It didn’t happen all that often. But every now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, a top 40 station would have to admit that it missed out on a hit song and add it while it was on its way down the charts. In the days when airplay was reported, not monitored, some stations like WABC New York would officially add a song to the playlist even after it had peaked. Others would just quietly add the song “into recurrent,” never calling their back-peddling to the wider industry’s attention.

When monitored airplay came along, we realized that stations added songs into recurrent all the time. Except, by then, a song’s normal life cycle had changed. Recurrents had more of a place on radio stations than the charts would have led one to believe. The increased role of research meant that a song could often be seen to kick in right around the time that the label moved on, and many such songs (Pras ¬Michel’s “Ghetto Supastar,” “Connected” by Stereo MC’s) then stuck around forever, partially because nobody had heard them enough as currents.

(Callout also demonstrated that some songs could arrive at top 40 already warmed up. When Green Day’s “When I Come Around” topped the former Radio & Records Callout America chart, it was a revelation for top 40 PDs who weren’t yet acknowledging it. But that became a regular occurrence with modern rock hits, then with country crossovers when those songs began flowing again.)

If the recurrent got a boost from monitored airplay, it got another one in the Arbitron Personal People Meter era. Songs that were liked and familiar, but were no longer being pounded 100 times a week, turned out to be among a station’s most potent songs. Callout research used to clear the decks of novelty records pretty quickly; researcher Mark Kassof relates how the first song to go when his station added callout in its early days was Joe Tex’s “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman).” But now, retention scores keep LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” playing for a year. 

Consider now the Talkers article that Sabo Media’s Walt Sabo wrote in March, where he expressed amazement that a label didn’t work Anna Kendrick’s “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone)” until six months after the movie’s release, the accompanying online video buzz and Kendrick’s David Letterman appearance. Four months have now passed, and Kendrick’s song is only No. 13 at mainstream top 40 this week, although finally with the momentum to suggest that it will indeed “come home” at some point.

The increased gestation time of hits recently became a national consumer press story. Country’s policy of fast-tracking superstar hits and letting everything else develop over seven months has been modified slightly by top 40. Besides core artists, songs with the core rhythmic pop sound by a known artist can also get off to a quick start. It’s rock crossovers and first-timers who have to hang in there for a while.

The difference is that in country, many songs don’t exist in the public consciousness until they reach a certain level of airplay. Spending four months slogging between No. 50 and No. 18 and growing at the rate of 73 spins a week just means that you’re being kept in radio’s consideration set. In top 40, however, where songs become viral phenomena and sell immediately, it raises a bigger question of when a song is a hit. Was CeeLo Green’s “F**k You,” known worldwide within days, really not a hit until radio ratified it nine months later?

Of the songs that developed slowly, a few of them had a traditional trajectory, most notably Zedd’s “Clarity” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” The latter went from blogs to syncs to airplay, but it didn’t feel fully arrived until the end of the yearlong process. On the other hand, “Radioactive,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” and, yes, “Cups” all arrived at top 40 just as “When I Come Around” did—as hits already. It would be no surprise if certain listeners thought they’d been hearing them all along. 

In other words, they were added into recurrent.

Add in the songs with a more traditional development that are still getting played after nine months, and top 40 has officially become recurrent radio.

In part two of this article, we’ll discuss the implications.