A Tale Of Three Stations


Top 40 radio is dead. Mainstream Top 40 is losing ground. The audience is changing.

The nay-sayers are out in force. Record companies are looking over the horizon for the next format. What will it be? Who will discover it? How will we deal with it? When will it happen?

Top 40 radio has been dad and buried countless times in the past three decades. The format has died and been replaced by…Top 40.

I submit to you (okay, maybe I’ve been watching too much of the O.J. trial) that it isn’t Top 40 that’s in trouble, but Top 40 programmers. To loosely quote Willie Shakespeare, it ain’t the message, it’s the messenger.

You don’t have to look any further than New York City to find the format alive and well. Three different radio stations, all within the definition of Top 40, are all succeeding. Why? Because each is programmed exceptionally and uniquely by people who know what they’re doing.

On a visit to the Big Apple last week, I as able to listen to all three during all dayparts and find something I liked. Evidently, I am not alone. Judging from the ratings, New York is tuning in consistently.

In the early 1980s, Scott Shannon went to work at a radio station in Secaucus, New Jersey. The station went dark, then turned back on as Z100. Many in the industry thought Scott was crazy. (Okay, many still do, but that’s another story). You see, at that time, Top 40 was dead. That was the second time the format had been listed in the obituary pages. When Scott turned on the “Flame Thrower,” there was no other Top 40 in New York. You remember, Disco was the format of the future…then.

It wasn’t long before Z100 was #1 and Top 40 was alive and well again. Disco disappeared in a micro-second and suddenly, Scott had not one, but three other competitors biting into the Top 40 audience that was supposedly nonexistent only months before.

After a long, successful run, Scott left the East Coast to work his brand of magic elsewhere. After a sojourn near the Pacific Ocean searching for a pirate, Scott returned to New York and took the reins of WPLJ, one of the stations that had jumped into the Top 40 format years before. Scott adjusted the format slightly and skewed the focus toward the available upper demos. WPLJ steadily increased its audience and ratings and today, it consistently ranks in the upper echelon of the sellable 25-54 demos.

Scott rebuilt a radio station to fit the needs of the available audience.

When Scott left Z100, Steve Kingston took over the formidable task: maintain Z100’s position as the dominant Top 40 station in New York.

For a while, it worked. Then, as the audience began changing (and the music with it), Steve was faced with a much bigger problem. What to do with Z100 to cope with the changes? For months, rumors swirled around the station and its people. When the sale to Shamrock was completed, many in the industry said Top 40 was dead, Kingston would leave and Z100 would change formats. Instead, Kingston stayed and redefined Z100 to take advantage of the changes in the audience. Kingston took a big gamble and began mixing an Alternative blend into Z100’s music and suddenly, the audience and the ratings began building again and today, the station is the definition of Top 40 with an Alternative blend.

Steve took advantage of what the market had to give and adjusted his radio station to reflect the wants and needs of the audience…still within the Top 40 format.

And then came Steve Smith. When Steve arrived in New York, many in the industry said that his brand of radio would never succeed because he didn’t know the New York audience and had never programmed in such a large market. The Crossover brand of to 40 wasn’t working and Smith wouldn’t be able to bring enough of the audience into his camp to make his radio station successful in the metropolis of New York City.

Steve refocused Hot 97, defining his core demographics and playing specifically to them. Almost overnight, Hot 97 increased its market share until it out-distanced the Top 40 competitors in the 12+ arena and became the #1 Top 40 station in New York.

As a sidebar (not as much O.J. as a publishing term), Emmis purchased WRKS late last year and put Steve in charge of programming a station that, until he too over, had been targeting basically the same audience as Hot 97. Many in the industry believed Smith couldn’t program both stations successfully without one suffering.

Readjusting both slightly, Smith positioned each toward a specific target within the overall demographic and scored big. In the latest ratings, Hot 97 moved 4.8 to 5.4 and WRKS jumped from a 3.8 to a 7.4.

What does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that “many in the industry” don’t have a clue. Most of those sitting on the sidelines making judgments about radio have no experience in the medium and are about as accurate in their predictions as those doing weather on your local channel.

In also tells us that good programming always finds a way. WPLJ, Z100, Hot 97 and WRKS can all be defined as Top 40 stations. All four stations are successful because each caters to a specific portion of the available audience. One does not beat the other in the classic sense. Each is successful in its own way.

Scott Shannon, Steve Kingston and “King Of The Hill” Steve Smith were not afraid to commit to their particular beliefs. Each had a different focus and idea. Each stepped forward without looking back. None listened to the conventional wisdom of “many in the industry.” Each came up with a specific plan designed for their radio station. They all win.

What’s their secret? All are different. But belief in one’s own ability makes these programmers winners.

And don’t tell me this phenomenon is specific only to New York. Somebody once said, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Is Top 40 on life support? Or are many Top 40 programmers simply brain dead?

Perhaps you should consult Doctors Shannon, Kingston and Smith for the answer.

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