Top 40 can actually be traced very directly to one man Todd Storz. Storz was heir to the Storz family fortune, from the Storz Brewing Company. In 1940s they were the most popular beer in Nebraska. You have never heard of them because they brewery closed in 1972 after selling out to some drunks in Minneapolis. Point being, the boy had some cash on hand. He wasn't just a rich kid though. Before 660 KOWH-AM, Todd had already worked at KBON-AM as an announcer and for Station KFAB-AM in sales.
Todd owned of KOWH-AM in Omaha with his father Robert H. Storz. You'll see some confusing accounts because he and his father are both named Robert Storz. When Time magazine wrote about him in 1956 and called him "the fasted rising figure in U.S. radio." They called him R. Todd Stortz. They made top 40 sound like crap. The article is well worth reading.
"Storz... allows his stations only 60 records at a time, lets them play only the 40 top tunes of the week, well larded with commercials."The legend is that in 1954 Todd and his assistant Bill Stewart were at a bar across the street from KOWH-AM in Omaha and he noticed that it's patrons played the same songs over and over. Something clicked in his head He decided that popularity could be measured, and that repetition was key. Storz has told the story a few times, a few different ways. A less popular version has the bar near or on an army base in WWII -same realization, just a little earlier.
Regardless of when or where, I believe the venue. Before that moment, radio stations still used block programming, and a full-service structure reigned. A single station might play Classical, hillbilly, gospel news, and radio dramas in the same day. Here, a machine indicated preference like a ballot box. Todd thought the jukebox was closer to what people wanted to hear.
One documentary completely discards the anecdote and says that in 1950 the University of Omaha performed radio research that indicated that listeners tuned into radio mostly for the music. It more broadly says that Storz was also influenced shows as Your Hit Parade and Lucky Lager Dance Time, programs that already had repetition and rotation. I don't see the theories as mutually exclusive. A programmer can read research and still have a separate eureka moment. Today we take ad nauseum repetition as a given in radio. At the time it was a novelty. His application of it as a format was definitely a first and we know exactly where that happened.
Stortz bought KOWH-AM, a daytimer in 1949. In 1954 Todd took over as PD and launched his brazen new format. It was not rock radio. The mix was simply whatever was popular, there was no loyalty of any kind. they played instrumentals. novelty tunes, pop hits whatever topped the jukebox. I should also note that Gordon McLendon also gets some credit for the invention of Top 40. But he's a Texan, and in Texas they teach that Texans invented and founded everything. McLendon was a great radioman who had many firsts, but Top 40 wasn't one of them.
Todd Storz's died suddenly of a a cerebral hemorrhage, at age 39, in 1964. Todd was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1987. 660 AM in Omaha today is KCRO-AM a poorly rated Christian talker.