The State of Radio

If Hip-Hop Dominates Streaming, Why Does Pop Rule Radio?

Khalid performs on Coachella Stage during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 14, 2019 in Indio, Calif.  Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
Gary Trust

Gary Trust is Billboard senior director of charts and Chart Beat columnist. Before joining Billboard in 2006, Trust worked on-air in radio for 14 years at such stations as WBMX Boston, WSNE Providence, R.I., and WMVY Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Almost a year elapsed between hip-hop tracks topping Billboard's Radio Songs chart. The reason: Pop programmers avoid sonic extremes, although the genre's trend toward more melodic singles may change that

Some stats about the current domination of R&B/hip-hop among all genres:

Approximately 60% of all music fans are hip-hop fans, according to Nielsen.

About 30% of all U.S. streams are hip-hop, with 2017 and 2018 marking the first two years that hip-hop has ever finished first among all genres.

Hip-hop also boasts the highest percentage of current-over-catalog streaming of any genre -- more than 50% -- illustrating fans’ appetite for new songs.

Yet, despite this data, 46 weeks passed between the two most recent hip-hop hits to top Billboard's all-genre Radio Songs chart.

Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin's "I Like It" topped Radio Songs on July 21 and 28, 2018. What followed was nearly a year of pop, rock and dance No. 1s, until Khalid's "Talk" took the top spot on June 22, 2019, and reigned for 11 weeks.

So how come pop rules radio when hip-hop dominates streaming? The answer seems to be that hip-hop fans are driven by what's new, while most formats -- especially pop -- are wary of taking chances on new music, especially tracks that may sound jarringly out of place with the rest of a station's playlist. However, a spate of more melodic hip-hop may change that.

For comparison, here's a breakdown of the Radio Songs hits that claimed the No. 1 spot during the past 61 weeks, compared with Billboard's Streaming Songs chart leaders for the same interval:

Hip-hop hits topped Streaming Songs for 44 of those 61 weeks but Radio Songs for only 13 weeks during the same period, most recently thanks to Khalid's "Talk," which has held the No. 1 spot on Radio Songs for 11 weeks. The track has been warmly welcomed by both pop and R&B/hip-hop radio formats and topped the mainstream top 40-based Pop Songs chart and R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay for four weeks each.

The disconnect between the two charts is all about consistency, according to pop radio programmers, who say that they avoid veering too much in one stylistic direction when it comes to assembling playlists -- a long-standing philosophy for those who work within the format.

"You don't want to be too much of what you're not," says Jagger, program director of iHeartMedia's WKSS (Kiss 95.7) Hartford, Conn. "Our audience knows that when they come to our station, they're going to hear Post Malone and Drake, but they're also going to hear Shawn Mendes."

"The beauty of top 40 is that we can siphon off the top of every genre, take the best of the best and combine it into one radio station," Mark Medina, program director of iHeartMedia's WHTZ (Z100) New York, told Billboard's Chart Beat Podcast. "It's always a giant jigsaw puzzle."

That rationale influences the Radio Songs chart. The Pop Songs reporting panel, currently at 168 stations, is the largest of any of Billboard's individual format charts (ahead of runner-up Country Airplay's 147 panelists), with over 1,300 stations representing all formats monitored by Nielsen Music feeding the weekly Radio Songs ranking.

Thus, if pop radio skews hip-hop, the Radio Songs chart is likely to reflect that.

Pop radio programmers closely monitor hip-hop hits and, through a mix of audience research, streaming data and, as always, gut feeling, add tracks and manage rotations that best fit the format's hybrid sound. Kiss 95.7, which covers the Hartford-New Britain-Middletown, Conn., market, for instance, began playing Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode" at night. The track topped the Streaming Songs chart on Jan. 12, about a month after it reached No. 8 on Radio Songs. It rose to its highest weekly plays (35) on Kiss twice, in the Dec. 31-Jan. 6 and Feb. 4-10 tracking weeks. Still, the top shares of its plays in those weeks were, fairly conservatively, in the midnight to 6 a.m. hours, followed by 7 p.m. to midnight.

Says Jagger: "We wanted to make sure it was right for us."

Although hip-hop tracks topped Radio Songs for less than a quarter of the 61-week period, it's not as if they've been absent from the airwaves. Among the titles that topped Streaming Songs during that stretch, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" reached No. 2 on Radio Songs, Drake's "In My Feelings" hit No. 3, Juice WRLD's "Lucid Dreams" landed a No. 6 peak, and Post Malone and Swae Lee's "Sunflower" ascended to No. 7.

One factor that unites all of those songs -- and is key to hip-hop tracks getting played on pop radio -- is melody. At a time when Drake and Post Malone, among others, are deftly mixing rapping with singing, and a sample of Sting's jazzy "Shape of My Heart" supplied the backbone of "Lucid Dreams," the trend should work in hip-hop's favor at pop radio moving forward.

"One thing that has played into our format for at least 10 years is when there's a hip-hop song that has a great hook. That usually wins over the mainstream audience," says Jagger. "We like when Drake gives us a song that has that singing feel to it; he can sing. Post Malone has proven it, too, with 'Better Now.'"

But, again, balance drives decisions. "What we do is marketing," says Medina. "We have to align ourselves with artists that fit our brand. It's not just, 'Oh, this song made it to No. 1 on this chart, so therefore it gets a spot on Z100.' We have to look at it from more of a 360 standpoint."

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