The greatest top-40 stations of all time
I didn’t see it until earlier this month, but in August of 2017, Radio Ink (radioink.com) ran a story on the “greatest top-40 radio stations of all time.” You can read it yourself at tinyurl.com/rw0823.
It’s an interesting read, though in my opinion it is an impossible list to create. Even the two “programming experts” — Lee Abrams and Randy Michaels — didn’t agree. I myself have some ideas, but I am in no way qualified to find the “greatest” simply because I have not heard them all.
Nor can I use my formative years as the basis for the list, as early top-40 stations (before my time) that set the standard were working from a different starting place yet still influenced the industry as much or more than the later stations generally credited with being the most influential. KHJ, for example.
What makes the list viable, though, is the idea of what would put a station onto the list itself. Abrams details what he looks for: 15 elements including such aspects as on-air production, music, personalities, swagger/vibe, audience respect, the ability to influence record sales, and more. His choice for the top station? KHJ. Michaels top-pick? KIIS (alluding to both the AM and FM versions). The station chosen by readers of the piece? CKLW/Windsor-Detroit.
Again, my perspective is somewhat limited. I was born in 1963 so early stations were often gone by the time I started listening to the radio. And I am limited to Southern California, as I have lived here all my life, plus recordings I hear via sites like ReelRadio.Com and YouTube. But if I were to come up with a list, I would use basically the same criteria as Abrams, with a focus on the on-air presentation, the stations vibe, and the excitement generated by all elements of programming, from the personalities, to the contests, to the breaking of new music.
In no particular order, then, are stations that I would place on such a list, and the reasons why.
• KRLA/Los Angeles. They knocked KFWB out of the top-spot and brought the Beatles to Los Angeles. They also launched the careers of many television stars, as well as Casey Kasem who went on to count down American Top-40.
• KHJ/Los Angeles. No list can be complete without KHJ, arguably the most imitated station ever. In its prime, it was flawless. Exciting promotions, great DJs, excellent news coverage, special events and concerts for listeners, and engineers who could get the best sound and distance one could get from a little 5000 watt transmitter.
• KFRC/San Francisco. When KHJ was at its prime, it was flawless. So was KFRC, and KFRC was at its prime more often than was KHJ, which suffered from a revolving door of programmers in the 1970s and a resulting inconsistent sound. KFRC, on the other hand, maintained its sound throughout its history and actually held ion to the format — and top-ratings — about five years longer than did KHJ. On the other hand, KHJ got screwed by owner RKO when the decisions as made to go country … had Chuck Martin continued as programmer in the 1980s, it might be a different story.
• WCFL/Chicago. Purists will say that competitor WLS was the winner, and indeed it did often beat WCFL in the ratings. But to my ears, WCFL — owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor — was more exciting. But that’s why this is in no particular order.
• WLS/Chicago. Realistically, you cannot include WCFL without also including WLS. Many of the personalities worked at both stations, and WLS had a flamethrower signal that in the 1980s make it to Southern California — cleanly — at night. The competition between the two stations was intense and made both of them better.
•KCBQ/San Diego. One of my earliest listens. The same elements as with the local Drake/Boss station KGB, but even more polished and even more creative.
•KFMB-FM/San Diego. Better known as B-100, this is the station that knocked KCBQ out off the top-spot, and was the first top-rated FM top-40 station, not only in San Diego, b ut nationwide.
• KIIS-FM/Los Angeles. Not the early days … when former KKDJ became the FM simulcast of KIIS (AM), it was OK. But the killer KIIS-FM came during the early 1980s when the experts said top-40 was dead. That “dead” format (using the WLS jingles, by the way) went on to dominate the city just as KHJ had done 17 years prior. And to give credit where credit is due, the format is still running today (though the current version would be an honorable mention due to lack of anything setting it apart from the crowd).
KEZY/Anaheim. The big-sounding station from the small town in Orange County. It was highly respected for its presentation, and many DJS from KEZY could write their own tickets after working there. One of the most exciting small stations anywhere.
KTNQ/Los Angeles. Just when KHJ was going through one of its bad eras, Ten-Q came out hard and (other than the payola-based lame songs they added to the playlist) for a short time just dominated the city. Exciting, vibrant … kind of like KCBQ when it dethroned KGB.
KGB/San Diego. But not for the era everyone thinks. The early days were great, admittedly, but when KGB became really exciting was in the later stages as 13-K … going top-40 just when so many other stations were leaving the format in the mid-late 1970s. Ot was a time when it went from being a has-been to a truly competitive station with great personalities, eclipsing AOR-formatted KGB-FM for a time.
Honorable mentions: KKDJ/Los Angeles, for being a great top-40 FM only to be prevented from making inroads due to AM’s continued dominance at the time (and being squeezed by K-100); KIQQ/Los Angeles post K-100, when it was breaking new music even faster than KROQ; XETRA/Tijuana as The Mighty 690 making AM music relevant just a little longer; KFI/Los Angeles during the John Rook Hitparade era; KRIZ/Phoenix which went off the air while still number one in town when the owners just wanted to sell.
What are your favorites? Let me know and I’ll get them on to the “list.”
Music will return to weekends on the former MusicRadio WABC/New York. “Cousin Brucie” Bruce Morrow has left SiriusXM’s 60s on 6 and will return to the station where he spun records in the 1960s, every Saturday from 6-9 p.m. Eastern, beginning September 5th.
The Hollywood Bowl may be closed down due to the Covid scare, but KCRW (89.9 FM) is presenting recorded performances from the Bowl every Sunday from 6:30 – 8 p.m. through October 11.
A variety of artists will be featured; go to kcrw.com for full details.