By Sean Ross
We need more hits. We could have more hits. I’m thinking about Top 40 and Hot AC when I say this, but every current-based format, with the exception of Christian AC, feels challenged at the moment. When radio stopped being the gatekeeper for new music, it staked out a new role as “the legitimizer,” available to let you know which 14 songs were true hits during your multiple eight-minute listening occasions. That model didn’t hold up so well in a time of disruption, especially when the answer to “okay, so what are the hits?” was “oh, ‘Blinding Lights’ still.” Some individual stations are rebounding now as listening patterns shift again, but there is no sign of pop radio recovering symmetrically.
We have a few more hits already. It only takes a few–“Peaches,” “Kiss Me More,” “Good 4 U”—to feel more hopeful. I also feel like we have more potential hits. When I scanned the charts a year ago, I would get to the low teens before encountering those songs that I knew I would never actually hear on the radio without a concerted effort. Now that stretch starts below the top 25. And perhaps it was always thus. When SiriusXM plays its vintage ‘70s “American Top 40” show on Saturday, it is usually in the place below No. 25 or so that listeners are most likely to tweet “how did I miss this song at the time?”
We know radio almost bobbled one of the biggest hits of the year. I’ve already written about “Levitating” by Dua Lipa—a song that everybody played before it peaked earlier this year, but not a song that every station powered the first time. Dua Lipa has helped confirm that the uptempo “radio song” still matters. She probably could have had more hits. The never-promoted-in America “’Physical’ should have been a massive single,” tweeted WPLW (Pulse 106.9) Raleigh, N.C., APD Jax this week. The Miley Cyrus duet “Prisoner” lingered on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits long after radio moved on. “We’re Good,” upstaged by a resurgent “Levitating,” is still on Today’s Top Hits as well.
When it peaked in January/February, “Levitating” was in power for some groups, but still testing unfamiliar for most of iHeart’s stations. Even then, it had streaming stories. “Levitating” certainly sounded good on the radio and provided a center lane “radio record” to balance a streaming hit like “Astronaut in the Ocean” or “Put Your Records On.” Powering “Levitating” 117x a week without a programmer’s full confidence would have been an indulgence. But maybe there was probably a place for it around 75x a week. And there’s evidence that nothing deserves 117 spins a week these days.
“Levitating” was unusual in having made it to the top five before PDs lost focus the first time. Marshmello & Halsey’s “Be Kind” was more typical. It still plays 26x a week on WKTU New York, where it did well enough that even co-programmed AC WLTW (106.7 Lite FM) recently tried it for a few weeks. Last June it peaked at No. 13 in a familiar scenario—an up-tempo song by a name artist that was neither a TikTok record nor a tester after six weeks. I’m pretty sure that “Be Kind” hung around on Today’s Top Hits as well last summer, just as “Goosebumps,” “Hold On,” “The Business,” and even “Girls Like Us” by Zoe Weiss are now.
We have more metrics and more stories than ever. We are better at finding the records that are phenomenal at the start. We have always been good at identifying those songs that won’t die. We still have problems with the songs in the middle. Besides that, many of our metrics—whether traditional radio callout or the Hot 100—are affected by the reduced radio listening of the last year. Airplay charts are harder to parse than ever—the same song can be +50 spins on Friday and +1200 spins by Monday.
There are two possible solutions. One is the Country scenario: a relatively small number of songs sit on the buffet table for a year. A few, by superstars or with an obvious hook like “I Was On A Boat At The Time,” become hits right away. Others become hits after 35, 45, 55 weeks. For those Country stations on an AC template, this works. But those stations trying to compete with streaming for the “new Country” feel more threatened than ever.
Leaving every song on the buffet table indefinitely is not an appetizing prospect for Top 40. For one thing, it’s not the franchise. Even when radio no longer claims to be first, CHR still has stations branded as “Now” or promising “today’s best music.” We wouldn’t offer listeners a station positioned as “the best we’ve been able to come up with over the last 15 months or so.”
Having more hits could happen with a very simple change in mindset. If we agree that we want more hits, having them is as simple as looking for stories to keep a record on our radio stations, not get rid of them. On a balanced radio station, the songs with a streaming story, the songs with a traditional callout story, and the songs that provide tempo and definition won’t necessarily be the same ones.
We don’t trust radio’s ability to create its own stories. The PDs who lobbied to bring back songs or hold on to them longer in the ‘90s—the practice that still influences today’s charts—were the same PDs who went through every cut on the Janet Jackson album to find “Escapade” before it was a single. I keep writing about “Lil Bit” by Nelly & Florida Georgia Line. That song is +169 spins today. It was losing spins earlier this week. But “Lil Bit” keeps returning to power at WIXX and WKSZ Green Bay, Wis., two stations that rarely agree about songs. With so much external stimuli, I find it particularly meaningful now when a song can become a hit in one market, or when the competition is forced to acknowledge it.
It is scary to lobby for “make the hits,” not just “play the hits.” But we are at a place now where “play the handful of songs we can agree on” hasn’t worked so well. Looking for more songs that sound good on the radio provides listeners with the energy and fresh start that they’re looking for this summer. Having 24 viable songs instead of 18 also takes some of the burden off that second tier; if our best records can’t stand up to 117x a week, imagine what over-rotating our second-best songs is doing. I feel radio has product to offer people now; some of it is just a matter of having confidence in our own judgment.
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