Fresh Listen: Chicago’s CHR/Hot AC Battle

A few months ago, I heard that WKSC (Kiss 103.5) Chicago had become one of the most current-based major-market CHRs, an attempt to sync radio more with how listeners used new music in the streaming age. When I listened, it was a noticeably different experience from the format as it existed in many other major markets. This month, I went back for a “Fresh Listen” to Kiss, rival WBBM-FM (B96), and hot AC WTMX (The Mix).

B96 recently celebrated its 39th anniversary of Top 40. In spring 1982, it was Mike Joseph’s next CHR launch after the format-revitalizing success of sister WCAU-FM Philadelphia. You can tell the current B96 is pretty cognizant of the format’s issues itself. The station is billed as “Chicago’s New Hit Music.” There’s a promo for the top 7 at 7:30 countdown which begins by talking about the impact of social media on hit music, and promising listeners all the newest music “back-to-back on one playlist.”

The most noticeable thing about listening was hearing about the re-opening of the market. Mix P.M. drivers Chris & Lisa were talking about the upcoming art community fundraiser, “The Black Tie and Sneaker Ball,” with Chris Petlak’s noting that it would be his first time wearing a suit in two years. In an hour of Kiss, there was a local restaurant gift card up for grabs, a teaser for an iHeart Music Festival giveaway, as well as passes for Pride in the Park starring Chaka Khan where p.m. driver Brady promised there would be “real humans walking around on stage, and you clap and stuff like that.”

103.5 Kiss-FM WKSC ChicagoHere’s WKSC (Kiss 103.5) just before 4 p.m., June 18:

  • Anitta, “Girl From Rio”
  • Ariana Grande, “Positions”
  • BTS, “Butter”
  • Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”
  • Marshmello f/Jonas Brothers, “Leave Before You Love Me”
  • The Kid Laroi, “Without You” 
  • Doja Cat f/SZA, “Kiss Me More”
  • Dua Lipa f/DaBaby, “Levitating”
  • MGK f/Blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend”
  • Masked Wolf, “Astronaut in the Ocean”
  • J. Blavin f/Willy William & Beyonce, “Mi Gente”
  • Ariana Grande, “POV”
  • AJR, “Way Less Sad”
  • Rihanna, “S&M”
  • Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
  • Weeknd, “Heartless”
  • Kali Uchis, “Telepatia”

Here’s B96 in the same hour with 3-8 p.m. host Julia:

  • Dua Lipa, “Break My Heart”
  • Chris Brown x Young Thug, “Go Crazy”
  • Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”
  • Clean Bandit f/Jess Glynne, “Rather Be”
  • Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”
  • Ariana Grande, “POV”
  • Post Malone, “Better Now”
  • Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”—the artist had been named Audacy’s “Pride Icon”
  • Masked Wolf, “Astronaut in the Ocean”
  • Doja Cat f/SZA, “Kiss Me More”
  • Maroon 5 f/Kendrick Lamar, “Don’t Wanna Know”
  • Dua Lipa f/DaBaby, “Levitating”
  • Ariana Grande, “34 + 35”
  • Saweetie f/Doja Cat, “Best Friend”
  • Justin Bieber f/Daniel Caesar & Giveon, “Peaches”
  • BTS, “Butter”
  • Shawn Mendes, “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” 

101.9 The Mix WTMX ChicagoAs for WTMX, its Hot AC mix has always stood in contrast to the more tightly defined CHRs. Even with both Kiss and B96 playing Coldplay’s ‘Higher Power,” for instance, the difference is even more noticeable now on the more recurrent/gold based station. In this hour, WTMX played Matchbox 20, a brief glimpse of its past as one of the most prominent Modern ACs of the ‘90s/early ‘00s, although it’s one of only a handful of similar titles on the station. Here’s the Mix just before 4 p.m.:

  • Imagine Dragons, “Believer”
  • Duncan Laurence, “Arcade”
  • The Kid Laroi, “Without You”
  • Ed Sheeran, “Shape of You”
  • AJR, “Bang!”
  • Ava Max, “Kings and Queens”
  • Olivia Rodrigo, “Driver’s License”
  • Matchbox 20, “3 AM”
  • Kygo x Selena Gomez, “It Ain’t Me”
  • Bruno Mars, Anderson.Paak & Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”
  • Fun., “Some Nights”
  • 24KGOLDNf/Iann Dior, “Mood”
  • Camila Cabello f/Young Thug, “Havana”
  • Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”
  • Maroon 5 f/Megan Thee Stallion, “Beautiful Mistakes”
  • Lewis Capaldi, “Someone You Loved”

Because of its prominence, there’s a good amount of early B96 available online. Just for fun, here’s a brief segment of the station in its early days of Hot Hits in spring ’82, when it was still doing a pure version of Joseph’s all-current format. The station would add recurrents and morph to B96 a few months later. This is from an aircheck of Steve Davis in mornings, bookended by two full newscasts, the lead story of which was nuclear disarmament talks between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

  • Asia, “Heat of the Moment”
  • Ray Parker, Jr., “The Other Woman”
  • Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
  • Go-Go’s, “We Got the Beat”
  • Rick Springfield, “Don’t Talk to Strangers”
  • Human League, “Don’t You Want Me”
  • Tommy Tutone, “867-5309/Jenny”
  • Bertie Higgins, “Key Largo”
  • Paul Davis, “’65 Love Affair”
  • Vangelis, “Titles – Chariots of Fire”

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