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Honor the Top of the Hour, and Keep It Hot

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There are two types of programmers. Some PDs still care what happens at the top of the hour; the other resolutely do not care about it. If you’re in the latter camp, the notion that anything special should happen at :00, or that it should then be followed by an uptempo song, is the most hidebound of clichés. PPM shows the audience flows in and out at a steady pace throughout the hour. So why should anything different happen?

In fact, the debate over what happens at the top of the hour has gone on long enough to become a cliché itself. Over the years, it has tended to track with programmers’ philosophies on imaging itself. The “ladies-and-gentlemen” Drake ID went away in the early ‘70s, replaced by the jock dry over music. The big :00 jingle made a comeback with top 40 itself in the early ‘80s, then gave way to the more aggressive “lock it in and rip the knob off” production of the late ‘80s, which went away when the format itself fell into decline. Then it took on the deliberately tossed-off feel of the sparser “police radio” era of imaging.

Even if a programmer did believe in the hot-sounding top-of-the-hour ID, there was no guarantee that the available music on a contemporary station would match. I remember hearing the “rip the knob off” ID next to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” the song for which it was seemingly made. But I also heard it next to “I’ll Be Over You” by Toto. And during top 40’s previous mushy era in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I remember hearing WIFI Philadelphia attempt the gutsiest possible :00 talkup over “We’re All Alone” by Rita Coolidge.

These days, it feels like the more produced top-of-the-hour has made a comeback, not always through a renewed commitment to showmanship, but often because it’s paid for. The sponsored “live from the Branford Group Auto Mall” legal sometimes, if you try hard enough, reminds me of John Landecker riffing about broadcasting from WLS Chicago “high atop the downtown Burger King.” But sometimes, depending on what sales has crammed in, it bogs down in copy and becomes a 15-second spot that just happens to contain a station ID. And increasingly the legal is big because it’s the stager for iHeart stations’ hourly superstar artist premieres.

Scanning the dial today, the only station I heard doing a cold segue between two records at :00 had the legal ID at :03. Otherwise, traditional top-of-the-hours were pretty well represented. Generally, the IDs were in keeping with the “polite-but-firm” sound of today’s imaging, neither tossed-off-sounding nor too grandiose. But I heard some very traditional IDs—imaging voice plus air talent plus jingle plus zips-and-zaps.

When the :00 ID is more aggressive, the song played might be a record that stands up to it. But there might be one of the gently gurgling chillout-influenced pop hits that populate CHR and Hot AC now. Or “See You Again.” Or a ballad. During the Pink/Rihanna/Bruno Mars troika of piano ballads a few years ago, the top-of-the-hour song was often funereal. Some readers will reasonably say that the top of the hour is a backwards reason not to play your strongest songs. But even songs that bring the station to a halt in a good way sound extra awkward with legal IDs (or other stagers) that are produced just hot enough to sound incongruous next to them.

As somebody who schedules Greatest Hits/Oldies stations for a living, there’s usually enough available tempo to have a traditional impact record at :00 without worrying about it. There are also a few honorary tempo records–ballads or midtempo songs that have strong or distinctive first notes. But when I hear “You’re So Vain” or “Bennie & the Jets” at the top of the hour on another Greatest/Classic Hits station, I know that the next ‘70s power will be even wimpier because there were no other available choiices. Recently, I’ve been working with a PD who isn’t hung up on tempo at :00, and I’ve been challenging myself to leave “Candle in the Wind” at :00, rather than get bogged down trying to replace it.

I’m not naive about the tactical importance, or lack thereof, of the top of the hour. But I still regard it as a policy statement, and a commitment to fun, entertainment, and the experience listeners can’t have with their own music collections or a digital library. Not every movie begins with the credits either, but imagine Star Wars without them.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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