Contemporary Hit Radio

No matter how the industry dresses it up, the audience recognizes it for what it is "Top 40." The term Contemporary Hit Radio or "CHR" was coined during the late 1970s, early 1980s when radio programmers perceived a backlash against Top 40. During that decade Album Oriented Rock "AOR" stations began rising to prominence on the FM dial. Top 40 was perceived as a format for AM radio. Many saw the format as restrictive and expressed a preference for the free formats that were developing on the FM band.

Programmers chose to bring Top 40 to the FM band disguised as CHR.

The basic concept behind hit music stations is quite simple: Confine the playlist to those songs that are currently the fastest selling and most popular (sales being a barometer of popularity) This is the same approach that CHR's forerunner, Top 40 employed. (Keith 1987, p. 59)

So the industry calls it CHR, while the listening audience continues to call it what it is Top 40. It continues to be popular. The basic format element of shortening the playlist to the most popular songs have spread to all other formats.

CHR/Top 40 is considered the oldest format. Many argue that Middle-of-the-Road "MOR" is older. While the form of radio known as MOR/Nostalgia predates CHR/Top 40, it was not seen as a format until after the development of Top 40.

CHR/Top 40 began developing around 1955 when Todd Storz and Bill Stewart at KOWH in Omaha Nebraska (see Format Developments) noticed that patron of a local bar played the same songs over and over.

Early renditions of the format featured artists such as Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, and Tony Bennett. With the coming of rock 'n' roll that soon changed to artists such as Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

Several things propelled early developments of the format. The transistor developed by Bell Labs December 27, 1947, The baby boom generation reaching their teens, radio's increasing reliance on research and the rock 'n' roll boom which was accelerated by the British Music Invasion lead by the Beatles and the rise of the Motown Sound.

During the 1960s the format was further defined by Bill Drake who streamlined the format. In addition he allowed his DJs to have personalities and added other elements to attract a growing teen audience. During the 1960s the Boss Radioformat developed by Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, spread to stations KHJ in Los Angeles, CKLW, Windsor/Detroit; WRKO, Boston. The Top 40/CHR format made its first appearance on the FM band in 1967 when New York's WOR-FM now WRKS adopted the Drake-Chenault format.

No station symbolizes this format like WABC New York During the station's heyday as a Top 40 station it was the most listened to radio station in the country. WABC competed fiercely with WMCA and WINS two other Top 40 stations in New York.

Because the station served as the ABC network flagship station. It often carried programming that was not strictly Top 40. As a result in it's early Top 40 days it often lost to its weaker competition.

Success came when WABC program director Rick Sklar tied the station to the British music invasion lead by the Beatles.

In a stroke of genius, Rick Sklar recognized the Beatles phenomenon for its promotional value to WABC. He began to promote the station as W A "Beatle" C, had specific PAMS Beatles jingles recorded for the station and used all the resources of the ABC network to lock the station in step with the Beatles whenever they visited New York. The station ran a contest for listeners to design a medal to honor the Beatles. The resulting medallion was called "The Order of the All Americans" and was awarded to each of the Beatles live, over the air by Cousin Bruce Morrow. (http://musicradio.comput er.net/Sklar.html)

From Detroit came another music phenomenon that profoundly affected Top 40 radio. George (1985, p. 113) writes: "The Target of Motown's technological undertakings was another, more generally accessible piece of scientific gadgetry called the transistor radio." He goes on to say (1985, p. 114)

In 1963, the year before the Motown explosion, fifty million radios were rolling around the country in car dashboards. Berry and company were wise in their decision to gear Motown's music toward the transistor radio, for it was through this medium--be it from a portable blaring in a schoolyard or a car radio on a Saturday night drive to a dance--that young America was exposed to records.

In quality control's offices Motown chief engineer Mike McClain built a minuscule, tinny-sounding radio designed to approximate the sound of a car radio. The high-end bias of Motown recordings can be partially traced to the company's reliance on this piece of equipment.

In addition to designing its records for radio. Motown had the good fortune of being just across the bridge from CKLW Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The station had a signal that could be heard through out much of North America. It realized that promoting the Motown sound helped it's popularity as a Top 40 station.

During the 1970s the Top 40 format fell out of favor. It became associated with AM radio at a time when FM was considered more innovative. Audiences began favoring the more "progressive" album-oriented-rock AOR stations. AM was considered over commercialized and restrictive.

During that time programmers reinvented the format, shortened playlists even more, redubbed it CHR and put it on the FM band. By the early 1980s the format was back in full force. CBS radio along with programmer Mike Joseph programmed a chain of CHR FM stations that included: WCAU Philadelphia, KKHR, St. Louis, and WHTT Boston. The stations used a format called "Hot Hits." In New York WHTZ-FM rose to the top of the charts with a blend of CHR targeted at the Big Apple. Top 40 had found its way onto the FM band in the forma of CHR.



