The Survey "Skinny"...How'd they get the numbers?

Researched by Mike Riccio (WABC MusicRadio 77 "Survey Guy").

In response to the many and continuous questions of how the WABC weekly surveys were compiled, I've come up with the following explanations based on several sources and as much confirmation as possible. The sources include my own correspondence and conversations in the 60's and 70's with former Program Director Rick Sklar, newspaper articles throughout the years, conversations with participating reporting store managers/owners, my fellow "Survey Guys", and e mail correspondence with former WABC air personality Johnny Donovan and former Program Director Glenn Morgan confirming the existing information and adding new information.

WABC used a "base" of 500 local stores to call for their weekly top selling songs. These stores were located primarily throughout New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey. Although the base of stores to choose from through the 1960's was 500, this base dwindled to just 125 by the mid to late 1970's. 75 stores from the base list were called each week and each store was asked to rank their top 30 hits. These stores were chosen randomly each week so as to diminish the chances of false reports and hype. Usually the same person at the store was contacted. That way, they anticipated the call and were ready with the information, saving them and WABC time.

In addition, since Rick was so familiar with the problems of the 1950's payola scandals at WINS/WMGM, etc., each call to each store was tape recorded with beeps to put the person at the store on notice that WABC was taking what they considered to be legal documentation and that the reporting store should not hype a song's popularity. The tapes were then stored as evidence of the survey's accuracy.

These calls were made every Monday (except holidays, when they were made on Tuesdays) all day long. As Glenn Morgan recalls, "Rick's secretary, Lynn Lotkowitz, and then my secretary, Phyllis Brusca, helped Sonia (Jones, Music Director) with computations. Since calls & computations were done in one day, it was a lot of work for one person. Actually, I did the survey myself a couple of times just to get a feel for it. Remember, this was the days before we had computers at WABC and didn't have spread sheet programs."

In what would seem an interesting twist on the rather standard "reverse-point" system of giving #30 one point, #29 two points, etc. to giving #1 thirty points, and then tallying the amount of points with the song with the most points being #1, WABC did not assign points to each song per se. The stores reported song rankings of #1 through #30. At the end of the day, each song's ranked numbers were simply added up (for example, a song that received ten #1 points, ten #2 points, six #4 points and three #10 points would get a total of 10x1 plus 10x2 plus 6x4 plus 3x10 points or 84 points from a total of 29 stores). This number was then divided by the number of stores involved. Then the song with the LOWEST total average from the MOST stores was #1. Second lowest from the most stores was #2, etc. Although song positions were calculated through #100 in the 1960's, by the late 1970's the rankings would stop considerably higher (usually between #30 and #40), since it was considered a waste of time to rank songs all the way to #100 time when they would not be played as part of a survey anyway.

In considering which songs would make the actual on-air playlist, the only "automatics" throughout the 1960's and 1970's were songs on the Top 14 (with some rare exceptions). Also, note that for much of the 1960's, the top 20 songs were the "automatic" adds.

Again, Glenn Morgan's explanation of the "Under #14's (or #20's) that were added:

"Songs showing up high on our local store survey, say the top 20, were considered if we were not already playing them. Frequently we waited a few weeks before adding such a song to avoid the possibility of being hyped by the stores. By rotating stores, hype would probably be flushed out in time, and it would (be difficult) for a record company to pay off stores to hype us.

"When looking at our local store survey, we looked at not just the composite chart position on our survey, but also the number of stores reporting the song. That way we could also safeguard against high position hypes by a small percentage of stores, or a song that seemed not to be making it yet across our broad geographic and demographic audience.

"Songs that were coming up high on national charts but not on our survey were (also) considered. Once a song reached maybe Top 30 nationally, we'd consider it. We looked at how long it had been on the national charts, what its history of movement had been up and down the charts, and how many points it had jumped up from the previous week. We looked at Cashbox, Record World, Billboard, and Radio & Records (once that one came on the scene). No other national charts/trades were used because Rick felt they were subject to hype and/or payola ("Friday Morning Quarter Back", for example), or were based on personal opinion, (i.e. "The Gavin Report" even though it was well respected by many stations). A record had to be ranked high (top 30) in all the trades we looked at to be considered."

