(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?