How Music Works: The art of the radio playlist

In How Music Works, Niall Byrne talks to people who make a living in the Irish music industry. This week: Brian Adams, head of music at Today FM

Brian Adams, head of music at Today FM

Brian Adams, head of music at Today FM


The song remains the same, as Led Zeppelin put it. In the case of radio, it’s “the audience remains the same”. As head of music at Today FM, it is Brian Adams’s job to ensure that the music heard across the day’s programming has a common identity that chimes with the station’s demographic of 20- to 44-year-olds.

Adams’s has to allow for the breaking of new music to listeners, for the presenters’ own choices, as well as maintain a balance in repeat plays, genre, era, tempo and style. With 18 years in the job, and prior roles as warehouse manager at Ga Linn Records and as specialist and Irish music buyer for HMV, Adams has had plenty of experience in the music industry. Despite an influx of new technologies and delivery systems, his role remains straightfordward – picking the right songs for the audience.

“The aim is to get people to stay listening for longer and to get more listeners,” says Adams. After a long period of presenter stability, Today FM has recently changed its line-up, mainly out of necessity, due to the passing of broadcasting legend Tony Fenton and the sudden departure of Ray D’Arcy to RTÉ. A transitionary period is still in effect while listeners get used to having the likes of Anton Savage, Louise Duffy and Dermot & Dave run their slots and occupy their homes, cars and offices.

“Each of them has to get their personalities across, but the music has to feel constant throughout,” says Adams of his role in the transition, which he says can take up to 18 months to settle.

The anchor of any radio station’s identity is the playlist – the list of songs that dictates the majority of the music played in any one day. The playlist is changed weekly and there are myriad factors to consider when choosing a song to support on rotation.

Playlist decisions
“Firstly, we do our own listenership research, which takes three or four weeks, but we get a good guide from that,” says Adams. “We also look at airplay charts, Shazam, online plays – and if it comes to a track that’s borderline and you’re not sure, one thing of any of those could push it into the ‘yes’ category, as could a good band story. Or it might depend on the existing balance you have – is there enough dance/pop or rock music in there already? Speed, tempo and energy come into play then.”

Adams is always aware of what other stations are playing and may choose to join the club or discard a song with that in mind.

“Sometimes you see things out in the market and it might indicate we should stop playing a song, depending on who else is playing it. If a certain station is playing something, it means we’ve been playing it for too long.

“On the other hand, with some of the younger, dancier stuff, we may choose not to break it but to hold it until the time is right for the audience.”

Adams cites the recent hit from The Weeknd which, while it debuted online in early June, didn’t hit the mainstream radio audience until mid-August. Part of Adams job is to pick the right time to start playing a song, even if first play reaction is slow. It’s not an exact science, he says.

Earned It, the first single, didn’t do that great for us,” Adams says. “ So we didn’t introduce Can’t Feel My Face until it felt like it was establishing itself. The first week didn’t get a great reaction, but then people started to respond with repeat plays.”

Adams says he has to separate his own tastes (quiet country, loud rock) from the identity of the station. “It’s a job - you don’t come in to play the music you want to hear, you play the music listeners want to hear,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t hold a candle to the exciting things that people should hear, but picking music for the radio is about the audience first.”

Adams says Today FM’s commitment to new Irish music is self-evident. Last year, the station hosted 160 live sessions from Irish bands in studio, while in recent weeks, there have been seven acts live on-air, including The Frank & Walters, Kodaline, I’m Your Vinyl, Stephanie Rainey, Mundy and Ryan Sheridan, who was given 90 minutes of air-time devoted to his new album.

A quota for new acts?
As for the perennial idea that radio stations should be required to play at least 40 per cent Irish music in their output, Adams maybe has a better idea.

“The amount of times I pick up a paper or read an article that says there should be a quota . . . but there actually is, according to the BAI licences given to stations,” says Adams. “The expectation is 20 per cent Irish music, and the BAI monitors everyone meticulously, apart from RTE (who themselves say they play a minimum of 15 per cent Irish music on air).”

“The biggest thing for me, is that the existing quota doesn’t do anything for new music. There’s nothing to stop a station if they wanted to dig out their old Van Morrison, Cranberries and The Corrs tracks and play them.”

“I think there’s room to look at a smaller quota related to new acts. It’s also currently a punishment-based thing – you get a mark on your licence if you don’t play enough, but there’s no reward for going above and beyond to break new bands and bring them to new audiences. If all commercial stations are already hitting the existing quota, then move the goalposts towards new artists.”

Approaching the station
Adams has been on both sides of the artist/radio fence, having been in bands when he was younger. So he is mindful of what a band should do when contacting radio directly. In brief, his advice is: do your research, think about presentation and have a story.

“You see from this side, the importance of making a story, an angle or identity - giving presenters something to talk about and getting your name out there. Being proactive and not just waiting for radio to approach you or moaning about it.”

With Today FM bedding down to its new schedule, the passing of broadcasting legend Tony Fenton in March this year was a reminder of how radio can touch people’s lives. Adams says no one got more pleasure in playing great songs on the radio than Tony and he remains a big inspiration.

“There were so many unsolicited texts and emails were received in the weeks after his passing. The amount of people he touched with music and his links. There were about 100 people who said ‘this must be his favourite song’, and all the songs were all different. There were people who said they remember the first time he played this and he played it three times in a row – there were hundreds, songs from Adele, Relish, BellX1 and U2 among them.

“If we can keep his passion and keep the light shining for him, then we’ll be doing the best job we can do.”

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