Top 40 Radio: When the Good Guys Ruled


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Once upon a time there was Top 40 radio. And the kings of Top 40 were the Good Guys.

The term "Good Guys" was first used as a promotional gimmick by a radio station in New York City to refer to their disc jockeys. Soon, the term was appropriated by Top 40 stations around the United States.

Top 40 radio was born in the 1950s and reached its zenith of popularity and influence in the 1960s. After television killed the radio drama, the main thing radio had going for it was music. Top 40 turned out to be the ideal format for playing and listening to the new rock ‘n’ roll records that swept the American pop music stage starting in the mid-50s.

The idea behind Top 40 was that a radio station would play a limited rotation of songs over and over through the day, based on its list of the 40 top-selling records that week. Songs near the top of the list would get more airplay than those near the bottom. Each week, a new Top 40 list would be released, and listeners would eagerly await to see which songs had moved up, which had moved down, and which had fallen off the list entirely, as well as what new songs had broken through to a place on the list.

In practice, some stations actually had a Top 50 list. Some had a Top 30. For a time, some experimented with playing records only from a Top 10 list - that is, the same 10 songs playing over and over and over!

The great thing about Top 40 in those days was that the lists were usually compiled based on local record sales, as reported by local record stores. In an era before focus groups and nationally programmed playlists, it was possible for one city's big hits to barely register on the charts elsewhere. These were the days of the regional hit phenomenon-a record or artist that would achieve a big breakout locally but never enjoy nationwide visibility.

This is where the power of the Good Guy was felt most strongly. Unbeholden to national corporations, local disc jockeys could and often did discover new talent, creating new rock ‘n’ roll stars almost on personal whim by giving obscure records playing time they probably would not otherwise get.

Top 40 disc jockeys strove to be true personalities, each one developing a style or shtick all his own.

In my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, the WABB Good Guys were local celebrities, my friends and I made sure to show up every time they did a live broadcast from some shopping center parking lot. We even thought it a special honor, once, when they asked us to hand out copies of the latest WABB Top Hits list to the assembled crowd. (Somewhere I still have copies of many of those lists from the 1960s. Perhaps they're collector's items now. )

Is radio as fun now as it was during the Top 40 era, the reign of the Good Guys? I think not. Happily, much of the excitement of over-the-air radio of bygone days can now be found on the Internet, through the proliferation of streaming audio, independent music production and distribution, podcasting and similar technological and creative developments.

Thanks to the Internet and the Web, we can all be Good Guys now, if we want.

Stefan Smith is a radio junkie who writes on entertainment and related subjects for the Solid Gold Info Writers Consortium. Recently, he has written an extensive review of amazing new software anyone can use to capture music audio streams from Internet radio broadcasts and break them up into individual mp3 song files-a legal way to download virtually free music. Read the review at:


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