“Personalities make it personal,” says radio advocate Mark Medina of WHTZ New York, who leads the field of the nation’s 11 most influential top 40 gatekeepers.
1. Mark Medina, 42
Program Director, WHTZ-FM New York
In a year when music streaming services have grown faster than ever, WHTZ (Z100) New York’s Mark Medina understands the enduring power of broadcast radio. “The personalities make it personal,” says Medina, who was named program director of Z100 in late 2014. “The human curation of radio can’t be matched by an algorithm. The companionship and relationships that [radio personalities] have with the audience … they bring the music to life.”
Medina is Billboard’s top pop programmer of the year, recognizing his leadership of Z100, iHeartMedia’s mainstream top 40 powerhouse. With a cumulative audience of 4.3 million in April, according to Nielsen Audio, WHTZ continues to be the most listened-to top 40 station in the United States.
That achievement is even more noteworthy in the wake of staff changes in recent years. Afternoon drive-time host JJ Kincaid left in 2015 to become morning man at iHeartMedia’s KPTT (95.7 The Party) in Denver. Dave Foxx retired from his longtime imaging role as the signature voice of Z100. And last October, music director Jagger became program director for two iHeartMedia stations in Connecticut, WKSS Hartford and WKCI New Haven.
“Being able to move others like Mo’ Bounce and Maxwell up [to afternoons and nights, respectively] and bring in Staxx for imaging and give 23-year-old Brady a shot at late nights was equally rewarding,” says Medina.
A more consistent key to Z100’s success, says the father of three, is Elvis Duran and the Morning Show, which celebrated its 20th anniversary (and its 10th as a syndicated program, distributed through Premiere Radio Networks) in 2016. Between Duran and Mo’ Bounce’s shows, Ryan Seacrest’s syndicated On-Air continues to create another high profile for middays on the station.
Medina himself benefited from radio’s musical chairs. He rose to lead Z100 after former PD Sharon Dastur took on a national programming position at iHeartMedia. “There’s no ego” at Z100, he says. “Nobody has to puff out their chest. They know what they did to get here. Nobody takes it for granted.”
2. John Ivey, 58
Senior VP Programming/Top 40 Brand Manager, iHeartMedia; Program Director, KIIS-FM Los Angeles
Ivey’s pop instincts have kept KIIS-FM the ratings leader in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest radio market. The iHeartMedia station ranked No. 1 among all listeners ages 18-34 and women ages 25-54 in April, the same position it held a year ago, while it rose from No. 8 to No. 3 among men ages 25-54, according to Nielsen Audio. Ivey’s impact is felt well beyond Southern California. The Kentucky-raised radio vet plays a national role in the company’s programming and promotions. One example? “We’ve [grown] the Jingle Ball from New York and Los Angeles into a 12-market tour,” he says. “Booking it is a big thing for us. There’s always a sigh of relief — before I start to book for the next year.”
3. Kevin Weatherly, 54
Senior VP, CBS Radio; Program Director, KAMP/KROQ/KCBS-FM Los Angeles
“I grew up around radio and always had a passion for it,” says Weatherly, who started as a DJ on his father’s AM station in Casa Grande, Ariz. On Weatherly’s watch, mainstream top 40 KAMP (97.1 AMP Radio), which debuted in 2009 among a crowded field of hit stations, ranked at No. 7 among all Los Angeles listeners ages 18-34 and at No. 5 among women ages 18-34 in April, according to Nielsen Audio. Its weekly cumulative audience has hit 2.4 million, says Weatherly. “We elbowed our way in with an uptempo ‘music first’ approach,” he says. Apart from his national -programming duties for CBS, the Los Angeles-based Weatherly oversees a team with ears to the street but also focused on what listeners want most. “At the end of the day, it’s still about stars and hits.”
4. Kid Kelly
VP Music Programming For POP FOrMATS, SiriusXM?
?Kelly’s career included stops at Z100 — among many other outlets — before his 2003 arrival at SiriusXM, where he directs the satellite broadcaster’s pop channels, including mainstay Hits 1. When the Brooklyn-born Kelly gets behind a track, sales “explode,” says one label executive. With his pop clout contributing to SiriusXM reaching 31.6 million paid subscribers, Kelly says that programming “should be ‘gut first.’ We need more visionaries who make pop an exciting format with new artists all the time.”
5. Michael Martin, 54
Senior VP of Programming and Music Initiatives, CBS Radio; Program Director, KMVQ/KLLC, CBS Radio San Francisco
Martin has led San Francisco pop station KMVQ (99.7 Now!) to a No. 4 ranking among women 18-34, according to Nielsen Audio’s April ratings, while staying “very musically aggressive,” he says. Expect to hear breakout artists like James Arthur alongside Ed Sheeran. The California native’s national CBS role has him programming shows like We Can Survive at the Hollywood Bowl in October 2016, with Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, Pitbull and G-Eazy. Says Martin: “We remind listeners that when they see a new song on Spotify, they’ll hear it on their favorite station.”
