Playing the Hits

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(Pictured: in 1982, Pac-Man was the biggest hit of all.)

On the front page of Radio and Records from May 7, 1982, is a story about WBBM-FM in Chicago adopting consultant Mike Joseph’s Hot Hits format. Joseph, already a successful programmer in places such as New York City and Detroit (as architect of the legendary WKNR, Keener 13), reasoned that people wanted to hear the hits, period, so that’s what he gave them. A Hot Hits station played its top five songs once per hour, with a few other current hits mixed in around them. The station’s entire on-air library might be 50 songs, if that.

Joseph’s first major-market Hot Hits station was WCAU-FM in Philadelphia. On 5/7/82, it reported to R&R a conventional-looking list of 40 songs plus a handful of new and uncharted songs. Five songs appear on the list with the letter H, which I am guessing were the ones being heard every hour: “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, “Empty Garden” by Elton John, Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett, and “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band.

Hot Hits peaked in a time when hot-rockin’, flame-throwin’ Top 40 radio was migrating to FM, and Joseph brought those elements to his client stations. The format was crowded with jingles and sweepers, and the jocks were required to keep it tight. If a song intro was 14 seconds long, they had to talk for 14 seconds. If they went 12 or 13, they were likely to be hotlined by Joseph himself, if he happened to be in town. A high-energy presentation was mandatory, even with the softer songs. At WHYT in Detroit, where the format launched in 1983, one of the jocks told me that he would be physically wrung out at the end of every shift.

To determine what “the hits” were, Joseph looked closely at record sales. He played what people were buying. Radio always claimed that this is what it did, but what they meant was “we’re playing the music people are buying as long as it fits our format.” In Philadelphia, Joseph would play R&B and new-wave hits that hadn’t broken big on Top 40 stations elsewhere. In this week, the WCAU-FM list is pretty conventional, but it does include a few songs that never became big Top 40 hits: “Murphy’s Law” by Cheri, Atlantic Starr’s “Circles,” “Apache” by the Sugar Hill Gang, “Mama Used to Say” by Junior, “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, and the Temptations’ “Standing on the Top.”

The pure Hot Hits format burned out quickly. WBBM-FM, newly christened B96, started tinkering with Joseph’s formula almost immediately. Within a year or two, the format’s moment was passing, but its influence lingered. After stations Joseph had consulted let their agreements lapse, they kept some of his principles intact.

After Mike Joseph died in 2018, Sean Ross wrote about his career and his impact. Go read it.

What else was in R&R 40 years ago this week?

—A marketing firm has entered into an agreement with Bally/Midway to offer local radio stations a promotional campaign featuring Pac-Man, which has been a rage for over a year now. The campaign includes outdoor and print layouts, sales promotions, and contests, as well as TV commercials showing Pac-Man gobbling up monsters representing competing stations.

—A brief item in the Street Talk column mentions that WABC in New York will switch to all-talk on May 10 at noon. The switch will be preceded by a three-hour live tribute to the station’s Musicradio years, hosted by veteran jocks Ron Lundy and Dan Ingram.

—The top album on R&R‘s AOR chart this week is the self-titled debut album by Asia. Van Halen’s Diver Down is at #2. “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson is #1 on the country singles chart. At #1 on what the magazine calls its Black Radio chart is “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” by Deniece Williams. On the Contemporary Hit Radio chart, Rick Springfield’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is in its fifth week at #1; “Ebony and Ivory” is #2. On the Adult Contemporary chart, “Ebony and Ivory” and “Always on My Mind” are #1 and #3; between them is Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses.”

During the week of May 7, 1982, I was three months into my tenure as afternoon guy at KDTH in Dubuque. I wish I could remember more about that time, although I suspect that if that wish were granted—if I could see and hear myself as I was back then—my next wish would be to forget again.

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3 thoughts on “Playing the Hits

  1. mikehagerty

    By the time WBBM-FM adopted “Hot Hits”, Mike Joseph had been honing the format for almost five years. In 1977, he was hired as PD of WTIC-FM in Hartford, Connecticut to flip a classical station to Top 40. He needed something that would stand out against the long-dominant WPOP.

    Among his first hires was a kid named Bill Lenke. We know him now as WCBS-FM’s Broadway Bill Lee. Here’s a composite of Bill from 1977, 1978 and 1979 on WTIC-FM doing the original Hot Hits format (it’s scoped and only about three minutes long):

  2. mikehagerty

    Interestingly, in 1982, Mike Joseph brought “Hot Hits” to San Francisco at KITS. Bill Lee, across the street at KFRC, creamed them.

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