The Elusive Foco Playlist: An Investigation

by Maggie Doyle | 2/20/19 2:30am

It was a Sunday around 8 p.m., and I was walking out of the Class of 1953 Commons, the dining hall known to Dartmouth students as “Foco,” with a friend after a warm dinner. As we were about to step outside, she paused and exclaimed, “Oh my God, what?! They’re playing ‘Colder Weather.’ Why is the Foco playlist going to make me cry?” 

Though an emotional country song from 2010 should seem to be an odd choice for dining hall background music, in ’53 Commons’ case, it’s hardly surprising. Aside from its world-famous cookies, the dining hall is most known across campus for its eclectic background music. 

“You know how every music service tries to make you a daily mix? Foco does it better,” Anais Berumen Swift ’22 said. The dining hall daringly mixes ’80s music with R&B, early 2000s pop with country; its music taste crosscuts too many genres to possibly be a radio station, which has led to the widespread supposition that ’53 Commons must have a playlist. It’s an assumption we take for granted, yet it is one that remains engrained in the minds of all Dartmouth students. I’ve heard many references to the elusive “Foco playlist,” such as the guy in the omelet line behind me this weekend who yelled “Yo, the Foco playlist is poppin’ right now!” when “Fireflies” by Owl City came on. 

Shockingly, according to Jon Plodzik, Director of Dartmouth Dining, the Foco playlist ­— a pillar of ’53 Commons’ appeal — is a sham. 

“While I wish I was spinning the tunes, it is a service we use by Mood Music,” Plodzik said. (I have since discovered the service is actually called Mood Media.)

Foco uses the service’s “Mood Mix,” which allows businesses to “fine-tune their soundtrack.” According to their website, Mood Media provides in-store music and integrated audio and video marketing solutions. They specialize in perfecting the atmosphere of a place, from music to scent.

Jennifer Nakhla, who manages customer service at ’53 Commons, directly oversees the music selection as the systems manager. She told me she was there when the dining hall’s music system was installed two years ago over spring break and confirmed that the playlist is a myth. 

“[Our music] is streamed — essentially, we don’t curate the playlist, it’s based on genres,” Nakhla said. She elaborated that ’53 Commons’ oddly heterogenous music taste is, in fact, rooted in their subscription to a number of different genres. 

“We subscribe to 10 genres, and we can rotate them. We can choose between channels, and one of our channels is dedicated to rotations,” she said. 

The pre-designed Mood Media genres cover a wide range of musical inclinations. Some genres ’53 Commons subscribes to are very straightforward, such as “Nashville USA”, the country station, while others are less self-explanatory, like “Earthtones,” a station described as “global acoustic.” 

Dartmouth Dining Services also subscribes to a number of era-based genres, such as ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Other stations include “Adult Contemporary”, Rock, Blues, “Hitline” — which is essentially today’s top hits — and “Concrete Beats,” which is a hip-hop, rap and R&B station. 

Nakhla has a predetermined music schedule for the rest of the term, which incorporates different genres at different times of the day and year. For example, ’53 Commons plays the “Earthtones” station during finals season for a more relaxed vibe. She also tries “not to play music that’s too heavy in the morning” and tends to stick to the ’70s or ’80s channels then. 

“People aren’t necessarily the most awake at breakfast,” Nakhla said. 

At a typical ’53 Commons dinner, what you’re probably hearing is the “Hitline” playlist, because they try to play more upbeat music later in the day. 

However, most of the time, ’53 Commons uses Mood Media’s rotation channel. This feature plays a genre for two or three hours at a time and then switches. Songs are shuffled within each genre, and Mood Media assigns different songs to different genres. 

“Genres shuffle themselves, and then I can shuffle the genres,” Nakhla said. This feature allows for a wide variety of tastes to be incorporated, while also ensuring that the Dartmouth Dining Services workers aren’t repeatedly subjected to the same songs, hour after hour, day in and day out.

As a user of Mood Media’s services, Dartmouth Dining does have the power to block certain songs. Nakhla said the stations are all radio edit appropriate, but she’s used the blocking feature for other reasons. 

“There was one song that we blocked by Cyndi Lauper because it was playing a lot, and it doesn’t actually have any words,” Nakhla said. “It was starting to grate on people.” 

Unfortunately, because they use a streaming service, ’53 Commons can’t actually take song recommendations. However, Nakhla does like to take student perspective into account. 

“Every couple terms I run the thought box with the question, ‘What’s your favorite music genre?’” Students can put in slips of paper with their preferred genres, and ’53 Commons does take that into account in both the music schedule and choosing what Mood Media genres to subscribe to. Nakhla says she often receives song requests from students who don’t understand the streaming service. However, she does try to incorporate more ’80s, rap, R&B and hip-hop music based on student feedback.

As much as Dartmouth students would love to follow ’53 Commons on Spotify, it doesn’t seem our dreams will come true anytime soon. 

“[The streaming service] does what we need it to,” Nakhla said. “There’s not control to select a song but is that something we need?” She elaborated that they’ve been satisfied with Mood Media and that the music isn’t designed to be the main attraction, but simply an ambiance measure. “It’s noise cancelling … you may think it’s adding noise, but when you’re having a conversation, it dies down the overall noise in the room,” Nakhla said.