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Subject: BEA 98 BurnsJ Agenda setting in music radio
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 14 May 1998 06:41:24 EDT

TEXT/PLAIN (818 lines)

The Agenda Setting Process in Music Radio:
A Purposive Sample of Listeners
Joseph E. Burns, PhD
Susquehanna University
A traditional agenda-setting methodology was employed to test a music
radio station's ability to impress perceived song popularity through
repeated airplay.  A purposive sample of radio listeners were asked to
name songs they considered most popular at the time of the survey.  The
songs did not necessarily need to be one of the listener's personal
favorites.  The listener simply needed to report he or she believed the
song to be popular.  Data were then correlated with local radio
playlists.  Results produced significant correlations between the
audience and playlist data suggesting radio airplay has a hand in the
creation of perceived song popularity.  However, a 17% correlation
coefficient suggested more variables at work than airplay.  In terms of
communication research this study suggests agenda setting has
applications outside the issue salience realm.
     The Agenda Setting Process in Music Radio:
A Purposive Sample of Listeners
     Since 1972, when McCombs and Shaw introduced agenda setting, the
theory has spawned over 200 journal articles and many books (McCombs &
Shaw, 1993; Rogers, Dearing & Bregman, 1993).  Yet with all that has
been written, the theory has been used almost exclusively to study the
relationship between news media and their audiences. (Protess & McCombs,
    Although different methods of research, such as longitudinal designs
(Erbring, Goldberg & Miller, 1980), group and individual level data
(McLeod, Becker & Byrnes, 1974; Shaw & McCombs, 1977), path analysis
(Wanta, 1994), and experimental research (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987), have
all been employed, it has always been to test the impression of a ranked
order of issues from media to audience (Schoenback & Semetko, 1992;
Weaver & Elliot, 1986; Zhu, 1992).
     The purpose of this paper is to suggest that agenda setting has
applications outside of the news and issue-salience realm.  This study
will use an agenda-setting model to test the ability of a music radio
station to impress perceived song popularity on its audience through
repeated airplay of songs.
     The traditional methodology of agenda setting is a public opinion
poll correlated with a content analysis of one or a combination of mass
media (Eaton, 1989; Heeter, Brown, Soffin, Stanley & Salwen, 1989; Hill,
1985; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Roberts, 1992; Rogers & Dearing, 1988;
Rogers, et al., 1993).  This study argues that correlating a rank order
of broadcast or printed items with a rank order of the issues an
audience perceives as important or popular is not restricted only to the
realm of news and issue salience.  The agenda-setting theory has
applications whenever a mass medium could affect what an audience
perceives as important. This would include issues, product
advertisements, or in this case, song popularity.  The key to this
study's argument is that salience and popularity are equivalent
     MacFarland (1990) wrote that music popularity is
more than someone simply enjoying a song.  He defines popularity as a
macro-time mood consideration, the public's mood or attitude changing
over time as certain songs become more salient in the public eye and
then decline and are replaced by new songs.  Manheim (1986) wrote of
"salience" that it is the stated or implied relevance of an issue to an
audience over time.
     The definitions are interchangeable.  Salience and popularity are
both macro-level issues regarding the relative importance of issues or
certain songs.
     In order to test an agenda-setting effect in music radio, it would
have to be shown that music radio delivers its product, songs, to an
audience in a similar fashion to a news medium delivering its news
     The news media have the ability to emphasize one  story over
another through many channels including story placement in a newscast
(Behr & Iyengar, 1985), photo size (Wanta, 1988), and announcer framing
(Gitlin, 1980; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987).  This emphasis of some stories
over others leads to the audience perceiving a rank order of issues
(Reese, 1991).  Agenda setting argues that the more a story is
emphasized by a news medium, the stronger that story's chances are of
being perceived as important.
     Music radio delivers songs to its audience in much the same way.
Although a music radio station might choose 40 songs to make up its
on-air playlist, the songs are not played one through 40 and then back
to number one to play the list again.  A playlist is broken into
rotations (Frith, 1988; Keith, 1991; Pavia, 1983).  The top rotation
might be only six songs with two being played every hour.  The second
rotation might have 18 songs with three played every hour.  A third
rotation would then include the remainder of the songs from the playlist
rotating throughout the day.
