The Real Origins Of Top 40 Radio

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  • #24112
    Andy Brown
    Participant

    No, it wasn’t KISN Vancouver. Not even close. In fact by the time KISN switched call letters from KVAN to KISN, Top 40’s origins, which go way way back, were already established. Even though Billboard Magazine began publishing national music charts in the 1890s, the idea of a radio station playing “the top 40” did not develop until the 1950s. However its origins go back even further. In the 1930s a type of radio programming developed that involved a host talking between songs. This concept, combined with the jukebox led to the advent of top 40 radio. Todd Storz, who came from a wealthy family, owned an AM station in Omaha, Nebraska called KOWH that he purchased in 1949. In the early fifties he observed at nightclubs how people reacted to songs on jukeboxes. He noticed that some songs came up more often than others. It gave him the idea to create playlists based on song popularity that focused on the most popular hits. There had been shows in the past such as “Your Hit Parade,” which highlighted the national top ten, but his idea was to play the most popular 40 songs over and over. He was convinced of this idea after commissioning a study with the University of Omaha. Storz went on to implement his format at other stations he purchased around the country in New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Miami and Oklahoma City. Storz, who died at age 39 in 1964, has since earned the name “Father of Top 40 Radio.” The success of these stations was picked up on by Gordon McLendon who refined the top 40 format. McLendon attended Yale University and was a member of the Skull and Bones fraternity and later worked in military intelligence during World War II and became involved with Armed Forces Radio. He then went to Harvard Law School, which he soon abandoned to own a radio station in Palestine, Texas called KNET. He went on to start the Liberty Radio Network in the late forties, which became the second biggest radio network of its time with over 400 affiliates. All of this mind you well before KISN or the real exploiter of the format, WABC New York. In 1947 McLendon launched KLIF AM in Dallas with his father. In the early fifties he implemented the top 40 format at the station. KLIF became the most popular radio station in town throughout the fifties and sixties. McLendon, like Storz, started buying stations around the country to spread his format. He bought stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Louisville and Shreveport. He even bought a station in Tijuana, Mexico called XETRA that covered San Diego.

    Another radio pioneer that accelerated the popularity of top 40 radio was Rick Sklar at WABC in New York in the late fifties. Sklar learned a lot about radio programming as Assistant Program Director at WINS starting in 1954. It was during this time that the popularity of rock and roll music began to gain national attention, spearheaded by Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed playing the latest rhythm and blues records. Sklar moved on to WABC in 1960 and began to implement an extremely tight playlist that focused more on the top 15 records being played over and over, mixed with proven hits. The idea worked and WABC became one of the most widely listened to stations in America.

    After living in Portland for 40 years and listening to the never ending drum beat of some of my chronological peers about how great KISN was, it may come as a surprise that a lot of Top 40’s history was already in place well before it got to Portland, Oregon. When I hit town in 1976, within the first two days I was here I had been to almost every radio station in town to drop off a resume. It took one more day to get my first gig at KUPL. Going around to all the stations enabled me to learn the market basics of who’s who and which stations are doing what, and the fact that KISN was gong off the air in several months was a tidbit I picked up on early. I wanted to go to work for KVAN 1480 because they were doing the exact same kind of radio I had just left at WSAN, Allentown, so I continued to pursue that while fixing two way radio gear at VECOM Electronics and tending bar at Frankensteins downtown. I did get a call from KISN and was offered a gig but I said ‘No thanks, you guys are going off the air in two months.’ Later after working for KVAN for a few years, the owner, Howard Slobodin, who had become friendly with Don Burden, KISN’s owner, told me the story of how KISN lost its license which jibes quite closely to the story being told by the first and second generation employees that were there. Although I personally left Cousin Brucie and top 40 WABC behind in 1966 (I was 16) when progressive FM rock was born in New York City, I did grow up on it and when I hear the term ‘top 40’ I think of the station I grew up with, WABC. I did not realize until many years later that the style of yakking between every song, talking over the first bars of the song, and playing the same songs over and over and over again came from a time well before KISN or WABC for that matter.

    Also, it is clear that what really killed top 40 was the introduction of ‘radio consultants’ which began as far back as the mid 1960’s. It wasn’t changing times or changing tastes. It was big money wanting to be bigger. The death of top 40 can not be blamed on the consolidation of ownership (although that did kill of a lot of other stuff about and around radio, mainly diversity and staff size).

    http://www.playlistresearch.com/article/top40.htm

    #24117
    Alfredo_T
    Participant

    On this board, I recall reading that in the late 1940s, KXL had an after-school “Hit Parade” show. In the mid 1950s, KPOJ had a hit music show, sponsored by Gilette, where listeners were encouraged to mail their used blades to the station.

    What strikes me the most about 1950s/60s airchecks of just about every Top-40 station is that the mic would be opened between each and every record, and many of the commercials were live reads. The air personalities had a real presence in the overall product as a result. There were no extended commercial breaks. No music radio station in the Portland market today sounds like that.

    #24169
    Steve Naganuma
    Participant

    Here is a great History Channel video on the History of Radio. About 45 minutes in they cover Top 40, but the entire video is very interesting.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jth70_zH-Ps

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