Perhaps the song that got to you was “Mmm Bop,” those high-pitched words washing over for the first time in like 20 years as you punched your order for a turkey Shorti. Or maybe it was Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” Everyone at the 21st and Hamilton Wawa was feeling that one the other day.
Lately at Wawa, memorable music has been as consistent as the coffee and for good reason. The stores’ playlists are not put together by a manager or some employee who won’t stop talking about the Smiths and his extensive vinyl collection. It’s put together by professionals at Music Technologies International (MTI). For the last three years or so, the convenience store giant has tasked them with creating the music that makes you feel like you’re in a Wawa, which is basically the right mix of hits — current and nostalgic.
“(We want), ‘I love that song and hadn’t thought about it in a while.’ Similar to the hot turkey being back,” said Steven Gamble, Wawa’s marketing services manager. “But also songs you’d expect to have because they’re on the radio and you expect to hear them. Like you expect to get a good hoagie.”
The Wawa playlist, as described by Gamble, is upbeat. Songs you know the words to. New music but also music that goes back to the ’60s. And importantly, very few ballads.
“That’s really not the energy that happens in a Wawa,” he said.
A few years ago, Wawa music had yet to reach this level of sublime. The convenience store chain had a deal with Muzak, which created dozens of playlists based on genres. Some were as specific as ’60s classic rock. Given locations could shift between these stations as they pleased. The result was a different feel in different stores and at the same store a different feel at different times of the day.
Now, every store has the same playlist that features about 1,000 songs. It is updated every week or two, with some (but not all) songs being replaced. And every store cultivates the same atmosphere. Wawa wants that atmosphere to appeal to everyone. Given the many types of people who visit Wawa and the different things people do at Wawa, that’s not always easy to do.
“If it’s part of a road trip and you’re driving for four hours and stopping at Wawa,” Gamble said, “there’s a different song playing in your head versus if you’re in at 6 a.m. getting coffee.”
It has been MTI’s job to curate songs that bridge both of those scenarios and more. Bradley Golden, CEO of the company, said programmers who usually have extensive histories in radio broadcasting create the playlist. About once a year, they come up with the songs, using a “science and art” approach drawing from their expertise, Billboard charts and other reference tools. Once they have about two hours worth of music they bring it to Wawa and see if people like Gamble approve. If so, they’ll create the rest of the playlist and update it every week or two, also seeking the approval of Wawa for any of the new songs.
Golden said his company thinks not only about the good of the customers but also the employees. Omi’s “Cheerleader” might sound perfect while you’re filling gas but imagine if it came on five times during someone’s eight-hour shift.
“There’s only so many great songs,” Golden said. “We have to balance playing great, new songs with the repetition.”
Enter the timeless top 40 classics, which have proven to be the biggest hits. Last year, Amy Perlingiero started the Twitter @WawaBangers. She updates with favorite songs that she hears and with tweets from people who send her what they’re hearing .
Perlingiero goes to a Center City Wawa pretty much every morning for coffee before work. She started the account after noticing so many people’s reactions to the songs being played while she was there.
“Half the time the staff is singing,” Perlingiero said. “Sometimes they play songs you haven’t heard in a long time, and you’re like, ‘how did this come up?’
Recent songs highlighted by @WawaBangers include Haddaway’s“What Is Love,” No Doubt’s “Just A Girl,” and Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic.”
Neither Gamble nor Golden could come up with a song that they thought best represented Wawa. But Perlingiero thought of a couple. Janet Jackson’s “Escapade,” she noticed, seems to always get people pumped up. And her personal favorite is Scandal’s “Warrior.”
“I feel like that embodies the Wawa banger,” she said. “Very belting-out friendly.”