History of Radio, Top 40, Radio Station Formats, Broadcasting

Why Do We Have Top 40 Radio? (Live365 History of Radio)

Some people love it, others would rather listen to stations that don't use it. No matter your opinion, there's no denying Top 40 is an important format in the world of radio. It keeps listeners up to date on the hottest music. It also plays what lots of people want to hear.

We all know the significance of Top 40 and how much it's used today, but when did it begin? Whose bright idea was it to play the highest-trending hits on the charts? We're dishing all the secrets about Top 40 on this week's Live365 History of Radio. Why? Because it's actually a more valuable part of radio's history than you might think. In fact, it saved radio from becoming obsolete.

How Top 40 Was Invented

As The Buggles would say, "video killed the radio star." After World War II, radio stations rapidly expanded in number to more than 2,000 AM outlets by the early 1950s. But once television became popular during that same decade, radio had a big problem.

Because American commercial television grew more quickly than expected, the number of network radio affiliates declined by more than half. Network audio dramas and variety programs shifted to television or left the air, so they were replaced by strictly music-driven local programming. Public-service-oriented systems on radio also transitioned to television.

However, because of its high cost at the time, public service television grew very slowly in the 1950s. This bought the radio community some time to figure out how they were going to survive amidst the fierce competition. Fortunately, station owner Todd Storz in Omaha, Nebraska, saw a strategy. Storz and his program director, Bill Stewart, noticed how patrons at a bar kept playing the same few songs on a jukebox. Because of this, Stewart wrote down the song titles on the box and utilized the list to play 30 songs on the station - which was later increased to 40.

Storz's Top 40 format consisted of tightly-timed records with brief news, weather, and sports reports, as well as occasional features and frequent time checks and station promotion. The format was used first by about twenty stations in 1955, but by 1960, hundreds of stations were using it. Soon enough, every big station was a Top 40 station.

How Top 40 Got Its Name

Surprisingly, the term "Top 40" didn't actually appear until the 1960s. Its introduction harmoniously coincided with a transition from the old ten-inch 78 rpm record format to the seven-inch 45 rpm format. The Top 40 basically became a survey of the popularity of 45 rpm singles and their airplay on the radio.

Additionally, popular nationally-syndicated radio shows, such as American Top 40, featured a countdown of the 40 highest ranked songs on a particular music or entertainment publication. Although these publications often listed more than 40 hits (such as the famous Billboard Hot 100), radio station time constraints allowed for only 40 songs to be featured. Hence, the term "Top 40."

With Top 40 radio's rise, the era of radio "programs" ended, as the medium now operated in "formats." Stations would primarily broadcast a certain type of content, usually music, all the time. Instead of programs, stations would offer different disc jockeys by segments of the day (known as “dayparts” in the business), but the music they played was largely the same.

Despite the consistency in music, some disc jockeys managed to make it big in the industry despite playing the same tunes as their co-workers. For example, Dick Clark rose to fame in the biz after having lots of success with younger listeners. Because of his clean-cut persona, he also gained the admiration of their parents and became a fixture on television's American Bandstand.

How Rock 'n' Roll Aided Top 40

If it weren't for the teeny boppers of the 50s and their love of rock 'n' roll music, Top 40 wouldn't be as big of a thing as it is today.

In the early days, Top 40 featured primarily rock 'n' roll music. Elvis Presley’s arrival in 1956 as the first rock superstar helped cement the new radio trend. So did new music from rock 'n' roll artists like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bill Haley.

Additionally, when radio jingles had a boom in the 1950s thanks to PAMS, stations used them to promote their special rock 'n' roll Top 40 radio. Among the legendary Top 40 radio stations of the late 50s and early 60s were WTIK in New Orleans, WHB in Kansas City, KLIF in Dallas, and WABC in New York.

The Payola Problem

Once national radio formats were established and similar Top 40 songs were being played across the country, radio airplay became a major factor in selling vinyl records. This led to shady behavior, as record labels began looking for opportunities to influence what songs were played in Top 40 radio formats.

Labels began to pay - or quite simply, bribe - DJs and radio stations to play their new records, particularly rock 'n' roll records. The sleazy practice became known as payola. The problem of payola would eventually be addressed by the United States Senate in the late 1950s. Following investigations, famed radio DJ Alan Freed lost his job because of it, and oh-so-clean-cut Dick Clark was nearly implicated as well!

Many thought payola was over after that, but it ultimately returned in the 1980s with the use of independent promoters. In fact, in 2005, major label Sony BMG was forced to pay a $10 million fine for improperly making deals with chains of radio stations.

Top 40 Today

Top 40 has had its highs and lows over the years. It waned in the 1970s due to the introduction of the static-free FM transmission. However, it came back in the late 70s and 80s due to the success of "Hot Hits" formats. Today, Top 40 radio has evolved into what is called Contemporary Hits Radio, although Top 40 remains a popular term in the business. The style of programming a tight playlist of hit songs mixed with some news and promotion of the radio station itself has now become dominant across a wide number of musical genres.

By 2000, "Top 40" as a term had evolved beyond its roots as a radio format. "Top 40" is now widely used to represent mainstream music in general. Billboard even has a Mainstream Top 40 radio chart (also called the Pop Songs Chart). The songs on it are compiled by detecting the tracks played on a selection of Top 40 radio stations. The songs are then ranked according to popularity, and songs that rank below #15 on the chart and have spent more than 20 weeks on it overall are removed. That rule keeps the list of songs fresh.

With streaming platforms on the rise today, the ways of calculating Top 40 have changed a bit. In July 2014, after 62 years as a sales-based chart, the Official Singles Chart started including streaming data in its calculation. The vast majority of the charts today represents the taste of passive listeners: those who plug a song they like into Spotify rather than those who go out and buy a physical copy of an album at a record store.

James Masterton, from the Chart Watch UK website, stated in an interview with GQ: "Boring, yes, but the Top 40 is more accurate now. A 90s chart in which singles entered high then swiftly disappeared might have been interesting, but it gave a distorted picture of what people were enjoying. The current chart might be narrow and sluggish but so are the public's listening habits. For the first time, the charts reflect how the vast majority of the general public interact with music: they listen to things they like over and over again."

Despite people turning to streaming platform charts posted on Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music to find good tunes, today's Top 40 isn't dead or less important than it was in the 50s. Top 40 radio is still a proclamation of what's considered commercially good in the world of music, and an honor to be a part of if you're a budding artist.

That's all the info we have about Top 40 today. Go listen to some good tunes, and happy broadcasting!


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Article Image: A smiling woman wearing yellow heart sunglasses, a red headscarf, and a blue & white polka dot dress holds up the sign of the horns while holding a vintage radio on her shoulder. (stokkete via DepositPhotos.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey