What Is Top 40 Going To Do With Its Best Music In Years?

As recently as April, I was reluctant to acknowledge a turnaround in the quality of Mainstream Top 40’s available product. There was a “Hips Don’t Lie” here, a “S.O.S.” there. But there was little uptempo pop/rock product beyond the usual teen punk. And there was also a preponderance of ballads, including several of the wimpiest AC crossovers in a long time. Top 40 was continuing its three-year journey away from Hip-Hop, but that didn’t mean it was finding anything compelling to replace it with.
Then Gnarls Barkley became a U.S. hit, the superstar releases started to roll out and 2006 began shaping up as the best Top 40 summer in nearly a decade. If it’s not quite the CHR-dominated summer of 1984 (“When Doves Cry,” “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “Time After Time,” “Legs,” “The Reflex,” “Dancing In The Dark”), it’s certainly the best summer for tempo and variety since 1997 (“I’ll Be Missing You,” “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Men In Black,” “I Want You,” “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” “Quit Playing Games [With My Heart],” “How Bizarre”).
Best of all, instead of witnessing a retreat into pop balladry, the summer of 2006 bears another watermark of other great periods for Top 40: more songs that find the common ground between R&B and Rock, whether it’s Gnarls Barkley or Nelly Furtado. And if Gym Class Heroes have a hit-and starting with KIIS-FM L.A. is a pretty good indicator-we have our first Hip-Hop/emo (!) hybrid! And as with the Romantics and Stray Cats in 1983, there’s also music from Beyonce’ and Christina Aguilera that manages to be retro and contemporary at the same time.
And now the discussion must turn to, “How can Top 40 take advantage of all this mass-appeal uptempo product?”
For starters, every GM, PD and marketing director in the format should be giving some consideration to trying to be on TV this summer. If you have any sustaining belief in the power of television advertising (and the TV-driven success of Bob-FM, Jack-FM and friends should have restored it), it’s time to be in front of potential converts reminding them that Christina Aguilera, Beyonce’, Shakira, Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake and Janet have current product, and making sure they know who Rihanna, Nelly Furtado, and Gnarls Barkley are. And in the summer, Top 40 has its best chance of having the medium to itself, something that also benefited the early Adult Hits outlets.
There should also be some thought given to quarter-year maintenance. Summer has historically been a good book for Top 40. Fall has not. With so much all-ages product currently available, PDs should give some thought to contesting that starts before Labor Day and carries adult listeners into the fall. (Or, for that matter, follows teens away from their summer jobs and back to their rooms, where they can go back to more solitary methods of finding their music.)
Finally, with so many places to hear old music in any given market these days, Top 40 needs to reestablish itself as the place to hear new music-particularly when there’s much new music worth hearing. Cumulus/Atlanta OM Rob Roberts, then the PD of WHYI (Y100) Miami, remarked in the late ’90s that you could tell when the current product was good because it was more compelling than any gold-based holiday-weekend feature. Five years ago, that wasn’t the case. But having heard a July 4th weekend full of retro product, one can confidently say now that the new music is better than “Ice Ice Baby.” (And wasn’t it scary when it wasn’t?)
And now, please post your thoughts on how to take advantage of the current strong Top 40 product.

14 replies
  1. adam jacobson
    adam jacobson says:

    The U.S. has always had to look at what’s hot in Europe and the U.K. to figure out the latest trends in CHR. It took months for James Blunt and Daniel Powter to break in the U.S., and now Gnarls Barkley is a huge multiformat hit — although the callout results are lagging from what I understand.
    Look out for quirky songs from Lily Allen, more great stuff from K.T. Tunstall, a huge record from Sandi Thom and someone to actually add the Sergio Mendes/Black Eyed Peas retake of “Mas Que Nada.” Then someone might actually consider adding “Love Generation” by Bob Sinclar, and we’ll have the foundation for the next phase of CHR.
    like Ciabatta at Jack In The Box, CHR is back. Always nice to see…

  2. JJ Kincaid
    JJ Kincaid says:

    The music this summer has been really hot!!!
    Will someone tell me why the Nine Inch Nails kidnapped Justin Timberlake?

  3. Kirk Tanter
    Kirk Tanter says:

    Hip Hop and R/B has been Top 40 for many years now. But like any other form of music, that certain music has a dominant period of time and then another form replaces it as the TOP DOG. All forms of music still exist, including Jazz (recreated as Smooth Jazz format)whose heyday was long ago. Top 40 should not be generalized to mean a certain form of music prevalent in the 60’s through the 80’s Top 40 stations – Bubblegum or whatever you wish to categorize it as. Top 40 should be just that, the Top 40 hits period, no matter what the music is. Formats that only play a certain form of music, should not then be considered as a Top 40 station. The newer music on the CHR stations is appealing, and refreshing to hear new music on new music stations, instead of a large amount of oldies and recurrents hits. R/B and Hip Hop without the raunchy lyrics, is what the music consumer has been asking for years now, and unfortunately, the Record Companies will not release respectful and the fun lyrical content that the radio consumer and radio Programmers have demanded. Sells must be still high for rebellious and porno Hip Hop/R&B tunes, unfortunately many RADIO formats cannot risk their female listeners by continuing to play the risky content.