     This ensures that what songs the music programmer perceives as most
popular play more often than those songs perceived as less popular in
the same way editors feature certain issues they believe are more
salient than others.  This playlist rotation emphasis on certain songs
could lead to a rank-order perception of song popularity in music radio
in the same way story emphasis leads to perception of story in a
newscast.   In short, the songs played most often could be perceived as
most popular.
     Rothenbuhler's (1985) and Kelliher's (1981) studies of music radio
gatekeepers noted that the process of choosing music for a radio station
was similar to the gatekeeping processes editors followed in choosing
news stories.  Most importantly, both noted that radio programmers, like
news editors, do not consult their audiences through music research when
choosing new music.  Music programming today is performed mostly through
an experienced programmer's instincts (Denver, 1993; Love, 1994).  Song
by song research is mostly reserved for after music decisions have been
made (Kinosian, 1992).
     This lack of audience influence in the process may allow a music
radio station to become a public opinion leader in new and current
music.  An audience member would look to the radio to discover what
music is new, or popular, just as an audience member would look to the
media to find out the important news items, or issues, of the day
(McCombs & Shaw, 1972).
The concept that radio airplay has a hand in the creation of song
popularity is not a new idea.  Even  in this age of music videos, music
radio programmers, and the music industry, continue to believe radio
airplay can make songs "hits" (Baldwin & Mizerski, 1985; Breen, 1991;
Kinosian, 1995; Kojan, 1993; Maxwell, 1995; Novia, 1995, Smith, 1989).
Academic research offer evidence to back up these claims.
     Early books such as The Psychology of Radio  (Cantril & Allport,
1935) and The People Look at Radio (Lazarsfeld & Field, 1946) applauded
radio's ability to create song popularity.  As early as 1940, Weibe
(1940) and Erdelyi (1940) provided evidence that the more a song is
played on the radio, the better chance the song has of becoming popular
and selling copies.  Later writings by Rich (1990) and Keith (1991)
continued to state that radio airplay can make music popular.
     The introduction of new music through airplay and rotation emphasis
noted above could lead to what Rothenbuhler (1985), Burns (1995), and
this study have termed an agenda-setting process.
     Kaplan wrote that theories have "explanatory shells" (Kaplan, 1969,
p. 299).  This shell holds the variables, terms, and situations that
must be present for a theory to be successfully tested.  The above
discussion has provided support that the agenda-setting process that
occurs between a news organization and its audience has construct
equivalents in music radio.    Both the news media and music radio may
have the ability to impress upon an audience the perceived salience of a
rank order of items (Burns, 1995).  In the case of music radio, the
items are songs and salience manifests itself as perceived song
popularity.  Protess and McCombs (1991) wrote that leading theories must
go through cycles of recreation and rebirth.  For a theory to continue
to thrive, new areas must be explored (Conant, 1951; Severin & Tankard,
1992).  In Wicker's (1985) 11 specific suggestions for generating new
perspectives on familiar research, he notes moving a theory outside of
its domain.  That suggestion brought about this study.
     The preceding literature review has offered support for the
following hypotheses:
     H1: There will be a significant positive correlation between a
song's level of popularity, as reported by an audience, and that song's
level of emphasis via playlist rotations on music radio.
     H2: The radio playlists that aired before the audience survey will
show a stronger correlation with the audience survey data than the
playlist coinciding with the survey.
     This study employed a traditional study of agenda setting, a public
opinion poll correlated with a mass medium's content analysis (Rogers &
Dearing, 1988; Rogers, Dearing & Bregman, 1994).
Public Opinion
     The purposive sample respondents were chosen through a sample of
one radio station's records of listeners who had called in and won a
station contest.  This method of sampling from a larger purposive sample
was the same employed by McCombs and Shaw (1972).
Passive Versus Active Audience
     Academic writings on radio (Cobley, 1994; Hesbacher, 1974; Keith,
1991; Rubin, 1993) and articles from radio trade publications (Harris,
1994; Kinosian, 1992) have often broken the radio audience down into two
sections, the passive and the active audience.  The passive audience is
by far the larger of the two sections ("Nielsen to Develop," 1989).  The
members of this passive audience segment are not as attentive to what is
being broadcast as an active audience member would be.  The active
audience member is one who will call for a request or play a radio
contest as did the respondents in this sample (Pavia, 1983).
     The purposive sample survey was a sample of this station's active
audience and was used for this study because of members having already
shown attention to the radio station through playing a contest.
     Iyengar and Kinder (1987) wrote that in order for the agenda
setting process to occur, attention to the media is a must.  It is not
enough for listeners to have the radio on in the background, they must
be attentively listening.  A person who called in to win a contest must
have been listening attentively in order to hear the contest being
     The radio station in this study programs country music and is
ranked first in the local radio market. Public opinion data were
collected by asking each respondent to name five country music songs he
or she felt were most popular at the time of the survey.  Listeners were
told that the songs they mentioned did not necessarily need to be one of
their personal favorites.  They only needed to believe the song was one
of the most popular songs at that time.
    The number "five" was chosen due to cognition and  memory research
providing evidence that human memory can readily provide between five
and nine items when
cold questioned (Klatzky, 1975).  More or less than five were accepted,
but five were requested.
    No ranking was given for the order songs were mentioned.  The reason
is that each respondent was not expected to provide the same number of
songs.  There would be no reliable method to indicate which song the
respondent considered most popular.  Just because a song was mentioned
first does not necessarily indicate that the song was perceived as the
most popular song.
      McCombs and Shaw (1972) wrote that agenda setting is a measurable
perception of salience, or in this case perceived popularity, rather
than a direction of attitude or action.  This is why sales figures were
not used to determine this radio station's agenda-setting impact.
Listeners questioned for this study need not have purchased music to
measure an effect.
     The survey resulted in 101 completed questionnaires over a four day
period, Monday through Thursday.
     The breakdown of the purposive sample songs mentioned appears in
Table 1.
Content Analysis
     Playlist information was gathered from the radio station's
computerized music system.  Total plays, the total number of airings a
song has received since being added to the playlist, were used to rank
the songs on each playlist.
     The station's program director provided two different playlists for
this study.  The first aired from October 23rd through the 29th, 1995,
the week before the purposive sample was taken allowing time for the
audience to be exposed to the playlist before the survey.  The second
playlist aired from September 11th through the 17th, 1995.  The two
playlists contain a total of 30 and 32 songs respectively.
     Each of these two playlists were made up of three rotations,
labeled A, B, and C.  There were nine songs in the A rotation playing
twice an hour.  The A rotation included the nine songs the program
director deemed most popular at that time.
There were seven songs in the B rotation playing once an hour.
     The C rotation contained 14 songs on the later chart and 16 songs
on the earlier chart, each playing once an hour. The station program
director noted that this difference in C rotation size from airplay
chart to airplay chart is not uncommon.  The rotation can vary up to
five songs one way or the other.  However, this program director keeps
the A and the B rotations constant at nine and seven songs respectively.
 The A, B, and C rotations made up what is termed the "main" playlist.
     The purposive survey of radio contest winners produced 334 song
mentions made up of 101 different titles.  All song titles mentioned
appear in Appendix A.
      Table 2 is the radio station's main playlist from the week before
the data were obtained from the purposive sample survey.  The table
ranks playlist songs by their total number of plays since being added to
the chart, and lists how many mentions each song received during the
survey.  The Spearman Rho correlation was .41 (p<.05, one tailed).  The
Rho2 was .17 suggesting radio airplay could claim a 17% responsibility
for the answers provided by the sample survey.
    The number of mentions as a result of the purposive sample survey
were also listed with the playlist from  five weeks earlier.  The
Spearman Rho correlation between the two sets of data was .04
Significance did not reach .05.  The results appear in Table 3.
     The rotations of the main playlists were then listed by total
number of plays per rotation.  That number was compared against the
total number of mentions the songs in each rotation received in the
purposive sample survey.
     In both cases the Spearman Rho was .50 (N=3, df=1), not
significant.  In both cases, the A rotation received the highest total
number of plays and mentions.   The B and C rotations were reversed from
total plays to total mentions.  The rotation totals of both playlists
appear in Tables 6 and 7.
