In 2019, the success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” made every other single look puny in comparison. The track amassed more than 2 billion streams, 1 billion more than the runner-up. And even though no one buys music anymore, Lil Nas X sold nearly 1.5 million downloads — easily half a million more than the second most-downloaded track.
“For all intents and purposes, ‘Old Town Road’ was the biggest record of the year,” says Phil Guerini, VP of music strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide and GM of the Radio Disney Network, who played Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” on KDIS (a nationally broadcast Top 40 station) and KRDC (a national country station). “It just was. It may not be your personal preference. It may have worn on every last nerve. But universally in the United States last year, it was undeniably the biggest record of the year. It’s not even debatable.”
Except at two of the biggest pop stations in the country — WHTZ in New York and KIIS in Los Angeles — which were decidedly lukewarm on Lil Nas X’s breakout hit. When the most-popular song in the country receives a tepid response from two of the country’s biggest terrestrial radio stations, the arbitrary nature of pop radio becomes glaringly apparent.
Of course, it’s hardly unusual for the Top 40 format, which still reaches around 100 million listeners a week, to effectively ignore wildly popular rap, R&B, and reggaeton hits, whether that’s Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” or the star-studded remix of Nio Garcia, Casper Magico, and Darell’s “Te Bote.” In 2018, iHeartMedia’s chief programming officer characterized the Top 40 programming ethos as “just playing what’s hot.” But “what’s hot” tends to be major-label artists, usually white, who sing in English, and have big promotional budgets.
“I’ve had conversations in the past, even as recently as the past year, where people [in radio] tell me, ‘BTS is not my audience, Lil Nas X is not my audience,’ ” Guerini says. “Wait a second — you’re talking about some of the biggest songs and biggest artists in the country. Who is your audience?”
Programmers with these biases are given cover partially because “today’s traditional radio playlists are so tight,” Guerini says. Radio stations have decided that playing fewer songs more frequently will keep more listeners tuned in. But this “gives further excuse and validation to [the stance], ‘Hey, I’m playing the most popular songs to my audience, we’ve researched them, we have them in power rotation, they spin every hour, I don’t have room for this song,’” Guerini says.
“Old Town Road” was so successful that it was able to break through pop radio’s unofficial embargo on rap at most stations: Year-end reports pulled from Mediabase, which tracks radio activity, indicate that the average Top 40 radio station played the single more than 1,200 times. But New York’s WHTZ (better known as Z100) played it roughly 470 times. Only six Top 40 stations played Lil Nas X’s single less: One of them was KIIS in L.A. (around 360 spins) and another was WKTU, the other New York pop outlet, which played “Old Town Road” the least of any Top 40 station (about 160 spins).
All three stations are owned by iHeartMedia, which declined to comment on its programming preferences. Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, also declined to comment on radio play for “Old Town Road.”
Maybe the lack of pop-radio play for “Old Town Road” in New York and L.A. was a matter of local taste. But “Old Town Road” was the most streamed song in the New York area in 2019, according to the analytics company Alpha Data, and the third most-streamed song in L.A. Lil Nas X’s track was also the most-downloaded song in both areas. And YouTube confirmed that “Old Town Road” was the Number One song on the platform for users in both New York and L.A. in 2019. This makes it difficult to see why the biggest Top 40 stations in these markets would keep the song at arm’s length.
Maybe streaming and radio serve different audiences, and songs that perform well in one medium don’t translate to the other. But KIIS’ competitor in L.A., the Entercom station KAMP, threw its weight behind “Old Town Road.” “Locally in L.A., the streaming numbers were too huge to ignore,” says Kevin Weatherly, who serves as KAMP’s program director.
Weatherly says he likes to take a chance on new music, and his station started playing Lil Nas X’s single on March 14, making it one of the first pop stations in the country to do so. KAMP went on to play Lil Nas X’s single more than 1,600 times, and it ended up as one of the station’s five biggest songs of 2019, meaning it obviously connected with Los Angeles radio listeners. When asked why KAMP’s crosstown competition might have stayed away from “Old Town Road,” Weatherly says, “I don’t understand it at all. But I’m glad they ignored it — it’s good for us.”
In New York, iHeartMedia owns both the primary pop outlets, so there is no crosstown competition. But it’s notable that no other Top 15 radio market dismissed “Old Town Road” like WHTZ and WKTU. (Many major markets played it two to three times more frequently.)
In addition, only two Top 15 markets, Boston and Phoenix, exhibited the same sort of split in support as L.A.: The iHeartMedia Top 40 station mostly steered clear of “Old Town Road,” while the crosstown competitor played it with glee. (Several iHeartMedia outlets — like WAKS in Cleveland and WKQI in Detroit — played “Old Town Road” more than average, which makes the behavior of the handful of stations that stayed away from it even more bizarre.)
iHeartMedia’s pop stations in New York and L.A. didn’t just play “Old Town Road” less than most; they seemed to pretend it didn’t exist until that was no longer possible. WHTZ didn’t play the track until April 3, while KIIS stayed away from it until April 11 — nearly a month after the song broke big. WKTU was the last terrestrial pop station in the country to spin “Old Town Road.”
“Most programmers in larger markets hate being second on anything, but it happens,” Guerini says. “Sometimes they get so far behind something they just don’t accept it. They’re gonna be adamantly opposed to it.”
Still, he continues, “there’s no rational reason that a station wouldn’t have played that song, recognizing how large it was.”
And that’s one of the problems with pop radio: Often rationality has nothing to do with it. Listeners want Lil Nas X, BTS, Cardi B, J Balvin. Some of the people in charge of pop radio don’t seem to care.