Radio

‘She’s Perfect Right Now for Top 40’: How Ariana Grande Made History at Pop Radio

Ariana Grande
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Ariana Grande attends the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020 in Los Angeles.

With a record number of singles in the top 10 of the Pop Airplay chart, the superstar is demonstrating her radio dominance -- as well as how top 40 has evolved.

Not many artists can sit atop the Billboard Hot 100 and boast an even more significant chart achievement during the same week. Yet that’s arguably what Ariana Grande did last week, when “Save Your Tears,” her latest team-up with The Weeknd, spent a second consecutive week at No. 1 on the Hot 100 -- just as Grande made history on a different chart with three other hit singles.

On Billboard's mainstream top 40 radio-based Pop Airplay chart, “POV,” Grande’s latest single from last year’s Positions album, rose three spots to No. 10 in its seventh week (on the chart dated May 15), while the album’s first two singles, “Positions” and “34+35,” came in at No. 6 and No. 9, respectively. As such, Grande became the first artist to post three top 10 songs at the same time in the Pop Airplay chart’s 29-year history.

Grande has spent much of the past decade finding success at top 40 radio: “POV,” which moves up to No. 7 on this week’s chart (while “Positions” drops to No. 8 and “34+35” holds at No. 9), is the superstar’s 19th top 10 hit on the Pop Airplay chart. Since her first top 10 hit came in June 2014 with her Iggy Azalea collaboration “Problem,” Grande has become the most consistent top 40 presence in the Pop Airplay chart’s upper tier, with her 19 top 10 hits the most of any artist in that nearly seven-year time frame (Justin Bieber comes in second, with 15 top 10 hits).

Now, with a record three concurrent top 10 hits on the chart, Grande has demonstrated just how dominant her blend of traditional pop, R&B, hip-hop influences and powerhouse vocals have become at the format. “Listeners love her,” says Jeremy Rice, director of branding and programming for WBLI (Long Island, N.Y.). “The consumption and research is there. She flows very well alongside other rhythmic and pop records. She’s perfect right now for top 40.”

“She’s mass appeal -- she reaches moms and daughters among millions of followers,” adds Jon Zellner, president of programming operations at iHeartMedia. “All three of these songs are catchy, they have strong hooks, they’re melodic, and they span a couple of generations, which is different from a very young-end artist that doesn’t have a lot of appeal for thirty-plus [listeners].”

Gary Spangler, executive vp at Grande's label Republic Records, says that Grande has made Pop Airplay chart history thanks in part to the immediate fan reaction to “POV,” the R&B ballad that slows down the tempo of Grande’s recent top 40 offerings and became a TikTok hit months before impacting pop radio. “Positions” and “34+35” were released one week apart last October in conjunction with the Positions album, and then, Spangler says, “The fans gravitated to ‘POV,’ which became the obvious choice for the third single.”

Spangler credits John Ivey, president of contemporary hits radio programming strategy at iHeartMedia, for testing “POV” “much earlier than normal” in their internal callout research, before the song started being worked at pop radio. “The results were clear -- listeners were already familiar with the song and loved it,” Spangler says. “That helped drive the momentum for a quick ascent into the top 10.”

Meanwhile, “Positions” and “34+35” have proven implacable at top 40 radio during the rise of “POV,” residing in the top 10 of the Pop Airplay chart more than half a year after their releases. “Positions” spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Pop Airplay chart beginning in December, while “34+35,” which received a remix featuring Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion,” topped the chart for three weeks in February.

“The biggest thing [Grande’s chart achievement] shows is the staying power of these singles,” says Erik Bradley, music director at chart reporters KNOU (97.1 Now!) Los Angeles and WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago. “‘Positions’ and ‘34+35’ have lasted forever.”

Interestingly, Zellner says that the three Positions singles have held on at pop radio more comfortably than the trio of smashes from Grande’s previous album, 2019’s Thank U, Next, even though songs like “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings” logged more time at the top of the all-format Hot 100 chart (and the third single, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” reached No. 2 on the Hot 100). “Those sort of came and went a lot faster [at radio],” says Zellner. “We saw a lot of burn much faster on those, but on ‘Positions’ and ’34+35,’ we’re not seeing nearly that burn. I think these songs are going to have a much greater shelf life, and be around a lot longer.”

Grande’s latest chart feat also emphasizes the changing nature of pop radio, which has developed an increased appetite for playing concurrent singles from the same A-list artist in recent years. Although Grande isn’t the first pop star to have multiple singles worked to the format the same time -- her fellow SB Projects artist Justin Bieber flooded radio leading up to his Justice album earlier this year -- her three concurrent top 10 singles suggests an even greater acceptance for stations to make multiple tracks from the same artist the most-played songs on their airwaves, if that artist is a cross-demographic juggernaut like Grande.

“You have to go where the listeners and fans are going,” says Alex Tear, vp pop music & programming at Sirius XM/Pandora. “If it’s igniting on multiple platforms, you can bet we should be playing it, because that’s what the fans want. So it doesn’t surprise me that there [are] more songs by a single artist being able to be played simultaneously, not necessarily back-to-back but within the hour, because of audience demand.”

Zellner adds that, pre-steaming, there used to be more rules that radio programmers had to follow about not playing two types of songs back-to-back, and spacing out songs by the same artist a certain number of minutes apart. “That’s not necessarily the way people listen to music anymore,” he says. “When people are able to curate their own playlists -- and you have playlists being curated for them -- I think it’s changed everything, and radio programmers have needed to adapt to that.”

As top 40 radio continues to evolve, Grande’s run at the format shows no signs of slowing down: along with the three Positions hits, the “Save Your Tears” remix could pick up at pop radio in the coming months, as The Weeknd’s solo version of the track remains at No. 1 on the Pop Airplay chart. “Between her current songs and recurrent airplay, in many markets Ariana can be heard on the radio every 20 minutes,” says Spangler.

There’s also the possibility of more Positions radio singles, based on how well the album’s first three have performed, Tear points out. Or Grande could score another radio smash with an as-yet-unreleased solo song or collaboration -- after all, she released a pair of Hot 100 chart-toppers, “Stuck With U” alongside Justin Bieber and “Rain On Me” with Lady Gaga, roughly a year ago, with little warning ahead of each.

“Maybe she’ll have something ready for the summer -- Ariana is unscripted and unpredictable, which I think is very appealing,” says Tear. “We’re just going to be waiting for what she has to throw at us.”