Top 40

nl:Top 40

Top 40 is both a record chart and a radio format based on frequent repetition of songs from a constantly-updated list of the forty best-selling singles. The term is also used to refer to the actual list of hit songs, and, by extension, to refer to pop music in general. The term has also been modified to describe Top 30; Top 20; Top 10; Hot 100 and Hot Hits radio formats, but carrying more or less the same meaning and having the same creative point of origin with Todd Storz as further refined by Gordon McLendon.


History and format

Although predated by the music marketing concept of the hit parade, the Top 40 radio format was created in response to the drift of USA mass media audiences from radio to television. With the loss of audience came the loss of sponsors and big budget radio productions. Recorded music provided low-cost and fully produced entertainment requiring only segues between presentations. It was the arrangement of the most popular recorded presentations which have variously been known as Top 10; Top 20; Top 10 and which became known as Top 40 radio.

Top 40 was a response to the rise of television. Scheduled block programming could not compete with the new visual medium, so putting something on radio that wasn't available on TV became vital. Although hit music shows such as American Bandstand occasionally appeared, television wouldn't attempt to directly compete with Top 40 radio until many years later with the rise of MTV, the early incarnation of which was a cable television version of Top 40.

The Top 40 format placed less value on genres and artists and concentrated entirely on repetitive play of hits based on research which reported that listeners wanted to "hear all the hits and nothin' but the hits!". Although rock and roll and Top 40 radio grew up together, out-of-genre Top-40 hits include gospel songs ("Oh, Happy Day!" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers), patriotic songs ("Ballad of the Green Berets" by S/Sgt. Barry Sadler), novelties ("The Thing" by Phil Harris), and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Top 40 also spawned the first generation of star disk jockeys, whose between-song patter and connection with the listeners became as important as the songs themselves.

According to Eberley (1982, p.219) "The driving rhythms of rock fit snugly into the unity and consistency of Top 40. For if it was one thing that Top 40 compounded, it was unity - all components (commercials, public service announcements, the excitement) were compatible with the music. The Gestalt was greater than the sum of the parts."

As a format, Top 40 radio waned in the mid-1970s with the expansion of FM radio with its superior sound and more varied programming. Much of the popular audience moved to more sophisticated and targeted formats such as Album Oriented Rock. Radio stations began to specialize in particular types of music rather than playing current hits regardless of genre. The all-hits format has never completely died, however, and has experienced sporadic resurgences on the FM band, though seldom under the Top 40 name. However, the concept of a closely controlled overall sound for a station that originated with Top 40 radio is now dominant in all genres, basically unchallenged except by a few on-air broadcasters like WFMU, WNUR, and a number of World Wide Web Internet radio broadcasters.

Key contributors

Todd Storz

Credit for the format is widely credited to Todd Storz, who was the director of radio station KOWH-AM in Omaha, Nebraska in the early 1950s. At that time typical AM radio programming consisted largely of blocks of pre-scheduled, sponsored programs of a wide variety, including radio dramas and variety shows. Local popular music hits, if they made it on the air at all, had to be worked in between these segments. Storz noted the great response certain songs got from the record-buying public and compared it to the way certain selections on jukeboxes were played over and over. He expanded his stable of radio stations, purchasing WTIK-AM in New Orleans, Louisiana, gradually converted his stations to an all-hits format, and pioneered the practice of surveying record stores to determine which singles were popular each week. In 1954, Storz purchased WHB-AM, a high-powered station in Kansas City, Missouri which could be heard throughout the midwest and great plains, converted it to an all-hits format, and dubbed the result "Top 40". Shortly thereafter WHB debuted the first top 40 countdown, a reverse-order playing of the station's ranking of hit singles for that week. Within a few years, Top 40 stations appeared all over the country to great success, spurred by the burgeoning popularity of rock and roll music, especially that of Elvis Presley.

Gordon McLendon

Although Todd Storz is regarded as the father of the Top 40 format, Gordon McLendon of Dallas, Texas is regarded as the person who took an idea and turned it into a mass media marketing success in combination with the development in that same city of PAMS jingles. It was the combination of Top 40 and PAMS jingles which became the key to the success of the radio format itself. Not only were the same records played on different stations across America, but so were the same jingle music beds whose lyrics were resung repetitively for each station to create individual station identity. To this basic mix were added contests, games and disc jockey patter. Various groups (including Bartell Broadcasters), emphasized local variations on their Top 40 stations.

Rick Sklar

In the early 1960s Rick Sklar also developed the Top 40 format for radio station WABC in New York City which was then copied by stations in the eastern and mid-western United States such as WKBW and WLS.

Bill Drake

Bill Drake built upon the foundation established by Storz and McLendon to create a variation called Boss Radio. This format which began at KHJ Los Angeles on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s, was further adapted to stations across the western USA and then by American disc jockeys as a hybrid format on Swinging Radio England which broadcast from on board ship anchored off the coast of southern England in international waters.

Don Peirson

Don Pierson took the formats of Gordon McLendon, Boss Radio and PAMS jingles to the United Kingdom and Europe and subsequently revolutionized the popular music format of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC Radio).

See also

For further details of the Top 40, see UK Top 40 and American Top 40.


  • Mass Media Moments in the United Kingdom, the USSR and the USA, by Gilder, Eric. - "Lucian Blaga" University of Sibiu Press, Romania. 2003 ISBN 973-651-596-6
  • Music in the Air: America's Changing Tastes in Popular Music (1920-1980), by Eberley, P.K. New York, 1982.
  • Studying Popular Music, by Middleton, Richard. - Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990/2002. ISBN 0335152759.

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