Billboard has long been recognized as the leading entertainment trade weekly worldwide. Although documenting record industry developments has been its primary focus in the post-World War II era, the periodical represents a compendium of American popular culture since the late nineteenth century, covering at one time or another burlesque, the circus, fairs, medicine shows, minstrel performances, vaudeville, wild west spectacles, rodeos, zoos, Lyceum and Chautauqua, theatrical productions, musicals, motion pictures, skating rinks, bathing establishments, and coin-operated machines.

The publication, originally known as Billboard Advertising, was founded in Cincinnati by William H. Donaldson and James F. Hennegan. In the first issue (1894), editor Donaldson stated that it would be "devoted to the interests of the advertisers, poster printers, billposters, advertising agents, and secretaries of fairs." By 1897, the masthead title was changed to The Billboard (changed to simply Billboard in 1961) in an effort to reflect its expanding editorial concerns.

Following a period of separation from the publication due to editorial differences, Donaldson purchased Hennegan’s interest in the enterprise in 1900 in order to forestall bankruptcy. He converted it from a monthly to a weekly effective May 5, 1900, thereby placing an added emphasis on the timely reporting of entertainment industry news. However, he also strengthened other types of coverage, including insightful, hard-hitting editorials and regular columns or departments concentrating on the leading show business fields. Offices were opened in New York and Chicago early in the twentieth century as a means of facilitating immediate, accurate dissemination of information.

The publication’s close ties with the recording industry originated with coverage of coin-operated entertainment devices. From intermittent ads and news in 1899, Billboard expanded to a section entitled "Amusement Machines" in March 1932. With the jukebox an increasingly important segment of this field, the magazine inserted a "Record Buying Guide" beginning January 7, 1939 to assist in the selection process. Charting—perhaps the best known aspect of Billboard—first appeared as "Tunes Most Heard in Vaudeville Last Week," in the early 1900s. With the advent of sound recordings, Billboard prepared weekly listings of the top sellers for the major labels. By 1938, the earliest form a national survey combining all recordings and companies appeared, the "Music Box Machine" charts, supplemented later by the "Best Sellers in Stores" (July 20, 1940-) and "Most Played by Disc Jockeys" (1945-) charts. Following World War II, the number of record charts proliferated to reflect the growing sophistication and importance of the music business, encompassing various genres (e.g., country, rhythm and blues, pop, classical, children’s releases), formats (singles, LPs, radio, jukeboxes, sheet music, etc.), and locales. By 1987, Billboard would include eight weekly charts for albums alone: "Black," Compact Discs," "Country," "Hits of the World," "Latin," "Rock Tracks," "Spiritual," and "Pop."

The publication has incorporated a number of physical format changes in order to increase speed of publication and enhance its visual appeal. A five-column tabloid newspaper layout was introduced November 4, 1950, while coated paper was first used with the January 5, 1963 issue. The latter development opened the way to photojournalism and four-color halftone illustrations.

While Billboard has continued to offer a fairly consistent breakdown of features, columns, departments, reviews (generally of a descriptive, promotional nature), charts, and advertisements, augmented by regularly appearing supplements (e.g., "Billboard Campus Attractions," "Billboard International Directory of Recording Studios"), the content is constantly changing to reflect the dynamic flux of the entertainment industry. The editorial and news material is provided largely by staff writers, with additional contributions by experts within the trade.

Billboard has further enhanced its profile by branching out into book publishing in cooperation with New York’s Watson-Guptill. The long-running syndicated radio and television series, American Top Forty, based much of its information on the publication’s chart data. Furthermore, a number of chart compilers have based developed their own reference tools from the weekly charts, most notably Joel Whitburn, owner of the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based publisher, Record Research.

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