Did Top 40 Miss The Doldrums? Or Are They Upon Us?

Two different takes on top 40’s health, both from Ross On Radio readers:

“I think top 40 radio is in a funk. The music has become boring and drab and stays around way too long. [We] need more uptempo music,” Canadian "CHRDude" Norm Fisher tweets.

“Based on top 40’s current identity and strong ratings, this appears to be the very first time that an early decade has not brought with it a doldrum collapse,” writes John Buchanan of Walpole, Mass. “Do you believe that we are in the beginning of a doldrum phase?”

The early-’80s and early-’90s downturns were easy to read. Top 40 music was anodyne. Other formats’ music was hipper. Stations were abandoning the format, even if they had the franchise to themselves. Top 40 never quite bottomed out the same way in the early ’00s, despite programmers’ concerns about extreme music. But many top 40s did sit midpack—the effective second or third hip-hop/R&B station in their markets until Kelly Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone" came along.

Among radio people, the top 40 boom/bust cycles are as reliable a conversation starter as "How ’bout those (insert team name)?" They've been defanged slightly by the format's refusal to pancake on schedule in 2010. Metered ratings measurement has been accompanied by unprecedented changes on the format landscape. You knew top 40 was in trouble when oldies and country were up. The Portable People Meter (PPM) seemingly brought good news for all three.

So how healthy is mainstream top 40 at the moment? Here's the first part of its fall physical: 

Ratings: When the October PPM ratings came out a few weeks back, I scanned them with an eye on whether the format was experiencing its once customary fall downturn. The summer headlines had been about country, this year's apparent recipient of the "kids-out-of-school" bonus. 

I was on the lookout for bad news, but didn't get much further than the first day's results with the usual suspects in their usual desirable top three neighborhoods: KMVQ (Now 99.7) San Francisco; WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston; WBLI Long Island, N.Y.;  KDWB Minneapolis; KDND (the End) Sacramento, Calif. In Los Angeles, KIIS was off 5.9-5.4, but still first, with KAMP (Amp 97.1) at third (4.5-4.4). You could find drops like WIHT (Hot 99.5) Washington, D.C.'s 6.3-5.8, but there was always a KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas (7.8-8.2) to preserve the balance.

Top 40 doesn't have a top three lock on every market. Usually, the markets where no station dominates are those where the franchise has been split down the middle—Chicago; Tampa, Fla.; Philadelphia; Detroit; Charlotte, N.C. But since Los Angeles, the presence of two top 40s hasn't immediately signaled a war of attrition. The markets where a top 40 was down without an apparent culprit are a mere handful—St. Louis and San Diego this month.

Incoming stations: The excitement that PDs experienced as Amp 97.1 grew the format, then prompted an explosion of new second (or third) top 40s in a market has pretty much tapered off during the last year, although a station like WWPR (Power 96.1) Atlanta still happens along occasionally. The growth in recent weeks has been in new and rebranded younger-leaning country stations. 

During the '80s boom, a few markets like Milwaukee witnessed the spectacle of four top 40s. That was before the splintering of mainstream and rhythmic top 40. Count the two together, and Milwaukee now has three. Nationally, you can't really declare a format bust because most owners have declared the format fully populated at two or three stations per market. This time, the format boom is also regulated by the number of operators available to go top 40 in any given market.

Until a few days ago, there had been no significant traffic out of the format. Clear Channel recently took WKSL Raleigh, N.C., from top 40 to country—but there were three top 40s in the market and it owned two of them. Last weekend, it switched the second top 40 in Augusta, Ga., back to country. We'll see where that leads.

Tempo: The early-’80s and late-’90s booms are remembered for great music that was uptempo but not too sonically aggressive. The downturns are marked by a spate of ballads and songs that have tempo but no texture. In 1982, one of the format's lowest moments, a PD told the trades that he still had some rock on his AC-leaning station. The song he was referring to was "Do You Believe in Love" by Huey Lewis & the News. We'll look at available product, including Billboard Top 40 Update's front-page story on the ballad glut, next week.