Top 40 started in the '50s, but its roots are in the weekly Lucky Strike Hit Parade that ran on radio beginning in 1935 (ending its run on television in 1958). Featuring mostly uptempo songs performed by a cast of regular artists (including, in the mid-'40s, Frank Sinatra), the show went through various name changes in its alleged representations of eight to 15 of America's favorite songs -- apparently decided by sheet music and record sales and "requests" from orchestra leaders. The songs, not the recordings that popularized them, were the focus.

As a format, Top 40 was conceived in Omaha in 1953, when Todd Storz, who owned KOWH, had a long lunch with his program director in a bar across the street from the station. As the afternoon wore on, they were irritated that the same song kept coming on the jukebox, and then astounded when their waitress, who'd also been listening to it for hours, went over and plunked in a quarter to hear it three more times. Critics attacking Top 40 for "sinking into the blaring, senseless mediocrity of the jukebox" didn't know how right they were.

Jukebox radio with mass appeal: That's what Storz envisioned, and it proved a godsend at a time when radio, once the dominant entertainment medium, was being forced to change itself to adapt to the impact of television. WTIX in New Orleans was the first station to call itself Top 40 (in 1954), and within a year Billboard had instituted a Top 100.

What Storz created was a rotation pattern built on a limited playlist, says Ken Barnes of Radio & Records. "The whole revolution of Top 40, the principle behind it, was that people wanted to hear the most popular records with some degree of frequency so that when they tuned in, they had a good chance of hearing their favorite song, or three or four of them. And to do that, you have to play those songs many times during the day."

A station's playlist was decided by different methods, either using trade charts or checking on sales at local record outlets. Hence, Top 40, though even that was on a scaled basis, in which a No. 1 song and a weekly pick would get played once an hour, the rest of the Top 10 every three hours, numbers 11 through 20 every four hours and the rest every six. Many stations had "clocks" detailing specifics about rotation, call letters (as many as 20 times an hour), personality IDs and so on.

Popular music was also changing as all this was going on, with rock-and-roll rearing its ugly little head just enough that mature adult performers like Sinatra, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page had to share the Top 40 airwaves in the mid- to late '50s with upstarts named Presley, Lewis, Haley, Berry and Domino, acts that would gradually push them off the playlists. Originally attacked for its methods, Top 40 was soon attacked for the music it championed. Meanwhile, record sales tripled between 1954 and 1959.

Offbeat promotions and contests, a big part of classic Top 40, helped shape it into a format as tight and entertaining as the music itself, and the result was a nationwide reversal of fortunes at many stations, though it took a long time -- and high ratings -- to persuade advertisers to support Top 40-oriented stations. Jack Alix, known as J.A. the DJ when he with WPGC in the early '60s (he's now GM at KXXR, a Kansas City Top 40 station), also sold advertising at the station and recalls "it was the same story I heard then as now: 'Top 40? My kids listen to it!' "

Fred Fiske, who was at WWDC 30 years ago, remembers "resistance and skepticism from both air people and the sales staff -- Top 40 had nothing but kid appeal. But it worked out and resulted in immediate ratings success and we were Number 1 for many years."

XTRA-104's Bob Duckman recalls that Washington's Top 40 situation in the '60s was unique. "It wasn't like Philadelphia, New York or Boston where there was one dominant Top 40. Here you had three regional stations -- WPGC {home of the Good Guys}served Prince George's County; WEAM {home of the Redcoats} served Northern Virginia; and WINX served Montgomery County."

Don Dillard, whose family owned WDON, was the first to broach the Top 40 format here in the late '50s, though he emphasized the R&B, country blues and (later) soul side of the music, programming that has made Dillard a cult figure in Washington radio. In the '60s, when the British Invasion sound dominated the charts, Dillard at WDON and folks like the late Nighthawk Terry at WOL developed huge audiences -- black and white -- programming soul against rock.

Dillard's programming was eclectic but it set the stage for more formulaic Top 40. Dillard, now retired and living in Annapolis, recalls that with old-line pop programming, "the phone at the station didn't ring for a year. When we switched and the kids latched on to it, you could pick up the phone without it ringing and there'd always be somebody there."

WEAM was the first formula station here -- a steady diet of hit records, weather and time -- but it was decidely low on personality until deejays like Johnny Dark started broadcasting at night from a Topps Drive-In. Soon the Redcoats and Good Guys were battling for audience share and listeners' hearts and the Golden Era of Washington Top 40 was underway.

"We were stars," says Harv Moore, the Guy Next Door at WPGC in that era (he's now in promotions in the Buffalo area). "The listeners all knew who was on the air at what time, and not just the morning show -- now, after 10, who knows who's on the air?"

By the mid-'60s, though, Top 40 radio was already under attack for its formulaic sound, leading to the first major retuning in the form of Bill Drake's "Boss Top 40," which reduced the playlist even further from 40 to 30 (without that being reflected in the name), cut the commercials per hour (from as many as 18 to 12), shortened jingles, made contests simpler, dumped most special sound effects and held disc jockeys to rigid time sequences between songs and commercials. Immediately successful, the adjusted format was quickly copied all over the country.

But in the late '60s and early '70s, Top 40 started to lose listeners, particularly with the shift in consumer buying from singles to albums and the advent of FM. "We used to have WPGC-FM and no one listened to it -- all listeners were on 1580," says Moore. "That was a time when FM meant 'Find Me' and we were one of first to go Top 40 FM stereo simulcast."

Later came disco, which further eroded Top 40 radio as stations switched to dance formats, and then the plethora of formats as owners scrambled for audience shares made smaller by a tripling of the number of radio stations from the time Todd Storz took a long lunch almost 40 years ago. Ten years ago, Top 40 changed its name to Contemporary Hit Radio, though the songs remained the same.