Top 40 radio has become a social media oldies station without realizing it
If Casey Kasem were still counting ’em down every weekend, he would tell you that last week’s best-selling albums were the new releases by Bon Jovi and David Bowie. He would no doubt also note that Billboard’s top two singles were “Harlem Shake” and “Thrift Shop” and that one of the fastest-rising songs on the charts was “I Love It” by Icona Pop.
Sadly, Casey isn’t doing the countdown, anymore. If he were, he might just tell the folks he works for – radio – to get their feet on the ground, and their heads out of ... well, you know.
Those three factoids Kasem would have included in his show speak volumes about the sorry state of radio.
Let’s first address those best-selling albums “from Peoria to Pittsburgh and Minneapolis to Monterey.” While Bon Jovi and Bowie are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy artists, Bowie peaked in the 1970s and Bon Jovi a decade later. Surely, they should be getting competition from some 21st-century rockers. But they aren’t. Rock radio, especially in this area, tends to focus on classic songs as opposed to new artists. While that may explain the hot sales for the age-old singers, it doesn’t explain why rock radio would still rather play Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” than anything off a popular new album. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Whatever their merits, “Thrift Shop” and “Harlem Shake” (and “Gangam Style” before it) became hits because of the Internet. Radio latched onto them as an afterthought (and programmers unbelieveably are still debating whether to add “Harlem Shake.” to their playlists). Believe it or not, fewer than half of the contemporary music stations in America are playing America’s best-selling song. Maybe radio isn’t convinced it can “break” a song, anymore. Maybe it’s right.
The Swedish group, Icona Pop, released a ditty, “I Love It,” last year. A breezy piece of fluff, it was intended as disposable summer fare. And several stations latched on to it, only to see it fizzle and fade away. Now, it’s finally becoming a hit – not because of radio airplay, but because it’s heard in the “Need for Speed: Most Wanted” video game and has also been featured on an MTV reality show. A similar path to radio airplay was taken by Of Monsters and Men, whose “Little Talks” was used on several TV series before radio finally decided to give it a whirl.
And how many months did it take Top 40 to finally find a Mumford & Sons track that it felt safe enough to blend with Rihanna and Bruno Mars?
It’s true. The medium that first presented Elvis, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna to the world is now too timid and too terrified to play a three-minute song until it’s worn out its welcome elsewhere. Essentially, Top 40 has become a social media oldies station without realizing it. And it wonders why it has lost its excitement component.
We mention this because in this radio market, as in many others, Top 40 radio has taken a hit in the past year. In the latest Arbitron ratings, WKST (KISS-FM) was a disappointing sixth. Not so long ago, Top 40 was riding high with Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and the rest of the turbo pop gang. It took an “if it ain’t broke” attitude with the music to the point where it now is broken – and badly. Not only was Top 40 late in latching on to Mumford & Sons, but it was in denial of the folk music trend until acts such as Ed Sheeran and the Lumineers were forced upon them by listeners.
Perhaps Top 40 radio thought the kids wouldn’t like it. Perhaps they should have done a little more research. It’s not just kids tuned in to Top 40. It’s soccer moms. And soccer dads.
A Scarborough Research poll of more than 200,000 adults revealed that one-third of them are tuned in to either mainstream or rhythmic Top 40 – and that nearly half of those tuned in are men. Granted, more than half of those households have kids living at home, but the fact is that the adults – the ones with the buying power – are listening along with the kids. And while the parents’ tastes certainly might include dance tunes, they’re also apt to like a wider variety of music. It shouldn’t have taken “The Voice” to convince mainstream radio to rock a little with Maroon 5, but it did. It shouldn’t have taken success at every other format to convince mainstream radio that Imagine Dragons was suitable fare, either, but it did. It shouldn’t have taken the increasing success of adult hits radio to convince Top 40 programmers to mix up musical genres, but it has. Sadly, the turbo pop train appears to have left the station – with Top 40 radio still riding the rails.
Talk radio KDKA-AM, which had been faltering in recent years, had been Pittsburgh’s No. 1 station for the last two months – an oddity considering that there are no hot-button political issues and that it is, after all, an AM station.
WWSW (3WS), which had an astounding 13 percent of radio listeners singlng along with its all-Christmas format, evidently convinced a lot of those folks to hang around. It’s now No. 2 with its classic hits format, followed by WDVE, WDSY and WRRK-FM.
As a singer, Justin Timberlake is a very good comedian. Timberlake’s heralded return to radio over the past few months with “Suit and Tie” had been a modest success, at best, until he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks ago. Then, as his SNL skits went viral, he did a radio and television “listening party” for his new album. The publicity is now paying off in a major way. Timberlake’s new release is poised to be the fastest-selling album of the year when the numbers are released Tuesday. It’s yet another indication that radio has lost its mojo when it comes to being a musical force.