The studios of WQHT are based in the TriBeCa neighborhood in Manhattan, and the transmitter is atop the Empire State Building alongside most TV and radio stations transmitting from there.
WNBC-FM and variants
The history of the 97.1 frequency goes back to 1949, when experimental station W2XWG came on the air in 1940 on 42.6 MHz. That station became W51NY when it moved to 45.1 MHz. On September 22, 1944, W51NY began commercial operations as WEAF-FM. After several frequency and call letters changes, WNBC-FM was established at 97.1 by 1949. It usually simulcast WNBC's AM programming. In 1954 it changed its call letters to WRCA-FM (reflecting NBC's then-parent company, RCA), but reverted to WNBC-FM in 1960.
WNBC-FM played classical music in the 1950s; it later switched to pop music. It ran network programming for some time, such as the NBC Monitor weekend series. By the 1970s it was playing a pop-rock format. Beginning on June 4, 1973, it experimented with a fully automated programming scheme with local inserts known as "The Rock Pile"—a forerunner of today's DJ-free Bob FM, Frank FM and Jack FM formats with a wide diversity of pop, rock and R&B that proved to be 30 years ahead of its time—but technical glitches were frequent and listenership dropped. For a brief period starting in late 1974, the station attempted a fully automated beautiful music format for a younger demographic, called "The Love of New York".
NBC Radio then launched the NBC News and Information Service (NIS), a network service providing up to 50 minutes an hour of news programming to local stations that wanted to adopt an all-news format without the high costs of producing large quantities of local news content. WNBC-FM's small audience was deemed expendable to allow the NIS to have a New York outlet. Thus on June 18, 1975, the station became WNWS and branded itself "NewsCenter 97", an allusion to WNBC-TV's "NewsCenter 4" local newscasts. Ratings were low, and the service did not attract enough stations to allow NBC to project that it could ever become profitable (At the network's peak, only 57 stations across the country carried NIS, most of them already NBC Radio News affiliates).
On January 1, 1977, NBC unceremoniously shut down NIS. This was the final story on "NewsCenter 97", as reported by Wayne Howard:
"In a minute and 25 seconds, it'll be 1977 on the east coast. All news, all day, everyday. This is your News and Information Service. I'm Wayne Howard. Happy New Year!"
The station then went to a commercial break and at the stroke of midnight, 97.1 aired their legal ID and adopted an "adult contemporary" (AC) format with a rock lean (to compete against WKTU, ironically, the current call letters of WYNY on 103.5), under the moniker "Y-97". The first song on "Y-97" was "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" by Rod Stewart. The call letters WNWS were still in use at the time but shortly afterward the station became known as WYNY.
Ratings were fair at best and by the end of 1978, after toying briefly with an all-Beatles format, WYNY evolved to an MOR format featuring Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Elton John, Carly Simon, and Billy Joel among others. They were an easy listening station without all the elevator music heard on WRFM or WPAT-AM-FM. Ratings went up gradually.
By 1980, WYNY moved away from Frank Sinatra and the Lettermen though they continued running "Saturday with Sinatra" hosted by Sid Mark. Musically they added Motown songs, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, Donna Summer, and soft hits by hard rockers.
By 1981, the station format was that of pop hits from 1964 to what was then current music, with an occasional pre-64 rock & roll song. Ratings went up from 1981 through 1983. By 1982, WYNY trimmed the '60s music slightly. Some of the air personalities included Dan Daniel, Bill St. James, Bruce Bradley, Randy Davis, Carol Mason, Mike McCann, Floyd Wright, Steve O'Brien, Bill Rock, Margaret Jones, Paulie, and Ed Baer. On Sunday evenings, the station aired a pioneering advice show, Sexually Speaking, which made its host, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a national celebrity. The station was also a pioneer of Contemporary Christian Music in the city, airing the weekly show Masterpeace, hosted by Steven Joseph. Sid Mark continued hosting a Frank Sinatra show. On weekend evenings call-in talk shows such as "Mouth Versus Ear" with Dick Summers was an alternative to other station's mundane public service shows.
In 1983, rival stations Z-100 and WPLJ adopted a "Contemporary Hit Radio" (CHR) format, attracting younger listeners. WYNY continued with its AC format. Then in January 1984, Lite FM 106.7 WLTW signed on, taking away older listeners. WYNY ratings plummeted, and in 1986 the station was revamped with the music staying "Hot AC" but marketed as a "Z-100 for Yuppies". The station had new jingles and imaging, and became known as "The NEW 97.1 WYNY". The format, however, was that of the same pop hits from 1964 to the then-present. The station continued to rate low. NBC had problems with sister station WNBC as well. Then in April 1987, a country music station, WHN, announced plans to go sports full-time on July 1, to become all-sports WFAN. In response, WYNY announced it would change to country music on July 1.
