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Top 40 radio looks for the next big thing

Hip-hop and R&B dominated this year's mainstream radio
/ Source: Billboard

During the past year, hip-hop and R&B have so pervasively dominated top 40 radio that the line between pop and R&B/hip-hop has become more of a blurry smudge.

But as history tells, the dominant sound that defines top 40 is as cyclical as the seasons, and this latest trend may be showing signs of wear as a number of young male rock bands — such as Simple Plan, Trapt and Maroon5 — flex muscle at mainstream radio.

Likewise, some programmers are eager to nurture a new generation of young pop artists, beginning with the likes of Hilary Duff and Stacie Orrico.

Programmers admit that too much of any one sound is never good for the long-term health of the format. They insist that they’re searching for more balance on their playlists to bring the format back toward the center — if only they can find the hits.

“It’s easy to jump on the trend and play every hip-hop record on your desk, but it doesn’t protect your format,” says John Ivey, PD of mainstream top 40 powerhouse KIIS Los Angeles. “Top 40 was designed for kids and their mothers to listen to together. Where you create a disconnect is in being too hip-hop, too rough. We need to search for more of those mass-appeal records.”

Polarizing forceGuy Zapoleon, president of Zapoleon Media Strategies, which oversees Billboard/Airplay Monitor’s HitPredictor chart, agrees that the massive influx of R&B/hip-hop product may polarize listeners.

“With 50 Cent breaking through big early last year, a lot of R&B/hip-hop songs were given a chance,” he says. “But their batting average was lower at a lot of radio stations, with only the more rhythmic stations having success with most of them, while most top 40s dayparted these to nights.

“We’re definitely in the doldrums phase, where top 40 radio is suffering from a lack of good music,” he adds. “I think the format has been holding its own, just not at the heights of the glory years of the late ’90s and 2000.

“Top 40 has been coming up with fewer new ideas, and it’s taking less chances with its talent, contesting and even music,” he says. “Combine that with the economy choking programming and marketing budgets, consolidating reducing manpower, and we’re seeing more lean times ahead for the format.”

Deflated popThe charts certainly support the theory that 2003 represented a year in which the pop in top 40 was largely deflated.

Among 2003’s top Billboard Hot 100 artists, Justin Timberlake was the only one among the leading five that did not also rank among the top R&B/hip-hop artists of the year. He joins 50 Cent, R. Kelly, Sean Paul and Beyonce.

Further, among the top airplay songs of the year on the Hot 100, seven of the top 10 are R&B/hip-hop-based. Only 3 Doors Down, Matchbox Twenty and Evanescence (featuring Paul McCoy) broke the mold.

The hip-hop bandwagon trend at top 40 is more sudden than one might suspect. In 2002, artists representing the year-end Hot 100 were as diverse as Nickelback, Ashanti, Nelly, the Calling and Vanessa Carlton.

In 2001, Lifehouse, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Train and Jennifer Lopez Featuring Ja Rule offered a varied palette of genres at the top of the year-end chart.

During top 40’s previous dominant trend — the teen-pop explosion of the late 1990s — diversity still managed to command the airwaves, with TLC, Goo Goo Dolls, Monica, Backstreet Boys, Sugar Ray and 702 all in the top 10 for 1999.

Giving them what they want?As well, it appears that top 40 programmers today are not necessarily playing what the general public is most interested in hearing.

Zapoleon counts off songs he feels the format missed: Evanescence’s “Going Under,” Sugarcult’s “Bouncing Off the Walls,” Beu Sisters’ “I Was Only (Seventeen)” and Atomic Kitten’s “Tide Is High.”

“There were a lot of songs from left field that could have been hits,” he says. “I don’t think enough programmers are using their ears to take chances on songs that are hits but aren’t being pushed by the labels.”

Parade of idols
Among the top-selling singles of 2003, a significant number were pretty much hands-off on pop station playlists, including three of the songs in the top five, all related to Fox TV phenomenon “American Idol”: “This Is the Night” by Clay Aiken, “Flying Without Wings” by Ruben Studdard and “God Bless the U.S.A.” by the American Idol Finalists.

“Clay Aiken is such a polarized deal; people either love him or hate him,” says Tracy Austin, PD of mainstream top 40 KRBE Houston.

“If the product is there, we’re always open,” she says. “We’ve had great success with Kelly Clarkson, and I think she’s going to be around to stay — but we may be reaching critical mass very soon with the whole ’American Idol’ phenomenon. I just don’t know how many more of these we can sustain.”

Ivey adds, “You know, I always say, ’The first in a trend does well, the second does OK but the third one has it tough.’ Kelly Clarkson is very good and Clay has a rabid fan base, but I’m not sold on Ruben yet.”

So while the “American Idol” tidal wave provided a wealth of potential pop product to top 40 throughout last year, it hasn’t commanded enough influence to rally the national top 40 airwaves back to the center.

Austin agrees that radio stations can only be as good as the product record companies deal them.

“We’re not getting a lot of good pop stuff, which makes it tough,” she says. “What happens when Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake run out of singles?”

An eye on the middle
Like many major-market stations sensing that too much R&B/hip-hop will alienate core listeners, KRBE has been aiming to keep an eye on a more balanced playlist.

“A lot of the urban stuff is really reactionary, so it’s easy to put on the air, but you have to keep an eye on what you’ll have to play for recurrents,” Austin says. “You need to have artists like Evanescence, who also have adult appeal --which will give them more longevity.”

Looking ahead, Austin sees “a plethora of guitars coming back,” with big hits at the station from Simple Plan, Maroon5, Staind, 3 Doors Down and Trapt. “A couple months ago, we were knee-deep in hip-hop, and we were all talking about finding a balance. Top 40 still has to be about painting a nice picture of variety about what’s available. It’s only as good as we make it, piece by piece.

“We’ve had great success with Liz Phair, even though it took forever; and Dido and Sarah McLachlan are smashes in middays,” Austin says. “Alicia Keys could work well for us, and OutKast is on fire. So we’re feeling hopeful.”

KIIS-FM’s Ivey adds, “We want Justin and Britney and Hilary to work. It’s our job to create the excitement for them. We’re supposed to be the authorities here — if you tell your audience that a record is a hit, they’ll believe it.”