll compare it against another song from another era.
Sean Ross 15:48
1976 Thin Lizzy, 'Boys Are Back In Town'. Up, fun, propulsive, little bit G about summer.
Matt Cundill 16:01
How would you put Cruel Summer from Bananarama?
Sean Ross 16:03
Cruel Summer 1983 in the K 1984 in North America. Cruel Summer is certainly up there until this summer, I would have different points for the title, but it's not the starboard this year, obviously. It feels like a lonely song as well. This summer, it's Taylor Swift Cruel Summer, because Taylor was pretty much the only shared experience that everybody had. And yeah, it could have been Karma it could have Cruel Summer, I went for the song with summer in the title and I went in for the one that's a hit now as opposed to six weeks ago. But also says something about Taylor she's the only person who had two hits this summer, saw it hang around forever.
Matt Cundill 16:59
That's come up a couple of times that the lack of hits is really the result of fewer shared experiences.
Sean Ross 17:06
And vice versa, fewer chances for people to unite around the record.
Matt Cundill 17:12
How's the music industry going to solve that? Or are they just going to carry on?
Sean Ross 17:17
I think first they have to recognize it as a problem. I think music industry has found a model was streaming that makes money, but it doesn't necessarily make stalkers. And there's still layoffs in the industry. And there are still artists, you know, on Twitter complaining about getting $27 royalty checks. So it's not like this is working so outrageously well for everybody that we don't need radio in the equation.
Matt Cundill 17:54
Why Taylor Swift? Is it timing? Because of when she started it in the genres that she touched way back before 2010 and now it's evolved in this direction. What is it that has made her as big as the Beatles?
Sean Ross 18:08
She did make her superstardom with radio at a time when radio had clearly had the yank. She happens to be the last brand name artist of that magnitude. And I think the fact that she was kind of off the radio for a couple of years, people thought she was gonna have a traditional Celine Dion and Thai baht, or didn't reach the point where she just never became cool again, and didn't have yet again and I couldn't be happier for her that that turned out not to be the case. And I think it's a good message to write do not to be too snobby about any artist and also, as far as fans, whatever frustrations that you're trying to get tickets, Taylor has been all about goodwill to the fans and good vibes when other things aren't.
Matt Cundill 19:19
I also think back to a moment in the documentary that she was in, where she wanted to take a stand against I think it was a Republican candidate who was running. The issue eludes me at this time, but she was going to take a political stand and there are people around her saying this is not a good idea. This is going to sort of rupture your fan base and it seemed to have done the opposite and galvanized, fans even closer. And I'm not sure who exactly, I'm not even sure which one of her fans would even depart because I don't think that she was alienating anybody really she was galvanizing them.
Sean Ross 19:55
It's certainly something we barely even remember now. As you know, it was not a national action about which she made the point. It was a Tennessee State election or a Tennessee senatorial election.
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Matt Cundill 20:45
So one of the things that you do all the time is scheduled music and I think one of the questions I always love to ask is tell me about how music scheduling has evolved in the last 10 years. But I'm not going to make you do that because it's changed so much in the last three years or two years. So what are some of the new techniques for music scheduling, when we're dealing with less hits when we're dealing with Tik Tok when we're, you know, getting our music from different places. How would I schedule music on a radio station these days?
Sean Ross 21:17
I am still dealing mostly with gold base stations so I don't have to worry about three Justin Bieber's or I still believe that program director is have thrown up their hands and some of the things that still do matter to the audience. When Post Malone had three hits at once, I was working at my Edison ressearch office and their were three interns all of them listeners, women in their 20s. They were working adjacent desks, and I listened to an hour of a Top 40 station that played three Post Malone songs and then I switch to their competition and I heard three more Post Malone songs and I said, 'How did you feel about the Post Malone? I mean, he's hot right? You probably enjoyed hearing him six times'. And they said no, it was too much. Program directors who don't want to fight that battle anymore and you certainly position it as a get off my lawn issue. If you object to any artist every 20 minutes, it's your problem, not the audiences. But I think the audience wants variety. I think the audience wants a variety of textures. I think the audience doesn't want to hear songs to sound the same and I don't think the audience wants to hear Harry Syles "As It Was" in power rotation for two years. I don't think people want to hear Calm Down on as much as they love it in power rotation for a year. People aren't saying when you look at the call out and nothing replaces Calm Down, I don't interpret that as I cannot get enough of this song and I want to hear it every 65 minutes for two years. I interpreted as I have not learned about other songs, in part because you don't plan your songs and it's not that I'm not sick of this song. I'm just sick of other things less.
