Listen to N/T WABC New York on holiday weekends, when it pulls out the PAMS jingles and recreates its top 40 heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s for a few hours, and you’ll hear a lot of ideas that are so basic that, of course, nobody has used them in 25 years. One is the idea of creating a cult of personality around the jocks (WABC’s “All- Americans,” who battled with WMCA’s “Good Guys”). But the one that stands out most is the emphasis that WABC placed on its No. 1 song, and the lack of attention that radio shows the “No. 1 record in America” today.
The No. 1 Song was preceded by a “number one, one, one, one” jingle that built the excitement. The jocks would talk about how songs were on the way up or down – the same way college football analysts talk about the AP Coaches Poll. The chart itself was simply part of the reason Top 40 radio was exciting, and the “No. 1 song coming up” was a reason to stay tuned. Somehow, over the years, Radio has largely dropped this once-essential part of its programming.
But America is still obsessed with “No. 1,” and it was radio that practically invented this obsession. Stations were building up the “No. 1 Song” in the ‘60s, back when weekly box office grosses rarely ventured beyond the pages of Variety. Besides local radio highlighting its No. 1 single, there was also “American Top 40,” likely a formative experience for many of those reading this article. Now, there are consumer press stories on the No. 1 box-office movie in America well before the weekend is over, with studio executives working furiously to explain why not being No. 1 was still a win for their film, (or why being No. 1, but with a lower gross than expected was alright). The consumer press tells us the No. 1 album, the top-selling DVD and the top movie rental.
If you had to choose a moment when the No. 1 single started to lose its potency, it was probably the early ‘90s. And, ironically, it may have been because music charts became more credible. While it had already been decades since any station’s No. 1 song consistently rotated in its own category, as it did at WABC, the switch from reported to monitored airplay also helped underscore that most stations didn’t have a true No. 1 song, but three to nine powers receiving relatively equal rotation. As monitored airplay took hold, even reported playlists stopped featuring a subjectively chosen No. 1 record, in favor of a handful of songs tied at the top.
The subsequent retooling of the singles and album charts might have figured into it as well. On one hand, the addition of more accurate airplay and sales data helped create some spectacular, long-running No.1s that certainly were publicized: “End of the Road,” “I Will Always Love You,” “One Sweet Day.” Unfortunately, the realization that the biggest hits in America were R&B and country, coming at a time when top 40 radio was ignoring the latter and newly afraid of the former, convinced some PDs, right or wrong, that a monster hit might still not matter to their radio station. And the power of No.1 was further diluted when “American Top 40” switched to a top 40 airplay chart in hopes of preserving some of its station clearances as the top 40 format withered.
Ironically, the labels understood the power of a No. 1 single during this time. But they didn’t do it any favors. With songs now able to enter at No. 1 because of singles sales, they began timing their singles releases to create artificially high debuts. And even after the chart rules changed to allow songs to debut without a single’s availability, the release of a deeply discounted single could still create a hit record that really wasn’t, something that came to a head in 2001 when Mariah Carey’s “Loverboy,” a record that struggled in the lower reaches of the mainstream top 40 airplay chart, still managed to reach No.2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, prompting a lot of negative consumer press stories about what, if anything, a hit single still meant in this day and age.
The No. 1 single has also been diluted because there are so many of them. Not only was there a No. 1 single for every niche chart, but any given station could offer listeners multiple No. 1s: several on Sunday, depending on how many syndicated countdowns they ran; a No. 1 from the midday request countdown, a No. 1 from the Carson Daly countdown; and another No. 1 on the top 9 at 9. There have even been stations that do multiple request countdowns within the night shift, or, in extreme cases, every hour. And while announcing this hour’s No. 1 gives your station immediacy, it’s not “larger-than-life” as “I’ll Make Love To You” topping the charts for 14 weeks.
The No. 1 single has also been diluted because there are so many of them.
So part of giving the No. 1 record its props is deciding which record you’re going to talk about. But whether you highlight the No. 1 record nationally, or in your town, either has a cachet that radio isn’t currently taking advantage of. Talking about the No. 1 record helps make your station the music authority again—a position that radio is in danger of losing to other media. And talking about the No. 1 in your market is also a chance to reinforce your station’s localism and combat the notion that all radio stations are playing the same songs anyway. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the ‘60s/’70s heyday of the No. 1 single at radio was also the heyday of the local hit.)
Being No. 1 also confers a certain amount of public legitimacy on a record. Given the many weeks it spent in power, there’s no question that most top 40 stations got mileage out of “Where Is The Love.” But that song spent seven weeks at No. 1, and more aggressively billboarding its staying power would have given the Black Eyed Peas not just a hit record, but also an event record. Being identified as No. 1 also has the potential to help listeners buy into an otherwise polarizing hit that they might not have otherwise warmed to; coming from a No. 1 album and No. 1 movie certainly helped make “Lose Yourself” a lot less harsh to adults than it otherwise might have been.
And it’s not hard to take advantage of your station’s No. 1 song. Your jocks are already front-selling it, just not to maximum effect. There are probably jocks still identifying “Baby Boy” as “the new one from Beyonce’ and Sean Paul,” even after three months on the radio. “This song is going for a third week at No. 1 when the new chart is unveiled tomorrow” says a lot more. Staging the No. 1 song is as simple as cutting one new piece of production—which could very well tie in with the “No. 1 Hit Music Station” or “No. 1 for Hip-Hop and R&B” imagery that many stations are using already.
All those station drops about being “No. 1,” by the way, emphasize just how much power that concept still has with listeners. No station has a liner about being “No. 2 overall, but No. 1 in demo.” Programmers clearly understand the power of being No. 1, but they haven’t necessarily put it to work for their own product, particularly at a time when that product could use some on-air bolstering.
Larry Rosin is co-founder and President of Edison Media Research. With over 20 years of media experience, Larry is a leader in the field of audience research and an advisor to some of the world’s largest media companies.
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.