As far as other adds, new releases were reviewed by Sonia and the program director to decide which ones merited consideration by the music committee (I'll explain the committee in a minute). For brand new releases with no chart activity, only established artists were even considered, with rare exceptions.

Outside of Beatles and Monkees cuts, LP songs were generally not played until the 1970's. Then, WABC would use WPLJ's survey of stores. (There was only a brief period when WABC added
LP cuts that were not released as singles.) The WPLJ information was considered more important than the national charts because it, like the singles survey, reflected what was happening locally.

Glenn remembers it as follows: "Rankings in national trades were checked (especially in "Radio & Records, which listed the sides getting airplay), but these were not relied upon. Instead, we gave the cuts played on WPLJ the most consideration. Overall, very few album cuts were ever added, just a few for spice and image, and even they had to have a "commercial" sound with melodies and hooks that we felt could have been hit singles, something that would sound like other music on WABC."

"Music committee" meetings were held at 10 AM every Tuesday in the PD's office. Rick Sklar chaired these meetings through 1975. From 1975 to 1977, Glenn Morgan chaired the meetings on the weeks when Rick was out of town as Operations Manager. Then from 1977 to late June 1979 when he left the PD position, Glenn chaired the meetings exclusively.

In another unusual (and brilliant) way of thinking, the "music committee" rarely had DJs present. Rick wanted them insulated from music selection so that they could not be subjected to even the slightest suggestion of payola. Usually the committee consisted of Rick and or Glenn, Sonia Jones, any available WABC secretaries and various station executives who were around and interested. On average, about seven people were present. (As a side note, on many of the surveys at our WABC MusicRadio site in the mid-70's, say 1976 and 1977, there are memos included that list the actual people who attended these meetings. Follow the links on the main page to get to these surveys.)

All the research and statistical standings were written on the sleeves of the 45 RPM records and were read to the committee. After hearing about the research statistics, the songs under consideration would be played for approximately 45 seconds or so, and a vote by a show of hands was taken as to whether to add the song or not.. The vote was based on whether the research indicated it was a safe bet the song would become a hit, and whether it had a sound that was right for WABC. Songs with objectionable themes and lyrics were automatically rejected

In addition, WABC looked at the latest research to determine if any songs on the current playlist needed to be dropped completely because they were falling back down on the survey. Songs that were dropped but had been on the survey long enough went into "New Gold", and then to the permanent gold library. To be eligible for the "gold" category, a song generally needed to be charted for eight weeks. Songs were played as "New Gold" for five weeks before going to the permanent library. Tuesday was widely anticipated by listeners and came to be known as "New Survey Day". The new survey would premiere on "The Dan Ingram Show" in the afternoon. Dan played it in random order. It was counted down in order on Tuesday evening, originally by Scott Muni, and then subsequently by Cousin Bruce Morrow, George Michael, and other evening DJs. By the later years, WABC did a Sunday morning countdown.

I asked Glenn Morgan why WABC played new songs that were being considered for airplay for only 45 seconds or so. The answer shows the difference between Sklar's thinking and the "testing" done today, and it's a world of difference. Glenn explains: "Listening to records for only 45 seconds or so shows how research ruled the (WABC) playlist. When you think about it, that's probably more time than a listener would give a song before punching the button on their car radio if they didn't like it. We did the same thing with DJ audition tapes, except more so. If the demo didn't grab us in ten seconds, off went the tape along with a "friendly reject" form letter."

In other words, WABC always put the statistical research first. Once a song earned it's stripes moving up the charts or showing initial potential, then it was presented to the sampling of people in the music meetings to see which of the possible adds grabbed the listener's attention in the first minute or so.

By the 1980's, different programming minds took over WABC and as the sound grew "softer", the survey numbers became less reliable and less accurate. In the last few months of music, many survey slots were completely eliminated from the survey. In many cases the #1 song was not even played.

But for the years prior to the end, it all added up to what is generally regarded in music, radio and survey circles as one of the most accurate, if not THE most accurate, charts throughout the 1960's and the 1970's.

Mike Riccio (WABC MusicRadio "Survey Guy")

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