How To Save Top 40 Post-Pandemic and Reignite The Flame

Innovate… Differentiate… or Disintegrate

By Jason Kidd – President/CEO of New Generation Radio and VirtualJock.com

This last year has been challenging for CHR and radio in general, to say the least. CHR was already struggling in several markets prior to the pandemic, things since have escalated. The majority of my programming career has been CHR or some sort of offshoot. I always liked going to the stations that were dead in the water that had huge turn around potential. Not one time in my career did I ever go to a station that was already successful. A couple had been successful before, but then lost their way. These stations in trouble would excite me. Today, you can take your pick; there are plenty of underperforming stations, which is why I have chosen to address this issue of where we are as a format today.

There is no question the industry has changed a ton since I started. That’s because it’s supposed to! However, the problem is we as an industry haven’t always been great at changing with it. There have been great professors along the way that absolutely knew how to evolve and reinvent—many I either worked under at one time or greatly respect like Steve Kingston, Scott Shannon, Dan Mason, Dr. Dave Ferguson, Jerry Clifton, Jay Stevens, Kid Curry, Steve Rivers, Steve Perun, Randy Michaels and Dom Theodore, just to mention a few. Most of these guys are now out of the day-to-day programming life and enjoying life on the beach, deservingly so. The problem was once guys like these left, there’s been very few to step up and fill their shoes. In the CHR world, there are about 8 or 9 programmers currently, who I greatly respect, that are real innovators, and their stations are winning because of it. A few of them are in high level corporate positions. Then, we have several others who have it in their DNA but may feel their hands are tied. With the lack of innovative risk-takers today, CHR’s progression, reinvention and evolution has slowed down dramatically. Much of the music has gone back to being driven solely by the record companies. With over 1000 Top 40 stations across America, less than 10% of them are still innovative at a time where it should be happening more now than ever. Join me, as we address CHR’s biggest “doldrums” and how we fix it before it’s too late.

32 things that could save CHR (and radio) tomorrow, before it’s too late:

 

Certainly, technology has played a part in competing for audience, but should it?

 

Over the decades we battled vinyl, cassettes and cd’s, the Walkman, MTV, video games, iPods, and Napster. What’s different about today? One big thing that played a huge part, which may sound a little crazy is… law enforcement. See, I told you, a little crazy, right? Not really. You see, once states implemented the hands-free law, it allowed Bluetooth to become front and center—a HUGE disruption. While it may be much safer then holding a phone up to your ear while driving, it has hurt radio listening tremendously in the automobile. Before, a personal people meter (used to measure radio audience) could still pick up audio from the radio while the driver was on the phone. Today when stuck in traffic, you make or take a call and the next thing you know you’ve been on it for 80% of your ride home. That doesn’t exactly help your time spent listening! However, let’s play devil’s advocate here for a sec… what if the product was really that good? If there was an engaging conversation being had, maybe people would wait on picking up that call.

Is the music cycle really that bad right now? 

I hear programmers complaining how there isn’t great product right now. I’ll be one of the first to say we’ve seen stronger years. 2010 through almost all of 2019 was a pretty strong decade. No doubt the pandemic has set the music world back, so we don’t have as many superstar artists putting out songs. Plus, it’s also allowed many tertiary songs to rise to the top more than they would have under normal conditions. With that said, it is not nearly as bad of a cycle as some may have you believe. Even with all the new real time metrics out there now, we still have a lot of radio using traditional call out research. It’s like reading a newspaper; it’s old information. Not to mention, who is picking up their phone from an unknown number in 2021? Radio MUST rely on real time stats. Things are just moving way too fast today.

Is CHR repeating an ugly history by ignoring the real hits?

I am once again seeing a big disconnect with the music I see people streaming locally in various markets and what’s currently being played on Top 40. 12 to 24-year-olds who stream YouTube, Spotify, etc. are not streaming half of what is played on Top 40. Billboard’s HOT 100, SiriusXM, TikTok, Apple, Shazam, Spotify, and Pandora also are quite different than what I am hearing on terrestrial CHR. That is very scary. “Up” by Cardi B, “Streets” by Doja Cat, “The Business” by Tiesto, and “Sea Shanty” The Wellerman have all been huge on TikTok, some for as long as 6 months. Where is Top 40? Well, I hear things like “they don’t test” or “I don’t see it on Mediabase yet”. So instead, we force songs like RITT MOMNEY “Put Your Records On” up the Mediabase chart. An okay remake of a once AC hit—just what the format needs right now (sarcasm). We have “What’s Next” by Drake and “Hold On” by Justin Bieber… monster artists in the demo that are big across the streaming platforms that are barely registering on Top 40 as of the publish date of this article. Oh, and let’s not forget “WAP” by Cardi B, a number 1 song on the HOT 100 (and many others) last year. Very few CHR’s got behind this… about 9 nationwide actually. How are we ignoring a #1 song? Because of sexual content? It was bad enough this was happening 34 years ago with George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” but we’re still doing this in 2021?  The difference today is listeners have plenty of other places to go. We cannot IGNORE THE REAL HITS.

When I go back to the ‘90s and look at the Hot 100, My friends (who are non-industry) know all of the songs in the top 10. Not because Top 40 embraced them, but because they got them from MTV or the rhythmic/crossover or alternative stations at the time. Programmers and consultants were afraid to play the hot new cutting-edge sounds at the time (Grunge, Hip Hop, Dance) in fear of blowing off adults. Instead, these programmers would still try to force feed irrelevant artists like Billy Joel, Elton John, and Celine Dion. These artists by this time should’ve been primarily AC, a lot of those programmers and consultants probably should’ve been too for that matter. The end result was CHR would lose over 800 stations within a 6-year period. It was billed as a horrible music cycle for CHR. To anyone my age at the time, it was some of the best music of our youth. So here we are today in 2021, and surprise, many of those responsible for that downfall era are now at a corporate level or are consultants still telling these stations how to program CHR. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few out there that very much evolved with it and still get it… Mike McVay is one who comes to mind, but many others need to retire to AC, with all due respect. For Top 40 Radio to succeed in today’s world, the torch needs to be handed over to Gen-X/millennials at the higher levels. Top 40 should not be scared to play anything in this era.

No more 15-year-old “AC” songs on CHR.

I’ve seen and heard some top 40 stations playing “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, Kesha’s “Tik Tok”, “Sexy Back” by Justin Timberlake, or Jay Sean’s “Down.” These songs were great 10 and 15 years ago… But now? Really? I have some programmers say to me, “well they test well” or “the music cycle is bad right now.” Hmm… okkaayy. Then play a recurrent. Maybe a song that came out post-2010? Can you imagine back in the day growing up hearing a song on CHR from the 1970s when it’s 1992? I mean that is real cutting-edge radio. Come on, what are we doing? They test well? Well, I guess so, they’ve been out forever and are most likely playing on the local AC station in town. Why don’t you throw in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” while you’re at it? CHR needs to get back to being innovative. Radio as a whole needs to do that, but especially a format like top 40. If we do not regroup and find a way to bring in 12 to 24-year-olds, we will have no future in CHR or any other format for that matter. This is it. Some could argue that it’s too late. I still believe there’s time… but we have to move fast.

Time to head back to the swamp in Secaucus. 

Okay, maybe a little extreme, but it is an absolute necessity that radio downsizes its facilities at once. Over the last 20+ years, radio companies have spent millions on leases for oversized, fancy facilities in some of the nicest neighborhoods in the country. I get the days of having little hole in the wall buildings next to swamps and railroad tracks were not exactly ideal, but the listeners had no idea. A lot of these stations were also some of the best in the country. These beautiful, huge facilities were mostly created for Wall Street. Now, most of these buildings are only a quarter full. Instead of decimating your staff, cut down on the size of your operation. Hold a zoom call with your staff every week, do some one-on-one’s by meeting up for coffee or HH once a week. Maybe a hybrid schedule. Your brand will flourish and so will your revenue.

More PDs need to take chances. 

Okay, I hear you loud and clear. Job stability sucks more than ever now, how are you supposed to push the envelope? The best case scenario is to work for a company that truly gets it in 2021. Believe it or not, there are still several. With these kinds of situations, you can make a name for yourself and win in the process. If you find yourself working for a company where your hands are tied, search for another situation when they become available. Sure, you could certainly stay there and toe the company line and play it safe for the paycheck, but you will never cut through as a PD and make a name for yourself. Also, even if you play by their rules, you can still be let go at any time. Why not make a difference and set yourself apart from the rest of the crowd, be a true innovator!

Learn from HBO and MTV. 

Yes, TV has had its own issues over the years too. HBO learned you can’t just rely on movies forever. Once Blockbuster Video gave way to Redbox, it became clear to HBO that anyone can have access to movies at the touch of a button. So to fix that disruption, they created their own content—huge original series!  HBO’s series are far bigger than any movies being shown across their platform.

As much as we joke about how MTV doesn’t play music any longer, can you blame them? It was becoming increasingly clear in the late ‘90s with the internet growing and the advent of websites and services like AOL and YouTube that they were going to need a lot more than just music videos to survive. Ironically, Bob Pittman, the creator of MTV, went on to launch AOL, which then became a huge disruption in the marketplace—including to MTV. MTV countered by also creating their own content. They developed series like, “Road Rules,” spearheaded the reality tv revolution and capitalized big on it. Their ratings in the last 20 years are higher than ever. Now, its radio’s turn. With the exception of maybe middays, every other daypart on a CHR station (and other formats) should be more talk and entertainment based, especially in the major and biggest markets. There, the usage of streaming platforms is not nearly as strong. In the smaller, more rural areas, people still tend to use radio for music. With that said, even there, talent should be doing more than just talking over intros. I have either worked with or evaluated several successful morning shows and their meter performance. They all would take a big dip anytime they played a song. The goal is to have that problem in other dayparts. Again, I’m not saying throw the music away, just extend the length of the content. As long as it is entertaining and compelling, it will beat out playing Justin Bieber for the millionth time that the listeners can get anywhere.

Stop shutting your talent down.

I am the talent’s biggest fan. Upon creating VirtualJock.com (6 years ago this week), I saw many talents not being treated with a whole lot of respect. Clearly if we’re going to become more talent driven, we can’t be handcuffing them. Countless times, PDs make the mistake of shutting talent up just so they can get back to another Justin Bieber song that they will hear in 10 other places. This was absolutely fine at one point in time to keep it short and not get in the way of the music. However, today in 2021, music is no longer the star at top 40, and most formats for that matter. One push of a button on the dash or a smartphone, or there are even cars where you just can just say, “Play The Weeknd ‘Save Your Tears’” and it plays instantly. Talent, entertainment, a real connection MUST COME FIRST. Everything else is second. I agree, there will be a percentage of the talent that will not be able to evolve and do more long form content. However, the ones that have it, let ‘em have at it. WIYY (98 Rock) in Baltimore is a great example. They are more talk than they are music during the week. They just produced a brand new 30-second TV spot, and it doesn’t mention the music once. All talent focused, mornings and afternoons. Guess what? They are number one. Not because it’s a rock station… but because it’s entertaining. They are even beating the local CHR’s with women. Again, funny, entertaining, mass appeal. The fact that it’s also super local doesn’t hurt either.

Afternoons, the new morning drive? 

More and more, especially post-pandemic, afternoons are becoming the new morning drive. Don’t throw away afternoons to 6-second breaks and a lot of music. While at WWMX/Baltimore, VP of Programming at the time, Dave Labrozzi already saw where things were heading and implemented a full-on morning show in afternoon drive– which I was a part of for a few years. The listeners still coming to radio want more than just the music. Put shows on the air that are entertaining; stop the music and perform and make people laugh. Again, Hollywood stories alone will not get the job done.

Lose the music beds. 

These are fine for night shows, but if we are doing long-form entertaining breaks more than a minute long, get rid of them. Talk dry.

Immerse yourself in the market. 

Still amazing in my travels speaking to programmers how many couldn’t tell you the names of their counties in the metro area or have even been to all of them. Get out of your office (or your new home office) and talk to the people. Relying on a piece of paper with data will not lead you to the promise land. If it were that easy, you could just give the receptionist at the front desk the research and have them plug it into MusicMaster or Selector.

PDs.. stop playing your biggest songs over 100x a week. 

This was the reason why “Hot Hits” fizzled so fast back in the day. 130x a week is great out of the gate for a new station, but it can’t be long term. After a while it becomes annoying, and your listeners will grow tired of it quickly. Add a 2nd top 40 in the market doing the same thing and then it’s really annoying. Top 40 in its biggest decades spun its songs between 70 and 99 times. That’s plenty.

Stop using the word ‘new’!

