Music Scheduling on Community Radio

I’ve spent several days (spread across a couple of weeks) helping Chelmsford Community Radio aka: CCR with their music database.  Having studios for BBC Essex, Heart and Hospital Radio in the city makes for a nice place to live if you want to try your luck in “radio” or are just a bit of a geek like me.  CCR are based at Moulsham Mill next to the “Army and Navy” flyover and have got themselves a fairly respectable 2-studio setup within the confines of a listed building that doesn’t permit any major structural changes.  They’ve been streaming their output online for a couple of years (well before they were awarded an FM licence) and, about halfway into their “you need to get on-air” window, things are progressing rather well towards the 104.4FM switch-on.

In my capacity as local software expert and them making use of MyLibrary to handle their AutoTrack/Myriad imports, I’ve been helping them “tame” the AutoTrack database in order to get a decent sounding schedule from it.  Of course, “decent” is very subjective and can usually be determined by the age+experience of the person programming it – or sitting in the studio re-arranging it!  We all like playing our favourites, those comfortable songs we grew up with or – if you’re at the younger end of the spectrum – are in the chart and your current “on repeat”.

As with any Community Radio station that has a remit to serve a geographical area (rather than a particular demographic), it can be problematic keeping an audience when you’re trying to please such a significant age-range: Luckily, the time of day can help with that: Daytimes will be mainly adults, workers etc.  Evening and weekend shows will obviously have some specialist content.  Also, with some community stations being told-off by Ofcom for playing unsuitable material at unsuitable times, the need for a tidy music library was obvious.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about how to set AutoTrack up or the exact settings of Rules and Clocks, but explain – in broad terms – how the CCR library was overhauled and given some cohesion.  Getting the music library into some kind of order was important for several reasons:

  • The certainty of “safe/harmless” music being played – identifying and moving the explicit content (via hour-restrictions)
  • 2 main Categories providing a “safety-net” where songs can be picked at will
  • Introducing presenters to formatting – those that want to get into real radio will have to get used to it!
    This also encompassed the correct formatting of Artist/Titles in terms of spelling, how to highlight “explicit” songs and teaching the scheduler about related artists to avoid clashes,ie: Richard Ashcroft + The Verve along with “featuring” which often sees lots of similar artists collaborating.

AutoTrack Song Restrictions

Sure, community radio is not commercial radio but as it’s a training-ground, exposing the volunteers to how things are done “properly” is important, I think.  Most who want to get into radio generally expect to say want they want to say and play what they want to play: Sadly, real radio doesn’t work like that.  It seems that presenting, news and engineering are the big appeal to radio’s newcomers – But what about the “nuts and bolts” of putting the schedules together?

How does a hard-drive full of really good (plus some really bad) songs become a consistently pleasing schedule with the occasional jingle in-between?

The Categories
Previously, CCR were placing mostly “Pop” items into their Clocks – that Category comprised over 7000 songs.  Having become fairly intimate with its contents, it was obvious that not only was the Category too large, but also contained a fair amount of un-suitable material.

It was important that the Categories were kept simple: Not just for our benefit but so that those in the studio could browse them and know what kind of songs would be in each.  This would allow the daytime presenters to add their own music but remain within the format (and rules) of the Clocks – there was never a plan to take away their choice, but to make it easier in offering suitable alternatives: Myriad does this very well – each song in the Library view offers a grid of when that Artist/Title was last/next used and, if it breaks a rule, shows red.

  • A-List : Current chart tracks and anything local that the station wants to promote
  • B-List : Songs that are coming off the A-List but still popular

The above have remained un-changed, and each contain around 120 songs – Privately, I consider that too large – especially the A-List which, generally, should have around 15-30 songs.  If it’s assumed that 8 A-List songs are picked in every hour, that gives us an “on paper” turnaround of 15-hours per song.  It may be that the lists are due for a clean-up, but as they are currently the managed ones – I let them be.  It also appears that practically any song from the Top40 has been added to the A-List.

