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What Does Top 40 Mean?

The origin of the term, its history, and its meaning today


American Top 40 logo

American Top 40 Logo


Top 40 is a term used frequently in the music world today. It is generally used as a label for mainstream pop music, particularly as played on the radio. Have you ever wondered where the term came from? Read on for the history and the role of Top 40 in the world of pop music.

The Origins Of Top 40

Before 1950 radio programming was different from what it is today. Most radio stations broadcast chunks of programming - possibly a 30 minute soap opera, then an hour of music, then 30 minutes of news, etc. Much of the content was produced elsewhere and sold to the local radio station.

In the early 1950's a new approach to programming music on the radio began. There are conflicting stories about the actual invention of top 40 radio, but it is clear that the idea for top 40 emerged out of awareness of music played on jukeboxes. The standard jukebox of the time held 40 singles. The pioneers of top 40 noted that these records were played in rotation by customers with the most popular songs sometimes played many times a day. Radio pioneers Todd Storz, Bill Stewart, and Gordon McLendon all contributed to the development of a radio format that consisted of a local disc jockey playing the current hit records interspersed with news and promotion of the local station. Within a few years the top 40 format spread across the U.S.

Successful Radio Format

As rock and roll took over as the most popular genre of American music in the late 1950's, top 40 radio blossomed. Local radio stations would play top 40 countdowns of the most popular records, and radio stations began to use commercial jingles to aggressively promote their top 40 format. The legendary PAMS company from Dallas created jingles for radio stations across the country. Among the legendary top 40 radio stations of the late 50's and early 60's were WTIK in New Orleans, WHB in Kansas City, KLIF in Dallas, and WABC in New York.

American Top 40

On July 4, 1970 a syndicated radio show began called American Top 40. It featured host Casey Kasem counting down the top 40 hits each week from the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The creators of the show were unsure about its chances for success initially. However, the show soon became very popular and by the early 1980's it was featured on over 500 radio stations across the U.S. and many more around the world. Through the weekly countdown show millions of radio listeners became familiar with weekly record charts focusing on the 40 most popular hits in the country, not just their local area. The countdown helped spread knowledge of hit records quickly from coast to coast encouraging listeners to request that their local radio stations play new songs on the countdown.

In 1988 Casey Kasem left American Top 40 due to contract concerns and he was replaced by Shadoe Stevens. Angry listeners caused many radio stations to drop the program and some replaced it with a rival show called Casey's Top 40 created by Kasem. American Top 40 continued to slide in popularity and came to an end in 1995. Three years later it was revived with Casey Kasem once again hosting. In 2004 Casey Kasem left once again. This time the decision was an amicable one, and Kasem was replaced by American Idol host Ryan Seacrest.

Top 40 Radio Today

Top 40 as a radio format has had its ups and downs since the 1960's. The widespread success of FM radio in the 1970's with more widely varied programming caused the top 40 radio format to wane. It roared back with the success of "Hot Hits" formats in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Today top 40 radio has evolved into what is called Contemporary Hits Radio (or CHR). The model for focusing on a tight playlist of hit songs interspersed with news bits and aggressive promotion of the radio station has now become dominant across a wide number of musical genres. By the year 2000 top 40 as a term had evolved beyond referring simply to a radio format. Top 40 is now widely used to represent mainstream pop music in general.

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