Top 40

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Top 40

Top 40 is a listing of the 40 most popular single records in the nation for a given week, and is derived from radio station playlists and retail sales. The listing is based on trade magazines including Gavin Report, Cashbox, and Billboard. Top 40 also is an AM radio format that consists of music, trivial talk, news, and promotions including services, money, and goods given to listeners. Though Top 40 radio has undergone many changes in its 45-year history, it remains a viable format. From 1956 to the present, Top 40 has provided Americans, especially those born in the 1940s, a musical smorgasbord served up through their favorite disc jockey. Disc jockeys were chosen on the basis of their voice, excitement, and sex appeal. The Top 40 format did not leave much room for personalities, and for that reason did not appeal to some disc jockeys. At first, Top 40 was not aimed at a teenage market; instead disc jockeys, adhering to a playlist, entertained and did what was called "formula radio." But Top 40 soon became a bridge from adult-oriented music to rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues to other styles. The youth market gravitated to Top 40, and with the evolution of rock 'n' roll contributed to its early success. By 1958, Top 40 stations had spread from the Midwest to the rest of the country.

While the Top 40 format originated in 1956, there were earlier developments in radio that helped in its formation. In 1935, Your Hit Parade, a program on NBC, featured live performances of the most-liked songs based on sheet music, records, and airplay. In 1941, Lucky Lager Dance Time, a Los Angeles radio program on KFAC, first aired playing hit records and a "Lucky Ten" countdown. By 1949, KOWH, an Omaha, Nebraska, radio station, featured a playlist of popular records. Popular disc jockey Alan Freed produced the Moondog Rock and Roll Party in 1951 that introduced black music to a mostly white audience. In 1953, radio still held its own against television, with 96 percent of homes and 76 percent of cars having radios. Americans listened to radio on a daily basis or at least once per week. In 1953, New Orleans radio station WDSU played the top 20. Top 40 became an expanded version of previous programs, including Your Hit Parade and Lucky Lager Dance Time, and was programmed over a full broadcast day with disc jockeys and local advertisements.

The exact origin of the Top 40 is disputed and there are several explanations of its beginning. In one instance, Top 40 began in the context of several bars in several cities, including Omaha, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Another story credits radio programmer Bill Gavin with having invented the Top 40 chart. Most scholars of radio and disc jockey Dick Clark, however, give credence to Top 40 beginning at a bar in Omaha where in an interval of two years from 1953 to 1955, Todd Storz, operator of KOWH devised the format. The story goes that Storz and his program director, Bill Stewart, were sitting in a bar in Omaha, when they became aware that patrons played the same jukebox selections repeatedly over the course of four hours. When one of the patrons was asked why, she plainly responded, "I like 'em." Inspired by her response, Stewart, based on the most-played records on the jukebox, developed a playlist of thirty songs. Storz implemented this playlist at KOWH and the ratings improved drastically. Yet, another etymology of Top 40 has Storz developing a radio program at his New Orleans station WTIX called Top 40 at 1450 immediately after acquiring it in 1953. The program was in response to rival station WDSU's The Top 20 at 1280 show. Disc jockey Bob Howard, reasoned that if a list of 20 hits was satisfactory, then 40 would be outstanding, and consequently developed a show of 40 selections called Top 40 at 1450. In 1955, influenced by Howard, Storz at WTIX radio in New Orleans continued the concept at an Omaha radio station. KLIF owner Gordon McLendon also initiated the Top 40 format, including goofy promotions and jingles. By 1956, Top 40 had developed into a popular format.

Several key individuals were considered pioneers of Top 40, with each bringing an innovation that became part and parcel to the format. Gordon McLendon, called "the Orson Welles of radio," was a creative talent with programming and promotional ideas that gave early Top 40 its form, vitality, and innovative jingles. In radio, jingles are the most reliable indicators for listeners remembering a station. Jingles existed before Top 40, but it was McLendon who hired a music director, who in turn employed a vocal group to record jingles designed for Top 40.

Mike Joseph and Chuck Blore were also two important programmers in early Top 40 radio. It was McLendon who employed Blore as a disc jockey and program director. Blore is credited with the concept of "Color Radio," a term inspired by color television and a format developed in 1958 at KFWB in Los Angeles. "Color Radio" had nothing to do with ethnic diversity, but rather diversity in promotions, news, music, and a strong amusement and entertainment element. Joseph, a radio consultant, kept the industry focused on playing the hits and giving listeners what they wanted—always a central mission of Top 40 radio. Bill Gavin, programmer for the Lucky Lager Dance Time programs heard on 48 western stations, monitored sales and combined these data with other statistics, creating the Bill Gavin's Record Report in 1958. This information base became the foundation on which the Top 40 playlist was created. The Gavin Report was an innovation in the radio business that gave statistics on various markets and was essential to the development of Top 40.

In its early years, from 1956 to around 1962, Top 40 was democracy in radio. Musical categories including pop, rock 'n' roll, country, rhythm and blues, novelty tunes, jazz, and movie soundtracks made the format and were played to a mass audience. For example, from a list of Top 40 singles, the following songs and artists were represented in the following categories in 1960: pop ("Save the Last Dance for Me," the Drifters), rock 'n' roll ("It's Now or Never," Elvis Presley), country ("He'll Have to Go," Jim Reeves), rhythm and blues ("Finger Poppin' Time," Hank Ballard & the Midnighters), novelty tune ("Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," Brian Hyland), jazz ("Georgia on My Mind," Ray Charles), and movie soundtrack ("Theme from 'A Summer Place,"' Percy Faith). A clock, sometimes called a "hot clock" in the early days and now a computer readout with a written scenario, drives Top 40. Disc jockeys have to religiously follow the clock. Relying on its popularity, a song, could be repeated every hour or every six hours. Top 40 has not been without criticism, and while the format purported to play what people wanted to hear and espouse democratic ideals, critics, including Columbia Records, accused disc jockeys of relinquishing air time and kowtowing to teenage tastes. Obviously, during the course of its maturity, Top 40 changed in that each of the various subgenres of pop and rhythm and blues either now has its own radio format and niche market or no radio home at all.

The disc jockey, a term coined by record executive Jack Kapp in 1940, was the heart and soul of Top 40. A good disc jockey could imbue the staid format with a personality and identity. Entertainers in their own right, disc jockeys of Top 40 radio, would introduce and build up a song by talking while playing the instrumental introduction, finishing just before the vocal would start. This practice was called "hitting the post" or the art of the talk-up. While it is questionable whether disc jockeys could accurately predict what records would become hits, Top 40 radio disc jockeys always took credit for selecting certain hits. Disc jockey Wolfman Jack takes a more conservative stance on the role of disc jockeys making hits. "As long as I can remember there've been lists," he said. "Top 40 lists in the trade magazines, and in my life since 1960 I've been going by the goddamned charts. You didn't vary too far. There's no disc jockey alive who can make a record happen. All you can do is give it exposure." Many stations featured a pick hit based on a disc jockey's recommendation that actually turned out to be a hit.

The exposure of diverse musical styles, including African American popular music, owes much to the Top 40 format. By 1957, led by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, a number of African American styles, from calypso to rhythm and blues, made the format, including records by Harry Belafonte, the Del Vikings (the first successful interracial group in rock 'n' roll), the Drifters, Della Reese, Little Richard, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Platters, Larry Williams, Roy Brown, Jimmy Reed, and Ruth Brown. The first Motown entry in the format was Barrett Strong's "Money," followed in succeeding years with records by the Supremes, and the Four Tops, among others. Some of the most enduring rock 'n' roll also debuted on the Top 40. In 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and the Everly Brothers all appeared on the Top 40.

While black popular music could be heard on Top 40 by the original performers of the music, the Top 40 format often played emasculated and watered-down versions of black popular music. "Cover" records had made their debut many years before Top 40. A narrow definition of "cover" referred to a song that was successful by a black artists and then recorded by a white artist on a major label. Black bluesman Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets. "Sincerely" by the Moonglows, a black vocal group, was recorded by the McGuire Sisters. The covers in many instances climbed to the top of the charts while the "authentic" originals were shut out. Eventually, the black originals began to outshine the covers, as Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" did over the Teresa Brewer's version.

