Top 40 radio is back on top

[8 October 2009]

By Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

We don’t know yet whether Lady Gaga is the Sylvia of 2009, destined to be remembered only when today’s listeners play dinner-party trivia games asking for the names of her Top 40 hits.

But we do know, without looking it up, that Sylvia sang “Pillow Talk” and that Ms. Gaga represents a musical genre — the Top 40 — that is once again drawing attention for its diversity, its ubiquity and its cultural stickiness.

Radio stations that play what’s most popular are on the upswing, even as the charts are growing musically diverse again, a sort of long-distance dedication to the similarly inclusive 1970s golden era of Top 40.

This past summer has seen records set for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 by a single artist (Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling”) and most consecutive weeks for one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours”).

Meanwhile, Casey Kasem, the link between countdowns past and present, retired during the summer from the specialty countdown shows he was still emceeing. Ryan Seacrest is the “American Top 40” host today’s target audience of teens and young adults will remember.

The Top 40 has never gone away, of course. By definition, it reflects what’s popular, and something always is popular, whether you like it or not.

“You play the hits. You play ‘em to death. A lot of people object to that, but the masses listen to it,” says B. Eric Rhoads, publisher of Radio Ink, a radio industry trade publication.

“We’ve done loads and loads of research over the years. You’d go into a focus group, someone would say, ‘You play the music too frequently and I’m sick of it.’ And yet when you create a format that does exactly what they say they want, they won’t listen to it. What’s magical about the Top 40 format is it’s kind of contrary to what people say they want, but it always works.”

But beyond the general criticism of Top 40 — that it represents what’s easy, comfortable and familiar, rather than what’s going to move music forward — there have been periods in recent decades when the record charts turned off significant portions of the populace by being too thick with boy bands, rappers or chest-pounding Canadian divas.

Today’s Top 40, by contrast, is a musical masala, mixing rock, country, hip-hop and commercial balladry, a close analog to how it was in the 1970s heyday.

Is it embarrassingly overburdened by the use of Auto-Tune vocal processing? Yes. Do the rock and rap tunes lean toward the bubble gum side of those genres? Of course.

But the top 10 alone for the week of Oct. 10 features the Peas, a hip-hop group; Miley Cyrus, a Disney product; Gaga, a dance chanteuse/performance artist; Taylor Swift, a country singer; Mariah Carey, a veteran balladeer; and Kings of Leon, a rock band.

The only thing missing is a flat-out novelty song. Who will step up and serve as the Ray Stevens (“The Streak”) of the new millennium?

“It’s a broad range of music, just like the ‘70s,” says Sean “Hollywood” Hamilton, who hosts radio shows in New York and Los Angeles and the syndicated “Weekend Top 30” countdown.

“We’re very bullish on Top 40 right now,” says Julie Talbott, executive vice president of affiliate marketing for Premiere Radio, syndicator of “American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest” and scads of other talk and music programs.

“From (ratings) book to book, we’ve seen sizable increases, sometimes up to 17 percent” for Top 40 formats, Talbott says. “Within specific markets, we’re seeing room for additional Top 40 stations.“InsideRadio.com lists 944 U.S. stations playing Top 40 or the similar Hot Adult Contemporary formats as of September, up from 879 a year earlier.

We could debate quality, contend that the Black Eyed Peas aren’t Gladys Knight and Kings of Leon aren’t Lynyrd Skynyrd. But then we’d have to admit that adults of the 1970s probably said Knight and Skynyrd didn’t measure up to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.

“It’s actually probably in the best, most cohesive shape it’s been in in 10 years,” says radio consultant Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Research.

“There is probably a ton of virally generated music that Top 40 programmers know nothing about. But those kids (listening to those songs) have self-selected themselves out of the radio audience, and the kids who are left are the ones who are happy to listen to Pink and Kelly Clarkson with their moms.”

Apple Inc. has played a prominent role in the re-emergence of a more broad-based pop universe, partly because digital music buyers pay for singles rather than albums, partly because a mass, digital marketplace is a counterweight to radio’s tendency to follow industry fads as much as fan taste.

“When we began including digital downloads in early 2005, it reinvigorated the charts like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts for Billboard. “Once we introduced downloads, the consumer voice once again became a huge part of the chart.”

Ross agrees and adds the TV-and-music juggernaut “American Idol” to the list of major influencers.

“Idol” launched hit-makers with crossover appeal, he says. He cites “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” a single from a 2004 record, as a key moment: “That helped make it much more of a pop world, in terms of being the first record in a while that other formats were jealous of,” Ross says.

Another significant hit this summer, Ross contends, was “Boom Boom Pow.” “It represents what’s happening in terms of dance music and R&B and pop converging,” he says.

At WXLC-FM in Lake County, Ill., north of Chicago, the format is the sort of adult Top 40, known in the industry as “Hot AC” or “Modern AC.”

The difference, says program director Haynes Johns, is that his station targets people 21 and older, while pure Top 40 radio includes teenagers as well.

“My analogy would be, ‘It’s like an amoeba,’” Johns says. “It’s always changing depending on the product that’s out there.”

By skewing more to adults, the station has more options to pick and choose from, but he says positive music is doing particularly well these days.

“People are looking for something to take their mind off their troubles,” Johns says. ” ‘Now that you mention it’” — referring to the Black Eyed Peas’ party anthem “I Gotta Feeling” — ” ‘I am going to have a good time tonight.’ Remember when ‘Celebration’ came out from Kool & The Gang? We couldn’t play it enough.”

WDVD-FM in Detroit has been successful with a similar format, morning man Blaine Fowler says. A lot has changed about the music business, he says: “My kids are 13 and 11, and I think between the two of them, they own three CDs. They buy songs instead of albums.”

But one thing remains true: “You’ve still got to play the hits.”

And there is, in radio, one other enduring truth to consider: What’s working now probably won’t a few years from now. And we’ll all be wondering, “What has happened to the Top 40?”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/112858-top-40-radio-is-back-on-top/