Top 40 turns 50: video has failed to kill the radio star | radioinfo

Top 40 turns 50: video has failed to kill the radio star

Thursday 28 February, 2008
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Sunday marks the 50th Anniversary of the birth of Top 40 programming on Australian Radio. The irst number one song was Pat Boone's April Love. Author Wayne Mac has kindly authorised radioinfo to publish an abridged excerpt from his book, Don’t Touch That Dial to offer an insight as to how it all began…

Two major events in the 1950s had a lasting impact on Australian commercial radio: the celebrated birth of Rock ’n’ Roll in the United States in 1954 and the arrival of television in Australia in 1956. These new phenomena coincided with the emergence of a young and, at times, non-conformist generation in western society, which Hollywood and the advertising fraternity labelled ‘Teenagers’.

2UE began playing and promoting the Top 40 on 2 March 1958 as a daily format feature. A young music fan, David Kent, known in later years for his Kent Music Report, was listening that day:

The thing I remember quite clearly from that afternoon was that the 40 songs from the first chart weren’t played in strict order. They’d bounce them around from say, 35 to 29, up to 15, then back to 33 and with quite a number of predictions thrown in. The Top 40 was a complete twist on the old hit parade programs which people were used to hearing at that time.

But, the man behind the creation of the very first Australian Top 40 chart was Pat Barton. In addition to being 2KO breakfast announcer, he was appointed music adviser for the Lamb stations. Once a week, he boarded the 7.30 Flyer out of Newcastle.

The Top 40 plan developed into a combined radio format and publicity tool. To drive this fresh and exciting concept into the minds and hands of listeners, 2UE distributed up to 30,000 printed ‘Original and Authentic’ Top 40 charts each week. The small paper handouts contained song lists and station publicity details. They were free to the public through music stores across Sydney.

2UE has been credited with many firsts in its colourful history and the birth of an Australian Top 40 remains among its most influential achievements. Another pioneering Top 40 format station from 1958 was Adelaide’s 5AD. They borrowed actual chart listings from 2UE and passed them off as their own. Former Music Director Trevor Cowling explains why:

This was through the influence of the Major Radio Network which was lead by 2UE and 5AD was a member. The whole Top 40 thing was all new for everyone in those days. We used the Sydney lists right from the start into about 1960 or ’61 from memory. But, on air, 5AD was doing its own thing musically wherever we could.

One time 2UE Program Director Nick Erby added:

Allan Faulkner was very much a lateral thinker; a visionary. He was one of the leaders of that generation of radio men in the ’50s. There were a few of them of note: Stan Clark of Macquarie, Lewis Bennett of 3UZ, Bill Stephenson at 2SM. Those were the kind of blokes who were in power when television came in and their contribution is central to the history and development of commercial radio.

The Top 40 music formula had been playing on select US stations for some years before 2UE’s people heard it. Fuelled by the fresh beat of rock ’n’ roll and by entrepreneurs with a keen eye to make a buck, its popularity was growing fast in the States. Given the changes occurring in Australian society, Top 40 programming was well timed to give local radio a new lease of life in a post television age. However, not everyone agreed. Many radio proprietors fought against it. Some performers were sceptical. 2UE’s budding breakfast star in 1958 was Gary O’Callaghan: “I said at the time that it’ll be lucky if it lasts six months. I just wasn’t convinced that it could be a success, but Allan was a very persuasive boss and he asked that we give it our best shot.”

Some buyers of advertising time were uncertain about radio’s new music and personality direction. Concern was expressed that too much pop music would wreak havoc and scare away older listeners who were the advertisers’ traditional target audience. US broadcasters were also sceptical of the new programming era. A comment doing the rounds, at a time when stations were increasing the amount of music based shows, was: ‘Records? Who will listen to records played over the radio? People play records on phonographs!’

Controversial American DJ, Alan Freed, is credited with coining the term Rock ’n’ Roll , or at least bringing the black slang expression for fornication to the notice of white American teens. Conflicting reports make it hard to say with certainty who should receive similar credit for actually naming the Top 40. There is one story, however, which is legendary in US radio circles. It’s mythical in part, but a fantastic tale just the same.

Todd Storz owned a chain of stations in America’s Midwest. He and Station Manager Bill Stewart were apparently in a bar where patrons played the same songs over and over on the jukebox. Towards the end of the evening, the waitress who had been hearing these songs all through her shift used her hard earned tip money to play them over again while cleaning up for the night. This struck a chord with Storz and Stewart, who later developed a plan to run a bunch of records repeatedly on their stations.

Why 40 records? At first, KOWH Omaha, Nebraska, heavily rotated the top 10 tunes in national radio programs like Your Hit Parade and Lucky Lager Dance Time. Sometime later, after buying WTIX New Orleans, Storz heard his rival station, WDSU, was playing what it called the Top 20 tunes in between soap operas and other networked features. Not to be outdone, Storz is said to have retaliated by extending the length of his station’s music programs by one hour and doubling the amount of records played. Word of this spread around the industry and stations in larger cities began to develop their own similar approaches. Somehow the idea of 40 records became the standard and the rest, as they say, is history.

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