Imagine a radio format that plays “twice as many songs” by only playing about half of each song, in an attempt to cater to “the needs and lifestyle of today’s multitasking, attention challenged listeners.” It may sound like a joke straight out of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, but it’s the actual concept behind QuickHitz, a syndicated radio format that is currently making news for all the wrong reasons.
The new format was launched with little fanfare in 2012 and was picked up in 2013 by a station in Decatur, Illinois; described by its inventors as “a game-changing mass appeal music format,” it involves editing pop songs down to about two minutes, making it possible to play 24 songs an hour. But this month, when the format came to the top 40 station AMP Radio in the larger market of Calgary, Alberta, controversy erupted.
Of course, for about as long as broadcasting has existed, artists and labels have been tailoring their releases to better suit the needs of commercial broadcasters. Radio stations are routinely serviced with “Single Mixes” optimized for radio airplay, which involve a number of changes from album versions. Lead vocals may be made louder and more present to cut through on a variety of reproduction environments, from car stereos to tinny clock radio speakers. There are also edits for time: introductions are cut down and guitar solos are truncated or excised completely in an attempt to emphasize hooks and stay under the 4 minute mark. And, of course, there are edits for content, removing drug references and/or profanity, as with Cee Lo Green’s cleaned-up hit “Forget You.” For major label releases especially, it’s not been uncommon for different mixes to be released targeting different radio formats—more guitars for rock stations, but less for top 40 stations, for example. TLC’s “Waterfalls” featured a rap verse when I heard it on my local R&B station in 1994, but now when I hear it on an adult hits format, the rap is missing.
One key difference is that those decisions about edits have mostly come from the labels and artists, not the broadcasters. Quickhitz, in contrast, appears to be doing the edits themselves. In this, too, they’re not without precedent. TV shows like American Idol only rarely feature performances of entire songs, often skipping verses and choruses in a rush to feature a song’s emotional peaks before viewers change the channel.
Unsurprisingly, some artists have found this sort of thing distasteful. Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden has railed against the format and the Calgary station’s parent company Newcap on social media, describing Quickhitz to the Calgary Herald as the “massacring of an artist’s work…It happens all the time, but this is extreme.” Then, in an unflattering move that recalls the Dixie Chicks’ fight with some country radio stations for speaking their minds, Newcap VP of Programming Steve Jones allegedly ordered his entire roster of stations to remove Arden’s music from their playlists “immediately and permanently.”
It’s easy to get outraged at this, and to find this lowest-common-denominator approach insulting to artists and listeners alike, but the issue is bigger than a couple stations and one controversial new format. To understand Quickhitz, you have to look at the bigger structural forces and policy decisions that triggered commercial radio’s race to the bottom. In the US, you can start by looking at the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated radio and allowed a few companies such as Infinity and Clear Channel (recently rebranded as I Heart Radio) to buy up hundreds of local stations, drastically limiting consumer choice and narrowing the scope of competition across the marketplace. Anticompetitive practices of the new giants forced even smaller companies to become more risk-averse, focusing on familiarity and avoiding tune-outs. Local DJs were laid off en masse, often replaced with computerized playlists that tended to be repetitive and homogenous. (Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade organization representing the interests of the big broadcasters continues to push the FCC go even further and scrap the remaining ownership caps on radio.) And while we’re also talking about Canadian radio, Canada hasn’t been immune to the problems associated with ownership consolidation either.
Of course, there are better ways for commercial radio programmers to ensure that listeners don’t get bored. They could, for example, simply play a broader selection of tracks. Quickhitz is marketed to stations in part as a remedy for “listener fatigue” induced by repetitive choruses, but that fatigue is itself a product of commercial radio’s repetitive playlists. (In other words, people wouldn’t get as annoyed by the repetitive chorus of Pharrell’s “Happy” if they weren’t hearing that song so many times a day.) Programmers could also consider more music from independent labels, which now comprise 34.6% of the music marketplace but are largely shut out from commercial radio. They could hire knowledgeable local DJs who could share interesting context about the music—and about what’s happening in their local communities.
Unfortunately, to find that kind of risk-taking in US broadcasting today, we mostly have to look to college, public, and community radio stations and the internet. Ownership consolidation has meant that most commercial radio seems focused on finding innovative ways to insult listeners’ intelligence, innovative ways to offend musicians, and innovative excuses for failing to pay musicians for the use of their work. That’s one more reason that further ownership consolidation must be halted and more meaningful antitrust protections considered; as a precious part of our nation’s cultural heritage, radio is too valuable a public resource to let a few companies define its future.