Late December, Back in ‘88
I spent most of my holiday break in December 1988 listening to two radio stations.
One was WJHM (102 Jamz) Orlando, Fla., which had signed on earlier that year and become instantly phenomenal. In a market that had never had Urban Contemporary radio on FM, 102 Jamz had shot to a 12 share under PD Duff Lindsey and consultant Jerry Clifton within months.
The other was WAPE Jacksonville. Although I was spending the holiday break in Orlando visiting a radio friend, you could still pick up “The Big Ape” in that market via its AM simulcast — if you were extremely determined to do so. I know I would have listened to CHR WBJW (BJ105) and WHLY (Y106) — now WOMX and WXXL (XL106.7) respectively. What I remember is waiting for the “Ape Call” at the top of the hour.
Here’s what was happening on the radio during the holiday break, 30 years ago today:
Rock Was at Its Hairiest: The major acts were all represented — Poison (No. 1 at the moment with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”); Bon Jovi (“Born to Be My Baby”); Def Leppard (“Armageddon It”); and Guns N’ Roses with “Welcome to the Jungle” — a song unimaginable as a pop-radio record before “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” But there was also a second tier starting to take hold. Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You’ve Got (‘Till It’s Gone)” was on the way down, but still a hit on WAPE. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry” was also a hit. More second-tier ballads were on the way.
Rhythmic Pop Was Exercising Its Prerogative: Babyface & L.A. Reid’s take on new jack swing had created hits for Karyn White (“The Way You Love Me”), Sheena Easton (“The Lover in Me”), and Bobby Brown. Following “Don’t Be Cruel” with Teddy Riley’s “My Prerogative” had propelled Brown into stardom. “Straight Up” was in the process of doing the same for Paula Abdul. “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” was the second New Kids on the Block hit and setting up the hysteria that would peak the following summer.
The Mid-‘80s Superstars Were Still Trying: U2 (“Desire”), Eddie Money (“Walk on Water”), Phil Collins (“Two Hearts”), and Michael Jackson (“Smooth Criminal”) were out there swinging with singles from “the project after the big hit project.” “Desire,” which I liked, was quickly identifiable as “not a real hit” (and, of course, I liked it better than anything on The Joshua Tree); same went for “In Your Room” by the Bangles, which should have been a textbook hit record. The others would take a while to resolve, although I remember hearing “Walk on Water” a lot on this trip.
The Bring-back Boom Was Beginning: As programmers went digging in the crates, UB40’s “Red Red Wine” was a hit the second time around. So was Sheriff’s “When I’m With You.” (There was also an attempt to bring back Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” then probably the biggest gold title at the nascent Alternative format, that never took hold.)
The Doldrums Really Never Left: As “Smooth Jazz” coalesced into a format, Kenny G (“Silhouette”) and Anita Baker (“Giving You the Best That I Got”) were having hits, and there you could feel its influence elsewhere (Chicago, “Look Away”; Boys Club, “I Remember Holding You”). Then there was Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” momentarily exciting for being different and well-intentioned, ultimately unbearable.
Alternative Was Starting to Pop: Billboard had recently launched the Modern Rock chart, but the “new rock revolution” was still three years away, and the format was still a handful of mostly indie operators and non-commercial outlets. The chart was diverse, but the crossovers were mostly Euro-pop: When in Rome (“The Promise”), Erasure (“Chains of Love”), Information Society (“Walking Away”), Kon-Kan (“I Beg Your Pardon).”
The Rest Was Yet to Come: Because we know how the story ends, it’s easy to remember certain developments as further along than they were. And yet …
- Crossover Hip-Hop was represented by only one CHR hit (Tone-Loc, “Wild Thing”) at the moment.
- The R&B chart was still heavily adult-leaning — Roberta Flack’s “Oasis” was a hit around this time. Clifton clients played a younger, hotter version of the format. I thought of stations such as WPGC Washington, D.C., as just being hit-driven R&B, but WJHM was one of the few that self-reported as Urban. Most of the others considered themselves Top 40.
- Country’s most exciting late-‘80s acts (Foster & Lloyd, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam) had a mere handful of hits on a chart still dominated by more mainstream veteran artists.
- Freestyle dance music was on the radio in major markets, but not something you’d hear in Jacksonville. Chicago-style house music, never to become a true radio phenomenon, had been co-opted by an unlikely source, Samantha Fox & Full Force’s “I Wanna Have Some Fun.”
Acolytes of the “Top 40 Cycles” theory might now see radio headed for the “extreme” phase, but in December ‘88, things seemed promising after a mediocre few years. The extremes were as much part of an aggressive on-air presentation as musical changes, and the stations that prompted the “don’t be a dickhead” era of on-air imaging, KQLZ (Pirate Radio) Los Angeles and WFLZ (the Power Pig) Tampa, Fla., were still on the horizon.
A lot of the excitement of CHR in late 1988 came from the echoes of what was happening elsewhere as Hip-Hop and Alternative ramped up. That’s okay. Top 40 still played (almost) everything, so there were enough songs to keep things interesting, even if they were punctuated by dross. When Top 40 PDs went looking for songs to revive, they could as easily revive AC ballads as UB40. That’s okay — they were still looking for songs to revive.
A lot of the excitement of radio overall in late 1988 was taking place well outside pop music — the birth of Urban AC; the growth of Oldies; News/Talk and the all-sports format taking shape. It was also the year that I became radio editor of Billboard, so a lot of the excitement for me was probably just having access to the format’s decision makers for the first time. It made a lot of radio sound great.
Other Ross On Radio columns have waxed rhapsodic about the summers of 1979 and 1983. In retrospect, late 1988 seems more like the former, a convergence of some great records (amidst other not-so-great ones) on the cusp of a Top 40 implosion — enough to have a vacation full of perfectly good musical memories. But I don’t doubt that 1988-89 had the same impact on many readers’ lives as 1983 did for me and many others; perhaps because of those songs, perhaps because of what they were ramping up to. And then I have to allow that somebody, somewhere might really be enjoying pop music now.