THINK TANK: What is Hit / Non-Hit?
Sitting around the Frontside office recently, the topic of the old CRTC hit/non-hit regulation came up, and more specifically, the question of what it actually was and why it still exists for a select few stations across the country.
But first, let’s get a little history lesson happening on FM radio and how the current situation came to be.
In 1973, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission floated out the proposal that English-language commercial FM stations should be distinctive from what was being offered on AM. After what, one would have to assume, would be much bureaucratic wrangling, new policies were finally announced in January 1975 that would ultimately change the way FM stations were allowed to operate starting that September.
Some of the new rules that Program Directors and Music Directors had to take into consideration were:
— maximum repeat factor (non-Canadian material couldn’t be repeated more than 18-times per week)
— distinct selections (stations needed to air a minimum of 850 different songs each week)
— spoken word content (depending on condition of licence, anywhere from 6 – 12% of broadcast time needed to fall within realm of “Enrichment”, with was officially described as “research and documentation of current and past events, including sports, instruction and information concerning leisure interests, human interest information and creative uses of language”.)
— foreground programming (depending on condition of licence, anywhere from 9 – 15% of broadcast day devoted to the presentation of programming relating to one theme, subject or personality of at least 15-minutes in length without interruption)
— mosaic programming (segments not qualifying as “foreground” but that contain at least 30-seconds of material from the enrichment category)
— a limit on the number of advertising minutes (a maximum of 1,050 per week)
— a minimum of 30-minutes of commercial-free community access time each week
— a prohibition on program simulcasting from a sister AM station
— the inability to change formats without first undergoing a lengthy application process.
The CRTC also implemented the hit/non-hit regulation, which limited the airplay of songs that were recognized as “hits”, i.e., songs that had landed within the Top 40 positions of an officially recognized chart. By having to play at least 51% non-hit material, it was virtually impossible for CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) to exist on FM, leaving this format to remain exclusively on the AM band, a situation many perceived as protectionist and designed primarily for the benefit of the owners of the then-dominate AM stations which ruled each market.
During those first years of hit/non-hit, the MD’s job was rather involved, as they’d have to scour the weekly official trade publications, update their files with any new chart rankings, re-categorize songs that had now achieved hit status and then relabel or re-code album covers / 45 sleeves / audio carts to indicate the newly revised status of the songs in question.
Keep in mind, this was all being done in the age before computers and music-scheduling software like Selector or MusicMaster. Using file cards, typed lists of their music universe and countless pencils & erasers, MD’s did everything manually, calculating and adjusting their various rotation categories in an effort to keep the hits under 49% (along with keeping the distinct selection and can-con numbers straight, too).
For many stations, once a song crossed into the Top 40 and became a hit, they’d need to re-evaluate it carefully. If it looked like the track was going to become a major hit, they’d keep it in rotation but would need to drop something else off the playlist entirely in order to keep the ratios balanced. In those situations where that freshly-minted hit looked like it wouldn’t rise very far in the charts, there was a good chance the MD would just quit playing it outright, as it’d be easier to do that then spend time rejigging the playlist, though there was always the possibility it could be re-added in the future if the song became something the station justifiably needed to play.
As a side note — one way to help provide context for the non-hit material was through the foreground requirements, those programming blocks where songs had to be linked together in some way, such as cover songs of the 1960’s, songs about the weather, songs that influenced such-and-such artist, the “B”-sides of so-and-so’s biggest hits, and so on. This was where the on-air jocks really had to make use of whatever music knowledge they had, tying all the elements together into a cohesive package that was not only interesting for the listeners, but also satisfied the CRTC requirements. The task of coming up with all those foreground subjects was eased a little bit each week thanks to nationally syndicated shows, such as “Discumentary”, which was hosted by Dave McCormick and Terry David Mulligan.
Beginning in September 1991, the CRTC gave the FM regulations a major overhaul — revising how it categorized station music formats, eliminating foreground and mosaic requirements, increasing allowable commercial time to 15% of the broadcast week, and revamping the interpretation of hit/non-hit to exclude Canadian songs for a 12-month period after their first Top 40 chart appearance. This change meant that stations could at least play some hits for an extra year before reclassifying them, allowing them to appear – at least sonically – more contemporary than they had in the past.
More revisions to the hit/non-hit regs came in May 1997, when the CRTC officially stated that “A hit is any selection that, up to and including 31 December 1980, reached one of the Top 40 positions in the charts used by the Commission to determine hits. All other selections will be considered as non-hits for purposes of determining compliance with a station’s Promise of Performance.” With these new regulations, every song from January 1, 1981 onwards was now classified as a non-hit, which opened the doors for the CHR format to explode onto FM, as they could now play all the contemporary music they wanted because all new releases would be considered non-hits, whether they hit Top 40 or not. Remember, FM’s needed a minimum of 51% non-hit, so under those new guidelines, they could roll with 100% non-hit and be in full compliance with their license conditions.
Then in February 2009, the commission eliminated the policy completely, getting rid of the restrictions regarding the playing of hits on English-language commercial FM stations in Canada. Everywhere, except in Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau.
The CRTC’s reasoning behind this continuation of the regulation in those two markets was primarily to help maintain the linguistic duality there. Studies done between 2003 & 2007 showed that French music stations experienced a decrease in listenership, so as a way to offer a form of protection to those French outlets, all English-language music stations in the two markets have to abide by the old hit/non-hit rule, the one in which a hit is defined as “any musical selection that, at any time, has reached the Top 40 on any of the officially recognized charts”. As the French would say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
This regulation certainly does add an extra layer of complexity to the MD’s job in those markets, but if you spend some time and listen to Ottawa’s Hot 89.9 or Jump! 106.9, or Montreal’s The Beat or Virgin, you’ll hear stations that have not only found a way to accommodate the CRTC’s mandate (by providing leading edge support for new artists / songs / music styles / genres that are still at the non-hit stage), they are creating great sounding radio because of it.