  • Core : Songs from about 1995 to 2014’ish – all harmless, friendly and playable at any time
  • Gold : Songs prior to 1995, the familiar oldies/favourites back to the mid 60s

Those are the Categories which are picked when scheduling – everything else sits in a suitable Genre Category: Indie, Pop, Rock etc.  We set a target of 500 songs for Core+Gold, and Core will be added to as more songs are identified – but the goal was to get enough songs to generate a decent schedule.  Breakfast/Drive is heavier on the A/B List to keep it sounding “modern” but in-between are a hand-picked set of familar tracks rather than complete randoms which (on that 7000-strong list) would only see the light of day every 48 days (that was the average turnaround time on the old method).

Once a song has been taken off the A-List and sat on the B-List for a while, it either goes into a Genre category or moves to Core – if it’s a suitable track.  The criteria for that is obvious, but often doesn’t get much thought: Is the song a forgettable track?  Is it a novelty Z-List/TV/Talent-Show song that has no relevance any more?  For example, DJ Gubbins vs MC iDubz – Where’s Me Jack At? would probably disappear into Dance/Urban but a cheerful number from Ellie Goulding will probably go to Core.

There’s also a Night-Time Clock which picks songs with a Style of “Night-Time”.  These came from the existing “Night” Category but were given Hour Restrictions and assigned to Core/Gold based upon their age.  A Clock Rule then tells the Night-Time schedule to only pick from those 2 Categories using the Exposure setting.

There’s an Artist+Title Separation of 3-hours on the A+B-Lists whilst Core+Gold have a much larger Title separation.  We’ve also made use of the “offset” (Yesterday/Last Play) rules which prevent Artists/Songs from being scheduled in the same place as the last time – Quite important for the high turnover songs (A/B-List) to ensure that the Breakfast show doesn’t play the Artist/Song at 8:15 every day.  When setting a Separation, ensure that the duration is an odd value, and certainly not divisible by 6, 12, 24 etc.

Additional window-dressing like energy/tempo follow rules can be helpful if you want to improve the transition between songs and jingles – It can also help keep your hours balanced and prevent 5 slow songs from being played together.  The only crucial part of the database is that typos and formatting of names are consistent, eg: FT. , FEAT or FEATURING… Do you use and or the & symbol?  In order to keep groups and their solo performers apart, you’ll need to use Artist Groups and create one for the “Group”, then add the performers from the search box provided.

A group like the Beatles would be a good example of a well-populated Artist Group.  A more complex one could be Genesis – with notable members and associated acts: Phil Collins, Mike and the Mechanics etc.  Most of us can spot something like this quite easily – but a computer won’t know that playing Steve Winwood’s “Valerie” next to the Spencer Davis Group isn’t such a good idea.  A more modern example would be Mark Ronson – a fairly prevalent name on songs from the last decade.

In the Studio
One of the limitations of Myriad (the playout software) over AutoTrack is that it doesn’t display some of the more complex fields on AutoTrack’s SongCard.  A presenter typically sees Category and Type – so we decided to use the Type field for Decades (thus duplicating the Era field).  This then makes it easier for the presenter to find a Core>90s or Gold>70s song.  We also made use of the Alt(ernative) Category which lets you put a Song in 2 AutoTrack Categories – Songs in A/B/Core/Gold were also assigned a Genre Alt-Cat to aid those who present shows based-upon a particular Genre.

Obviously there is a search facility within Myriad so it’s still easy to find things – the important aspect of having songs picked that are appropriate is made all the more easier thanks to some effort behind-the-scenes.

It’s quite a task to juggle the community aspects vs the commercial ones – A CR station has a number of obligations to serve its community but as far as advertising/sponsorship goes, needs to ensure that those who spend money with the station are happy with the station’s output: There’s nothing wrong with putting inexperienced people on-air so long as they respect the station’s rules and advertisers: This means being told when to play jingles, adverts and perhaps to introduce things in a certain way.

Community doesn’t have to mean crap – a little formatting doesn’t hurt, and if you regularly have issues with the wrong sorts of songs being played, then some admin work on your library would be a good move.  Whatever the music format you’re running, do exercise some caution about what songs you are playlisting and – before adding a song into rotation – decide WHY you are adding it and what purpose it’ll serve.