Top 40 gets real

END OF AN ERA: The subjective playlist chart, a Top 40 institution for decades, is about to go the way of the Edsel.

Spurred by modern technology and an interest by both the radio and record industries in judging the success of singles on actual, unmanipulated airplay, Top 40 radio stations across the country are revising their lists so that songs are now ranked by the frequency of airplay. The transition to total reliance on airplay-generated playlists should be complete in two weeks.

This shift should have the same fundamental impact on the radio airplay charts that the computerized, untampered-with SoundScan reports had on sales charts.

Historically, the subjective playlist chart was compiled by Top 40 program and music directors. They’d rank songs based on a combination of frequency of airplay, local record sales and listener requests. This has been the practice for more than three decades.

The problem with this methodology was that it was susceptible to manipulation. This led to instances in which programmers were offered enticements to move a song higher up the chart. Doing so inflated the song’s chart success, prompting stations that were undecided about the song to play it.

The gambit was also used to get programs to “add” a song to its chart without playing it, creating what’s called “paper adds.”

While that subterfuge may have succeeded in getting certain songs played and even helped make hits of some, in other cases it didn’t increase sales at all. So the added expense of promoting the songs unethically didn’t pay off.

The situation was similar to manipulation of the album sales charts of the late ’70s, when albums were charted according to shipping figures, so millions of records were shipped to retailers, only to have most of them shipped back unsold. SoundScan’s computerized sales totals pretty much eliminated that kind of deception.

Now Plays Per Week charts should do the same for radio.

Plays Per Week — PPW — information is compiled in two ways. Broadcast Data Systems first takes a “thumb print” of the first few notes of a song. When that song is heard on the air of a monitored station, it’s tabulated in a computer. BDS monitors approximately 180 stations in the top 100 markets.

A similar system — used by the Network Forty, a radio trade magazine where this writer is employed– accepts computer-generated frequency rankings from more than 260 stations across the country.

In the other PPW system, Radio & Records — a leading radio trade paper — will debut a PPW chart in two weeks that relies on over-the-phone frequency reports from more than 170 stations.

While certainly more accurate, the new systems don’t necessarily supply all the information record companies require. Capitol Records has commissioned a research report to determine the stations that attract the most 12-to 24 -year-old listeners (the most active buyers, particularly for new music), the stations that play the most current records (as opposed to oldies) and the top markets’ ranks by actual sales. This research will be used to pinpoint the stations whose airplay creates the most record sales.

In the future, playlist charts will likely be broken out to list not only the frequency of play, but when they were played. More active buyers listen to radio at night, so more spins at night would likely mean more sales.

As it is, the current transition will ensure that the top-charting songs are actually the most-played songs. The hottest trend in the radio and record business is finally reality.

RAGE AGAINST the Machine bassist Timmy Commerford’s passion for mountain biking nearly turned deadly on April 1, when he attempted to do a jump and instead flew over his handlebars. He was found face down and unconscious in a ditch by a passerby and brought to UCLA Medical Center, where he underwent surgery for a concussion, a crushed cheekbone and a fractured left arm.

The accident forced the postponement of the band’s benefit concerts to raise money for imprisoned American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier’s defense fund, originally scheduled for last Thursday and Friday at the Hollywood Palladium.

The concerts have been rescheduled for April 28-29 at the Palladium, and are presented by KROQ. Other acts scheduled to appear include Cypress Hill and Quicksand, with a special appearance by the Beastie Boys. Stanford Prison Experiment will perform April 28 and X and Mother Tongue will perform April 29.

L.A. SEEN: Restless Records recently held a poolside bash for the release of Marvin Etzioni’s new CD, “Weapons of the Spirit.” Known for his work playing and writing songs for Lone Justice, this is Etzioni’s second solo album on Restless, and it features his trademark mandolin playing and spiritually tinged ballads.

Restless staffer Joe Regis donated his lovely Mexican villa in Burbank, near the Equestrian Center, for the event, which featured a live set by Marvin, accompanied by naked kiddies frolicking in the pool. The party was catered by Joseph’s Greek Cafe, and among those celebrating the event and listening intently were members of Toad the Wet Sprocket, Andy Williams of Warner Bros. artists the Williams Brothers, and songwriter Peter Case.

The much-anticipated Palace show by the Breeders was packed to the rafters by an audience whose median age seemed to be about 22. The Breeders put on a great show, in spite of the muddy sound mix (which didn’t seem to matter to the crowd, anyway). Opening act Th’Faith Healers got a tepid response, but the John Spencer Blues Explosion, next up, had an explosive stage presence.

THE UPS AND DOWNS of show business may be a bit more physical than psychological for Stuttering John Melendez: He’s been punched in the face by the likes of Morton Downey Jr. and Raquel Welch, thrown out of the Grammy Awards ceremonies, and choked by Lou Reed. All this was in his capacity as star reporter and guerrilla interviewer for “The Howard Stern Show.”

John has just released an album of rock ‘n’ roll on Atlantic Records. Titled simply “Stuttering John,” the disc features his lead vocals and guitar playing, and spotlights songs that would have fit in very well with the early-’80s punk-pop-metal genre.

The group is set to tour in the 16 cities where Stern’s show is broadcast, and then will go on a tour of the Northeast. A video is in the works, too, which will be directed by Nigel King (Guns N’ Roses) for the song “Talk My Way Out of It,” with cameo appearances by Kiss’s Gene Simmons and Sting.

John will continue working for the Stern show, and as far as interviews go, says, “I’m not afraid of what people are going to ask me — I just wish everyone would stop punching me!”

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