Trends are funny. Funny in an interesting way, and often caused by forces not necessarily obvious.
Such an example is Top 40 radio, represented locally by KIIS (102.7 FM). The station that almost single-handedly brought the format back from its death in the early 1980s while hitting record high ratings for an FM station, is on hard times now. The July Nielsens had the station tied for 8th place with a 3.7 share of the audience … a far cry from the 10+ shares of the 1980s.
But I am not here to bash KIIS. I am merely using it as an example of some trends that have come together, and perhaps help find a way out.
First and foremost, the appeal of oldies cannot be denied. Out of the top 10 stations, fully six are either fully oldies-based or rely heavily on them in the music mix. KRTH (101.1 FM), KTWV (94.7 FM), My FM (KBIG, 104.3), KOST (103.5 FM) Jack (KCBS-FM, 93.1) and KLOS (95.5 FM) all predominantly play songs not released in the last year.
KIIS is definitely not alone. Top-40, or Contemporary Hit Radio as it is called today. has taken a hit nationwide. As the format tends to attract younger listeners, the fact that many younger listeners are getting their music from streaming services and apps like TikTok, it seems to be the natural progression.
Indeed, InsideMusicMedia’s Jerry Del Colliano has extensively covered the migration to and influence of streaming; a recent Billboard.com story spoke of TikTok’s appeal to young listeners; top-40 stations across the country have added more “gold” to their playlists; and the idea of playing music that is old but “new to you” has taken hold as an easy way to attract listeners.
But it doesn’t work to attract younger listeners, thus Top 40 as a format suffers.
Yet the answer lies in the appeal of the very things that are supposedly killing radio. TikTok is exposing kids to music, new and old, from multiple genres. Streaming services use curators to find music that listeners may like, based upon the songs they play — and those they skip.
Add in Sean Ross, who writes in RadioInsight.com that most people fondly remember their own Top 40 listening days from “when Top 40 played it all,” and you have the answer: Play it all.
Top 40 has always thrived when it played it all, and has always stagnated when it limited itself. You saw it happen with too much “bubblegum,” too much disco, too much country, too much of “the Miami sound,” too much grunge, and too much hip-hop. All of those eras had temporarily success, but ultimately led to ratings declines as listeners left for other stations.
Yet when “they played it all,” such as the 1960s where you could hear The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Jefferson Airplane and Cream all on the same station, it just worked. Same for when Prince, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Foreigner all shared space on the same station. Today KRTH is leading the ratings doing nothing more than playing the music that once played on KIIS … Naked Eyes, Wham, Soft Cell, Tears for Fears, Madonna, Depeche Mode and the Outfield.
That variety of music makes things interesting, and today’s teens especially are, according to research, more willing to listen to different genres right now than any other generation.
Inside Music Media’s Del Colliano suggests that perhaps it is time to hire curators — locally, of course, so you can better match the audience — to find new music and present it. “Young audiences are more eclectic than baby boomers, Gen X or even older millennials — they mix genres,” he explains. They are “spellbound” when they find it, open to fresh musical styles, “and amazingly curious.”
Radio is losing young people, he says in part because, aside from the commercial overload, “radio no longer breaks new music and acts.” Fix it by doing so, and become the influencers you used to be, Del Colliano advises programmers, instead of letting social media do it.
Ross takes it a step further and blames, in part, the record companies for not even trying to promote new musical styles and acts to hit radio stations.
I agree fully with all of the above, which you already know if you’ve read this column very long. Your responses to me tell me that you agree as well. And like the dark days of hit Top 40 radio before, all it takes is a KHJ, a Ten-Q, a KIIS-FM, or the like to take up the cause and do it right.
Top 40 is not dead, it’s just dormant. And the time is ripe for a comeback. Hopefully sooner than later.
Is Saul Levine ready to test all-digital AM on his K-Mozart (1260 AM)? I’ve been told “maybe.” I hope it happens … I’d love to see how far an all-digital AM signal can carry both during the day and night, and if it helps reduce the interference between stations. If it happens, you’ll be the first to know.
Richard Wagoner is a San Pedro freelance columnist covering radio in Southern California. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.