Any radio programmer whose involvement with Smooth Jazz dates back to the ‘80s and ‘90s can tell you. At one time or another, they’ve had to grapple with the thorny problem of Michael Franks--more precisely, what to do with the songs of Michael Franks.
First, let me give you some background. Programmers consider a number of factors when deciding whether or not to add a song to their rotation. When they can afford to do music research, they have access to test scores (popularity scores) on nearly every song in their library. Having research data is a huge advantage—I can speak to that.
Also, their thought process includes a healthy dose of programming instinct. That is, what does their gut say about that song? That includes weighing the merits of the artist himself or herself: how loyal a following the artist has; how well the artist enhances the image and texture of the station; how much equity the artist has in the Smooth Jazz format (how long has he or she has been part of the format); and what kind of response the artist usually receives from listeners in general (e.g., requests).
When you measure a song and the artist against those standards, about 90% of the time you can come to a quick decision. For most songs, there is an obvious lean in one direction or the other, yes or no.
Then we come to Michael Franks. Mr. “Popsicle Toes” has been a tough call since the beginning of the format in the late ‘80s. On the plus side, texturally, his music has always been right in the pocket for Smooth Jazz, especially in the early years of his career, when the cast of supporting musicians on his albums would include the likes of Joe Sample, David Sanborn and Lee Ritenour. He’s also firmly in the category of heritage artists of the format, thanks to his consistency and longevity. And I can tell you from experience that, if you don’t play a Michael Franks song every now and then, you’re going to hear it from his legion of loyal fans. To sum it up, there’s no question that he was meant for the Smooth Jazz format and it was meant for him.
On the negative side, and it’s a BIG negative side, there are few Smooth Jazz artists whose songs have fared worse in music research through the years than Mr. Franks. His songs don’t just perform poorly, they perform abysmally with Smooth Jazz enthusiasts overall. In the lowest 10% of all scores, usually, in music test after music test. If there’s a Mendoza Line for music test scores in Smooth Jazz, he falls short by more than one hundred base hits. In other words, from a programmer’s standpoint, you can’t even give his songs the benefit of the doubt when the scores are that low.
There’s never been a Smooth Jazz artist as polarizing as this. On the one hand, to my ears and to those of his many, many fans, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “The Lady Wants to Know,” “The Art of Love,” “Tiger in the Rain” and the dozens of other cleverly written, catchy songs Michael Franks has done through the years. I know several major Smooth Jazz programmers who agree with me. On the other, unfortunately for Michael, because of the extremes in how people react to his music reflected in the disparity between his seemingly natural compatibility with the format and his horrendous music test scores, it’s just too risky to play his music in regular rotation.
That’s why you never heard Michael’s music on WNUA, where there was significant corporate pressure to achieve high ratings. At WLFM it was a slightly different story. I felt that allowing Michael’s music to be played on “Dinner Party” and the “Smooth Jazz Sunday Brunch” was a fair compromise.
~Rick O’Dell (FmAm1@aol.com)
Our Smooth Video of the Day: One of Michael Franks’ earliest and still one of his best.