Remember when being THE NUMBER ONE SONG IN THE COUNTRY meant something? Sean Ross does:
- Listen to N/T WABC New York on holiday weekends, when it pulls out the PAMS jingles and recreates its top 40 heyday of the ’60s and ’70s for a few hours, and you’ll hear a lot of ideas that are so basic that, of course, nobody has used them in 25 years. One is the idea of creating a cult of personality around the jocks (WABC’s “All-Americans,” who battled with WMCA’s “Good Guys”). But the one that stands out most is the emphasis that WABC placed on its No. 1 song, and the lack of attention that radio shows the “No. 1 record in America” today.
The No. 1 Song was preceded by a “number one, one, one, one” jingle that built the excitement. The jocks would talk about how songs were on the way up or down – the same way college football analysts talk about the AP Coaches Poll. The chart itself was simply part of the reason Top 40 radio was exciting, and the “No. 1 song coming up” was a reason to stay tuned. Somehow, over the years, Radio has largely dropped this once-essential part of its programming.
But America is still obsessed with “No. 1,” and it was radio that practically invented this obsession. Stations were building up the “No. 1 Song” in the ’60s, back when weekly box office grosses rarely ventured beyond the pages of Variety. Besides local radio highlighting its No. 1 single, there was also “American Top 40,” likely a formative experience for many of those reading this article. Now, there are consumer press stories on the No. 1 box-office movie in America well before the weekend is over, with studio executives working furiously to explain why not being No. 1 was still a win for their film, (or why being No. 1, but with a lower gross than expected was alright). The consumer press tells us the No. 1 album, the top-selling DVD and the top movie rental.
If you had to choose a moment when the No. 1 single started to lose its potency, it was probably the early ’90s. And, ironically, it may have been because music charts became more credible. While it had already been decades since any station’s No. 1 song consistently rotated in its own category, as it did at WABC, the switch from reported to monitored airplay also helped underscore that most stations didn’t have a true No. 1 song, but three to nine powers receiving relatively equal rotation. As monitored airplay took hold, even reported playlists stopped featuring a subjectively chosen No. 1 record, in favor of a handful of songs tied at the top.
….And it’s not hard to take advantage of your station’s No. 1 song. Your jocks are already front-selling it, just not to maximum effect. There are probably jocks still identifying “Baby Boy” as “the new one from Beyonce and Sean Paul,” even after three months on the radio. “This song is going for a third week at No. 1 when the new chart is unveiled tomorrow” says a lot more. Staging the No. 1 song is as simple as cutting one new piece of production – which could very well tie in with the “No. 1 Hit Music Station” or “No. 1 for Hip-Hop and R&B” imagery that many stations are using already.
All those station drops about being “No. 1,” by the way, emphasize just how much power that concept still has with listeners. No station has a liner about being “No. 2 overall, but No. 1 in demo.” Programmers clearly understand the power of being No. 1, but they haven’t necessarily put it to work for their own product, particularly at a time when that product could use some on-air bolstering. [Edison Media Research]
I vividly remember my L.A. childhood in the ’60s listening to KHJ (“Boss Angeles”) when Top 40 was amazingly powerful and eclectic. I used to pore over the charts and Number 1 was always written in BIGGER PRINT. For good or for ill we are now hopelessly fragmented.