This format change was announced to the press in advance but not over the air except on Saturday With Sinatra. At 12:01 a.m. July 1, WYNY ended its AC format with "Hello, Goodbye" by The Beatles and went country, playing "Think About Love" by Dolly Parton. The airstaff all remained, though some gradually left later in the year.
Dan Daniel (who had left WYNY in the mid-1980s and returned), Randy Davis, Carol Mason, Lisa Taylor, Floyd Wright, and others survived the format change and remained with WYNY's country unit long after it would leave 97.1 FM and move to 103.5, where it remained until its 1996 demise. The WYNY call letters resurfaced on the suburban 107.1 frequency in late 1998 at a country station that had started up later in 1996; the format lasted until 2002. As of 2006, the WYNY call letters reside on a station in Gainesville, Florida.
In 1987, Emmis agreed to buy NBC's New York radio stations, which gave Emmis superior signals for use by WFAN and WQHT. Emmis sold its 103.5 license and the rights to WYNY's intellectual property to Westwood One, and the WYNY call sign and format moved to that frequency while WQHT shifted to 97.1.
The All New Hot 97
In the fall of 1988, Emmis purchased 97.1 WYNY from NBC, as well as the license of the WNBC-AM station that was being closed. On Thursday September 22, 1988 at 5:30pm the stations swapped frequencies. WYNY a.k.a. "Country 97 FM" was moved to 103.5FM and transform into "The All New Country 103.5 WYNY". Meanwhile, Hot 103 moved to 97.1FM and officially becoming "The All New Hot 97, Your Most Music Station". After the transition to Hot 97, Stephanie Miller & Howard Hoffman were brought in to do the morning show (1988–91), J. Paul Emerson stayed on as newsman, with Daniel Ivankovich, aka Reverend Doctor D, aka Odie Johnson was brought in as producer.
The last song played on Hot 103 was Debbie Gibson's "Stayin' Together" and the first song played on "The All New Hot 97" was M.A.R.R.S.' "Pump Up the Volume". WQHT even had Vanna White on hand to change huge plastic letters at a big station switch party in Midtown Manhattan.
Hot 97's ratings fell slightly in 1989. The station started to lean towards Top 40. In mid-1990, Hot 97 teamed up with MicMac Records and released The Hot 97 MicMac Concert on cassette, LP or CD. The album featured MicMac artists that got airplay on Hot 97 like Johhny O., Cynthia and Tiana.
On July 22, 1990, Hot 97 teamed up with WRKS a.k.a. "98.7 Kiss FM" for a Unity Walk to promote racial harmony in New York City.
In 1990–1991, the station started to play more house and R&B music, and they started a house music late night feature. WQHT broadcast live from area night clubs such as The Tunnel, Roseland and Metrohouse from 2 am until 4 am Saturday into Sunday morning.
In 1991, Anything Goes with Clivilles & Cole debuted, where record producers Robert Clivilles and David Cole of C&C Music Factory mixed new house and dance music on Saturday nights.
From dance to hip-hop and R&B
Towards the end of 1992 and early 1993, Hot 97's ratings hit an all-time low. In response, Emmis named Judy Ellis its General Manager (a position in which she served until 2003) and WQHT started to add more R&B and Rap product. The station started a gradual two-year change towards an Urban Hip-Hop format.
A new generation of hot jocks began appearing on Hot 97. Among the most famous was the addition of a new morning show of Ed Lover and Doctor Dré of Yo! MTV Raps. The ratings rose to number three in one rating period.
In 1993, Funkmaster Flex joined Hot 97 and was host of the Friday Night Street Jam and weekly two-hour show where he mixed hip-hop live from the studio.
Other noteworthy personalities included the addition of Wendy Williams to PM Drive, Williams used to be the overnight jock back on Hot 103 in 1988. Angie Martinez, a researcher on "New York Hot Tracks" in the late 1980s and who previously worked in the promotions department, was promoted to nights. A few years later, the two had a public falling out, resulting in Williams being fired from Hot 97 and Martinez assuming afternoon drive, where she remained until she was hired by Hot 97's rival New York hip-hop station, Power 105.1 (WWPR-FM) on June 19, 2014.
WQHT logo from 1994 to 2000
In 1995, Hot 97 again became New York's top station in the Arbitron ratings.
In May 2007, R&R and BDS moved WQHT back to the Rhythmic Airplay panel after a long tenure as an urban reporter; however the station was always a rhythmic reporter per Mediabase.
In the fall of 2008, WQHT served as the home of the nationally syndicated Big Boy's Neighborhood, produced by ABC Radio and based at WQHT's sister station, KPWR Power 106 in Los Angeles. However, by July 2009 WQHT dropped the program and instead expanded their local morning show hosted by new morning jocks, DJ Cipha Sounds and Peter Rosenberg.
From urban to rhythmic CHR
By 2010, Hot 97 switched to Urban Contemporary, ending the longtime rhythmic top 40 format at the station.
