Ross On Radio: Keeping Top 40 From Getting Too 'Mid-Turbo'
Ross On Radio: Keeping Top 40 From Getting Too 'Mid-Turbo'

Format booms are often propelled by a hot body of music, but they don't always start that way. CBS launched Mike Joseph¹s Hot Hits format on WCAU-FM Philadelphia in September 1981--hardly a great time for top 40 music. WCAU¹s success prompted a similar move at sister WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago, and CBS became, for several years, the most prominent of several top 40-friendly group owners.

In the mid-¹90s, after a format collapse that many thought would never be undone, top 40 gradually rebounded, driven by a number of stations that had ditched the format several years earlier, then crept back in from alternative or adult top 40. With those twin evolutions came an unlikely crop of eclectic pop hits--songs not unlike some of our recent quirky pop/rock breakthroughs.

During the next two weeks, 17 top 40 stations are being added to Billboard¹s Mainstream Top 40 panel (see story, page 1). It's the kind of large-scale format growth that used to happen every time industry publications updated their panels during previous booms, but that we haven't seen for a while. And it's instructive to consider how some of those stations arrived in (or returned to) top 40.

Like the early-'80s CBS stations and the late-'90s rush of rhythmic-leaning Clear Channel top 40s, there are certainly stations that reflect an owner's enhanced commitment to top 40, often prompted by a major success story elsewhere in the group, such as CBS-owned WODS (Amp Radio) Boston and KEGY (Energy 103.7) San Diego or Cox¹s WHTI (Hot 100.9) Richmond, Va.

There are also a lot of mid-'90s-style returns from adult top 40, at a time when the two formats have moved so close to each other that many adult top 40s don¹t see any reason not to keep evolving. WZPL Indianapolis; WKDD Akron, Ohio; KLLY (Kelly 95.3) Bakersfield, Calif.; and WWWM (Star 105) Toledo, Ohio, are all stations that followed the format's trend toward mainstream top 40 and just kept going.

Many of the mid-'90s converts came back after only a few years away from mainstream top 40. A few of this new crop of stations needed two format cycles to be convinced. B96's return is particularly symbolic, returning from rhythmic after nearly 25 years. WZPL softened to adult top 40 in the late '90s and has been perched on the cusp of the two formats ever since. WZPL was the adult top 40 that played Eminem when the song in question was "Lose Yourself," not "Love the Way You Lie."

As the former WHTT, WODS was part of the early-'80s boom. WWWM waited for three format cycles. It ditched top 40 in the early '80s for album rock, right around the time that the format was growing elsewhere.

One station barely left the format but took an equally convoluted route to reporter status. WABD Mobile, Ala., is its own successor. When heritage top 40 WABB was sold to the owners of the Christian AC K-Love network, Cumulus grabbed similar calls and several former staffers to re-create the station on another frequency, then swapped dial positions with K-Love.

One thing that¹s markedly different this time is the number of stations evolving from rhythmic top 40. Until relatively recently, if a rhythmic top 40 went mainstream, it wasn't following the music. It was often making a change despite strong ratings because its owners just didn't want to be in a format that differed from R&B/hip-hop by only a few records, or (for some stations) by reporting status only.

Now, as with the adult top 40 converts, the evolution of several former rhythmic outlets reflects the strength of mainstream product and a product drought at home. At a time when there¹s surprisingly little rhythmic pop in the top 10 and almost no R&B/hip-hop crossover on the mainstream chart, it's hard to be "hits and hip-hop" when the "hits" part of the equation is the Lumineers or Owl City.

In the late ¹90s, Clear Channel's rapidly proliferating top 40s, with their rhythmic leans and high spins, had an undeniable impact on the format. Some of the incumbent stations they challenged chose other formats, rather than follow the format's pull from borderline Hot AC toward more extreme music. The current pop center of the format can be traced to multiple influences--iTunes, music supervisors, perhaps PPM measurement and, yes, the individual decisions of some stations. The net result, though, is that
many of the new top 40s can genuinely tell advertisers (as stations do after a format modification) that their arrival in the format is "an evolution, not a revolution."