Z100's year-end shows New York is still different.
It was one of the contradictions of broadcast radio in 2013. "Live and local" became a rallying cry for many broadcasters, and one that actually began to move the needle for a station or two. At the same time, the use of national programming elements—something done frequently but trumpeted rarely by major broadcast groups—became more public than ever.
The year began with the return of country to New York on the flagship of planned national superstation Nash-FM, but it was a peace offering to a label community otherwise unenthused about Cumulus' increasingly centralized music policy. It ended with a move by Clear Channel's top 40 stations that was likely noticed only by chart geeks, but was symbolic in its own way.
Instead of the New York year-end countdown that usually ran between Christmas and New Year's Day on WHTZ (Z100) New York, there was the iHeart Radio countdown. The same show could be found running on WHYI (Y100) Miami, or on other Clear Channel top 40 stations, or as a standalone on the iHeart Radio platform itself. The show is reportedly the launch pad for a weekly iHeart Radio countdown show planned for 2014. It is, in any event, an additional national year-end top 40 radio countdown from the company that already syndicates "American Top 40."
Through the years, Z100 has been a pretty good example that Clear Channel top 40s, despite consumer press grumbling to the contrary, were still able to program to their own markets. Miley Cyrus owes her music career to Z100's decision to champion "See You Again" when the rest of the format was content to leave her to Radio Disney. "See You Again" went on to become Z100's No. 15 song of 2008, more than twice as successful as its No. 31 showing on Billboard's top 100 of the year.
Not all the songs that set Z100 apart from the national mean were rhythmic, but it was often those songs that showed the power of dance music and indie labels in New York, from Crush's "Jellyhead" (No. 23 of 1997) to Vengaboys' "We Like to Party" (No. 19 in 1999) to Cascada's "Evacuate the Dancefloor" (No. 9 in 2008) to Kim Sozzi's "Feel Your Love" (No. 49 of 2009). It was also common for the consumer press of that era to accuse Clear Channel of ignoring independent labels. Z100 was often evidence to the contrary.
Those weren't obscure differences to anybody involved with a song. In the late '90s, I made the unlikely suggestion to a label friend that Dan Hill's "Can't We Try" might work as a dance record. The Rockell & Collage version faced considerable PD resistance nationally, but there was still validation in seeing it finish at No. 80 for the year on Z100 (and considerably higher on crosstown WKTU). I don't claim that "Can't We Try" occupies the same place in the firmament as Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" or the Blackout All Stars' "I Like It," but having a dance record that New Yorkers will remember as a hit, no matter what smaller markets might have thought, was still a point of pride.
It's not that Z100 started to sound like any other top 40 station in 2012. In EDM's breakthrough year, the dance feel is, if anything, more pronounced than ever. But if market-to-market differences were anything that Clear Channel ever thought to actively emphasize, this year the priority is clearly the continued building of iHeart Radio as a dashboard-ready national brand.
The information itself is still available. Since the mid-'90s, it has been easy enough to run year-end Nielsen BDSRadio recaps of the year's most-played songs on any monitored station, including Z100. You can argue that most-played throughout the course of the year doesn't always equal most impactful. Some songs compile spins during the course of 12 months, some during three. Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines," the iHeart No. 1 song of the year, is undoubtedly more totemic of 2013 than Zedd's "Clarity," which turns out to be Z100's most-played. But trends emerge nonetheless.
Beginning with "Clarity," five out of Z100's 10 most-played songs of the year are by legit EDM acts. Calvin Harris' "Sweet Nothing" is No. 2, Avicii's "Wake Me Up!" is No. 6, Harris' "I Need Your Love" is No. 7, and Krewella's "Alive" is No. 8. The latter is this year's best example of an EDM hit that separates New York from other regions. It's No. 63 on the iHeart countdown and didn't make the year-end Hot 100.
If you're willing to acknowledge EDM's impact on non-dance acts, you can find its DNA in seven out of Z100's top 10 most-played songs. But that requires dance fans to give props to Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" and Icona Pop's "I Love It."
The Z100 difference hasn't only been in the acknowledgement of dance titles. For a decade, it also worked harder on behalf of pure pop and punk/pop crossovers than many stations. Paramore's "Still Into You" is the No. 15 most-played song on Z100. It's only No. 73 on the iHeart countdown and barely makes the year-end Hot 100 (No. 100). Tegan & Sara's "Closer" is No. 61 on our Z100 tally, but No. 86 on iHeart. It was a hit everywhere, but Imagine Dragons' "It's Time" was No. 9 most-played on Z100 (with more airplay during the course of the year than "Radioactive"), but only in the 40s on iHeart or Billboard's tally.
In recent years, the charges of homogenized playlists and major-label favoritism in the consumer press have abated, not because they've been effectively rebutted, but because there are fewer consumer press radio writers and more gatekeepers beyond broadcast radio that help break the music they personally like.
Still, as the Z100 Jingle Ball becomes the national Jingle Ball tour and the branding of iHeart Radio continues, stories like those above aren't just for chart junkies. They're significant to anybody who follows this business and wonders what impact a single radio station has, or still attempts to have. As long as broadcasters use "live and local" as a rallying cry, it may be more important than ever to emphasize market-by-market differences. And here's to hoping we can still tell the same story in 12 months.