Top 40 Radio's Complicated Road to Success – and Failure

Five years ago, when CBS launched top 40 stations in New York and Los Angeles, they staked out a very narrow piece of turf between mainstream and rhythmic top 40, a format that was itself a one-time halfway point between top 40 and R&B radio. It worked well for KAMP (97.1 Amp Radio) Los Angeles. It worked less well for New York’s 92.3 Now FM.

When Now FM launched, its top 40 rival WHTZ (Z100) decided to match Now's hyper-focus on rhythmic pop. A few months later, it hit on a different, ingenious strategy. WHTZ’S Sister WKTU went more current than it had been, and blocked Now from the rhythmic pop position. Z100 stayed a little broader, and both the station and format seemed to be better off for it. Now drifted away from the initial strategy, adding more mainstream pop over the years, but never got a foothold through its various changes.

Just before Memorial Day this year, Now relaunched as WBMP (92.3 Amp Radio). Without having been in their conference room, it’s not hard to imagine those assembled looking at the success of Los Angeles and deciding the original game plan deserved another chance, with one key modification: Now’s original “commercial-free Mondays” are Amp’s “commercial-free weekends.”

New York’s Amp is -- cheerfully -- a station of what researchers would call “three clusters”: its "core sounds” are a triumvirate of rhythmic pop, EDM, and R&B/hip-hop crossovers. New stations often use music research to identify core and secondary sounds. It sure sounds like somebody decided just not to bother with any secondary sounds -- and so far, that strategy has given the FM frequency its first true momentum in years, up 2.1 – 2.4 – 3.1 in July.

Z100 has gone 5.6 – 5.2 – 5.5 over the same period. It hasn’t parallelled Amp’s commercial-free weekends, but it now makes frequent references to being “commercial-free” during any music sweep. It isn’t quite as narrow as Amp musically, but it does seem to be covering its bases, especially on EDM (e.g., recurrent titles like Martin Garrix’s “Animals” and Cash Cash’s “Take Me Home” coming back in quasi-current rotation).


There’s a certain narrowness of sound on the Mainstream Top 40 chart in general at the moment. Of the two true pop balance titles, Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” and OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out,” the former has peaked and the latter is peaking without making power rotation in most markets. There’s nothing to the right of the pure pop of Demi Lovato’s “Really Don’t Care.” The song of the summer candidates are “Fancy,” “Problem,” and “Rude.” There’s already grumbling about all of them for various reasons, but one recurring theme is whether a hip-hop title like “Fancy” is mass-appeal enough to really be the summer song.

As is often the case, some of the imbalance at top 40 stems from what’s being promoted to the format. There’s plenty of available uptempo pop/rock at alternative, but none of it is being promoted to top 40 at the moment. There are proven international hits like Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance” and George Ezra’s “Budapest,” both of which will likely give top 40 back its Gotye-like quirky pop element, but they’re not at top 40 yet. “Budapest” just went to triple-A last week.

To some extent, what the labels are promoting to mainstream top 40 now has to do with what’s in the pipeline. You can’t say that established acts such as Tiesto and Steve Aoki are in any way the "second wave” of EDM, but we do have a lot of EDM and neo-soul at radio now, at least partially because we had a lot of EDM and neo-soul break through six-to-nine months ago.

It’s also not hard to imagine the New York top 40 battle sending ripples well beyond the market. Z100 is one of a handful of major-market top 40s trusted to send pop/rock records through the format. So if this is an inopportune moment for them to break an acoustic pop or pop/rock record, there will likely be fewer of them breaking nationally.

If you had to categorize a decade’s worth of my “Ross On Radio” columns, my own first cluster would almost certainly be the musical balance of the top 40 format. It has done a better job of regulating that balance recently, and it would take a lot to wear down the overarching all-ages excitement about today’s hit music. But what makes sense strategically for one station -- or its rival -- doesn’t necessarily make sense for the entire format.


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