Top 40’s Fall Decline: Why It Was Worse in 2003

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.




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 Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

1 reply
  1. Paul Baines
    Paul Baines says:

    Myth of the Mainstream?
    ‘Mainstream’ – a principal current of a river, 1667, from main (adj.) + stream, hence, “prevailing direction in opinion, popular taste, etc.,” a fig. use first attested in Carlyle (1831).
    I propose that the concept of ‘the mainstream’, be it music, art, ideas, politics, entertainment and all other social constructs, is and has always been a social myth.
    The key to this argument lies in the cyclical nature of the market economy, political thought, and technological advancement. For sake of simplicity, I shall concentrate solely on the development and eventual disintegration of the concept of ‘mainstream’ or popular music.
    What came before the MP3? The CD.
    And before that? Vinyl.
    And before that? Shellac and wax drums for musical boxes.
    And before that? Sheet Music. Musical Scores.
    As funny as it sounds now, at the very dawn of ‘Popular Music’ or pop, a ‘Hit’ technically accounted for the total sales of a sheet of music, a musical score. The expectation and reality of the market was solely reliant on availability of current technologies at the time (namely music boxes and pianos) and the musical ability of the consumer.
    For the main part it was more economic to purchase an upright piano rather than a the musical box, purchasing songs for a music box was a privilege of the rich. Imagine paying $500 for an mp3 track? No one in their right mind would, yet the physical nature of such devices meant that supplying a range of music for any device would be beyond the reach of the masses. The ‘Player Piano’ moved things along somewhat, creating rolls of punch paper reduced the costs considerably. For many this was new technology was still out of reach of the average, or even middle income family.
    For most, instead of an Ipod, there would stand, pride of place in the Sitting Room or Parlour, a basic upright piano, of which at least one member would be able to read and play music, and the others would at the very least need to hold a whole gamut of decent notes to make the performance painlessly entertaining. The more savvy music publishers (yes they were printers and nothing more), realized early on that if they wanted to increase their sales they’d need to expand their market.
    A few seemingly harmless pointers to publishing a popular ‘hit’ led to a series of hard and fast rules that held back the creative growth of the music industry for over a century.
    Family friendly. Their market was the Middle-Class Family, they had money, Sunday Evenings with little to do, a strong moral and religious upbringing and a very definite idea of what music should do.
    It shouldn’t offend, anyone, anywhere, anyhow. It cannot include any mention of any controversy. The melody must be light, instantly engaging and simple to follow. The whole family must be able to join in and not feel awkward or embarrassed in anyway. Basically hymns.
    The market began to fracture eventually, songs for the kids, religious, risque ditties for young lovers and dirty old men, then came style… jazz, blues, big band. Finally wax rolls for musical boxes gave way to shellac and eventually Vinyl discs and as the sound quality improved, and the availability increased and prices reduced, finally those that played the piano instead of a Gramophone, were the rare exception.
    The World has changed a lot since then, but as with all things fashion has a funny habit of repeating itself. More and more iPod fans and mp3 addicts are beginning to manipulate their own collections, with the development of a whole series of cheap and cheerful music mixing software releases on the way, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine a time in the not so distant future where rather than the ‘Mainstream’ we will be talking in terms of Single Streams, or even the ‘Onestream’.
    In the past the more forward thinking printers and publishers of the day decided to buy music from songwriters for a pittance, sometimes even steal them outright and make all the profit for themselves. Now things are changing beyond belief.
    Anyone can make music to a point with the aid of software and electronic instruments that a child could learn and play within minutes. With the increased interactivity involved in many of the new technologies, the PC being the original focal point, most consumers are no longer purely consuming, they are now producing. Be it their own Tivo TV schedule, the play list on their iPod, the answer phone message they recorded themselves. Consumption was never a creative act, but finally it seems technology is enabling individuals to come to that conclusion by themselves.
    Eventually few people will purchase entertainment in any form, simply the means to produce it. As part of my Fine Arts Degree many years ago, I specialized in Photo Montage, appropriating and aggregating a variety of disparate images, and manipulating and combining them to form a new and original work. Nowadays few would ever consider going through the rigmarole of cutting and pasting printed matter when a graphics program and the Internet can provide vast more choice in subject matter and imagery.
    Technology has led our actions, or rather inaction for most of the 20th Century, in the 21st we are witnessing the slow decay of Consumerism itself, and at the beginning the first change we are all both witnessing and providing, is technological manipulation of consumer goods.
    As the manufacturers of multimedia devices finally catch up with demand we will witness more and more graphic and sound interactivity to the point that most products will simply enable us to create our own entertainment, as we have in histories past. The only difference is that your Bedroom DJ Mix is now heard by the world rather than an unwilling friend or family member. Local heroes and heroines will be born, down the road from my place are the band Keane, a very successful UK pop band from Battle, Sussex. Without the proliferation of social networking technologies I doubt that their meteoric rise to fame would have been as startling.
    Other more stark examples are Gnarls Berkley and the Arctic Monkeys, who via the service have become major players in the world music scene. This isn’t simply a technological change. The ‘Futurism’ Arts Movement at the turn of the last century was obsessed with painting fast cars and trains and planes, as much as a young boy might do these days. No one wants to draw an MP3 player, no one wants to write a poem about their Xbox. People want to ‘use’ them, and they do, all of them.
    The idea that materialism can enable anything other than a show of wealth has changed, we no longer have toys, we have tools. Consumption is now lured by the idea of Production, the snake is eating itself.
    Within your lifetime, your or someone you know will produce something remarkable, the miraculous is about to become commonplace and the ‘Mainstream, obsolete.
    The mainstream is diverging into a billion tributaries, the concept of popularity, and eventually mass advertising will dry up, along with monolithic centralized institutions and corporations. We as individuals are finally learning to disagree with each other, we are taking informed and personal choices in our consumption, and eventually the production of our own ‘streams’. We fish for ideas, we take those ideas and create our own unique range of arts, entertainment and individual understanding of the world. And when we’re bored with our own minds, we trade our goods with others, some like-minded, some not so.
    Music, Art, Entertainment, conceived, designed and produced by the individual for the individual. Very much the way we began. Travelling Minstrels, visiting one village and the next, trading music, trading styles, ideas, even new technologies, but for the main part from home.
    There never was a mainstream, the concept of the mainstream was conceived for the convenience of unwieldy organizations with little ability or even impetus to change. Like a vast dam, blocking and filtering the river, it is now beginning to crumble, and creative sources and flowing in from all directions, a veritable waterfall of new ideas, sounds and images are about to be born.


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