Top Forty radio was invented by Todd Storz and Bill Stewart, the operator and program director, respectively, of KOWH, an AM station in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early fifties. Like most music programmers of the day, Storz and Stewart provided a little something for everyone. As Marc Fisher writes in his book “Something in the Air” (2007), “The gospel in radio in those days was that no tune ought to be repeated within twenty-four hours of its broadcast—surely listeners would resent having to hear the same song twice in one day.” The eureka moment, as Ben Fong-Torres describes it in “The Hits Just Keep on Coming” (1998), occurred in a restaurant across from the station, where Storz and Stewart would often wait for Storz’s girlfriend, a waitress, to get off work. They noticed that even though the waitresses listened to the same handful of songs on the jukebox all day long, played by different customers, when the place finally cleared out and the staff had the jukebox to themselves they played the very same songs. The men asked the waitresses to identify the most popular tunes on the jukebox, and they went back to the station and started playing them, in heavy rotation. Ratings soared.

By the end of the decade, Top Forty was the most popular format in the nation. It thrived in the sixties, but began to struggle with the popularity of FM radio, and the rise of album-oriented rock, in the seventies.  [B]y the eighties it [top forty radio] could no longer claim to be America’s soundtrack.

In the past decade, however, Top Forty has come back stronger than ever....  Paradoxically, in an age when an unprecedented range of musical genres is easily available via the Internet, the public’s appetite for hits has never been greater.... In New York City, contemporary hit radio now dominates FM stations, a remarkable turn of events for anyone old enough to remember when FM radio was the antithesis of Top Forty.

From The New Yorker, an article worth reading in full. For more on media strategy, see this post from February.

[via Cheap Talk]