Some of the hits, all of the time Whatever happened to Top-40 radio?

June 20, 1993|By J.D. Considine

People think that being a critic means you spend most of your time criticizing -- griping about how lousy most things are these days.

For me, the best part about reviewing popular music is having the chance to champion my favorite recordings. Indeed, there are times when my reviews verge on evangelizing.

Still, the printed word isn't necessarily the best way to convey how music sounds, and so I sometimes find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to have my own radio station. That way, it would be easy to ensure that all the good stuff currently falling through the cracks -- all those hits that oughta be -- would finally get the hearing they deserve.

My taste wouldn't be the only thing that would separate this station from the rest of what's on radio these days. My station would play music the way most people listen to it, mixing a little bit of this with a little bit of that, and placing the emphasis on good records rather than relying on some programmer's idea of what's appropriate for the format.

Tune in, and you'd be as likely to hear rock as rap, salsa as soul. Maybe I'd start a set with something off the new Nina Simone album, and spend the next hour spinning selections from the latest albums by Dick Dale, Jenni Muldaur, Juan Luis Guerra, Guru and Kelly Willis. Maybe mix in a -- of worldbeat (that dancehall tune on the new Baba Maal album would be perfect) and a couple well-chosen oldies. It would be great.

But it would never happen -- not unless I suddenly became rich enough to blow a few million on my own station. As for persuading an existing station to adopt my playlist, well, they just don't do things that way in radio these days.

Funny thing is, they used to. In fact, that basic idea -- playing the best examples of a variety of pop styles -- was for years the nation's top-rated format. They called it Top-40 radio, and it ruled the roost from the beginning of the rock era through the early part of the '80s. Even better, it did so by serving up one of the broadest menus in popular music, drawing on everything from rock and R&B to easy-listening and novelty numbers.

Now, of course, that approach is considered an anomaly -- if it can be found at all. Tune in here in Baltimore, and the closest you'll come to stylistic variety is the different kinds of music you'll hear by flipping around the dial. And even then, the distinctions between stations are often fairly minimal, what with the same singles by Whitney Houston and P.M. Dawn and Duran Duran and Sting showing up on station after station after station.

What happened? Why does so much of modern radio sound the same? It isn't as if it's consistently exciting, either, since most of what gets played is so painfully bland and predictable, as if today's stations were terrified by the thought of finding music that would excite their listeners.

True, some of this can be blamed on changes in the economics of radio, and some on the way demographic considerations play into programming decisions.

Even so, the question remains:

Who killed Top-40?

Almost every Baltimorean over the age of 30 remembers WCAO in its Top-40 prime. And no wonder. Back in the '60s, WCAO -- 60 on the AM dial -- played the all hits, be it "Hey Jude" by the Beatles, "Baby Love" by the Supremes or Johnny Cash singing "Ring of Fire."

"That station was like many stations around the country, where you could be all things to all people," says Jeff Pollack, chairman of the Pollack Media Group. "You could play everything from Motown to the Doors, and happily predict a 30 to 40 percent share of the marketplace."

A lot has changed since that era. Today's teens are way too high-tech for transistor radios; their music gear runs to FM-stereo headsets or massive boom boxes. Likewise, their musical taste avoids Motown and the Doors in favor of hip-hop or the Cure.

But nothing has changed quite so drastically as radio. Where once broadcasting offered a broad and occasionally daring mix of musical elements, today's radio is homogenous and drab. Tune in almost anywhere in America, and what you'll hear will be largely the same: A slim selection of carefully defined formats conforming to a few, narrowly defined musical tastes.

This is no accident, either. Indeed, today's programmers have poured a lot of time and effort into breaking the radio audience down into tiny interest groups, reducing whole lifestyles to a single word or acronym: AC. Urban. AOR. Alternative. Classic Rock. Country. News/Talk.

As Pollack puts it, "We're in a niche business, and a niche business means a niche. It does not mean that you can be mainstream anything."

And so we're all left sucking on alphabet soup, trying to reconcile our taste with whatever it is the programmers think we want to hear.

In theory, each approach takes its identity from a specific style of music. In practice, though, these formats are defined as much by what isn't included as by what is.

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