WAVA-FM (105.1), one of Washington's most popular radio stations and an arbiter of the city's hard rock tastes, made a subtle change in its format last night to a hot hits sound.

"It will be high energy, very uptempo," said general manager David Barrett. The move is part of a growing trend in the industry to play more contemporary hits, although the differences between an album rock or a hit list format aren't that clear. However, hot hits is essentially the 1980s packaging of the old top 40 formats.

At WAVA, the change will mean playing many of the same artists, such as Culture Club, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Stevie Nicks, Police and Motels, and adding more Lionel Richie, Bonnie Tyler, Men at Work and Michael Jackson. Instead of the "Washington Rock Authority," slogan, the station will advertise itself as "All the Stuff That Is Hit" or "Washington's Hottest."

"A couple of years ago, album rock was the mass appeal. But audience tastes have changed and their expectations of our format have changed," said Barrett, who is also vice president of Doubleday Broadcasting. In Denver, where no top 40 station existed, the company changed the format of its station, KPKE, in July, and Barrett said the change has been well received. Doubleday bought WAVA in February 1982. "The top 40 appeal changed when there was an explosion of super rock stars, the Who, the Beatles, and an explosion of rock music on albums. Now that music is not regenerating itself. Hot hits will be introducing the new music and new groups."

In Washington, even with the blurry distinctions, several stations feature a contemporary hit format: WRQX-FM (107.3), WWDC-FM (101.1), WLTT-FM (94.7), WPGC-FM (95.5) and WEZR-FM (106.7). Even though WAVA is one of Washington's top stations--with a 3.6 in the summer Arbitron ratings, tying for ninth place with WWDC--WRQX (Q107) and WLTT do better. That success is not lost on Barrett. "The top 40 sound has the largest cumulative audiences in the 14 to 44 age group," he said.

"I am not viewing it as a threat," said Alan Burns, the program director of Q107. "They are playing in our territory."

The costs for this change, said Barrett, include a promotion campaign and a new program director, Randy Kabrich, who has been working with contemporary hit formats in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., for eight years. Barrett said the station didn't hire a consultant but used its own research.