Thirty years ago this winter, the hottest thing in radio was the Hot Hits format.
From the 50s onward, the basic idea of Top 40 was to play a relatively small pool of popular songs over and over. The most popular songs got played more. At the height of the 70s, WLS played its two biggest hits of the week every 75 minutes. Country stations turned the hits over quickly, too. At KDTH at the turn of the 80s, I’d play the top 10 songs of the week three times during a six-hour weekend shift. Hit music stations in all formats still repeat their most popular current hits frequently.
But most stations then (and now) would play lots of older songs too, so if you listened for several hours, you’d hear a fairly large number of different songs. The Hot Hits format proceeded from the premise that people shouldn’t have to wait for the most popular songs of the moment. So Hot Hits stations—the term was trademarked by consultant Mike Joseph—would play the five most popular songs every hour, and fill the rest of the hour from a tiny list of additional songs, sometimes as few as 25. That was all. No oldies, no recurrents (recently popular songs), no hitbounds (new songs)—just the biggest of the big hits, over and over and over again.
Joseph started the Hot Hits format in 1977, although he always told interviewers it was a refinement of concepts dating back to the 50s, and that he’d been developing it since the early 70s. It hit the major markets around 1981: Joseph had stations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, and stations in other big cities cloned his approach. The format was heard almost exclusively on FM stations, at a time when Top 40 was still largely an AM-radio phenomenon.
As it happened, I visited WHYT in Detroit while it was running the Hot Hits format. (My in-laws lived in the Detroit area, and I got the hookup through a high-school friend.) One of the jocks told me it was the most intense radio he’d ever done. “You’re bouncing off the walls when you’re in there, but you go home at the end of your shift and you’re wrecked, because you expend so much energy.” The format was heavily structured with jingles and sweepers, and jock-talk was both severely limited and carefully prescribed—so many mentions of the call letters each hour, so many contest promos, etc. Each record came labeled with the number of seconds the jock had to talk, usually at the end, because Joseph believed listeners disliked jock-talk over song intros. And woe betide the jock who used one second more, or one second less, of the prescribed time. Joseph was famous for scoring his jocks on how well they’d executed the format—every day.
So it’s not a surprise that there’s very little music on the WHYT survey dated February 10, 1983—just nine songs and six albums. The top five, which you would have heard every hour, represent a cross-section of Top 40 music at the dawn of the MTV era:
1. “Down Under”/Men at Work
2. “Shame on the Moon”/Bob Seger
4. “Stray Cat Strut”/Stray Cats
5. “Maneater”/Hall & Oates
It seems odd now, at 30 years’ distance, to think of a Top 40 station slamming a record like “Shame on the Moon” every hour on the hour—or Lionel Richie’s “You Are,” also among the top nine. But evolution happens slowly, and evolution it was 30 years ago, as pre-MTV acts like Seger started to be surpassed by a new generation of artists who didn’t play by the same rules.
At that moment, hit radio itself was evolving too. In the winter of 1983, Hot Hits was still going strong, although by the end of the year, a couple of Joseph’s major clients, including WHYT, would drop the format and adopt a more traditional approach. The phrase “Top 40” would begin to fall out of fashion at the same time, replaced by “contemporary hit radio.” There was nothing magic about the number 40 anymore. Just ask Mike Joseph.