     H1: There will be a significant positive correlation between a
song's level of popularity, as reported by an audience, and that song's
level of emphasis via playlist rotations on music radio.
     This hypothesis was supported.  Table 2 shows that what songs the
respondents mentioned as being popular correlated significantly with the
country music radio station's playlist (Spearman Rho: .41, p<.05)
     Although the correlation produced significant results, this does
not imply an overly strong relationship between what the radio station
played and what the audience reported as popular.  The .17 Rho2 results
suggest the radio playlist could claim less than a 20% responsibility
for what the audience members reported as popular.  These results
suggest that the radio playlist had a hand in the process of what
audience members perceives as popular, but that hand is only one of what
could be many variables involved.
     H2: The radio playlists that aired before the audience survey will
show a stronger correlation with the audience survey data than the
playlist coinciding with the survey.
     When the local playlist from one month before the sample was
correlated with the song titles mentioned by the purposive sample
survey, H2 was not supported.  Table 3 provides a correlation of .04
(p>.05).  This suggests that music radio's agenda-setting effect on
perceived song popularity may be relatively short-lived.
     H2 was based upon agenda-setting time frame research.  McCombs &
Masel-Walters (1976), wrote that agenda setting is a cumulative process
noting that three to four months of daily coverage is required for an
issue to become well known in the public conscience.
     The argument might be made that a one-week time frame is too short
for the results of Tables 2 and 3 to be an agenda-setting effect because
the audience simply did not have time to become familiarized with the
music being played.  However, Becker and McCombs (1977) and Mullins
(1977) were able to show the agenda-setting process as soon as one week
before their samples were taken.
     Time frame is also not the only factor involved.  There are
personal preferences and reactions to the music being played.  Iyengar
and Kinder (1987) wrote that persons most susceptible to the agenda
setting process are those that have an emotional reaction to the items
being provided by the media.  Iyengar and Kinder were referring to
news-related items, but that reasoning also applies here (Chaffee, 1985;
Frith, 1988; Hirsch, 1971).  If the radio is playing a song that
resonates with listeners, they could quickly name that song as popular
no matter how many plays the song has received.  Table 2 suggests that
is the case in this study.  Further research may provide evidence that a
song's resonance with listeners may be the strongest factor is whether
they perceive the song as popular.
     There appears to be an agenda-setting effect, in terms of perceived
popularity, in music radio, yet the process is still not completely
understood.  The process is subjective.  In aggregate, the response of
the active audience significantly correlated with the coinciding
playlist and the playlist from one week before.  Yet it is obvious that
airplay, although involved in the influence
process, is not the only cause of song popularity perceptions.  Listener
tastes in music and music sources outside of this radio station surely
influenced what was mentioned by respondents.  Results also suggest that
an agenda-setting effect in music radio may take hold quickly, as short
as one week.
     In terms of mass communication theory, this study suggests that
agenda setting has application outside the news and political issues
realm.  The variables that are present in a news organization have
equivalents in the business of radio programming and possibly elsewhere.
     In terms of the business of radio, a widely held  belief was
offered some tentative support.  The results suggested that radio
airplay does have a hand in creating perceived popularity.  The majority
of songs that were mentioned by the listening audience as popular were
the songs that were being played at the time.  Yet it is still unclear
if an audience's perception of popularity also then translates into
     More research covering different audiences and radio formats can,
and should, be undertaken in order to understand more about what music
the radio plays and what music we perceive as popular.
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Table 1
Songs Subjects Mentioned When Asked What Songs they perceived as Most
Popular at the Time of the Survey.
