A chill wind is blowing through our industry, sending shivers of dread up the backs of record execs and programmers alike. It’s as if Jack Frost slid under the insulation. Heaters are on full blast, trying to ward off the cold.
It doesn’t matter. Jack’s not going away.
What two words are striking fear into our industry? (Cue the tymps.) Chain adds.
Knee-deep in the hoopla, voices are raised in concert, damning the thought…much less the practice…of the dreaded chain add. No less an authority than Network 40’s own Greg Fry polled programmers in this week’s Hotline for their opinions.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Like nuclear attacks, chain adds have been used effectively only once in the history of modern radio. Also like the atomic bomb, chain adds were only used by a super-power.
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the giant RKO Broadcasting Company used chain adds effectively in programming its stations. In its heyday, RKO owned the #1 Top 40 stations in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Memphis. The chain also had exclusive consulting agreements with the #1 Top 40s in Chicago, Detroit, San Diego and New Haven. Other major stations moved in and out of the consulting fold, but these were the mainstays.
That’s a lot of power.
Revisionist history has shrouded the reality of the situation. I was fortunate enough (okay, and old enough, damn it) to work at RKO in the “Glory Days,” so let me tell you how it really was…way back when.
First of all, times were different. In those days, a company could only own a total of 12 stations…an AM and an FM in each market. Those numbers pale by current standards. There were other major differences. Every RKO-owned or consulted Top 40 station was programmed exactly alike. I mean exactly.
Records weren’t the only things that were added chainwide.
With the exception of the call letters and city of license, each RKO station used the same jingle package. Twice a year, we would custom-make jingle packages for the chain.
The top-of-the-hour IDs were the same. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re listening to…”
The same major promotions were used on each station. If a PD came up with a great idea, it was used throughout the company.
Chainwide record adds were one part of the total package. Under those circumstances, it wasn’t a big reach.
Here’s how chain adds worked: Every Monday, each PD compiled all the local research from the individual markets and forwarded it to the Group PD in Los Angeles. A conversation between PDs and the Group MD took place that afternoon. Each PD provided a list of records they wanted to be considered as additions to the playlist. Rotations were also discussed.
Tuesday morning, each PD received research from the other stations along with national research. By mid-afternoon, each PD was called and told what records would be added to the chain.
These “chain adds” were taken from a consensus of the PDs. What’s important to note is that even though certain records were dictated as adds to the chain, individual records could be added to a station, depending on local research and the strength of the PD.
There is another important fact to consider: Unless it was a superstar release that RKO got early, seldom were new records chosen as a chain add. Most of the records added to the chain had worked through smaller markets gaining sales and compiling positive research. A record had to be “worthy” to attain the status of a chain add.
Never was a record added to the chain for a promotion. RKO figured, and rightfully so, that the stations were so powerful, any promotion would be offered to the company anyhow. And promotions were always offered to RKO first. What record company or artist would risk the wrath of the most powerful radio group in the word by offering a promotion to one of its competitors?
It’s something today’s companies should keep in mind. If your programming is powerful, promotions will be offered because it’s in the best interest of both companies. Adding a weak record for a promotion cheapens the strength of the stations.
RKO was extremely particular when it came to adding a record to the chain. We wanted to be sure it wasn’t a mistake. The track record for songs becoming a chain add was pretty substantial. Most became hits.
Of course, RKO’s status made it easier. Such was RKO’s power that a record couldn’t make the top 10 on Billboard without being added to the chain.
Record companies lived and died by RKO’s chain adds. If your record was added, you took the rest of the week off…sometimes the rest of the month! If it wasn’t, you hemorrhaged for another seven days.
But times are different. Stations aren’t programmed the same. Individual markets call for specific programming needs. Before chain adds can be effective, a radio group will have to program many of its stations in an identical fashion. With companies owning hundreds of stations, considering cost effectiveness and streamlining…is this a concept whose time has come…again?
Until then, we have to consider the question: Are chain adds good or bad?
It boils down to this: If your record is added, chain adds are great. If you don’t get the nod…chain adds suck!