The Greatest Top-40 Radio Stations of All Time

Whenever we broadcasters gather, eventually the conversation turns to The Greatest Top-40 Radio Stations of All Time. What made radio great then? And can we recreate it now?

The Business of Broadcasting

Each of us have our list, colored by personal taste an what was available to our ears back in the day. But the commonalities are stunning. The formula that made them appealing can still apply in an era where podcasting and streaming platforms are the new transmitters and anyone can be a content creator.

Fred Jacobs

My good friend Fred Jacobs has been telling us for years that content is king and transmitters are only one of the platforms available to broadcasters to disseminate it.

“Although we’ve been engaged in digital dot connection for a couple decades now,” he writes in his JacoBLOG,  “Many who didn’t see the digital tsunami coming or were in denial are now scrambling to keep up. Those who pivoted, invested, and innovated in the digital space are in a much better position to not only survive COVID-19, but to thrive in this turbulent environment.”

Pivot is the operative word in a world where technology is always disrupting our media consumption habits.

“Everyone knows success in radio is always rooted in habitual listening,” Fred continues. “And the same holds true for streaming – listening to a favorite station on a mobile app, via Alexa, or in on-demand chunks on the station website. Brands that have already established digital beachheads are in a much better position today to weather these changes – especially listeners spending less time in their cars and work stations.”

Lee Abrams

Consultant Lee Abrams, writing in Radio Ink in 2017 came up with 15 characteristics that The Greatest Top-40 Radio Stations shared:

  1. Production. From the drama of news to the promos to the wild tracks, production was an art form that created a theater of the mind that manufactured sonic magic.
  2. The Bible of Music. From the printed playlist to the countdowns, station-generated chart positions defined what was popular in the city.
  3. 24/7 Personalities. There were shows, not shifts, and every daypart mattered. People still talk about Charlie Greer and Denison’s Men’s Clothier, on WABC at 3 a.m.
  4. Eccentricity. From crazed night DJs to whacked promotions — parents were appalled while the new mainstream ate it up.
  5. City Sound. Unlike the generic radio of today, these stations oozed the vibe of their city; they were soundtracks of the community.
  6. Anticipation. There was always something coming up.
  7. Swagger. A hard-to-define vibe that was all about confidence in everything they did.
  8. Well-Oiled Machines. Even the personality-driven stations were well-oiled machines that held the basics in high regard.
  9. Audience Respect. No bullshit. The stations delivered without needing to resort to tricks and promises.
  10. Completeness. From news and sports to sneak previews of Beatles songs, the stations were complete, with no need to tune away.
  11. Smarteners. The DJs turned you on to what was going on. The stations were hubs of local information.
  12. Graphics. They had visual identities that mirrored the on-air delivery.
  13. Technology. AM radio once sounded badass as resources were poured into signal integrity.
  14. New ideas. Every few years, “new ways” came into play. From Storz to Drake to Bennett, things evolved. It’s sad that radio is still executing a 40-year-old playbook these days.
  15. Selling new records. Especially in the mid-’60s, the great stations would make a new Herman’s Hermit record sound like the Second Coming.

What’s different today?

“Information is the new rock ‘n’ roll,” Abrams told Variety in 2020. “It’s what’s driving modern culture. Terrestrial radio represents an ever-smaller piece of a pie which now includes satellite, streaming, online. It’s considered a utility, like the cable or power company, rather than a creative entity that inspires fans.”

“If this ‘Year of COVID’ has taught us anything,” Fred Jacobs adds, “it’s that our local communities – our neighbors, our local representatives, our hometown merchants, our area hospitals – matter. A lot. We always say they’re the fabric of our communities. This year, we learned just how true that is.”

Or to paraphrase Tip O’Neil, “All important content is local.” What we want to communicate has to resonate in the hearts and minds of our neighbors.

Aggregating opinions about what makes great podcasts, I found that there is a ton of overlap. Here are the eight most often listed attributes of popular podcasts.

  1. Knowledgeable, Authentic, Fun Host. The best podcasts are hosted by people we like. They are smart, funny, kind, inclusive and real, just like our favorite DJs.
  2. Narrow Focus. There is a carefully selected target audience and the show is formatted to serve it. (Sound familiar?)
  3. High Technical Quality. Listeners shouldn’t have to work hard to enjoy what they hear. Professional sound adds to credibility.
  4. Creativity. Great radio was always looking for novel ways to talk about the music, present mundane information like traffic and weather. Great podcasters do the same thing.
  5. Consistency. I know when I load up my favorite podcasts that I’ll be getting the same level of excellence in every episode.
  6. Program to the Attention Span. Podcasting has supplanted radio in many vehicles as a commuting tool. Our smart devices give us the traffic and weather info we once got on the air. Think drive time. Study how long it takes the average person to fall asleep at night. Put a stopwatch on the time it takes to load the dishwasher. These are today’s audio attention spans.
  7. Helpful Show Notes. Providing links to additional information builds loyalty. And if you use trackers, can be an excellent research tool to figure out what content is generating click-throughs.
  8. Promotion. Every great radio station had a budget for promotion and took advantage of other media to sell their platform. Back then it was billboards and TV spots. Today it’s SEO, Tweets and Facebook Ads.

