Part II of a Series

Part II of a series.

Top 40 radio is increasingly “adding songs into recurrent.” New songs by core artists and rhythmic pop titles by veteran ones make their way quickly up the charts—sometimes clearing the top 10 before we know if they’re a real hit. Pop/rock titles need four months to top the alternative chart and another four months to work their way up from secondaries to majors. Some viral phenomena have the “Gangnam Style” novelty trajectory that you’d expect. Others, like Anna Kendrick’s “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone),” finally crack the top 10 after nine months sales and streaming activity, making the question of “When did it actually become a hit?” a less abstract one than ever.

Songs that explode immediately at top 40—“Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines,” “Love Somebody,” etc.—are increasingly the exceptions that prove the rule. Add the glacially developing songs to the hits that won’t die—“Can’t Hold Us,” “Come & Get It,” “Just Give Me a Reason”—and it’s not unfair to say that top 40 has become recurrrent radio. But is that a problem? 

For now, the answer is no. The format is as adult-friendly as any other time in the last 30 years, and it manages to do so without openly pandering to upper demos. Anybody who might be looking for something radically different than the current top 40 template has selected themselves out of the radio audience. And even those who go to Pandora, Rhapsody or other online music services are likely to end up with something even a little more conservative than today’s mainstream top 40 FMs.

Top 40 programmers don’t have much incentive to change the fast-on-rhythm/glacial-on-everything-else model. It’s the chassis that the majority of large-market Clear Channel top 40 stations have successfully been built upon for 15 years. CBS Radio has gotten attention for its stewardship of new top 40 titles lately, but musically aggressive stations like KMVQ (99.7 Now) San Francisco and KAMP (Amp 97.1) Los Angeles have alternative stations next door, so when they take shots it’s also on rhythmic pop.

Because alternative radio hasn’t yet reached top 40’s level of critical mass, it’s no problem to let it indefinitely warm up the rock hits. When “Radioactive” arrives at top 40 already a hit, it isn’t a signal to top 40 PDs that they waited too long—it’s a confirmation that they will always have a certified hit ready for one of their two or three “rock slots.”

And while some label reps are frustrated by the slow incubation for anything other than rhythmic pop, they haven’t really forced the issue. Country departments in particular are more comfortable letting country radio move on to the next The Band Perry or Florida Georgia Line single before risking their primary relationship. If a station found its own cut on a superstar artist’s CD to play, they’d probably get a label call about messing up the game plan. But that need to have all the pieces in play at once rarely extends to having, say, alternative, hot AC and mainstream top 40 supporting a song simultaneously.

So is there anything that would make top 40’s recurrent radio model a liability? Perhaps, on a market-by-market basis, if a station came on the air that was consistently committed to music discovery and able to successfully call out a rival in a way that listeners cared about. The latter part is the hardest. PDs finally decided among themselves that having the new superstar release four minutes ahead of the competition wasn’t that big an issue for most listeners. Now, many PDs understand that “music discovery” is a valuable attribute, but the term is almost cheapened by its casual use now. There’s undoubtedly a “music discovery” stager running before the 9-month-old Kendrick song somewhere. Could a rival keep that station honest?

In the late ’90s, the Clear Channel top 40s that helped create the current template made very effective use of “all the hits, not just some of them,” which somehow became effective code for “We play more hip-hop than the other guys.” With the number of available hits from outside rhythmic pop now overflowing their available spots, you could probably use “not just some of them” effectively against some of today’s top 40 stations, although you would need a corollary: “All the hits, when they matter.”