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‘Radioactive’ Explosion: How Imagine Dragons’ Hit Has Conquered Multiple Radio Formats

Radio programmers discuss how a song that's "a little alternative, a little pop, a little dubstep" has become a multi-format smash.

Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” has turned into one of the most prophetic titles in Billboard chart history.

The track links a 21st week at No. 1 on Rock Airplay, breaking the record for the longest reign dating to the Nielsen BDS-based chart’s June 20, 2009, inception. Foo Fighters’ “Rope” ruled for 20 weeks from its debut the week of March 12, 2011.

Reinforcing its lengthy journey to multi-format radio acceptance, “Radioactive” debuts at No. 26 on Adult Contemporary … 46 weeks after it launched on Alternative Songs, where it went on to spend a hefty 13 weeks at No. 1 beginning in March. The song continues to ripen at other formats, pushing 5-2 on Adult Pop Songs, bulleting at No. 3 for a second week on Pop Songs and, in its fifth week, rising 14-13 on the adult alternative Triple A chart.

The song’s Hot 100 run reflects its lengthy build at radio, as it returns to its No. 3 peak in its 47th week on the survey. Aiding its rank, “Radioactive” logs its best streaming week yet (4.6 million U.S. streams, according to BDS). It’s sold 4.3 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (At 47 weeks and still gaining, it’s not too early to wonder if “Radioactive” could pass Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” as the longest-charting entry in the Hot 100’s history. “Yours” spent 76 weeks on the chart in 2008-09.)


What elements have led to such a “Radioactive” boom?

“As Imagine Dragons are a Vegas band, we’ve been aware of them for a long time. They played the annual Bite of Las Vegas event several times before they even got signed to Interscope,” says Charese Fruge, program director of Las Vegas’ alternative KXTE and adult pop KMXB. The stations have played “Radioactive” a whopping 2,057 and 743 times, respectively, through July 25. “They have a huge fan base here, so we can do no wrong by playing them on both stations.”

Beyond the band’s local appeal, though, Fruge says that an element of originality is central to the allure of “Radioactive.” “There is something that is so sexy about this song and there is so much depth to it. It’s completely different from anything else on the radio right now. Your first impression is that it’s a rock song on an alternative station. Then, it connects with the audience and won’t go away. Before you know it, it’s showing up in research on pop and adult stations …”

Alternative WMRQ Hartford, Conn., PD Brian Ram echoes that the station’s listener research on “Radioactive” has been strong. “It continues to be,” he notes, with the station now 1,193 plays into it.

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“Radioactive” and follow-up alternative single “Demons” are WMRQ’s two most-played songs over the past seven days (at 40 and 38 spins, respectively). In that span, “Radioactive” passed the band’s 2012 breakout hit “It’s Time” (1,175) in total plays on the station.

“Time” reached No. 4 on Alternative Songs in June 2012. Following the domination of “Radioactive,” “Demons” holds at its No. 3 peak. (The songs have helped parent album “Night Visions,” Imagine Dragons’ first studio set, sell 1.2 million copies in the U.S.) Ram feels that the songs have reinforced the alternative format’s draw as a provider of crossover hits, which in recent months have included those by Gotye, fun., Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Capital Cities and more. “Alternative is in a great spot right now with many songs debuting here and moving to other formats.”

After “Time” climbed to No. 10 on Pop Songs in March, “Radioactive” debuted on the chart the week of May 4, amid its Alternative Songs reign. Whereas the crunchy, intense track seems a natural for alternative radio, pop PDs say that the song’s texture has helped it stand out among more dance-oriented fare at their format.

“My feeling is that the song has a formula that isn’t common at pop radio,” says Jet Black, PD of Pop Songs reporter KHTT Tulsa, Okla., which has played “Radioactive” 1,122 times. “Our format was inundated with 132 beats-per-minute rhythmic records, as well as a handful of singer/songwriter types. But … there was nothing in the middle.

“‘Radioactive’ is a little alternative, a little pop, a little dubstep … the best of three big genres.

“A perfect storm, so to speak.”

(The song’s layers seem in line with the band’s longtime philosophy of building its fanbase. “We never said ‘no’ to anything,” Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds reveals in the act’s recent Billboard magazine cover story. “We’d play birthday parties, weddings, casinos … We wanted to perform and create as much as possible.”)

Barry McKay, PD of alternative-leaning Adult Pop Songs panelist WPTE Norfolk, Va. (which has spun “Radioactive” 1,313 times), strengthens the consensus that the song’s innovative sound is largely responsible for its success at so many radio formats. “I think there is a lot to the song, from the style of the vocals to the power of the song itself. It feels a little like old-school rock but still sounds new.

“It’s also fitting in well with Mumford & Sons, fun. and other crossovers,” McKay says. “The dance/rhythmic sound of other hits was beginning to burn and listeners were looking for the next exciting thing.

“They’ve found it in songs and bands like this.”

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