Top 40


Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

With all due respect to whoever did that song, none of us has a clue.  If anyone did, that person would immediately be declared Queen or King and would be living in Maui.  And I wouldn’t have a thing to write about.

In the past few weeks, a couple of trade magazines have written articles about the future of music and radio.  I thought perhaps I should bring up the subject so the industry as a whole would be aware of it.

The number of Top 40 stations has been in a free-fall comparable to a Value Jet flight.  In the past decade, that number has gone from over 1,000 to just over 300.  Figures don’t lie.  The Top 40 format doesn’t seem to be the darling of the ’90s…at least not so far.  But before we hoist up the white flag and completely abandon ship, maybe we should look inside those numbers for the real story.

Quite simply, a lot of Top 40 radio stations are doing really well.  There are few examples of formats that can generate the numbers and dollars that a successful Mainstream Top 40 station can do.  When done well, and without a splintering from competing formats focusing on a piece of the pie, Top 40 out performs most others.

It is, however, an expensive format to run.  Just like being half-pregnant, one can’t operate a half-assed Mainstream Top 40 station.  You either do it well or run the risk of getting buried.

Unfortunately, some other factors influence the success of Mainstream Top 40.  Advertising agencies and station sales teams are not forcing cume numbers into the mix. Although cume is a consideration in most buys, it isn’t the main consideration.  In the case of Mainstream Top 40 stations, cume should be.  For the future of radio in general, and Mainstream Top 40 in particular, we should all begin to trumpet the glory of using and buying the big cume…especially when we have it.

Quarter-hour numbers are certainly important, but bringing more of the spotlight on those heavy cume numbers and how they can influence advertisers by generating sales is something we all need to concentrate on.

With the extreme examples of music being sampled by the Mainstream audience of today, Top 40 is sure to grow.  Different formats have narrowcasted specific slices of the American pie into portions not big enough to eat.  In the past, songs were capable of jumping across formats because the fences were so low.  Those barriers have been raised much higher.

There was a time when songs zoomed across those barriers like bats flying through a chain-length fence.  AC/DC and Guns ‘N’ Roses could have huge records in Rock and Top 40.  Michael Bolton  could score big Urban, Top 40 and A/C.  The artist formerly and currently known as Prince hit all of them.

What happened?

I don’t know exactly, but it has a lot to do with too many signals, too many stations cutting into the cake, too many programmers finding a niche that would last a second and too many other choices for the radio audience.

The music certainly had something to do with it.  It always opens the doors for new formats.  Radio doesn’t create the music…it takes advantage.  Album Rock was created by musicians in spite of there being no radio outlet.  So radio created a format.  Disco was a child of the same invention…and the Disco format was born.  The latest on the family tree is Alternative.  And there’s another incubating even as you read this.

That’s the great thing about music.  It can’t read.  It doesn’t know about format restrictions and available airplay.  It doesn’t know from promotions and double-bonuses.  It doesn’t know it can’t possibly fit.  Music doesn’t know it is a part of a corporate entity.  It doesn’t know it’s expected to generate a certain percentage of a return for the stockholders.  Nobody ever asks music’s opinion.  Music never graduated from college.  Music didn’t even take the SATs.  Music doesn’t know any of this.

Neither does the audience.  We make a lot of decisions about our audience.  We put names on formats and restrictions on who will like what simply because we know what it is…or at least we believe we have correctly identified it.  The audience doesn’t know.  They only know if they like a song or not.  That’s it.

Music dictates new formats, but we dictate the decay of the old.  Because as soon as we are completely surprised by a musical shift, we suddenly become experts at identifying and copying the original concept.  Then, we beat it to death.

Of course, the audience becomes bored with specific formats after a while, because (with the exception of Top 40) it all begins to sound alike.

In the beginning, Rock was on the cutting edge.  You heard things on Album radio you couldn’t hear anywhere else.  Then we refined the process to include the obligatory Rock ballad to try and cross formats and bring on the really big sales and it all began to run together.  Disco was the same.  In the beginning it was bright, exciting and pumped full of energy…totally off the wall.  Then we dissected the sound…determined the exact number of BPMs that would coordinate with the heart, mixed and remixed until it all began to sound the same.  Alternative was true cutting edge. The very name implied it.  However, as soon as Alternative began to gain mass acceptance, it wasn’t Alternative any more.  Instead of creating something different, record companies began to sign bands that “sounded like” Pearl Jam rather than acts that broke new ground like Pearl Jam.  And now Alternative songs are beginning to sound alarmingly similar.

Which brings us full-circle as Mainstream Top 40 is now the only format with the capability of generating airplay for acts that don’t fit a specific mode.  Today’s audience seems to want to hear Celine Dion, Tracy Chapman, The Fugees, Hootie & The Blowfish, The Philosopher Kings, Garbage, Coolio, The Nixons, Bone Thug-N-Harmony and Oasis in the same break.  Like the music, the audience doesn’t know that maybe these songs don’t fit the same format.

Isn’t it odd that a format that doesn’t target a specific audience is the one that might again provide the perfect forum for Mainstream music?

Just like music, Mainstream Top 40 doesn’t know any better.

One thought on “Top 40”

  1. Hey Gerry,
    It’s a blast from the past from the WMFJ days, just wanted to say hi and yes I am still in radio 43yrs later just part-time. I retired from Cox Media Group in Orlando back in January and work full-time in the security dept at Daytona International Speedway. Radio sure has changed. I hope you and the family are well.

    Bobby Mitchell

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