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Why FM Radio Is More Repetitive Than Ever. Why FM Radio Is More Repetitive Than Ever. Why FM Radio...

·Tech Columnist

(Photo via cogdogblog/Flickr)

You don’t hear so much about FM radio these days. Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, the just-launched Beats Music streaming service and countless other post-radio alternatives get all the attention instead.

That’s understandable — digital listening is a big deal, obviously — but maybe we shouldn’t just pretend old-school radio has disappeared. After all, regular radio broadcast over the air, often referred to as “terrestrial” radio, remains easily the dominant American listening medium; more than 90 percent of Americans over age 12 listen to the radio every week.

In fact, The Wall Street Journal published some interesting data the other day suggesting how terrestrial radio has changed in the burgeoning digital era. Somewhat incredibly, it’s gotten more repetitive.

I said more repetitive.

MORE repetitive.

At first this sounds completely insane. One obvious advantage of most digital-listening systems is their enormous variety: millions of songs, countless strategies for “discovering” new music and so on. But instead of prodding traditional radio to mix things up, this innovation has actually moved the dial in the other direction. As the Journal notes, the most-played song on the radio in 2013 was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” with nearly 750,000 spins. Compare that with the most-repeated tune from a decade earlier: “When I’m Gone,” by Three Doors Down, got about 440,000 plays. That works out to a repetition increase of more than 70 percent.

Let me repeat: Radio repetition is up by 70 percent. (OK, I won’t do that again.)

Apparently this has happened because research suggests that radio listeners tend to flip away from anything unfamiliar. Eventually, I suppose, that means every station will simply broadcast “Hey Jude” 24 hours a day.

My own listening habits are dominated by iTunes and (to a lesser extent) Pandora, with occasional doses of Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube. But the more I thought about that Journal story, I had to admit that I, too, listen to regular radio sometimes. And repetition — or really, familiarity — is part of the reason.

All my radio listening (with the exception of involuntary situations, such as in the grocery store) happens in the car. For years this owed to simple lack of choice: Our first car was a no-extras 1999 model with AM/FM radio only. But last year we bought a new car, and something weird happened: I’ve never bothered to figure out the Bluetooth connection, or even used the CD player. So I must get something out of radio. What is it?

For starters, even though everybody trashes radio, it’s actually possible to hear perfectly good songs. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” never gets old; ditto “Back in Black”; I like Adele; and so on. Just the other day I bumped into Dwight Yoakam’s “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” Good stuff.

But because I’m generally in the car alone, I’m also free to enjoy radio’s ability to feed my most embarrassing musical pleasures — again, stuff that’s enjoyable partly because I’ve been hearing it my entire life. The number of Billy Joel songs I own is zero, but I am happy to sing along to “Uptown Girl” when it presents itself (and nobody I know can see me). You will never find me at home listening to Styx’s “Grand Illusion”; on the car radio, I crank it up. Any day that includes hearing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” for the nth time is a good day.

At this point maybe you’re concluding that I just have bad taste. I promise that in real life, I’m an adventurous listener. The point is that nobody should turn to conventional radio hoping for Wooden Shjips, Sam Phillips or Martinibomb. I almost never “discover” new music on the radio. But I do rediscover music: The repetition factor has actually given me a much deeper appreciation of some songs, by sheer dint of being forced to listen to them over and over. I always liked “Shattered,” for instance, but it’s thanks to radio that it’s become maybe my favorite Stones song ever.

Partly, then, radio is a familiarity machine that spits out nonstop nostalgia. But it’s also useful for assessing the Top 40: I’ve had enough of “Royals,” but, yeah, I still enjoy listening to “Blurred Lines.” Again. 

Having said all that, I’m not really in the car very much, and if I had an hourlong daily commute, I’d probably change my tune. And none of the pleasures of repetition I’ve sketched above have inspired me to turn on a radio in my house in several years. The digital alternatives are, basically, superior.

But in small doses, a little familiarity sounds good. Just don’t make me say this again.

Yahoo Tech is a brand new tech site from David Pogue and an all-star team of writers. Follow us on Facebook for all the latest.