Billboard Celebrates 100 Years Of Hits

Cincinnati is No. 1 with a bullet in Billboard.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary as the entertainment industry's premier magazine, Billboard was founded over two beers at a Vine Street saloon in 1894.

What two printers' sons - William H. Donaldson and James F. Hennegan - began in Cincinnati at the turn of the century has become a media giant.

Billboard, which marks its centenary with a special issue Nov. 1, has a weekly readership of 200,000, but millions quote its stories and record charts. Distributed in 107 countries, the magazine is the flagship periodical of BPI Communications, which also issues 18 other publications, including the Hollywood Reporter, Amusement Business and Musician.

As well-known as the other publications are, the biggest, the oldest and most famous is Billboard, the undisputed king of music-chart magazines. You can be on the cover of Rolling Stone. You can get your face plastered all over Entertainment Weekly. But as one of the magazine's many slogans says, a record isn't No. 1 until it's No. 1 in Billboard.

"To think they started the charts as a guide for people who had a jukebox in their bar to help them buy the most popular records," says William Donaldson Littleford, BPI chairman emeritus, as well as grandson and namesake of the magazine's co-founder and first editor.

Billboard's first chart devoted solely to best-selling records premiered July 20, 1940. The country's first No. 1 single: Glenn

Miller's recording of "Fool's Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)."

Today, the magazine runs 28 charts. Lists rank genres, from the Hot 100, home of the Top 40 hit singles, and the Billboard 200 (the weekly listing of the nation's top 200 albums) to standings that chart the sales of world music, modern rock and classical recordings.

"We take enormous pride in the charts," says Timothy White, Billboard's editor-in-chief since 1991. White rejuvenated what had become a stodgy publication, shifting its emphasis from charting hits to "covering people so they can get on the charts."

"We are just the custodians," White says. "The charts have been around for so long they are part of the historic process of the magazine."

In 1894, Billboard was chartless. Donaldson and Hennegan founded the magazine to keep in touch with their family firms' far-flung customers, the buyers and appliers of billboard posters hawking the claims of patent medicines and announcing that the circus was coming to town.

After meeting with Hennegan, they hatched The Billboard Advertiser. The first issue came out Nov. 1, 1894. Running eight pages, it cost a dime. A year's subscription was 90 cents.

One hundred years later, a single copy of Billboard goes for $4.95. A one-year subscription - it became a weekly in 1900 - sets you back $239.

For 54 years, Billboard tracked the business of show business from Cincinnati. In 1946, tha magazine moved its offices to its Patterson Street printing plant in Brighton, Ohio. While various printing activities continued at the plant until the 1980s, the magazine's editorial offices left town for New York in 1948.

"Cincinnati was pretty isolated as far as the entertainment business was concerned in 1948," Littleford recalls.

In 1894, it was at the heart of the matter. "Cincinnati was at the crossroads of state fairs and traveling circuses," White says. "As the gateway to the West, it was in the center of the country."

It was also headquarters for a vast printing and publishing industry. Cincinnati firms made the presses and the ink that printed such show-business essentials as handbills, sheet music and elephant-sized circus posters.

"In 1894, the technology of color printing was exploding," says White, "and Cincinnati was at the center."

Mindful of the city's central location, Donaldson instituted one of Billboard's biggest money-makers, the Letter-Box, in 1904. E-mail for the horse-and-buggy era, the magazine's Letter-Box section informed traveling performers they had mail at Billboard. Lasting into the 1960s, the in-house mail-drop was still receiving 1,500 letters a week in 1960.

Billboard was always more than a mere trade magazine. Donaldson, who died at age 61 in 1925, wrote strong editorials attacking censorship, praising productions exhibiting "good taste" and fighting yellow journalism.

Donaldson also took strong stands with his journalistic principles. He hired James Albert Jackson, chronicler of the rise of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, as the first black critic for a national publication catering to a white audience. Decades ahead of major American newspapers, he established a policy in 1920 "where performers could not be identified by race, creed or color," says grandson Littleford.

"This was no conservative Cincinnatian running this magazine," White notes. "He was just the opposite. He was audacious."

White intends to carry on the tone Donaldson set in his inaugural editorial of 1894: "We will carefully canvass the field we have entered, ascertain its needs and requirements, and ground ourselves thoroughly in the principles of a policy that will enable us to best achieve our aim."

White says that means: "At Billboard, which has been teaching Western culture how to entertain itself for 100 years, we want to shape and influence history. You don't just want to record it. That's no fun."