by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Top 40 program directors have long regarded the fall ratings book as beyond their control. Teens have less available listening time. Adults are focused on the holidays. Competing adult formats bring out their marketing guns. Arbitron incorporates new population estimates that usually work in favor of black- or Hispanic-targeted stations. Local or national elections and inclement weather lure audience to News/Talk. So the fall book is supposed to stink.
If you just look at the average share loss, Top 40’s fall book was only mundanely bad. The average Top 40 share was down 4.4 – 4.2, down from a 4.5 a year ago. But stations in the fours don’t have a lot left to lose, and this fall also brought the spectacle of some historic powerhouses in the 3-share range, disconcerting when you remember that 4s and 5s were enough to prompt a format bailout in the early ‘90s. Another echo of that era: in the handful of markets where one Top 40 has left, its shares aren’t showing up at a rival.
So you have to look beyond the format’s usual travails, and there are certainly some relatively recent problems for Top 40 these days.
For starters, there is the holiday music juggernaut. We think of it as a problem for adult formats, but Top 40’s reliance on being a large cume’s second favorite station is particularly imperiled by a cume-driven format that becomes so many listeners’ clear favorite for a month. Christmas formats can also flood the market with extra quarter-hours of listening, diminishing even the shares of stations where listening remained steady.
And in New York, it seems likely that some of the Christmas shares garnered by WNEW came from Mainstream WHTZ (Z100) and Adult Top 40 WPLJ. In its year’s worth of various Top 40/Hot AC formats, the former Blink 102.7 built itself a cume that likely shared with those two stations. If those listeners stayed for only a cup of coffee on their initial visits, they appear to have consumed several cups of eggnog during the fall, once there was programming of interest to them.
You have to look beyond the format’s usual travails, and there are certainly some relatively recent problems for Top 40 these days.
Top 40 is also developing a recurring music problem during the fall: the glut of mediocre records that always stay around until the end of the book, because that’s when stations do their Christmas concerts. In a fourth quarter that’s always spring-loaded with superstar releases, the fall book should always bring great music for Top 40. Instead, it brought disappointing first singles from at least four of the acts Mainstream Top 40 needed for pop balance: Pink, John Mayer, Enrique Iglesias, and Nelly Furtado.
There were also serious genre burnout problems in the fall. Top 40 has always had one sound that’s being destroyed by overuse at any given time, whether it was Michael McDonald imitators in 1980 or Prince clones in 1985. In fall, however, it had at least four:
Rock power ballads (Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Santana)
Southern/Midwestern “crunk” rap (Lil’ Jon, Chingy)
Midtempo Matrix-produced females (Hilary Duff, Liz Phair)
Teen punk acts (Good Charlotte, Simple Plan), which, as it happens, also released rock power ballads.
To this list, you can now add hip-hop ballads with sped-up samples. Any of these genres or acts have undeniable hits: you can’t dispute the legitimacy of Twista’s “Slow Jamz” or of Usher’s Lil’ Jon collaboration, “Yeah”, but you can also see why different sounding records like Outkast’s “Hey Ya” or Britney Spears’ “Toxic” ignite so quickly. There are so few of them.
Then there was Top 40’s overall state of transition during the fall. Hip-hop stations had proliferated to the point where few Mainstream PDs felt they could own the genre in their market. In mid-November, as the change was taking place, this column asked whether the change was being driven by a shift in listeners tastes or merely PDs’ determination; so far, it looks like the latter. Long-term, a more balanced Top 40 is a good thing. Short-term, history has shown that the listeners who were using the format for rhythmic music only will leave faster than the mainstream pop people can replace them.
Which puts Top 40 in a trick bag of sorts. It took until the late ‘90s for PDs to develop the intestinal fortitude to stop chasing 25-to-54-year-olds, which had never worked anyway. But it also forced Top 40 to rely more heavily on the demographic group with the least loyalty to traditional radio. The effects of satellite radio, xBox, and iPod on radio may be anecdotal and/or overstated so far, but if anybody does feel them, it’s likely to be Top 40.
TOP 40 BY THE FALL NUMBERS
AVERAGE SHARE, CONTINUOUS MEASUREMENT MARKETS
BEST 12-PLUS SHARE
Mainstream: WKRZ Wilkes-Barre, Pa., 9.9
Rhythmic: KPRR El Paso, Texas, 10.2
Mainstream: KRQQ Tucson, Ariz., 2.3 shares
Rhythmic KDHT Austin, Texas, 2.5 shares
Mainstream: KKDM Des Moines, Iowa, 4.6 shares (most of which were explained by the 4.4 share debut of rhythmic sister KDRB)
Rhythmic: KSEQ Fresno, Calif., 1.6 shares
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.