Will It Play In Grand Rapids? O’Kelly Examines Music Selection in 1960s Top 40 Radio

OKelly 2015_300Len O’Kelly, longtime radio professional, now Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Grand Valley State University, recently completed a dissertation on music selection of 1960s era top 40 radio.  Titled “But Will It Play In Grand Rapids? The Role of Gatekeepers in Music Selection in 1960s Top 40 Radio,” the 176-page paper is a fascinating read for any radio professional, student of the medium or anyone who grew up with the hits of the era.

The paper may be downloaded here.

O’Kelly explains:  “This was an effort to marry together two things: my career in radio programming and my research interest in postwar radio history. I joked that I wanted to find a way to turn my collection of 45s into a PhD.

Gatekeeping theory has long been used in the study of news. It attempts to explain the process by which decisions as to what to cover in the news are made. I applied the theory to music radio to try and understand how the decision to play (or not play) songs was reached. I used the 1960s because it was a pre-Internet world where AM was king. Listeners could hear radio from other markets (Chicago stations clearly came into Grand Rapids), but there was no other way to experience the sound of the station except for over the air. By analyzing weekly playlist surveys for Chicago and Grand Rapids, I wanted to see how closely the hits came to the national Billboard charts, and found discrepancy based on race. Part of this had to do with what I termed ‘segue rules’ : the practice of not playing certain songs back to back that is still in use today that gives preference to white male vocals.

I found that Grand Rapids actually led the way in terms of debut dates most of the time. By the time Chicago stations added records, audiences in Grand Rapids were already familiar with them. The discrepancies in terms of what songs were missed was interesting as well, and interview subjects corroborated the fact that by the 1970s, the local station charts were likely false due to the practice of ‘paper adds’ to appease record promoters. Modern Oldies programmers who rely on the charts only to program their stations may be missing out on some great regional hits or giving preference to songs their audiences may not be as familiar with as they think.

Moving forward, I would like to expand the analysis into Detroit weekly playlists to study geographic spread of music. I also plan to work on the creation of a national repository for these station playlists as no such collection exists. I was fortunate to be able to find private collectors that had these surveys intact. I’ll be calling on stations all over Michigan to ask to peek into their storage closets and see what historical materials may exist.”

Len O’Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Grand Valley State University. He advises both the student radio and television stations. Before teaching, Len spent almost three decades in radio programming, primarily in Chicago and Grand Rapids. He still serves as the news anchor for stations in Michigan and California and provides voice imaging for others. Len is also a Research Associate for the Radio Preservation Task Force, a project of the Library of Congress dedicated to saving recordings of radio broadcast for researchers and students.

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