Top 40, according to radio consultant Guy Zapoleon, can be a format envisioned in four cycles, each lasting from seven to nine years. Each cycle has three stages: birth, extremes, and doldrums. Cycle 1 (1956-1963) encompasses pop, rock, R&B, dance, and country. Cycle 2 (1964-1973) embodies pop, rock, R&B, acid rock and soft rock, and country. Cycle 3 (1974-1983) embraces pop, rock, R&B, the disco, adult/contemporary, and country. Cycle 4 (1984-1993) includes pop, rock, R&B, rap/funk, adult/contemporary, and country. By the end of the twentieth century, rap or hip-hop, country, and hard rock have yet to penetrate the Top 40. When rap first broke into the pop charts, Casey Kasem, the originator of the countdown and Casey's Top 40, is credited with playing the hits, but other Top 40 stations have taken a harder line irrespective of how rap songs charted, most Top 40 stations have consistently avoided rap. Perhaps mainstream rap artists such as Mase and Will Smith will eventually be palatable to the format.

Payola, the act of paying for air play, long suspected in the radio industry, was investigated by Congress in 1960. Representative Oren Harris and his subcommittee targeted Alan Freed, an extremely popular disc jockey who was found guilty of two counts of commercial bribery by the New York District Attorney's Office. His fine was small, but as a result he lost his job and was subsequently indicted for back income taxes. Payola scandals gained notoriety and resurfaced in 1984 and again in 1986. Despite these scandals, Zapoleon believed that Top 40 remained robust and continued to mirror the best of all types of music.

While Top 40 may have been democratic in its selection of playlists where each song was evaluated on its on merit, it was less so in terms of the diversity in race and gender of Top 40 disc jockeys. The majority of Top 40 disc jockeys were white males. No satisfactory explanation exists as to why more disc jockeys of color were not employed in Top 40 radio. In 1964, after Top 40 had been in existence for more than nine years, several black disc jockeys were hired, including Larry McCormick, reportedly the first African American disc jockey to work at KFWB in Los Angeles. In 1965, Chuck Leonard was hired for New York's WABC radio, and in 1968, Frankie Crocker was a Top 40 DJ on WMCA. Also in 1968, Walt Love was hired as a Top 40 disc jockey at Houston's KILT. In 1973, Yvonne Daniels, daughter of singer-dancer Billy Daniels, broke gender and race by becoming the first woman and first African American to be hired as a Top 40 disc jockey at WLS in Chicago.

By 1965, disc jockey and program director Bill Drake experimented with programming ideas to transform KHJ in Los Angeles to a Top 40 station, devising the concept of "Boss Radio." This Top 40 format was copied by numerous stations across the country. By 1968, the listening audience for Top 40 began to erode from competition by FM "free form" (later called "progressive" rock) radio. During most of the 1970s, Top 40 did maintain a smaller audience, even as the popularity of disco peaked in 1978. Though Top 40 regained some of its listening audience in 1983, by 1993, mainstream Top 40 disappeared as new appellations, including rock and alternative, were added to Top 40 formats. The number of radio stations identifying themselves as Top 40 also dwindled from 578 to 441. Gavin noted that the strong competition experienced by Top 40 stations brought the ratings down. In addition to competition from other radio stations, MTV (Music Television) launched in 1981, was an immediate success with young viewers. MTV essentially did what Top 40 had purported to do all along, and that was play the hits and give listeners what they wanted to hear.

In 1997, Top 40, fueled by popular artists such as the Spice Girls, made a comeback, and in its more than 45 years of existence continued to be the best format for variety in music. The Top 40 radio format was a general standard that achieved intermittent success and impacted the music industry. It was a format and system that monopolized playlists, not only dictating songs radio listeners heard, but the number of times, the order, time of day, and even to some extent the professional lives of the artists printed alongside the titles on the list. Top 40 inherently became its own worst enemy, since as listeners tended to mature, they developed preferences for certain types of music instead of the melange of popular songs on the playlists. Radio stations began emphasizing light rock, classic soul and R&B, classical, and jazz in efforts to capture a particular segment of the market. In spite of its vacillations, Top 40 has presented a diverse repertoire of songs that reflects the world of popular music.Top 40 has remained resilient in spite of its many changes. "Through forty years, it (Top 40) had weathered one payola scandal after another, one competing format after another, one new technology after another, and all the shifts in fortune that society, culture, politics, and the economy can bring," observed noted writer and editor, Ben Fong-Torres. By the end of the twentieth century, Top 40 continued to be a viable format.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Fong-Torres, Ben. The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio. San Francisco, Miller Freeman Books, 1998.

Pollock, Bruce. When Rock Was Young: A Nostalgic Review of the Top 40 Era. New York, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Zapoleon, Guy. "What Goes Around Comes Around." Gavin Report.June 20, 1997.