Matt Cundill 23:52
I know you threw the disclaimer in this says oh, I just do the classic hits stuff, but you're not bullet proof from outside sources, changing things on you. I've got two examples that have come to mind. One of them is Kate Bush 'Running Up That Hill', which doesn't even get played on in a lot of classic hits stations and then all of a sudden it's going up Top 40 so classic hits has to react to that as well.
Sean Ross 24:16
Classic hits could do well to look at what's around it. Not everything is gonna stick. It's looking like Kate Bush might not stick and it probably doesn't help seven times a day, the radio when songs would come back into the public consciousness it would be something like 'Unchained Melody' that you hadn't heard for years and it would come on as current for four months. And then be a gold again and certainly 'Unchained Melody' didn't stay relevant for, many years, I don't know that every song that comes back from a TV series is going to have sustained relevance. I also think there are signs that are bigger than people realize is Jolene by Dolly Parton song every 25 year old knows. They probably don't know what it's from. They probably don't think of it as classic country because they don't listen to classic country for the most part. That's a song that could be a lot more classical stations and it's interesting that some of the stations I work with, it sounds so weird to even suggest it. I have one client where I know, hearing them grow avery time I bring it up. It's practically like a drinking game that some Sean will at some point in the conference call bring up Jolene.
Matt Cundill 26:07
Yeah, I think we had a rock cousin to that Johnny Cash, 'Hurt'. That's another one that rock stations even found their way playing at one point.
Sean Ross 26:15
Yeah, and you know, I don't know if the classic hit station should play that, but it would still test for any alternative station that tested.
Matt Cundill 26:25
Yeah, and another song that did find its way back and again, these TV shows are on demand, they are not shared experiences. They're not mass shared experiences, say the way the sopranos was, which had journey don't stop believing, you know, at the end of it, or like Glee, which had Journey, 'Don't Stop Believing', you know, as as a part of the the repertoire, but something as simple as Linda Ronstadt in The Last of Us doing 'Long, Long Time'. I didn't even watch the show, but the song was on and somebody in the room was watching and I began to sort of touch and feel it again, didn't have a giant resurgence, but it certainly got a couple weeks of interest.
Sean Ross 27:04
Yeah, and I haven't had the opportunity yet to see if they saw and took in radio research. And you know, it's a good example, because there's going to be one of those every few weeks and which ones are gonna stick with people and, by the way, if I had tested logging in six months ago, or a year ago, it was a great song, then great side now, but nine months ago, people wouldn't have remembered it, it wouldn't have been top of mind. For them, it would have been a programmers self indulgence to even consider playing it on the radio again. As somebody who works with classic hit stations, I do like to surprise and delight. But there are 15,000 hits that don't generally get airplane out and which ones do you start with some outside help.
Matt Cundill 28:17
Aomething that I've been interested in and tracking and that's the launch of a couple of radio stations that have not performed as well as I thought and you know, the first one in was in Edmonton, it was now at 102.3, I was really surprised it wasn't copied more across the country in you know, the 2010s. But you know, some budgetary restrictions as it was, but eventually a couple stations did come around and relaunched one in Winnipeg at 94.3 and I believe one in Toronto at 93.5 and you know, it's today FM now radio join the conversation, and they haven't taken off the way I thought they would have. What do you think and why is that?
Sean Ross 28:58
Edmonton and Calgary they have a 15 year headstart and attend headstart. Edmonton certainly had one of the best and best financed launches of all time, which stays with us to stay. And again, if they're not the answer, it is certainly hard to build a full service radio station from scratch in Vancouver, in Winnipeg, certainly in Toronto. It's hard to get noticed now when you're not dealing with as many potential listeners to begin with and it's hard to get notice now unless you're spending right we'll go to that listen five money. All of them said, one. I hear the influence of that station. Practically everywhere in Canadian radio, anytime somebody does a topic, I hear that influence. But the other thing that's interesting, I still hear, compared to America, I hear a lot more topical magazine type item topics. Survey is now FM type topics and I think some of that in Canada is the lingering effect of the enrichment regulations that went away 25 years ago, or people had come up with topical bits like that. I feel that some of that lives on in stations like now FM, especially when they do what's your favorite cookie? Or should should ham be a pizza topping.
Matt Cundill 30:53
I think I took a podcast episode to really bang out a lot of stations where everybody was sort of doing it and meeting in the middle and it would be a meme. And it would be something you would create on Canva and posted on your Facebook page and this is what we're talking about and do raisins belong and cookies and I criticized a lot of stations for doing it. You did message me and say, you know, the join the conversation format is very valid, it does very well. And I would expect to hear that sort of conversation on that station. I don't expect to hear it on 10 different radio stations.