The goal of CHR has always been to concentrate on the hits. Stations base their playlists on what is selling. Another goal of the format is to be mainstream. It more than any other format crosses demographic lines. In Keith (1987, p. 59) programmer Rick Sklar said:
CHR, when properly delivered, has the potential to deliver broad demographics to a station--not just teens and young adults. It is the selectivity of the single--the best cuts from pop albums and the cuts that are the mainstream of American pop music. The strongest selections that we eventually hear in Adult Contemporary formats had their origins in Contemporary Hit Radio.

It is not unusual for there to be more than one CHR station in a market. Often one will take a more "danceable" approach while the other will take a "harder rock" edge.

CHR stations pay close attention to the charts and trade magazines such as Billboard and R&R. CHR stations are often the first to adopt new technology such as that provided by Broadcast Data Systems to track music.


Personality has always been an important element in CHR although it has changed from decade to decade. Keith (1987, p. 66 writes):

The role of the deejay in CHR has gone through a cycle of change since the hit-oriented format made its debut in the mid 1950s. The hip and hyped sound was most prevalent during the early days of the format. Top 40 deejays shouted, cajoled, and held court with their audiences. The heavy-voiced frenetic, and zany jock was the stock announcer persona of the day.

Bill Drake's move to refocus and revise the Top 40 sound in the mid-1960s resulted in the reduction of deejay presence by cutting back on chatter and emphasizing music. Deejays were told to shut up and spin the hits.

In the 1970s, as Top 40 grappled with identity problems, deejays were less strident and aggressive on the air than were their predecessors. Announcers in practically every format were going through a mellowing out phase, which was in vogue in the early part of the decade.

With the reformation of Top 40 to CHR in the 1980s, the energetic, if not frenetic, big voiced personality style reasserted itself, and while playlists were narrowed and music stressed, deejays often did more than read liner cards.

As with most formats, the morning drive announcer is allowed the most freedom. Two good examples of morning CHR announcers are Rick Dees of KIIS in Los Angeles and Scott Shannon of WPLJ, New York.


CHR stations often consider news to be a turn off. News on most CHR stations is limited to drive times and often takes a lifestyle approach. Some CHR stations use news as a way to distance themselves from a "teen" image. These stations will often have a full compliment of news, play the hits and call themselves "Hot AC." Audiences are quick to recognize them as the "hit" station.


Countdown shows such as Rick Dees' Top 40 Countdown and Casey's Top 40 are particularly popular in this format. This format is also big on "bits." Morning show teams often have recurring skits and elaborate pranks. There are often an afternoon features such as lunch time request shows. Features in evening drive time may include top songs of the day, while evening shows may include requests and dedications.

Contests and Promotions

Contests and promotions are a vital part of CHR. Stations using this format are known for giving away prizes and money. CHR's audience expects contest and promotions. Contests can include ticket giveaways to films, and concerts, as well as bumper stickers and T-shirts. Anything with the station's logo on it is important to the audience.

CHR stations also make heavy use of remote broadcasts. The audience likes to see the DJs and expects that they will be on hand at major concerts and events as well as at regular locations such as dance clubs. CHR stations make use of TV as a promotion tool if they are in direct competition with another CHR station. They have increasingly established a presence on the web.

Public Affairs

This was not a big area at CHR stations prior to deregulation. It has become even less important after deregulation. Public Affairs programs if they exist are relegated to the Sunday early morning time slot.


Commercials at CHR stations are usually well produced and made to sound as slick as the hits the station plays. During its Top 40 days these stations used to program spots in what seemed like a random fashion. Both the songs which were generally under three minutes and the commercials would come and go in rapid succession.

Since its arrival on FM, the format has adopted the spot cluster. CHR stations often have problems with audience loyalty so those spot clusters are schedule to maximize quarter hour retention.


CHR is the format most associated with jingles. During the time of Top 40 stations went to great measure to produce memorable jingles. Although the jingles of today are not as memorable, stations still use them to enhance their image.


Because CHR is the closest thing to a mass format, these stations essentially compete with every station in the market. It is not unlikely for a market to have more than one CHR station. In addition, CHR competes with other "contemporary" formats. AC can cut into CHR's older demographic while Urban Contemporary competes for ethnic audiences and listeners who like dance music.


CHR is a format that constantly reinvents itself. As long as there are hits there will be CHR. This format constantly has to adjust the playlist to keep current. While keeping current, these station strike a balance between keeping a youthful audience and becoming known as a "teen" station. Some CHR stations choose to mature along with their target audience gradually changing into Hot AC stations. Others remain ready to adapt to the latest trend.


George, N. (1985). Where did our love go? The rise and fall of the Motown Sound. St. Martin's Press: New York.

Keith, M. C. (1987). Radio programming: Consultancy and formatics. Focal Press: Boston.

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