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Late December, Back in ‘88

102 Jamz WJHM Orlando BJ105 Y106.7 WBJWI 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.

4 Comments
  1. johndavis says


    Ah, good times. This was when I was a baby DJ: still in high school, working my way in through the research department.

    I’m not surprised that the rock of this period is now coming into its own at Classic Rock. The big hits are still big now. The second tier? Well, they might work for a hair band feature, but G&R, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi still sound fresh to me now as they did then.

    I also was a fan of the rhythmic pop of this era, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t taken hold yet – those LA Reid & Babyface songs were really solid records but outside of my own collection, who plays them?

    There’s a soft spot in my heart for Alphaville. Maybe it’s because it was one of the cool records from junior high that never got much airplay but got spun at every school dance because we all knew and loved the song. I grew up in Phoenix, where Modern English and Trans-X both got a lot of spins at KZZP back in the day.

    There was a point in 88-89 where KKFR tried to thread a curious needle: we played a lot of Urban AC-ish stuff during the day like the MAC Band’s “Roses Are Red” and the Whispers “Rock Steady” and at night we’d play more rock and alternative titles (Bon Jovi “Bad Medicine,” Split Enz “I Got You,”) and the dancier alternative tracks like New Order and Depeche Mode. The dayparting of the Urban AC stuff really didn’t work, but the rock and alternative songs were very much in tune with my peers. Across town, KZZP was doing a late night Alternative show, too.

    As we got into 1990, KKFR hired Don Kelly and played a lot of freestyle to go after Hispanic women. Jerry Clifton was consulting KOY-FM doing what he does. Nationwide tried to turn KZZP into WNCI and turned a 10.2 into a 2.9. It was an unforgettable time playing a lot of somewhat forgettable music.

  2. Rob Zerwekh says


    I remember Duran Duran having a big hit at that time too (“I Don’t Want Your Love”), which I really liked. It sounded so different from most of KBEQ’s playlist. The same was true with Paula Abdul; she would have been just starting to ascend at the time. I hated Eddie Money’s “Walk on Water.” My locals, both CHR and AOR, played it endlessly.

  3. slimmons says


    Definitely not 1983. Maybe slightly below 1979. The most important thing was true though. Top 40 still played (almost) anything, from any of the diverse songs mentioned to something like Spy in the House of Love which seemed to come out of nowhere. When it comes to superstars still trying, you also had Steve Winwood literally Holding On and Rod Stewart’s My Heart Can’t Tell You No on the way. And yes, In Your Room is extremely underrated.

  4. ronnieramone says


    I was (and still am) a big fan of the year 1988. For me it’s because I started high school that year. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of my high school friends, who I am still close with. We’ve always believed that the songs that were the soundtrack to our high school years are the ones we are most passionate about.

    I’ve had this conversation with other radio friends about music of the late 80’s and we believe more will start to make its way back to the radio sooner rather than later. There’s still a lot of great music to “mine” in the 80’s, particularly for Classic Hits stations that own this decade on their airwaves, before they start to dig into the 2000’s.

    BTW 1979 is still one of my all-time favorite years, as that was the first year I was exposed to pop music on FM radio at the ripe young age of 6.

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