What We Learned About ‘Bruno’

Encanto Soundtrack We Don't Talk About BrunoIn January, as program directors grappled with Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” Matt Kelly, PD/afternoon host of WVAQ Morgantown, W. Va., opened the phone and text lines to let listeners decide if they wanted to hear it on the radio. Kelly had a plan if they voted no. He was going to say, “I guess people are already sick of it from their kids.” Then he was going to play “Baby Shark.”

Instead, “Bruno” was easily voted onto the WVAQ airwaves; then the issue became how to play it. Last week, “Bruno” peaked at No. 24 in Mainstream Top 40 airplay, according to BDSradio. In between, it became emblematic of programmers struggling to translate a streaming story into a “radio record.” “Bruno” will be a key topic in consultant Guy Zapoleon’s upcoming session at the virtual All Access Audio Summit 2022, taking place April 21-22. “I don’t know any song that is as egregious a miss now,” he says. 

Even as “Bruno” peaks, some stations are still having success with it. KDHT (Hits 95.7) Denver played it 82x last week. WBZZ (Star 100.7) Pittsburgh had it at 68x while Hot AC rival WLTJ (Q92.9) had it at 44x. In Buffalo, Top 40 WKSE (Kiss 98.5) played “Bruno” 44x a week, while WTSS (Star 102.5) was at 37x. KFTZ Idaho Falls, one of the CHRs most responsive on streaming stories, had it in power and has passed 1,000 spins. Zapoleon also notes “Bruno” is now the No. 2 current song in RateTheMusic’s Top 40 research. 

What have we learned from “Bruno” about how to handle the next phenomenal outlier?

It’s not a hit until it’s a hit on radio. When a song is No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks, it’s fair to wonder if we have reached the point where radio can be completely circumvented. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was clearly phenomenal, but had it reached the point where it had already become, say, “Uptown Funk” without airplay? For all its issues over the years, callout has been pretty good at confirming the consensus hits — the songs that everybody knows and likes. Was “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” already that?

Based on the station callout I’m aware of, “Bruno” did not arrive atop radio research as an already fully formed hit, ready for power rotation, but hiding in plain sight from radio. It is a continued vote of confidence for radio that Walt Disney chose to pursue airplay for “Bruno,” just as it was when Interscope took not just “Driver’s License” to radio but three more Olivia Rodrigo singles. But radio can’t make a fully formed hit without streaming either. Based on the slow turnover of songs in CHR’s power rotation, even the combination of streaming and airplay isn’t yielding enough “Uptown Funk”-level hits.

Radio moved faster, but not fast enough. When Disney’s Frozen was phenomenal, radio finally acknowledged “Let It Go” after listeners’ kids had made it “the song I turn on the radio to escape.” Researcher Matt Bailey has written about this, and at Edison Research, I certainly experienced something comparable. “Bruno” was not yet at that point when airplay finally began, but Zapoleon says that listeners who already knew the song still showed burn before others could discover it.  

In general, radio has become more responsive to reaction records, in part because of its willingness to acknowledge streaming stories. I’ve said in the past that radio makes the mistake of expecting streaming outliers to research and “radio records” to stream — leaving it with nothing to play. Blackbear’s “Hot Girl Bummer,” essentially a comedy routine set to music, incredibly needed six months to reach No. 2 at CHR radio. Two years later, radio quickly committed to Gayle’s similar “abcdefu.” That song reached No. 1 and has now run its course in less time than Blackbear needed to peak. The Gayle song is not showing the callout durability of “Stay” or “Heat Waves,” but why should it?

KFTZ and hot AC KIOI (Star 101.3) San Francisco began playing “Bruno” on Jan. 13, according to BDSradio. If other stations had moved with the same dispatch they showed for “abcdefu,” “Bruno” would have been more of an event for radio. Like “abcdefu,” callout would have been a better tool for deciding when to take “Bruno” off the radio, rather than when to put it on. 

At Country Radio Seminar, it was repeatedly suggested that radio’s job now was not to break music, but to be “the finisher” — the final runner in the relay, as consultant John Shomby put it. I want more than that for radio. But it is possible to say now that callout’s job is to be “the finisher” — perhaps a better arbiter of “power recurrent” than power rotation.

There are a lot of streaming stories to triage. As non-radio stories have proliferated over the years, radio has a long history of not seizing the moment. Radio is far more willing to consider outliers now, but many more left-field songs are having a moment. Even as the person who encouraged radio to play the “Ted Lasso Theme,” it isn’t hard to see why it was hard to commit to “Bruno” at the right moment.

When I first heard “Bruno” on the radio, it was in SiriusXM’s TikTok Radio’s Trending Top 10 for Jan. 7. So was Encanto’s “The Family Madrigal,” even more of a plot song than “Bruno.” In his analysis, Chris Molanphy speculates on whether streaming would have allowed Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” to become a hit, not just the radio-friendly Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson title track. This was like having “Belle” in contention as well.

In the same week that “Bruno” surfaced, the Trending Top 10 also included “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” “Thank You for Being a Friend” (because of the recent death of Betty White), a 25-year-old Miami bass record, Three 6 Mafia, and Caroline Polachek’s “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” a quirky pop song that I would have liked to have more of a radio breakthrough. So where to start? 

Radio is triaging a lot of streaming stories. The No. 1 song on the Trending 10 for the last three weeks is Pharrell Williams’ nine-year-old “Just a Cloud Away,” which Top 40 radio quickly acknowledged, perhaps as a makegood for “Bruno.” The most-played songs on SXM TikTok Radio include a lot of radio records: “As It Was,” “Numb Little Bug,” “Boyfriend,” “Sweetest Pie,” and Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch” (which, interestingly, has moved into power at TikTok Radio just as it loses altitude at Mainstream Top 40). For his part, Zapoleon does not think that there’s a “Bruno”-level oversight at the moment.

That said, I wonder why Nicky Youre & Daizy’s “Sunroof” — an uptempo pop song that does sound like a radio record — has not made it to Top 40 radio yet. Or the next Disney tie-in, the much-less-plot-specific “Nobody Like You” by 4*Town. (For that matter, there was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Running Out of Time” from Vivo, which made the Trending 10 in November and sounded like ’90s freestyle.) I might have also given “My Name Is” by D Billions to the morning show to play by now.

More Stories, But Not More Problems. On one hand, SiriusXM TikTok Radio exists because Top 40 cannot and should not know what to do with a random Keith Whitley or Nico record being propelled briefly back into pop culture for a week or two. I’ve seen iHeart’s Bob Pittman compare TikTok to MTV under his watch, creating mass exposure for a lot of songs, some of which will be ratified by radio. Even in spring ’83, when MTV was powering Top 40 radio’s resurgence, you can look at a playlist and realize how many of its hits did not become radio hits for cause.

Radio, in most of its current-based formats, has many issues, but in particular it has an inventory problem. If radio were a record store, it would ideally have an upfront display of hits and a well-maintained new-release bin. TikTok has no inventory problem, but we cannot count on it to fill radio’s new-release bin; that should still depend on programmer enterprise. TikTok’s job is not to find radio records. But we should add an “as seen on TikTok” endcap, and that one needs to be updated constantly to be credible.

This story first appeared on radioinsight.com