How Top 40 Radio Works

Posted: July 30, 2013 in Artist Corner

If you grew up listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, keeping your own list of the top songs and digging the behind-the-scenes tidbits of information Casey gave during the show, you’re not alone. The syndicated American Top 40 radio show was one of the most successful in the history of pop music. The snippets of information about your favorite recording artists, sentimental long-distance dedications, and Casey’s personal flair for teasers that kept you listening made the show the success that it was and still is today.

The heart of the show, however, is the music. Those chosen 40 songs that fall at the top of the Hot 100 chart — and sometimes stay there for a while — are compiled by Billboard Magazine and are based on some pretty amazing research. But what information does Billboard look at? How does music promotion affect what you hear on the radio? And, how does what you hear on the radio affect what music sells?

In this article, we’ll look at how radio stations decide what to play, and how Billboard comes up with the magical list of “the best” music. We’ll also see what happens when artists decide to buck the system and go for it on their own. Read on, and, as Casey always said, “Keep reaching for the stars!”

How Does a Song Make it to the Top 40?

Each week, Billboard puts together a chart of the top 100 most popular songs (as well as several other charts) based on a national sample of top 40 radio airplay, top 40 radio playlists, and music sales. Since the Top 40 comes from the Hot 100 chart, let’s look at how the Hot 100 is compiled. As you can imagine, this is quite an undertaking.

First, there is airplay. What is actually being played on the radio and on music video channels on TV? Assuming program directors and disc jockeys have their finger on the pulse of popular music, this could be good measure of what people like. Airplay is tracked through Broadcast Data Systems (BDS), run by Nielsen. BDS uses digital pattern-recognition technology to identify songs that are played on radio stations and music video TV channels across the United States and Canada. This is done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and captures over 100 million songs annually. BDS also provides “gross impressions,” which is simply the number of people listening to a station multiplied by the number of times the record was played. When new songs are recorded, a copy of the recording is sent to BDS so it can be encoded and tracked by its system on the stations it monitors. This data is used not only by Billboard in compiling the weekly charts, but also by record company executives, radio stations, publishing firms, performance rights organizations (to calculate performance royalties), music retailers, independent promoters, film and TV producers, and artist managers.

Another measure of what music is hot is what people are buying. To find out what music is selling in record stores, Billboard goes to SoundScan. Nielsen SoundScan is an information system that tracks the salesof music and music videos throughout the United States and Canada. By scanning the bar codes, they can collect sales information from cash registers each week from over 14,000 retail, mass merchant, and non-traditional sources such as online stores, concert sales, etc. The data is compiled and available for subscribers every Wednesday. Like BDS data, the data from SoundScan is also very valuable for record companies, artists, concert promoters, and retailers.

Billboard’s methodologies for compiling the charts have gone through several changes over the years. Since switching to Nielsen’s BDS and SoundScan (see below for a little background), Billboard changed the weighting of airplay versus sales. Because tracking a single song through album sales isn’t exactly accurate, singles sales have always been used to track the sales side of song popularity. But, since only about 20% of people actually buy singles and over 90% listen to the radio, it made sense to alter the ratio of points. Now, the overall points are weighted to 20% sales and 80% airplay.

But, if Billboard bases its charts on what is already being played on the radio and purchased in music stores, how do radio stations find out about new music?



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