by Alex Cosper (12/16/12)
Top 40 is more of a concept than a genre or a radio format. Many people assume that the term refers to the most popular songs at a given time. But that is hardly the truth when you consider that an overwhelming majority of people of all ages don't listen to top 40 radio. In America, more people listen to country music or adult contemporary music and in some cities more people listen to oldies or classic rock, according to statistics provided by the radio trade publication Inside Radio. But at one time from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, top 40 was by far the most popular radio format.
Prior to everyone owning a television in their living rooms, which started in the early fifties, most people got their national information and entertainment from AM radio. At that time FM radio existed but was more of a niche novelty for fans of new technology. Most people didn't have FM radio receivers yet, which is why most FM stations were just simulcasts of AM programming. Even though Billboard Magazine began publishing national music charts in the 1890s, the idea of a radio station playing "the top 40" did not develop until the 1950s.
Most radio programming prior to the fifties was block programming, meaning lots of different types of shows scheduled on the same station. This programming was a mix of national network feeds, radio dramas, local bandleaders and news/talk shows. Many famous people of the thirties and forties, such as Bing Crosby, rose to popularity through radio shows. In the 1930s a type of radio programming developed that involved a host talking between songs. This concept, combined with the jukebox led to the advent of top 40 radio.
Todd Storz, who can from a wealthy family, owned an AM station in Omaha, Nebraska called KOWH that he purchased is 1949. In the early fifties he observed at nightclubs how people reacted to songs on jukeboxes. He noticed that some songs came up more often than others. It gave him the idea to create playlists based on song popularity that focused on the most popular hits. There had been shows in the past such as "Your Hit Parade," which highlighted the national top ten, but his idea was to play the most popular 40 songs over and over. He was convinced of this idea after commissioning a study with the University of Omaha. Storz went on to implement his format at other stations he purchased around the country in New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Miami and Oklahoma City. Storz, who died at age 39 in 1964, has since earned the name "Father of Top 40 Radio."
The success of these Storz stations led to another radio pioneer named Gordon McLendon refining the top 40 format. McLendon attended Yale University and was a member of the Skull and Bones fraternity and later worked in military intelligence during World War II and became involved with Armed Forces Radio. He then went to Harvard Law School, which he soon abandoned to own a radio station in Palestine, Texas called KNET. He went on to start the Liberty Radio Network in the late forties, which became the second biggest radio network of its time with over 400 affiliates. His main interest in broadcasting was his love for sports.
In 1947 McLendon launched KLIF AM in Dallas with his father. In the early fifties he implemented the top 40 format at the station. KLIF became the most popular radio station in town throughout the fifties and sixties. McLendon, like Storz, started buying stations around the country to spread his format. He bought stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Louisville and Shreveport. He even bought a station in Tijuana, Mexico called XETRA that covered San Diego. McLendon's innovations for the radio industry included introducing "beautiful music" (commonly called instrumental elevator music) and all news formats that employed mobile news teams. He also introduced jingles and traffic reports to the radio industry.
In 1954 KLIF moved from playing a wide variety of music to a tight list of the most popular songs. McLendon believed that music and news were the two things that gave radio an edge over television. The station was one of the first in the country to issue weekly charts of its most popular songs, which were distributed at public events. McLendon held on to the station until selling it in 1971 for over $10 million, which was considered amazing for its time. The family sold all of their stations by 1979.
Another radio pioneer that accelerated the popularity of top 40 radio was Rick Sklar at WABC in New York in the late fifties. Sklar learned a lot about radio programming as Assistant Program Director at WINS starting in 1954. It was during this time that the popularity of rock and roll music began to gain national attention, spearheaded by Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed playing the latest rhythm and blues records. Sklar moved on to WABC in 1960 and began to implement an extremely tight playlist that focused more on the top 15 records being played over and over, mixed with proven hits. The idea worked and WABC became one of the most widely listened stations in America. Sklar, who died unexpectedly in 1992, wrote an autobiography about how he made WABC a big success called Rocking America: An Insider's Story How the All-Hit Radio Stations Took Over America, published by St. Martin's Press in 1984.
The other building block to top 40 radio was built by the radio consulting team of Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, who consulted radio stations all over America starting with KHJ in Los Angeles and KFRC in San Francisco in the mid-sixties. This team was responsible for many stations around the country playing wall to wall songs with high-energy DJs whose personalities were limited to short phrases over song intros. The result was huge ratings. The Storz-McLendon-Sklar-Drake-Chenault influences could be felt in top 40 radio programming for decades.
By the late 80s and early 90s, most major market cities had top 40 radio stations that either employed consultants or conformed to consultant-style programming. Not that many so called "top 40 stations" actually played a list of 40 current songs, which was why the industry term for the format at that time was "contemporary hit radio" or "CHR," coined by the trade newspaper Radio & Records. Many of these stations played the top 15, mixed with recent currents called "recurrents" with new songs sprinkled in the mix. Today Mediabase, owned by Clear Channel, is the survey that most top 40 stations follow as a gauge for what's working on radio nationally.
The radio industry became very fragmented in the 1990s based on demographics. The alternative rock radio format, for example, produced biggers selling acts than the CHR format. Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Green Day, for example, barely penetrated CHR stations, yet outsold almost all the CHR artists of that era. It's still true today that some of the biggest sellers are ignored by top 40 radio. That's because "top 40 music" has become a meaningless phrase and generally refers to the music marketed to teens. Much of it fits a certain musical formula that relies on electronics rather than raw vocal talent or musicianship.
See also the KROY Story about Sacramento top 40 station KROY. The station was number one in town in the sixties and seventies, despite not conforming to consultant-driven tight radio programming. The series features video interviews with Program Director Johnny Hyde.
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