When it comes to music, radio has nothing new. Most of it is out way in advance on TikTok, YouTube, or another platform before radio discovers it. So just stop. The imaging I hear stating “new music” going into a song that I’ve been hearing for 6 months on another platform is lame.

Stop waiting for labels to get you the music.

Labels have some of the best music available, no question. However, even they sometimes miss one. Go out and find the hits. Whether it’s the local bars or local streaming. Top 40 should be cutting edge. Without the 12 to 24 demo, there is no future. Stop waiting for the hits to be handed to you. Go out and find them.

Top 40 played songs you wouldn’t hear on other stations or in other markets. 

Top 40 stations always had unique playlists over the years, different from market to market—album cuts, local artists. The big hits were not always the singles. See what the listeners are listening to from these albums. Then put it on the radio. 2/3 hits nationwide, the other 1/3 were hits local to the market.

Stop programming a station the way you did 15 years ago. 

The listening world has changed; change with it or die. Why are we still waiting a full week to do rotations on a top 40 station? As fast as the listening habits are today, don’t be afraid to make changes throughout the week. Innovate… Differentiate… or Disintegrate.

Stop using the phrase “what you don’t play can’t hurt you.”

That’s BS in this era. What you don’t play WILL hurt you. They will go elsewhere. Evolve your thinking.

For the love of God, get away from the 12-minute stop sets.

This was going on 10 years ago when I was at WPGC. How have we not evolved from this yet? I get it, we have to make money, but the days of long stop-sets must change. Commercial free hours do not work any longer. But neither do 12 minutes stops sets. The happy medium is maybe 2-minute stop sets every 3-4 songs, or 1 or 2 sponsors that can own the 30 minutes or hour with little 5-second spots in between songs. Home run, and your listeners will thank you with bigger ratings. With all of this said, we can no longer rely on revenue just from spots. While working for CBS in Baltimore, we bought a bar, hired a catering company, and sold sponsorships like Southwest airlines. The bar was open every Sunday, hours before the Ravens game started. Years prior to that, we bought a parking lot. We made money off the hundreds of cars every Sunday who were coming to the games. Events and radio shows are great, but we got to think bigger.

Make the stop-sets matter. 

Over the years production departments have been dismantled and centralized and in a lot of cases the spots just don’t sound compelling like they used to. Commercials do not have to be a tune-out. If your station needs help with that, we can absolutely assist through our killerspots.com division. Their creativity is some of the best you’ll ever hear.

No more Hollywood fluff. 

No one cares. Every research study I’ve been involved with ranks this dead last. Now don’t confuse “fluff” with real Hollywood stories like Kanye and Kim divorcing. However, these should be few and far between. Find four or five biggest things going on, especially locally and hit them like powers. Put your spin or opinion on them. Make it funny, make it entertaining.

Get back to “showbiz”

Radio talent over the years has gotten too realistic to where it’s boring. Most radio people I know don’t have exciting lives. Sorry, its reality. Even Howard Stern has a pretty boring life overall, and uses people around him for “show biz entertainment.” Enhance your “act” a little bit—get back to “showbiz.” As real as Howard Stern is, there is plenty of showbiz going on constantly. He is the best at it.

We must stop doing the same 6 or 7 formats in every market. 

Let’s come up with some new stuff. So much great music out there today and over the decades, be creative. Lord knows SiriusXM and others have.

Reboots! 

It started with Fuller House, Roseanne and now recently, Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster. All huge hits and all have been reordered for multiple seasons. Cobra Kai is even bigger. The most popular series on Netflix, taken from a movie series that started all the way back in 1984. These series are not just huge with 35+ year-olds, its huge with 12-34’s as well! Radio companies should be all over this and taking advantage of this massive opportunity in their local marketplace. A station that had a massive following/connection with your local market in the ‘80s, ‘90s or 2000s, and if it’s done right can be a huge win for a floundering station. Some of these stations from the ‘80s do not need to necessarily come back as “Classic Hits” stations. They could be CHRs again today. You would get a lot of the adults who have kids today, they all would listen.

Stop playing solely to the meters.

There are classic hits stations playing a song from 1982 as many as seven times a day. That’s absolutely absurd. Games like that work in the short term, but then once those meters are gone, good luck replacing them with future audience. You’ve run everybody else off.

LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL!