6. Todd Cavanah, 54
VP Programming, CBS Radio Chicago
While it has taken the Chicago Cubs considerably longer to become champions, Cavanah’s WBBM-FM (B96) has been a consistent winner in Chicago. The station reached No. 1 among listeners 18-34 in April, up from No. 5 a year earlier, according to Nielsen Audio. “The hardest thing is keeping an older brand vibrant and young, and we’ve been able to do that,” says Cavanah, a Colorado native who has been at WBBM for 27 years. Unlike other top 40 outlets, the station’s strategy involves going off-road for songs like “Body Like a Back Road” by country star Sam Hunt. “When a song’s that big, you can’t put it in a box,” he says. “Our female listeners wanted it too.”
7. Phil Guerini, 53
VP Music Strategy, Disney Channels Worldwide; GM, Disney Radio Networks
Camila Cabello, Selena Gomez, Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Katy Perry are just some of the top pop acts who released new singles during one “not tremendously unique” week in May, says Guerini, who has mastered the art of the ideal musical mix for Radio Disney. But “radio is much more than just a playlist of songs,” he notes. As the platform competes with streaming services, “engagement with its listeners will continue to be a market advantage.” One example of that engagement: The Radio Disney Music Awards in April drew 280 million fan votes (compared with 10 million when it debuted in 2012) and over 1 million views on YouTube.
8. Patrick Davis, 53
Senior VP Programming, Dallas region, iHeartMedia; Program Director, KHKS Dallas
For Davis, local radio programming still matters. “That drive to connect with people, whether through music, promotions or community projects, is the most exciting part to me,” says the PD of KHKS, Dallas’ No. 1 station among listeners 18-34 in April, according to Nielsen Audio. And when tragedy strikes, the medium’s local role is even more crucial. In the wake of the July 2016 ambush in Dallas that left five police officers dead and nine more wounded, “our jocks did an amazing job of getting people to donate help,” says the father of four. “There was such a need to help the community heal.”
9. Steve Salhany, 53
VP Hot AC, CBS Radio; Operations Manager, CBS Radio/Hartford, Conn.; Program Director, WBMX/WODS Boston
How did Salhany take Boston’s WODS (103.3 AMP Radio), once ninth-ranked among adults 18-34, into the top three? “We try to jump on the right records early and often,” says the father of two. Another secret to success: employing a local focus, which is a strategy at nearly every station that Salhany has programmed. “Radio’s advantage over other platforms is [its ability] to relate to people,” he says. “It’s the only card we have left, and we’re holding it in our pocket.”
10. Jill Strada
Director of Branding and Programming, Cox Media Group, WFLC/WEDR Miami
“You can’t buy your way in,” says Strada of the concerts she has presented for listeners of top 40 station WFLC (Hits 97.3) and R&B/hip-hop outlet WEDR (99 Jamz). The creator of the Hit Sessions and JAMZ Uncensored shows, Strada has lured artists such as The Chainsmokers, Jason Derulo, Daya and David Guetta for private gigs, helping to boost WFLC to a No. 2 rating among women 25-54, according to Nielsen Audio. “This kind of live experience,” she says, “was missing in South Florida.”
Cumulus’ National Pop ‘Guardrail’
Cat Thomas, 54
VP Contemporary Music, Cumulus
Cumulus stands apart among the nation’s top radio chains in the view of industry sources, who cite Thomas for his influential — and centralized — role. He oversees programming for nearly 50 pop stations nationwide — using Amazon’s Alexa to tune in to each from his home office in Las Vegas. He describes his job as being “a guardrail” for local programmers, “to make sure they don’t run off the cliff,” he says with a laugh. While working in a primarily female-targeted format, Thomas has the ears for it. “I’ll be the first to tell you,” he says, “I listen like a girl.”
Honorees were chosen by Billboard editors after surveying industry sources, including record company promotion executives. Sources were asked to identify the most influential mainstream top 40 programmers from leading radio companies. To distinguish this list from the radio executives on Billboard’s Power 100, only honorees with direct programming responsibility for at least one individual radio station were eligible for the top 10. (A national Cumulus programmer is recognized in a sidebar.) Rankings were established based on a combination of market size, Nielsen Audio data and the honorees’ influence as cited by industry sources.
Source: Nielsen Music Year-End Report U.S. 2016
66% Music listeners who discover new hits through some form of radio, which is still the most popular format for music listening
47% Listeners who tune in to AM or FM stations over the air instead of online
8.1% Share of total listeners who favor mainstream top 40 radio, most among music formats and second only to the
Source: Nielsen Music Year-End Report U.S. 2016
Rich Appel, Cathy Applefeld Olson, Phyllis Stark, Chuck Taylor, Gary Trust, and Deborah Wilker also contributed to this story.