  4. Guy Zapoleon
    Guy Zapoleon says:

    Great article Sean!
    Its definitely a time for Top 40 Radio to market itself with the best crop of music in about 10 years as the Music Cycle repeats with the Rebirth Pop Phase starting again this year.
    Nelly Furtado, Christine Aguilera,Rihanna, Nickelback, Shakira, Panic! At the Disco, All American Rejects, Chamillionaire, Sean Paul etc etc what a crop of strong music!
    Radio needs to look at itself as competing with all other forms of entertainment instead of competing with other radio stations, and now for Top 40 radio with a bumper crop of Pop hits of all genres its a great and important time to market!

  5. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Good point about marketing via TV… except how many stations have the $$ available RIGHT NOW to make the sizeable and impactive buy (like 300 grp’s a week for 6 weeks)? If you don’t have that and aren’t afraid to make the commitment…hit the streets, not the tube…you’ll probably find more of the peeps you want!

  6. Steve Jones
    Steve Jones says:

    Working CHR in a multi-ethnic market like the Cayman Islands means trying to appeal to Americans as well as the wealth of Europeans and Canadians who live here. And that has forced us to be ahead of the curve on the Euro hits like Gnarls Barkley, and the Canadian stuff like Furtado and Powter.
    We’re also eight weeks into spinning the Sean Paul/Rihanna duet that is getting tremendous reaction in the Caribbean. Soon to be a hit in the US!
    It is fantastic to see CHR bouncing back like this and refreshing to hear songs on the radio that don’t all sound the same.

  7. K.J. Carson
    K.J. Carson says:

    Excellent article. I think the summer of ’84 [for] radio is why I am in it now! With all the songs I’ve heard over the years, when I hear “Dancing In The Dark”, it envokes a memory of why I love radio. This summer seems to be one of those summers. The Nelly F, Beyonce’, and the different sound coming from Justin is the equivalent to hearing the same songs from ’84 and then listening to Run DMC at night. The music seems so fun because its different for a change!

  8. John Shomby
    John Shomby says:

    Top 40 is where Country was about 18 months ago. Now, our older stuff is sounding better.
    John Shomby
    Director of Programming and Operations
    Max Media of Hampton Roads

  9. Randy James
    Randy James says:

    Well done Sean! There are so many great “Happy” songs with great tempo, plus more flirtation in the lyric and the music than ever before in mainstream. The walls of “you can’t play rap” or “you can’t play music with that kind of message” are almost completely torn down as well. Hence, the format is sexier than ever and it is totally acceptable to be heard any time. Enjoy this time CHR!!
    Randy James
    Director of Programming
    Maryland/Pennsylvania/West Virginia/Virginia

  10. Laura Moreno
    Laura Moreno says:

    Great to hear from Randy James – we’ve missed him and he’s right on, and so are you and the rest of the other programmers!

  11. Tim Byrd
    Tim Byrd says:

    Very simply if Top 40 expexts to rise to a level even close to where it once was, simple basics applied with good energy,execution,fun contests and give-a-ways, and sell, sell, sell the great new music. It has to be done in a hip but mass appeal fashion.
    Tim Byrd
    “The Byrdman”

  12. Brian Woodward
    Brian Woodward says:

    Interesting, I never thought of this summer being that great until now. The curent stuff is really good. I would like to see a bit more pure rock stuff break thru(ie: Los Lonely boys, Switchfoot) of a few summers ago. But overall this summer is really great!
    Question…If Top 40 is trying harder and harder to compete with the I-pods and other media of this new world, why do most stations continue to insist playing the powers 90-100 times a week. Most people I know wouldn’t listen to Hpis Don’t Lie 100 times on their I-Pod in one week. I’ve always been a fan of pounding the hits, but I think 70-80 a week is enough! Anything more is really forcing people, espically women in the demo, to turn off the radio, and turn on the shuffle button.
    I think this is the new ploy by the record companies now that they really can’t use overnight stiff spins to create promotions for stations…play Nelly Furtado 115 times a week, and get a fly away for a concert this fall to give away. You can clearly see which stations are playing that game just by looking at Mediabase on any given day.

  13. Stuart Gitlow
    Stuart Gitlow says:

    (Somewhat off topic…but here’s what I think needs to happen with new music): The problem with WABC on Saturday nights – and don’t get me wrong as I love what they’re doing – is that it’s no longer contemporary. What I’d like them to do is play the CURRENT hits using the old formula with jingles, a solid DJ who knows music and the audience, and brings the excitement of what’s new to the contemporary music. Obviously, it would be helpful to have good new music, but that may be starting to reappear. I’ve got oldies on my iPod; I don’t really need to hear them on the radio (and perhaps that’s why oldies radio is getting tough to find in some markets). If WABC wanted to do something that noone is doing, give us today’s music and a radio station that runs like it did in ’69. I’d love to hear SuperHit 1, Hit 1, Hit 1 running into a real current #1 hit.


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