What Top 40 Must Do Now
Maybe it’s not fair to look at Top 40’s numbers during the fall. The time after back-to-school has, traditionally, been a bad time for the format.
But have you seen the numbers?
It’s been common for a while to look through monthly PPMs and find only a station or two at the top of their market. But crunching just the 6+ PPMs makes the story more explicit.
There are only two CHRs that are No. 1 in their market this month: WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston and WNCI Columbus, Ohio. There are two others, KDWB Minneapolis and WRVW (The River) Nashville at No. 2 in their markets.
There are only ten CHRs with a five-share or higher. Of those, only five are in a top 25 market.
When you look at just the top-rated CHRs in their market, more than 50% of those are somewhere in the 4-5 share range, or below. At least 28 stations top out at a 4.9 or below, and that does not include the second CHRs in the market. (A true station count is obscured by the handful of markets where the likely top CHR is not in the published ratings, but would likely make the format look no stronger, based on the markets in question.)
There are certainly demo success stories camouflaged by looking at only 6+ numbers. There are also some markets where being in the high four-share range is a success story. There are also summer books coming back in diary markets with larger success stories in Tulsa, Okla., Knoxville, Tenn., Omaha, Neb., Albany, N.Y., and others. But those are summer, not fall. And there are also markets of that size where stations are up from spring and still only at a 4-share.
The proliferation of CHRs in PPM markets that began nearly a decade ago explains some, but not all of the compression. Of those stations 23 CHRs in the four-share range, at least five of them could be said to have no direct competition, although several of those have Adult CHR competitors that effectively serve that purpose. WIOQ (Q102) Philadelphia was left alone in the format earlier this year by the former WZMP, but after a good initial month with its format monopoly, is currently at a 3.8 share.
The numbers are, in many cases, not that much better than the ones that propelled CHR stations out of the format in the early ‘90s. Those stations were often second CHRs in the high-three-share range; it was when their former CHR listeners failed to move to the other Top 40 station that we sometimes found markets with no Top 40 at all. WEGX (Eagle 106) Philadelphia went to Smooth Jazz with a 4.5 share and rival Q102 having already segued to Churban.
There probably won’t be the same mass exodus from the format this time; perhaps not even for second CHRs. Broadcasters said at the outset of CHR’s late-‘90s resurgence that cluster strategies would finally make a four-share CHR viable; it’s just that their sincerity wasn’t tested often in the two decades that followed. And it is unlikely that broadcasters will be eager to end a war of attrition that might give a rival a seven-share.
It is perhaps because stations are not fleeing the format in big numbers that broadcasters have not been sufficiently motivated to recognize or address the crisis. But maybe we can consider the numbers and agree that:
The current musical lean of the format is not OK. If the numbers were okay, one might have argued that the listeners were leading the charge for mid-to-downtempo music. So who cared what guys-outside-the-demo (like the author) thought? But this is not an organic movement from the listeners. This is a cul-de-sac that is a result of product copy-catting and a failure of the format to take control of available product.
Top 40 is not its best self without tempo. It is certainly possible that the gains for older formats and the middling CHR numbers represents a bigger problem—less available listening from younger listeners. But the mother/daughter coalition ensured that there would be adults to turn on CHR radio, even if their kids didn’t do so on their own volition. Medium-weight tempo is what has always brought adults to the format.
Top 40 is not its best self without variety. And variety is not two kinds of records—EDM trap/pop ballads and loping mid-tempo tropical pop/dance. The variety that people talk about from CHR’s best periods—rock, rhythm, pop, country—doesn’t count if all four types of acts have made the same record.
Top 40 is not its best self without new music. The tendency in times like these, in any format, is to become more conservative and recurrent-driven. But playing mediocre records that people are lukewarm on more and for longer stretches is not the answer.
Watching the stream is one strategy, but won’t fix everything. It is a now familiar complaint that the hits gather thousands of streams on Spotify long before CHR finds them. Streaming creates its own issues—the hits it identifies have tended to be of a piece with what Top 40 has too much of. But fresher is still better.
When we last discussed CHR product, in the context of that music that was being sent to Hot AC and AC, there was some excitement about the just-released fall superstar product, and about the stylistic breakthrough that Portugal. The Man might represent at the format. Those are little jolts of energy, but they’re not yet a fix. Top 40 needs a steady injection of product all year around—not just May and September. And without it, it needs programmers ready to find the hits again.