In April 2011, WQHT became New York City's only rhythmic contemporary station with the reverting of rival WKTU to rhythmic adult contemporary. Also, it is the only full standalone station in Emmis' New York cluster after WRKS ended its longtime urban format for ESPN sports under an agreement with Disney.
HD radio operations
On September 9, 2008, Emmis announced a programming partnership with WorldBand Media and to use WQHT's HD-3 signal to produce programming for the South Asian communities in three major cities including New York City. In June 2009, the service was removed from WQHT and placed on sister station WRKS's HD2.
In January 2012, Emmis added Rock 101.9, RXP which was formerly on WFAN-FM and streaming online, to the HD2 channel. With this move, the station is no longer streaming online.
As of 2014, WQHT-HD2 airs HumDesi Radio, a South Asian-focusing radio network.
2004 Indian tsunami parody
On January 17, 2005, Hot 97 Miss Jones provoked a controversy by airing a song entitled "USA for Indonesia" a month after approximately 187,000 people died in the Asian tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The song, a parody sung to the 1985 tune "We Are the World", was criticized for overtly racist mocking of the Asian and East African victims; the song lyrics contain the racially derogatory word "Chinamen," and calls the drowning victims "bitches." Some of the lyrics included the words "Go find your mommy. I just saw her float by, a tree went through her head. And now your children will be sold. Child slavery". Miss Info, a fellow on-air colleague of Korean descent, was outraged and spoke against the song on the station. She excluded herself from producing the song and said it was wrong for it to be played. Miss Info was insulted by other DJs on the air. Another jock on the show named Todd Lynn muttered "I'm gonna start shooting Asians." Following angry protests from the public, Miss Jones, DJ Envy, and Tasha Hightower were suspended for two weeks while Todd Lynn and songwriter Rick Del Gado were fired.The station issued an apology on its website. Newsday, Sprint, McDonald's, and Toyota all pulled their advertising from the station. The suspended employees' pay was diverted to charities helping victims of the tsunami.
Fights and shootings
In February 2001, a shootout erupted between Lil' Kim and the entourages of Kim and rival rapper Foxy Brown in front of the offices of Hot 97 on Hudson Street, with an injury to one of Lil' Kim's bodyguards. It led to an investigation by the FBI and a trial which found Lil Kim guilty of perjury and sentenced to a year in prison for it in mid-2005. In February 2005, gunfire erupted in front of the same place between 50 Cent's entourage and the Game's entourage. The Game was quickly met by 50 Cent's crew after being notified he was at the front entrance of the building. A friend of 50 Cent pulled a gun and shot at The Game and his entourage. A bullet hit a member of the Game's entourage in the leg. Both incidents also led to the nickname "Shot 97" by Wendy Williams.
Since its inception, WQHT has held "The Hot 97 Summer Jam" every June. The concert series ran into controversy in 2006, with Miss Jones dissing Mary J. Blige on air after the singer did not mention her name when she sent shout-outs to the Hot 97 DJs, and again in 2012, when moments before Nicki Minaj was about to take to the stage, morning host Peter Rosenberg made a negative comment about her song "Starships", saying to the fans, "I see the real hip-hop heads sprinkled in here. I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing 'Starships' later—I'm not talking to y'all right now." That comment would prompt Lil' Wayne to pull Minaj and the rest of the acts signed to Cash Money Records out of the event. Minaj later spoke to Funkmaster Flex about the incident, and after that, appeared on Rosenberg's show, with the host apologizing to her on air. She performed two songs with 2 Chainz at the following year's Summer Jam.
The 2014 event that took place on June 2 would be blasted in a comment five days later (on June 6) by Chuck D of Public Enemy, who accused the station of allowing artists who were performing there to use racial slurs and offensive language, calling it a "Sloppy Fiasco," adding that "If there was a festival and it was filled with anti-Semitic slurs... or racial slurs at anyone but black people, what do you think would happen? Why does there have to be such a double standard?" He also cites the lack of WQHT not allowing more up-and-coming artists to perform on stage. This was later addressed by Ebro Darden and Rosenberg on their morning show, responding to remarks that include the charge that Hot 97 is a “CORPlantation,” but Darden, who admits that he agrees with Chuck D on addressing the issues, later pointed out by responding that “I think there’s validity to what he’s saying as to, ‘I guess Hot 97 could be more local,” and added “But people that listen to us when we research the songs don’t vote those songs high enough to stay around. I have this debate and I put the onus back on the public to participate.”
On June 7, 2015, more than 61 people were arrested and 10 New Jersey State Police troopers were injured after a fight over tickets and crowd capacity overshadows the 2015 Summer Jam event that was held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The sold out event also caused confusion among the ticket goers who were denied entry, which added to the rioted melee. The following day (June 8), WQHT addressed the issue on its morning show and plans to refund the customers who could not get into the event, while the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter called for the state Attorney General's office to investigate if any violations were reported.