        Songs Mentioned       N              %
                  0                 6               5.9%
                  1                 11             10.9%
                  2                 11                       10.9%
                  3                    22                       21.8%
                      4                    20                        19.8%
                      5                    31                        30.7%
               Total                   101                      100.0%
Table 2
Purposive Sample: Local Playlist, One Week Before Sampling, Ranked By
Total Plays Correlated With Number of Mentions Received in
PurposiveSample Survey
Song                     Plays    Rank    Mentions
 I'm Not Strong Enough    454       1         2
 I Wanna Go Too Far       452       2         4
 If The World Had A...    397       3         7
 Dust On The Bottle       354       4        10
 No Man's Land            327       5         7
 Safe In the Arms of...   310       6         3
 She's Every Woman        294       7        24
 Let's Go To Vegas        240       8         2
 Sometimes She Forgets    238       9         6
 On My Own                214      10        24
 Someone Else's Star      194      11         3
 Back In Your Arms...     193      12         2
 Tequila Talkin'          173      13         0
 Who Needs You Baby       143      14         0
 I Let Her Lie            140      15         0
 Life Goes On             137      16         1
 If I Was A Drinkin' Man  135      17         0
 Check Yes Or No          120      18        10
 The Woman In Me          120      19        12
 Whiskey Under The...     107      20        10
 Halfway Down              90      21         2
 I'm A Stranger Here...    77      22         0
 In Pictures               70      23         6
 Heart Half Empty          39      24         0
 Deep Down                 35      25         2
 I Will Always Love You    34      26        13
 Better Things To Do       13      28         1
 Life Gets Away            13      27            0
 What I Meant To Say       13      29         0
 She Said Yes              10      30         0
N=30 song  Spearman Rho=.41  Rho2=.17   df=28   p<.05
Table 3
Purposive Sample: Local Playlist from One Month Before, Ranked By Total
Plays Correlated With Number of Mentions in Purposive Sample Survey
Song                    Plays       Rank   Mentions
 That Ain't My Truck     315          1         0
 I Think About it All... 314          2         0
 One Emotion             270          3         2
 I'm Not Strong Enough   232          4         2
 I Wanna Go Too Far      225          5         4
 Don't Stop              224          6         1
 3 Words, 2 Hearts       196          7         0
 If The World Had A...   172          8         7
 One Boy One Girl        172          9         4
 Safe In The Arms        166         10         3
 I Like It, I Love It    162         11          18
 Lead On                 142         12         1
 Dust on The Bottle      131         13          10
 Someone Else's Star     121         14         3
 No Man's Land           103         15         7
 Let's Go To Vegas        96         16         2
 Sometimes She Forgets    94         17         6
 She's Every Woman        71         18          24
 Tequila Talkin'          68         19         0
 Life Goes On             67         20         1
 That Road Not Taken      66         21         0
 If I Was a Drinkin' Man  64         22         0
 I Let Her Lie            52         23         0
 Kisses Don't Lie         50         24         0
 If It Were Me            50         25         0
 Back In Your Arms Again  50           26               2
 The Woman In Me          50         27          12
 Should've Asked Her...   36         28         0
 On My Own                31         29          24
 Whiskey Under The...     19         30          10
 Halfway Down             19         31         2
 Who Needs You Baby       19         32           0
N=32 songs   Spearman Rho=.04   Rho2=.0016   df=30   p>.05
Table 4
Purposive Sample: Total Number of Rotation Plays and Number of Mentions
Per Rotation from the Purposive Sample Survey: Current Rotation
       Songs in
       Rotation   Rotation     Plays    Mentions
          9          A         2755        88
          7          B         1401        23
         14          C          980        39
N=3   Spearman Rho=.50   df=1   p>.05
Table 7
Purposive Sample: Total Rotation Plays for Playlist from One Month
Before Survey and Number of Mentions Per Rotation from the Purposive
Sample Survey
       Songs in
       Rotation   Rotation     Plays  Mention
           9          A         1805      68
           7          B          783      49
          16          C         1263      28
          N=3   Spearman Rho=.50   df=1   p>.05
Songs Titles and Artists Mentioned In Purposive Sample
Song Tite            Artist                Mentions
On My Own            Reba McEntire           24**
She's Every Woman    Garth Brooks            24**
Any Man Of Mine      Shania Twain            20*
I like It, I Love It Tim McGraw              18*
I Will Always...     Gill/Parton             13**
The Woman In Me      Shania Twain            12**
Tall Tall Trees      Alan Jackson            11
Check Yes Or No      George Straight         10**
Whiskey Under...     Brooks and Dunn         10**
Dust On The Bottle   David Lee Murphy        10**
Chatahoochee         Alan Jackson             8
No Man's Land        John Michael Montgomery  7**
If The World...      Tracy Lawrence           7**
I Don't Even Know... Alan Jackson             7*
Sold                 John Michael Montgomery  7*
In Pictures          Alabama                  6**
Sometimes She...     Travis Tritt             6**
When You Say...      Alison Krauss            6*
Boot Scootin' Boogie Brooks and Dunn          5
I Wanna Go Too Far   Trisha Yearwood          4**
Don't Take The Girl  Tim McGraw               4*
Bobbie Ann Mason     Rick Trevino             4*
One Boy One Girl     Collin Raye              4*
Baby Likes To Rock   The Tractors             4*
Friends In Low..     Garth Brooks             4
Someone Else's Star  Bryan White              3**
Angels Among Us      Alabama                  3*
Safe In The Arms...  Martina McBride          3
Fancy                Reba McEntire            3
The Dance            Garth Brooks             3
I'm Not Strong...    Blackhawks               2**
Let's Go To Vegas    Faith Hill               2**
Back In Your Arms... Lorrie Morgan            2**
Deep Down            Deep Down                2**
Halfway Down         Patty Loveless           2*
One Emotion          Clint Black              2*
Seminole Wind        John Anderson            2
The Thunder Rolls    Garth Brooks             2
This Thing Called    Sawyer Brown             2
Renegade             Tim McGraw               2
Looking At Us        Vince Gill               2
Achy Breaky Heart    Billy Ray Cyrus          2
Grandpa - Tell M...  The Judds                2
Better Things To Do  Terri Clark              1**
Life Goes On         Little Texas             1**
Gonna Miss Me        Brooks and Dunn          1*
What The Cowgirls Do Vince Gill               1*
Watermelon Crawl     Tracy Bird               1*
Little Miss...       Brooks and Dunn          1*
Going Country        Alan Jackson             1*
Got a New Life       Mark Chestnut            1*
Texas Tornado        Tracy Lawrence           1*
Who's Bed Your...    Shania Twain             1*
Still                Reba McEntire            1*
Tell Me I Was...     Travis Tritt             1*
Baton Rouge          Garth Brooks             1*
Lean On              George Straight          1*
You Ain't Much Fun   Toby Keith               1*
I Want My Goodbye... Ty Hernden               1*
Don't Stop           Wade Hayes               1*
Finish What You...   Diamond Rio              1
One More Last Chance Vince Gill               1
3rd Rock From...     Joe Diffie               1
Baby Now That...     Alison Krauss            1
Neon Moon            Brooks and Dunn          1
Nothing              Dwight Yoakam            1
The Bug              Mary Chapin Carpenter    1
She's In Love...     Trisha Yearwood          1
He Thinks He'll...   Mary Chapin Carpenter    1
Here's A Quarter     Travis Tritt             1
Some Gave All        Billy Ray Cyrus          1
Always And Forever   Billy Ray Cyrus          1
Forever And Ever     Randy Travis             1
Love Can Build A...  Randy Travis             1
What Part Of No...   Lorrie Morgan            1
Don't Rock The...    Alan Jackson             1
Women On The...      Confederate Railroad     1
Down To My Last...   Tanya Tucker             1
Does He Love Me      Reba McEntire            1
Why Not Me           The Judds                1
I Swear              John Michael Montgomery  1
Big Old Truck        Toby Keith               1
Why Haven't I...     Reba McEntire            1
Dry River Run        Garth Brooks             1
Ain't Goin' Down...  Garth Brooks             1
Standing Outside...  Garth Brooks             1
Killing Time         No Artist Given          1
Someday              No Artist Given          1
Kiss Me Goodbye      No Artist Given          1
We'll Meet In...     No Artist Given          1
When I Call Your...  No Artist Given          1
Keeper Of The Stars  No Artist Given          1
Memories And Me      No Artist Given          1
No Way To Go         No Artist Given          1
Crying and Dying     No Artist Given          1
Blame It On Texas    No Artist Given          1
Song For Life        No Artist Given          1
Fire to Fire         No Artist Given          1
Here's My Lucky Day  No Artist Given          1
Living on Love       No Artist Given          1
Sad Cafe             No Artist Given          1
N=101 song titles
**Denotes song is on main playlist
* Denotes song is receiving airplay in other station rotations

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