Sean Ross 31:29
Yeah, I think people want to be engaged and the engagement is different one to 10 Bruce in the UK. Everybody else on radio two did pineapple on pizza, except for the topical political show admit it is. But mostly, he talks about music and it's refreshing to hear people talk about music and it's interesting, if you listen to C 97.7 in Calgary, there's obviously a certain amount problems, you know, because there are co-owned with the join the conversation stations, there is certainly some of that in their DNA. But when you hear Graham camp, do his breaks. The structure is familiar, but the topic is music. Graham did yesterday where he said, I suppose you're wondering what the best Britney Spears song is, and then called into you drive me crazy. I thought that was a great break. Because it got people's attention about the topic that anybody who'd be listening to that station had an opinion.
Matt Cundill 32:47
If I had more time in my life, I would probably figure out a way to run the data and find out what the last classics were, but you've done all the work for us all so thank you very much. First off, what is a lost classic and how do you sort of determine what they are?
Sean Ross 33:02
Back in the 80s, aa DJ in Boston came up with a show called Lost 45s. What he was playing at that point, what Citizens In The Sun, Heartbeat is love are records that people profess to be ashamed of. So a guy named Barry Scott came up with the last concept, what I do is called the loss factor and what I do is I take how big a song was when it was hit based on how well it did on your charge. And I divided by the number of spit it gets. And I did that for about three years starting 2020 until I worked up to about 2009. And that's where I've stopped it for the time being and what you find of course signs do not hinder equally the famous example is that doesn't stop belief and and upon Glee ends up the suppression of this and becomes a song for our time. And 'Physical' by Olivia Newton John with 10 weeks on at number one when 'Don't Stop Beliving' was a hit stop it's not in the same way. If you look at classic hits radio, Olivia Newton shot and it was pretty much represented by one song from Greece, which is the help of everyone watching it when are 10. So if you're interested, I've looked at literally every hit from 1960 to 2000. In how much you hear them or don't hear them on the radio now. Just Google radio insight, Loss Factor and then Sean, S-E-A-N and you should find those articles and for the people who liked it it's a definite rabbit hole. So do it when you've gotten some time this weekend.
Matt Cundill 35:10
I mean, I've lost complete days down there and I think so often about again 84' and 85' when I did a lot of radio listening and you know the song I think it was Olivia Newton John, 'Twist of Faith'. A big one from 1984, very lost but you know, big video with John Travolta from a movie, the formula is there. It's a very simple ad and just it I mean, it's certainly going to get lost and in amongst everything else in 84', and so many songs by Hall and Oats in in the years afterwards also became lost.
Sean Ross 35:41
Yeah, there was there was a definite bias and I think Jack and Bob had something to do with this. The Jack and Bob FM stations toward things that were their wave, toward things that were rock and away from things that were pop. 'Twist Of Faith' seemed like his big hit the time is anything else and so did 'Far From Over' by Frank Stallone, it's you know, if you want to get into the weeds, why did maybe by Michelson Bell, last and Far From Over' practically the same song.
Matt Cundill 36:21
I guess it would probably horrify you to let you know that I've watched Flashdance for the very first time about six weeks ago on a VHS tape.
Sean Ross 36:30
You can also by going to Ross On Radio on Spotify, you can find my 1983 playlist and there are four songs from Flashdance. They're not just the samples.
Matt Cundill 36:46
That came up when I was watching the show. Oh, I forgot about that. Oh, I forgot about that. That was also a hit.
Sean Ross 36:52
Yeah, you know, guys are a joke. 'Man Hunt' by Karen Kamon is probably a song we've all heard 100 times, but never on the radio.
Matt Cundill 37:04
Sean, thanks so much for doing this and being on the podcast yet again.
Sean Ross 37:07
Always great to be here.
Matt Cundill 37:09
I always get so much reaction to this episode and so nice many people listen to it twice. So thanks very much for being on again.
Sean Ross 37:16
Thank you and yeah, thanks to everybody who's a fan of the column who's kept us going into the 12th or 13th year over us. So I apprecaite it.
Tara Sands (Voiceover) 37:29
The Sound Off Podcast is written and hosted by Matt Cundill. Produced by Evan Surminski, edited by Chloe Emond-Lane, social media by Aidan Glassey. Another great creation from the Sound Off Media Company, there's always more at soundoffpodcast.com