About twice a year the Chicago “classic rock” station does something strange.  Instead of its regular programming sequence, it sets aside about a week to play through all the greatest songs in alphabetical order.  And this is advertised as a big event, a restoration of order out of chaos that the audience has apparently been desperate for since the last time they did it.  They are at it again this week and in between “Boys of Summer” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse” I started to wonder why this was thought to be a good marketing strategy.

  1. There is the possibility of coordination failure between audience and programmer at certain time slots.  If everybody tuning in at noon is expecting late 70’s prog rock then they better play that or lose their audience.  The A to Z is a way to break the trap.
  2. It works as a commitment not to repeat a song for a whole week.
  3. It’s really just a negotiation tactic with the program director.  The station proves publicly that the program director’s choice of playlist on a daily basis is completely irrelevant to the listeners.
  4. The station is just pruning its library and it takes a week to do that every 6 months.  While they are at it, they might as well play the songs that made the cut.
  5. It gets the listeners into the game of predicting the next song.  (They just played “Back Door Man” by the doors.  We know “Back in the USSR” is coming soon.  Is there anything in between that we are forgetting?  Let’s stay tuned and find out!)

If it is any one of the demand-side explanations (like 2 and 5) there is a residual puzzle.  Presumably listeners have some given satiation point for classic rock and this trick is just getting them to inter-temporally substitute their listening.  They listen more now, less later.  Why is that good for the station?

I think the answer has to do with the convex value of advertising.  Advertisers’ willingness to pay increases more than proportionally with the size of the audience.  This is due to “bandwagon” and “water cooler” effects.  (Michael Chwe has a paper about this.)  With that in mind the station would prefer everyone listen this week and nobody listen next week rather than half and half.

You can see the whole list (up to now) here.