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Rob Wagman “Why Christian Top 40 Fails to Connect”

It isn’t for lack of trying. 

There are a group of programmers sharing their playlists with each other, week to week, assembling a chart that represents, to the best of anyone’s knowledge or greatest guess, an honorable attempt at a compilation of songs depicting Christian Top 40.

According to thehotchart.com, this week’s top five songs are…

  1. Social Club Misfits “War Cry”
  2. TobyMac “I Just Need U”
  3. The Gray Havens “High Enough”
  4. Phil J “Crazy”
  5. Hollyn “All My Love”

In conversations with six different programmers of Christian Top 40, the consensus is that Christian Top 40 is trying to mirror the style and sound of secular Top 40, to both reach, and serve the same demographic that is drawn to mainstream Top 40; today’s diverse youth culture.

Since that is the case let’s look at this week’s top five songs at mainstream…

  1. Zedd “The Middle”
  2. Camila Cabello “Never Be The Same”
  3. Drake “God’s Plan”
  4. Bebe Rexha ft. Florida Georgia Line “Meant To Be”
  5. Imagine Dragons “Whatever It Takes”

For the Christian top five, three of them have a rhythmic/hip hop lean, while two are straight ahead pop/rhythmic.  For the secular top five, only one of them has a rhythmic/hip hop lean, while three of them have a pop/rhythmic lean and one is pop, but with alternative roots.

If our attempt is to mirror the secular Top 40 sounds to get a similar outcome, then immediately we can see, our balance is off, and almost inverted, but the question that should be asked here, is: Should we be utilizing the world’s sounds and music to build a format that, in the end should be representing and honoring God?

Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Christian CHR in some of our nations’ biggest markets, where the signal covers the market fully, reaps ratings that heavily pale in comparison to the AC and Hot AC versions of the Christian format in those same markets.  Does this mean Top 40 at our format will always take us down a road of disappointing results, so we should just abandon the thought of it altogether?

Absolutely not. 

But the answer to Christian CHR is NOT in the pattern of the world’s version of this format, so if the world is clamoring to a certain sound, and we take that sound and simply add religious words to it, we believe, because the base sound is like what the world is offering, that the kids will find us and love us, and spread the word.  So, why aren’t they?

When a life is changed for God, He creates in us a new heart, and that heart begins seeking something different, and the things of this world, including their music and sounds mean less to us, and instead, we begin finding great depth in scriptures, songs and words that draw us deeper into relationship with Him.

This is not to say that the Christian format shouldn’t glean something from the secular format, because there is a clue from secular, not a pattern, but a relationship that can show us the way to CHR success in our format.

The relationship of mainstream Top 40 and mainstream Hot AC has an obvious kinship, and to reveal that we can look at the top 5 songs at the Hot AC format this week…

  1. Imagine Dragons “Whatever It Takes”
  2. Zedd “The Middle”
  3. Camila Cabella “Never Be The Same”
  4. Maroon 5 “Wait”
  5. Bebe Rexha “Meant To Be”

Incredibly, of the Top 5 in both formats, four of the songs are the same, although in a different order, which doesn’t matter much.

Let’s take this one step deeper, and look at the relationship of Top 40 with AC.  Here is where the Top 5 at pop are this week at AC radio…

Bebe Rexha #7 at AC, Zedd #9, Camila #19, Imagine Dragons #20 and Drake “God’s Plan,” not getting airplay at AC.

This relationship between the formats is the clue that has been missing in the Christian genre, but as of this moment you are enlightened, because that is how good God is.

Now, let’s go back to the Top 5 songs from thehotchart.com, and look for the relationship.  Immediately, what we see is TobyMac’s “I Just Need U” which is played at both Christian Hot AC and AC, so, one shared title at AC, and at Hot AC, still getting airplay but falling off is Social Club Misfits “War Cry.”

What we see is that Christian Top 40 has very little relationship with Hot AC and AC, and this is the root cause of the weakness in traction for the format.  Top 40 should be forecasting the hits that eventually play at Hot AC and AC, but spiced in with some songs that will never get airplay at AC.

Until Christian Top 40 moves to this position, it will remain a format spinning its wheels, flinging mud, frustrated, forever wondering why the youth have abandoned any thought of tuning in.

A Christian Top 40 could very well be playing every one of the five songs listed at the beginning of this article, just not in the rank that is presently outlined.  Instead, if I’m a Top 40 right now in CHR, this would more likely be my Top 5 this week…

  1. For King & Country “Joy”
  2. Hillsong United “So Will I”
  3. Austin French “Freedom Hymn”
  4. Elevation Worship “Do It Again”
  5. Josh Wilson “Dream Small”

TobyMac would be a power recurrent, not a Top 5 at this time, as it would have already peaked.  And that is the key in separating a Top 40 from an AC or Hot AC, is the timing of the airplay, and also the rotations of songs and categories, which is typically much faster at Top 40.

Top 40 is supposed to lead the way for the other formats.  In the 80’s and 90’s, our format produced a lot of secular type sounding groups singing for Jesus, like Out of Eden and others, but while the sound was spot on for the EnVogue, Destiny’s Child type movement that was happening at mainstream, the hooky, melodic songs at Christian would chart, but the song sales that would follow would be dismal in comparison to the airplay.  That’s the error in programming by a worldly sound.  This is not a new problem.

Top 40 should drive sales, streaming and create curiosity through Shazam hits, and when this is happening the format is healthy.  Then, shortly thereafter, Hot AC should take advantage of the road Top 40 already paved, and then a little bit longer down the road AC radio should follow suit as well.

And yes, Top 40 should be playing some of the best hip hop and even alternative based songs, but these titles should be used like salt and pepper; sparingly. 

Since 1991, Rob Wagman has been known first by his faith, and then by his skills in the secular side of this Industry, and now is known by his versatility, having succeeded in both radio and records in multiple formats from Christian Contemporary, Rock, Alternative, Top 40, Rhythm, Urban and Hot AC, in various roles from On Air to Programming to Marketing and Promotions.

Wagman has worked in all of the Top 3 markets, LA, NYC and Chicago, and returned to LA in 2012 as his entry way into CCM, in PM Drive at KFSH, 95.9 The Fish before becoming the Network PD for WAY-FM.

In 2013, Wagman launched Straight Path Media + Entertainment, a consulting firm which hyper focuses on talent and each station’s greatest need for growth, supplying a la cart programming services for branding, from music strategies, promotional and marketing think tank brain storming, promo and imaging creative, talent coaching and airchecking. Wagman presently coaches 27 air talents, consults 13 stations plus 4 clusters.

Contact Rob Wagman at StraightPathMandE@gmail.com