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Manufacturing Indaba 2018

Understanding Radio Playlists

Have you ever wondered how certain songs have made their way onto radio? Or why sometimes the worst tracks take precedence over others? Often radio playlists are compiled through a process of intense planning, research and selection.
If you grew up in the early '70s and '80s you're likely to remember the days when radio was open to playing a variety of music. In fact, each DJ would have his/her particular preference and often become known for playing music of a specific genre. Barney Simon's Night Zoo on 5FM in the late '90s is a great example of this.

However, this method of radio formatting presented a huge problem in the way of maintaining its listeners; because the music varied to such an extent throughout the day it was impossible to keep the listeners' attention.

These days, radio works slightly differently. The heavy rock music that Simon was known for playing in those days is not likely to be heard on commercial radio anymore. Of course there are countless community radio stations each with their own niche market, but mainstream radio is generally geared towards playing music for the masses and compiled through a series of factors.

Playlisting music

Music compiler for 5FM, Sotiris Moldovanos, describes the process of adding new songs as a filtering system. "Music is first and foremost submitted to the music department. It is then filtered to a shortlist which is played out once a week to a music committee that then selects which songs will be added."

The committee is often made up of a group of undisclosed professionals in the music industry, "an equal mix of guys and girls who are part of the 5FM team and have a good knowledge of music and the club scene in South Africa" Moldovanos explains.

Zane Derbyshire, music compiler for 94.7 Highveld Stereo, describes in an article with Samantha Cook that often what goes on is determined by what goes off, because only a certain number of songs are run in their new music categories. Music selection is also dependant on the time of day and the sound of each particular show.

Specialty shows

Moldovanos explains that the music you hear during the day is controlled by the 5FM music department, which is often understood as 'the playlist'. This may vary in circumstances where there is a specific music feature for a particular show like 'Cheese of the Day' and 'Old School' which is then sourced by the presenter or producer of that show.

Specialty shows such as the Power Nites of Hip Hop, Pop, Dance and Rock (10pm-midnight, Monday to Thursday) and weekend dance shows (like My House, The Shakedown, (Live)5 and The Saturday Night Fix are all driven and sourced by the relevant specialty DJs. Similar to past versions of formatting, but listeners will still know exactly what to expect and, in these cases, the target audience may vary slightly.

As easy as it may seem; Moldovanos points out that he receives approximately 70-100 tracks in one week. These are singles alone which need to be listened to and filtered through before the committee meeting. With only an average of seven new tracks added each week, this becomes a tumultuous task.

Research and the public

If we consider that music is being played for the masses, it is sensible to inquire how radio stations are determining what the people want to be listening to. This is often done through a process of research.

Moldovanos explains 5FM's approach: "The procedure is to outsource the music to a company that does all the research for the station. The methodology used is quite intense as to make sure the right people are being tested and that we receive findings that are as accurate as possible. 5FM receives an in-depth report weekly."

Hanlie Nell, radio compiler for Jacaranda 94.2 notes that sometimes they call up a directory of listeners and play them a particular verse in the song. By this, they can determine the person's familiarity with each particular track and establish a degree of approval.

International versus local

The mandate for commercial radio in South African states that the stations must deliver at least 25% of local music. Moldovanos says that 5FM exceeds this in some months by up to as much as 35%.

"All music is evaluated equally and selected based on criteria with 5FM's music policy in mind. We actually play more local music that we're required to as part of our license agreement."


In every industry there are occurrences of illegal activity. In radio this is often referred to as "payola" and involves a secret or private payment in return for adding one's song onto radio.

A certain radio plugger (person who samples music to radio for a record company) recalls numerous times where he has been faced with payola - situations where radio compilers are found to be asking for large sums of monies to play a particular track.

Moldovanos however responds by saying that he does not know what the policies of other radio stations are, but neither 5FM nor the SABC condones payola and would in no way entertain the thought.

"We have a strict policy of music play-listing that is fair and unbiased."

About Genevieve Vieira

Genevieve Vieira is the former PR and Marketing Specialist at Electromode and the editor of the website, Indie Does It. She has always had a deep passion for music and writes about the music and entertainment scene in South Africa. Follow her on Twitter at @genevievevieira.
morris williams
nice ariticle
Posted on 20 Jun 2012 13:19
Kevin Savage
So what you're saying is that Radio hasn't changed that much since the 1940's.The question to ask in music research is NOT "Do you know this song"? or "Do you like this song"? or "Hi fellow secret committee members, what's being played by some jerk in a club'?BUT"How does this song make you feel'?Now you can begin to see the science which compliments the art.
Posted on 20 Jun 2012 15:22
Joe Diedericks
Effectively the minority is deciding what the majority should listen to.Thank God for social media that permits me to discover all the great bands that the "experts" miss.
Posted on 20 Jun 2012 16:25