The Sound Track of Our Lives

What is all this shop-talk doing in a blog targeted to my fellow boomers who love looking back over the The Sound Track of Our Lives?

The Greatest Top 40 Radio Stations were a crucial part of those lives. Today, my wife sticks her head into my office to task if I’ve seen the latest cool TikTok post or what someone has shared on Facebook. YouTube its supplanting Consumer Reports when you’re shopping for something new, and despite the very clear guidelines about copyright, disc jockey-esque content is showing up on that network, complete with music and “DJs” who provide context and backstory.

When we were growing up, all of that stuff happened when we listened to our favorite radio station. When you grew up in the business, you sought every Top-40 station you could when you traveled and strained through the static to pull out the 50,000 clear channel flame throwers when the sun went down. I had the pleasure of hearing these stations in their prime. It was only later, when I was writing “Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit,” that I lined up the similarities.

The List

Here’s my Top-10 list of The Greatest Top-40 Radio Stations of All Time, in no particular order.

KHJ – Los Angeles. (Aircheck) Where “Boss Radio” became a thing. The story of KHJ’s ascendancy is legendary. It’s the station that turned the Bill Drake into a star. In the highly competitive LA market, the tight format, the jocks who knew how to entertain within its limitations and the stream of creative promotions cemented KHJ into the culture, so much so that we all brightened up when we heard it in the background in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

WLS – Chicago. (Aircheck) WLS may not have been as aggressive as was it’s chief competitor, WCFL. But it’s consistency and the household names like Larry Lujack connected with a generation.

WABC – New York. (Aircheck) The number one market had the number one Top-40 station we all listened to. Even before the Drake format tightened the screws, WABC had a formula for audience engagement and the high power personalities who knew how to execute it. Even if you never heard it regularly, if you were in the biz, you knew the names: Dan Ingram and Cousin Brucie became synonymous with the call letters. And programmer Rick Sklar wasn’t afraid to take chances, like putting “MacArthur Park,” a 7:20 second record into heavy rotation after the admins heard him playing it in his office.

WAPE – Jacksonville. (Aircheck) We put up with the hum of that home made 50KW transmitter and listeners from Jacksonville to North Carolina knew the Ape yell by heart.

KLIF – Dallas. (Aircheck) The place where Gordon McLendon refined the Top-40 format that Todd Storz conceived when he watched kids select the same songs over and over on jukebox machines. KLIF was a proving ground for talent on the way up who came to learn for Gordon. Agility and creativity were among his greatest gifts as anyone who listens to air checks of the day President Kennedy was shot an attest.

CKLW – Windsor. (Aircheck) From a sleepy also-ran in the early 60s to a brief prime as an unassailable entertainment powerhouse, The Big-8, followed KHJ’s lead. Paul Drew knew how to execute and had an ear for talent. Spice the hits with a frenetic newscast format that coined the term, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Add that to CK’s 50,000 watt signal and you had a product that crushed every other Top-40 station within 500 miles.

WQAM – Miami. (Aircheck) The place where Todd Storz created Top-40 radio and a market where an aggressive competitor, WFUN, always kept you on your toes. Legendary air personalities had WQAM on their resumes. Todd snagged the Beatles when they were in town to perform again with Ed Sullivan. And such was WQAM’s appeal that it was said to be the most popular radio station in Havana.

KCBQ – San Diego. (Aircheck) If ever a set of call letters was a perfect auditory melody, KCBQ (which originally stood for CBS Quality) were it. The production and promotions team there was second to none. The personalities were high energy and engaging. And the execution of the format was the essence of perfection.

WKNR – Detroit. (Airchecks) Yeah, you knew I would put Keener on the list. For a radio station that Robin Seymour rightly described as “Number 30 in a 29 station market,” to transform from number none to number one in sixty days was a phenomenon. That the station suffered from a night time signal deficiency that made it unlistenable in parts of the market didn’t matter. The brilliant promotion and programming genius of Frank Maruca, the world class talent drawn to Keener because of its culture of, “Intelligent Flexibility,” and the guts that owner Nellie Knorr had to take a chance on something that was still considered edgy in late 1963 all combined to create a mystique that still appeals today.

Radio was the common denominator for those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies.

The DJs were our best friends and the music they introduced us to provided the soundtrack to millions of love stories and pivotal moments in our lives. Everything we talk about here at Rock and Roll Revisited has its genesis on the airwaves.

Current day content creators will learn how to leverage radio’s common success denominators of yesteryear on the media platforms of today… and tomorrow.

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit