Mainstream Top 40 should look to cross generations again, but it won't be easy.
In the decade or so that began when Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" ushered in a new era of mass-appeal pop music, Top 40 became the all-ages format it had always wanted to be. While, in the early-1990s, Top 40 pandered to 25–34-year-olds and ended up pleasing nobody. And with the format flanked by hip-hop, country and alternative, every option was better for somebody. But in the mid-2000s until a few years ago, it was somehow possible to see even the 35-plus crowd being dominated by Top 40.
Even Mainstream Adult Contemporary stations took notice. That format could no longer count on an influx of 25-and-over listeners who were ready to graduate from Top 40. AC radio took notice and become a more contemporary-sounding, more millennium-based format. Even now, it's not rare to see 42-year-old listeners whose tastes are more contemporary than a 32-year-old, say, because of their kids.
The coalition is important because it allows a generation raised on and enamored with the radio to advocate for radio. Teens were the first territory lost in broadcast radio's battle with competing options. Even when they listened, radio didn't quite matter the same way. Winning with adult women means that the radio gets turned on in the first place. Now, if a 14-year-old wants to stream Spotify or their own music, there's less impetus to battle for radio, if adults aren't going to enjoy either set of music anyway.
The mother/daughter coalition also allows Mainstream Top 40 to compete effectively in metered audience measurement. One of the earliest truisms of the Portable People Meter (PPM), which Nielsen uses to measure how many people are listening to individual radio stations, was that it rewards "CUME" formats -- something which drove stations to become the second or third top 40 outlet in their markets, based on the total number of different people who listened for at least five minutes per day. But PPM measurement also seems to reward those stations that perform well in multiple demos, especially if 25-54 is one of them. It was not unusual to hear about an Alternative or Hip-Hop/R&B station dominating 18-34, but still posting a 3 percent share among listeners over 6 years old. If there are multiple ratings respondents within a household, better to be the station they could agree on.
Top 40's mid-'90s revival came about because broadcasters claimed that deregulation and duopoly made it easier for them to commit to youth-only formats and target the 12-to-24 crowd. But broadcasters certainly were not in any way unhappy when Top 40 became an all-ages format in the late '90s and again in the mid-'00s. With a seven-share, market-leading format available, why have a three-share niche?
Two genres seemed to drive the mother/daughter coalition at the time. One was the mainstream pop of Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Katy Perry and, eventually, Taylor Swift, often with a unifying female point of view. The other was the uptempo, medium-weight R&B/hip-hop that began with Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" and included Usher, Beyoncé, Pitbull, the Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida. By the end of the decade, it was possible to hear that sort of all-ages party record not just on the Top 40/Adult format but, in the case of the Peas' "I Gotta Feeling," even at Mainstream AC. Some of the biggest hip-hop titles at Top 40 at the moment are most phenomenal for not being that. Artists like NF, Logic and G-Eazy tap into the fractures between teens and adults. But a void exists as well.
I've railed a lot about the Mainstream Top 40 product in the last few years -- the lack of tempo, the lack of variety, the tight playlists. Complaining about the food and the portions might make it sound like I've officially entered grumpy old man territory, but the ratings show that the format isn't working for a lot of people. Last October, I looked at the ratings in the top 50 markets and found that the format was increasingly comprised of four-share radio stations, or less. Fall is traditionally a bad time for Top 40 and there were more outlets above a five-share in April. But there are other large markets where the format is led by a once prominent station in the three-share range.
When I write about Mainstream Top 40, there are always a few comments from readers who believe that the format cannot rebound. Some focus on the shift in younger loyalties from pop to hip-hop. Some on the younger listeners drifting away from broadcast radio altogether. Some of the comments are almost gloating; those are sometimes from former broadcasters not entirely unhappy to see the medium struggle without them.
Top 40 has survived shifts in musical taste before. I'm not worried about that one. As for Pandora and Spotify, those didn't exist during previous format doldrums and I can't eliminate them as a factor. As a researcher, I do see that Top 40 has not lost its purchase among adults. Those stations, often the ones they grew up with, remain big aspirational brands. The songs they play just aren't doing as much to keep them engaged for long.
The things that have always made the format better for everybody are the things that will make a difference now. One is variety, something hard to foster in what has become a format of 14 hits. Does Mainstream Top 40 need to better acknowledge hip-hop's streaming hits? Play more of the pop-flavored music at alternative? Foster more uptempo pure-pop? If Mainstream Top 40 merely increased its catalog to become a format of 17 hits, it could do all three.
Another key is adding medium-weight hits with tempo, energy and bounciness. That's hard at this particular moment when only two of the top 10 songs at Mainstream Top 40 could in any way be called uptempo. Programmers eagerly seize on an uptempo title -- e.g. Meghan Trainor's "No Excuses." When those songs peak in the teens and 20s, it's easy to declare that tempo doesn't work. But as songs start to line up for the Song of Summer 2018 derby, there's more tempo available again.
The song of summer itself is an opportunity. It's a time when the entire format coalition (and those beyond its usual reach) come together with the intent of a shared experience through hit music. From "I Gotta Feeling" to "Call Me Maybe," the great summer songs have been tentpoles. How people feel about this year's summer song often trends with how they feel about the format itself.