It’s a long-held belief that radio play helps make a hit single, but the medium was especially vital in bringing Bon Jovi’s debut single, “Runaway,” to the attention of the masses. In fact, it’s fair to say that if Long Island radio station WAPP 103.5FM hadn’t recognized the song was a potential hit, Bon Jovi’s life could have been very different.
Recounting the story in an interview with Virgin Radio UK’s Chris Evans in 2020, Bon Jovi said, “It’s 1982. I write “Runaway,” but I can’t get a record deal. I can’t even get myself a band because, you know, original bands aren’t making any money at this time.”
Indeed, Bon Jovi wasn’t yet a band when Jon wrote “Runaway” with a little help from early collaborator George Karak. John Francis Bongiovi Jr. was already involved in the industry, though. He was a janitor at New York studio, The Power Station, where his cousin, Tony Bongiovi, had produced and/or engineered by artists such as Gloria Gaynor and Talking Heads. Tony was instrumental in assembling an all-star band, including bassist Hugh McDonald, drummer Frankie LaRocka, and Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band’s keyboardist Roy Bittan to back Jon on “Runaway.”
The result was a big, anthemic rock song featuring an urgent vocal and an all-too-relatable lyric about a young girl living on the streets after familial rejection. “Runaway” sounded like a hit to Jon Bon Jovi, but it needed to prove itself before a much bigger audience – which is where WAPP103.5FM came in.
“I think to myself, ‘who is the loneliest man in the music business?’ – the DJ!” the singer told Virgin Radio UK. “And we had a brand new radio station in New York. It was so new they didn’t have a receptionist!” Bon Jovi took his tape of “Runaway” directly to the station’s top DJ Chip Hobart and promotion director John Lassman. Both men loved the song; Hobart aired it repeatedly and Lassman encouraged Bon Jovi to enter WAPP’s contest in search of the best unsigned local band. “Runaway” won the contest hands down and the song became a huge local hit.
In fact, its success had a domino effect. It led to the creation of Bon Jovi (the band) and to A&R man Derek Shulman (formerly of prog-rock legends Gentle Giant) brokering a deal to sign them to Mercury Records – who chose “Runaway” as the first single from Bon Jovi’s acclaimed self-titled debut album. Fittingly, this pivotal song also became the band’s first bona fide U.S. Top 40 hit.
“Every kid dreams of hearing his song on the radio,” Jon Bon Jovi wrote, in an Instagram tribute to the late Chip Hobart in 2021. “In 1983, I took it to another level by taking “Runaway” to a radio station. I’ve thanked [Chip] a thousand times for that day!”