Did Mike Joseph Die And Take Hot Hits With Him?
I didn’t like Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” WCAU-FM Philadelphia when I first heard it. I liked WIFI, the presciently named “Wi-Fi 92.” WIFI was pretty hot by 1981 CHR standards and threw in interesting gold. It was foreground enough compared to the rest of the sterile format, and when WCAU-FM came along, WIFI had just cracked a four-share after segueing back from Rock 40. How much more saving did the format need?
For that matter, I hadn’t liked Joseph’s WPJB-FM (JB105) Providence, R.I., either. I’d heard a few hours of them on a trip to Cape Cod in spring ’77. I’m pretty sure we never intended to listen; they were just wafting in through open windows because somebody or everybody else was listening. At age 14, I hadn’t really picked up on what “high-energy” Top 40 was. By that time, stations were ratcheting down the yelling and screaming, but there was still plenty of it on JB105, which was also calling itself “The Big Banger”—a reflection of ‘70s radio double-entendre, not an enduring interest in astrophysics.
JB105’s other concession to the mid-‘70s was that there were no jingles, just group “shouts” of the station name. WCAU-FM was awash with jingles, sometimes several in a row, sometimes punctuated by jocks on either side. Their content was brief and heavily stylized—town mentions, crossplugs goofing on other jocks. One of my programming mentors of the time compared it to Bill Drake’s ‘60s formats, but it sounded to me more like the less streamlined late ‘50s/early ‘60s Top 40 stations that I was just discovering through airchecks at the time: not Drake, but what Drake saved us from.
As an architect of WKBW Buffalo, WKNR Detroit, pre-Rick-Sklar WABC New York, Joseph would cheerfully admit to channeling the format’s early days. (WKNR, now lost to history for most, is as phenomenal a radio story as any. For at least a few friends, that’s the station that people should be writing about today.) In an e-mail to Steve McVie Solomon, who has been “Hot Hits” true scribe through the internet era, Joseph’s son teases Solomon for being interested in his dad’s “now archaic” format. But it sounded archaic in 1981. And that turned out to be the magic.
I’m not sure what brought me around on WCAU-FM (or makes me remember JB105 considerably more fondly now). But as I discovered more radio history, I realized I liked high-energy CHR, especially in contrast to the anodyne version that marks bad times. Also, Joseph’s emphasis on record sales—“looking at the box-office results”—meant WCAU-FM was playing R&B and early Hip-Hop beyond what was creeping its way back into the format elsewhere. And as the “Hot Hits” phenomenon grew, and it became clear that WCAU-FM was a turning point for the CHR format, it was hard not to get caught up.
WBBM-FM Chicago was next. I remember hearing them around Labor Day 1982 (several months old) and again at Thanksgiving. By that time, there were already adjustments to the format. “BBM-FM” had been modified to B-96. Recurrents were making their way into the all-current format. Joseph’s M.O. of the time was to move on to the next client shortly after a launch. When he did, those left behind—often bruised by the regimented nature of the format and a total universe of 50 current songs—couldn’t wait to tinker. Joseph was sometimes derided for having no act two, but that was actually his successors’ issue.
I got to hear WHYT Detroit from the beginning. That one happened 40 miles away from me in 1982. WHYT was exciting to all of my radio buddies, but it never quite galvanized the market like WCAU-FM had. Plus, there was WABX, doing a CHR/new wave hybrid, and, for me, CKLW in its last year of Top 40 on AM. CKLW’s response to the imminent launch of WHYT was to put back its early ‘70s jingles, but not copy the format in any other way.
As the CHR revival continued, some stations would license “hot hits” from Joseph, but not his formula. WCAU/WBBM owner CBS Radio eventually did their own almost-Joseph version of the format at KHTR (Hitradio 103) St. Louis. That station was more phenomenal at the time than any of Joseph’s subsequent efforts; reviving CHR in a market where it was indeed thought to be dead. As the format proliferated again, PDs were more likely to copy that less stylized version of the format. Or they copied KIIS-FM Los Angeles, which licensed the “hot hits” name. None of which lessens WCAU-FM’s import.
Joseph would resurface in the mid-‘80s at the short-lived WTRK (Electric 106) Philadelphia just as Mainstream Top 40 was being upstaged by Rhythmic CHR. He would relaunch WGFM Albany, N.Y., as “Electric 99” WGY-FM in 1988. With the single withering in the late ‘80s, Electric 99’s innovation was to add cuts from hit albums, including compilations, meaning that Electric 99 was mostly currents, but punctuated by “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss. That was an old Joseph trick, too. The two “Electric” FMs seemed quaint. Channeling 1958 had helped save the format in 1981. Channeling 1981 couldn’t do much to help Top 40 as the format slipped in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
The best indicator of Joseph’s validity was the client that most people didn’t think about, WKAQ-FM (KQ105) San Juan, P.R., one of the few stations he was involved with for years, not months, despite not speaking Spanish, he said. I don’t remember if KQ105 was doing “Hot Hits” exactly when I heard them in 1993, but you could certainly hear the influence in that station and rival X100. At a time when it was reasonable to wonder if Top 40 would ever rebound, the format’s most exciting market was off most broadcasters’ radar. KQ105 didn’t need a second act, because the first one kept working.
The format that I wanted to hear from Joseph was the one he talked about, but which no owner ever took him up on. In his description, it was a tabloid version of WINS/WCBS-style all-news. It was a fascinating idea for the post-O.J. mid-‘90s, but even as spoken word radio grew, no owners were willing to make the heavy investment that a new all-news outlet would have required.
By then, as radio editor of Billboard and then Airplay Monitor, I was hearing from Joseph occasionally, particularly to hype the launch of WGY-FM. A few years ago, fellow trade journalist Adam Buckman published a memoir, recalling similarly breathless calls from Joseph. I remember finally getting to ask him about the mechanics of the formats. A friend had once posited that music was absolutely incidental to Hot Hits—something to break up the repetition of the call letters. Joseph seemed surprised to hear that; it was always about the music, he said.
Because of his usually low public profile, the odd early ‘60s look and demeanor that he carried throughout his life, and the staffs that remembered him as a formatic drill sergeant, Joseph sometimes came off as not such a sociable guy. But if making the other person feel like the most important person in the world is the true measure of affability, I realized that Buckman and I had both had that experience.
If you are determined to declare Top 40 radio dead, Joseph’s April 14 death at age 90, finally announced yesterday (May 9, 2018) seems like punctuation. It was a few years ago, as CHR started to falter again, that I began to get calls from friends speculating on whether Joseph was still among us. As with radio in general now, the real issue is the line of succession. If the secrets of 1958 or 1981 aren’t enough, what else have you got?
But don’t entirely discount the secrets of 1981. Over the years, I’ve speculated from time to time about how WCAU-FM would play now. Here’s one such consideration from 2004. That essay talks about a long-ago time before PPM, but 50 songs and brief personality wasn’t so different from the formula that marked CHR’s PPM-driven resurgence around 2009. The hard part now would be the currents. Could you really find 50 of them, when radio has only a handful of truly hot hits? Could you use the industry’s new metric of “consumption” the way Joseph used sales? That would lead PDs to more Hip-Hop. Is the notion of more Cardi B and even more Post Malone daunting? Or the same as WCAU-FM playing “Apache” by Sugarhill Gang—never a CHR record at the time, now a B’nai Mitzvah staple?
I’ve seen a lot of Joseph appreciations that rely heavily on Wikipedia. Here’s Solomon’s more definitive site on Joseph.
And your thoughts about Joseph, CHR in 1981, and CHR today are appreciated. Leave a comment.