Mentioning towns on the air is not being local, it’s being lazy. There’s no substance there. When talking about these cities and towns around your metro, have a purpose behind it. Have a story. While spending 3 years in afternoons at WRQX/Washington, DC 90% of what I discussed, made fun of, etc. were all LOCAL and people were talking about it. It resonated with the audience as we saw it in the ratings. Apps like Spotify and Pandora are not able to produce local, entertaining content or encompass what’s popular musically in your market.

Podcasting.

Some in radio blow it off, other companies have gotten behind it. It’s the real deal, though, and it’s only getting bigger. People want longform entertainment which radio has not been providing. The app Clubhouse is also a huge up-and-comer and will completely change our listening environment. Radio must embrace these technologies and platforms to make their product better without trying to be like them.

Replace PPM with an app.

Ever since Shazam, I’ve been screaming this. I know I can’t be the only one. The intel I get from people in the biz is that it’s not as easy as it seems. The app developers that we’ve spoken with say that is simply not the case. Our guess is that Neilson probably does not want to make it seem that easy. It can be done. Radio companies, come together and create your own. I know there are things currently in the works with a couple of companies and that’s exciting to hear.

Promotions.

The days of the booth handing out cookbooks and having them spin the ‘ole prize wheel are long gone… at least they better be. Someone I’ve worked with for over 20 years at just about all of my stations, the one and only Promotions King, Paige Nienaber from CPR promotions says, “It needs fun contesting. Desperately. With winners. Can you imagine Monty Hall having people enter their emails and then not even have the winner on? When concerts and experiences come back, have some fucking fun with them.” Once again, he nails it. The one thing radio can still deliver that streaming platforms can’t are experiences. We’ve put listeners in the front row, backstage, on their tour bus, hell, I’ve had them fly on the band’s private plane to the next show. Who else can do that, but radio?

Social media.

Radio has always been a 24 hour a day marketing platform—the original social media! Don’t waste an opportunity to market your brand in a fun, creative, entertaining way. At the same time, utilize other social media platforms in incremental doses. Watch the number of posts and FB lives per week. Have a reason when you do it. If you do it all the time, it won’t resonate, and it will be a turn off—a wallpaper. Make sure your station or show on social media is always on top of whatever’s current. It should always match your on-air product.

Processing. 

Not sure how we lost the art of sounding better than an audio stream, but we did. Processing was one of the few things we still actually got, and we’ve managed to mess that up too. I generally find 2, maybe 3 stations in each market who still get this. The others make me want to listen to a streaming platform because most of the time it does sound better. It shouldn’t. There are some great processing boxes out there today by groups like Omnia and Orban. Part of the issue is there may not be an engineer in the building on a full-time basis anymore and the local PD may not know how to fix it. The other part of the issue is what we are going to bring up next…

Turn off the Voltair box.

This with the combination of Neilson’s eCBET make radio stations unlistenable. PPM is literally driving people away from local radio. Together, they make the audio quality at times sound horrific. Radio, especially CHR always had an unduplicated sound. It shouldn’t sound like it’s coming off a PC or an iPhone. It should always sound better than any app can produce.

Imaging. Slick presentation

I still hear a lot of imaging that sounds like it did 20 years ago. Lots of filtered stuff and non-processed voices that sound like commercials or wallpaper. My vision for a CHR station when it came to imaging was always to make it larger than life. A bunch of dummies came in years ago and tried to reinvent the wheel by making their imaging “conversational.” That’s great if you are an AC, or Adult Hits, perhaps… but CHR? That makes me want to vomit. Your talent is the one connecting with the audience on a conversational level. The imaging brings you in and makes you remember what you are listening to. CHR’s like Z100/NY, WKTU/NY, KISS 108/Boston, B96/Chicago, Q99-7 Atlanta, KDWB/Minneapolis, WLLD/Tampa and LIVE 95-5/Portland all still get this, but they are the minority as it is becoming a lost art. When I had a competitor that was already doing a “larger than life” presentation, then we would do the opposite and strip everything down to almost whispers, but still with an attitude. Very Jerry Clifton-esque. Any way you could stand out. Build stagers out of stops sets with forward momentum so the jocks can have some energy and excitement into the music. The stagers, drones, contest solicits, etc… all should sound like Elon Musk’s SPACEX launching.

It should suck listeners in!