- Danielle Pearce
For over 20 years, Tom Poleman has tried each year to figure out what the song of the summer will be.
Poleman is the head of programming for iHeartMedia, the radio giant that operates more than 850 stations, including New York’s Z100, where Poleman has had a hand in the day-to-day music decisions since 1996.
Poleman began his foray into radio in the ’80s, when he worked for his college radio station at Cornell. And he says one of his favorite things has been trying to identify what that timeless hit of the year was going to be.
What makes a song of the summer?
“Being upbeat and fun is part of it,” Poleman says. “It does resonate … Tempo songs tend to do great. Reggae tends to cut through in the summertime.” He points to last year’s “Cheerleader” by Omi as an example.
But it doesn’t have to be infused with reggae.
“Any song that is particularly infectious and connects with somebody emotionally” has a shot, he says. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” isn’t a reggae song, he continues, but it sticks with you.”If you asked me a to pick a summer song right now, I’d absolutely pick [JT’s] ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’,” Poleman says.
On-demand streaming services like Spotify have transformed the music industry in recent years, sending shockwaves through the market for digital downloads. And these companies, along with the internet radio pioneer Pandora, have invested in the ability to provide personalized, radiolike experiences that could be seen as a threat to traditional radio.
Spotify, in particular, scored a runaway hit with its “Discover Weekly,” a playlist that uses artificial intelligence to pick new songs you’ll like every week. Many people (including me) swear by it.
But Poleman thinks both can succeed.
“Radio is social, first and foremost,” Poleman says.
People have time they want to feel connected to the world, to what’s hot, Poleman explains. They also have times when they want their exact tastes to be served up to them. Poleman thinks there’s room for both pop radio and the ultra-personalized. (And iHeartMedia has a foot in both camps with its iHeartRadio streaming service, though it is known more for radio.)
And radio shines in the summer, he says.
“People are outside, out of the home, heading down to the Jersey Shore,” he says. You want to be able to sing out the lyrics to the latest pop hit on the dance floor.
Choosing the summer songs
“There’s a lot more science behind [programming for the radio] than people think,” Poleman says. “You would be amazed at the spreadsheets that we look at every music meeting.”
Poleman and his team pull data from a wide variety of sources – from digital sales to “thumbs ups” in streaming apps to a tactic called “hit predictor.”
“Hit predictor” is when Poleman’s team gets a sample of listeners and has them listen to a new song over and over again, at least 20 times in its entirety, and then asks them about it – “could you see this being a hit?” One example of a song that crushed it in “hit predictor” was Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore.”
“It had one of the highest scores I’ve ever seen,” Poleman says.
But it’s not going to be the song of the summer. (It was released in January.)
Here are the ones Poleman says have a shot, from lowest to highest likelihood: