Friday, September 24, 2004

"It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious" Alfred North Whitehead

Claude Hall introduced me to Bob Henabery. Bob was in the cast of powerful players brought into my life by Claude's insightful prose. At that time, Hall, along with Gavin, Hamilton and Taishoff, created the required reading for every serious student of radio. Hall's Vox Jox was the guilty pleasure must read, it captured the tribal vibe, shared the inside stories. Claude Hall informed and entertained.

While a manager at WBZ I came to know Bob personally. "Do you know why we hire consultants Dave?" I can still hear Dick Harris asking over breakfast. "We hire consultants to tell us what we already know" he said preparing the stage for Mr. Henabery. Bob's analysis of the obvious that day was, of course, brilliant.
And now ladies and gentlemen, Bob Henabery

Top 40, The Fox and The Hedgehog - Bob Henabery

Sparked by the inventions of the portable transistor radio and Top 40 on the AM band, a generation of baby boomers was galvanized by pop music. From 1956 when Elvis Presley introduced Heartbreak Hotel his first #1 hit -- to 1975 when The Bee Gees' Jive Talkin' became the first Disco hit to reach #1, the new pop music called Rock 'n' Roll triumphed. For better or worse, it was the vehicle that moved modern American culture in a direction of a more secular and less authoritarian society. The Beatles said that they were bigger than Jesus. And they later apologized. They were only kidding. But they were right.

Top 40 radio broached Rock 'n' Roll and it dramatically changed the nation's consciousness. Not a 50s' fad like the hula hoop or a fashion like bobby sox and ponytails, it transformed and shaped the tastes and attitudes of America's youth. Top 40 was the first major American entertainment that was theirs alone. In the middle and late 50s, Top 40 radio told parents that times were changing. That's why the moms and dads who suffered the The Great Depression, won World War II and gave the boomers their lives felt threatened by it and that's why initially it was a hard sell to a chary advertising community.

Before Korean War hostilities had ended in July 1953, TV's ascendance had tipped radio into a spiraling decline. People planned their lives to make sure that they saw their favorite programs: Ed Sullivan's Toast Of The Town premiering in 1948, Your Show Of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in 1950, and I Love Lucy in 1951. Radio owners, managers, staffers and talent were psyched out by the unremitting expression of public opinion: "Since we got our new TV we hardly ever go out to the movies, and we -- never listen to the radio any more."

With things at their worst radio averted disaster -- saved by the introduction of Top 40 that began an improbable 20-year reign on the AM band. Top 40 was innovative and fun. Importantly, it brought a totally new kind of music to the air. When the family sat down Sunday evening October 28, 1956 and saw and heard Elvis Presley for the first time on Ed Sullivan's show, generational musical tastes parted like The Red Sea.

At that time when both Ike Eisenhower and the Andersons of Father Knows Best were paragons of normalcy, two entrepreneurs were acquiring AM stations in the heartland: Todd Storz in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, Miami, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis, and Gordon McLendon in Dallas.

The Class-2 and Class-3 facilities they bought were located on tightly spaced frequencies at the high end of the AM dial. The interference at night from other stations on the same frequency, as well as the static that plagues AM, was vexing. The signal patterns of their directional transmitters were weak in important neighborhoods. And their acquisitions were made when both radio's prestige and cash flow were at their lowest. Were they nuts?

In entering the radio wars, the two entrepreneurs faced entrenched and deep-pocketed competitors with heavy artillery and depots of ammunition. Old-line owners possessed widely spaced frequencies at the low end of the dial, clear channels and powerful transmitters -- backed by the clout of board memberships at the banks and the country clubs. And the establishments' shares of radio revenues were stable because under-financed smaller operators were the ones drained by the flow of advertising dollars from radio to TV. How were the two new kids on the block going to make it in such tightly knit conservative mid-western and southern towns against those formidable facilities and resources?

Unlike their competitors, who in a few instances were tied to union jurisdictional rules and in most instances to an "us" versus "them" workplace environment, Storz and McLendon were uninhibited and inspiring. Their genius was innovation. As independents with limited resources, they had both the freedom and the need to be inventive. As hands-on managers they worked with the troops. They would demonstrate that they were right in doing all the wrong things.

The story of Todd Storz' revelation is a radio legend. He was at an Omaha diner with his program director. They noticed that a teen-age waitress selected the same song on the jukebox -- over and over. The concept of repeating only the best songs proved to be the most important idea in the history of radio programming. The best songs were the 40 best-selling 45RPMs at local record retailers -- the fortunate beneficiaries of free promotional airplay that within a decade transformed them from small shops and collectors' boutiques into music supermarkets.

More significantly Top 40 began to eliminate prevailing adult biases against Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western singers and bands. American pop music would no longer Sing Along in whiteface. Mitch Miller's days were numbered.

Because it was so on target with its young audiences, Top 40 was explosive. Rock 'n' Roll blew off the doors of the markets where it was introduced. In a matter of months the new Top 40 stations that mushroomed were ranked #1 or #2 in most American markets. The kids couldn't get enough of Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, The Drifters, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino. Storz and McLendon had led the charge.

Less well known than their stories is how Top 40 was developed in the two biggest American markets -- at KHJ, Los Angeles and WABC, New York. Bill Drake at KHJ and Rick Sklar at WABC are the two most consequential programmers in American radio history.

They took Storz' inspiration and improved on it -- like Pablo Picasso who took George Braques' new idea of cubism to its maximum potential -- except that Drake and Sklar were mass appealing to millions of American kids instead of a coterie of double-domes.

Never head-to-head in the same market, as say Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were in the same game, neither could claim an edge. Both had enormous successes and, like Magic and Larry, different styles -- as different from each other as a fox is to a hedgehog. According to legend, the swift and crafty fox knows and does many things and, the symbol of great defense, the hedgehog knows only one big thing but is unsurpassed in that skill.

In the mid-sixties Bill Drake and his creative group of about half-a-dozen, including the gifted KHJ program director Ron Jacobs, knew many things. They had apprenticed together in obscure markets. They had talked and argued their passion -- radio, late into the night over beers. Confident that they could improve on Storz' Top 40 model, each had his own wish list. Drake brought them together in Fresno, San Diego and finally in LA at KHJ where they incorporated their best ideas in a revolutionary new format design. In a profession where major egos are offset by minor talents, successful collaborations are rare. These talented individuals worked superbly as a team under Drake.

They applied the architectural aesthetic, "Less is more" -- less talk -- more music. The jingle "More music 93 KHJ" promised and delivered more songs. It was also a qualitative statement: KHJ's clean, continuous flow was music to the ears of its enthusiastic young listeners -- hitherto numbed by the commercial clutter on lumbering LA radio. KHJ's jocks didn't use prepared shtick to project their distinctive voices and personalities. They knew the power of a topical sense of humor and action verbs delivered voice-over-music -- surfing on the perfect wave.

KHJ's hourly opener "Boss Radio in Boss Angeles" was a masterstroke. "Boss" was a black locution meaning "The Best." In the dog-eat-dog radio business, it became, as much a call to arms as it was an identifier.

Drake was an intimidator. Standing 6' 4", he would position himself in front of a window so that the sunlight would shine in the eyes of his squinting disc-jockies as he drilled them on formatics. God help the Top 40 competitor with the heavy commercial load. Woe to the jock who broke format. The story goes: Paul Drew, a close Drake associate at CKLW in Detroit who was obsessed with detail, called the studio hot-line at 4:30 one morning to scold the jock. "You said 'the.' It's not 'the' CKLW time. It's C-K-L-W time."

KHJ ate the market's lunch. The audience promotions put together by program director Jacobs gave the station its special West Coast ésprit. KHJ's best was The Big Kahuna. Listeners would respond on the phone to the Kahuna's blowing on a conch shell --summoning them to call the station to win tickets to a KHJ luau. The climax of the beach party was the Kahuna's grand entrance and photo op. In a prize packed Polynesian outrigger, he was rowed ashore in a light surf. The party people went nuts. KHJ's promotional street presence (e.g., neighborhood personal appearances, roving newsmobiles, retail merchandising) was everywhere -- seasoning and stirring the bubbling LA ethnic pot in places as different as Encino, Westwood, City of Industry, Sherman Oaks, Crenshaw, West Hollywood, Wilshire, Santa Monica, Van Nuys, Watts and Beverly Hills.

The music was picked for the LA taste. Songs like The Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice, Los Bravos' Black Is Black, Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe, War's Spill The Wine and The Mamas & The Papas' California Dreamin' became so closely associated with KHJ that competitors would duck playing them.

Each hour KHJ offered a minimum of 16 songs with 20-20 News, scheduled 20 minutes before the hour and a maximum commercial inventory of 12 minutes and 20 seconds -- a third less than KHJ's direct competitors.

The music system used at KHJ and the other stations consulted by Drake showcased the Boss 30 hit-list of current new songs. 30 hits -- not the 40 introduced by Storz. Although play-lists got shorter the term Top 40 stuck as the generic name. There were 40 slots in the early Wurlitzer jukeboxes.

Of the 16 currents and oldies squeezed into every hour, 10 were Boss 30 currents and six were oldies. The jocks had three-hour air-shifts and the menu of 30 songs to choose from. They picked titles from the hit-list at random -- crossing them off as they were aired. When a jock finished his three-hour shift, all of the Boss 30 songs were crossed off -- since even in LA, where few truths are eternal -- 10 x 3 = 30. The six oldies varied the mix and were interspersed among the currents at specific times to balance tempos and styles. A chimpanzee couldn't screw it up. The next jock started the next cycle with a clean list of 30 and the next random selection.

(Veteran programmers are right in saying that the Drake idea of providing a short menu to pick from sounded better than today's computer generated music. Then the jock ran the music. Now the computer runs the jock.)

The lowest ranked Boss 30 songs were newly added Hitbounds. KHJ Hitbounds got the same exposure as the other currents. Some (e.g., WABC, New York) believed that pushing #28, #29 and #30 as often as #1 was a weakness -- that new material should be introduced at a slower rotation to prove itself through telephone requests and at least a full week's retail sales' data before entering the three-hour orbit.

Probably not so for that station -- in that market -- at that time. Consequently untested Hitbounds, at the bottom of the Boss 30, would come up every three-hours like the rest of the songs -- building KHJ's cool reputation for promoting the careers of itinerant groups, The English Invasion, club singers and West Coast garage bands. KHJ exposure in America's pop music capitol highballed dozens of previously unknown new artists to international super-stardom.

None of the innovations that Drake and associates like Jacobs and Drew dreamed up would have occurred without his partner Gene Chenault, a Fresno businessman. He had hired Drake as program director for his own station there. Drake quickly turned it around. He then partnered with Drake to consult a San Diego station owned by an important local General Tire dealer. RKO Radio, a division of the General Tire Corporation, closely watched the overnight smash that ensued in San Diego. RKO Radio owned a foundering Big Band outlet in LA -- KHJ. Chenault sold RKO on changing format. And he convinced it that reducing the spot load by a third, while raising the rates in step with ratings growth, was essential to win big in LA. KHJ's spectacular achievement there preceded successes in San Francisco (KFRC), Detroit (CKLW) and Boston (WRKO) that soon followed.

RKO Radio was scrupulous in observing the three rules for running radio salesmen. Pay them well. Keep them off balance. Never ask them for a programming opinion. Programmers not salesmen were in charge. In radio after World War II, that had never been the case. At KHJ quality was king.

The hedgehog is a cute animal with porcupine-like bristles that defends itself by rolling into a ball when attacked by a predator. Bill Drake was the fox knowing many things. Rick Sklar was the hedgehog who knew one big thing -- protecting his sole charge, Musicradio 77 WABC, New York -- a 50,000-watt powerhouse converted to Top 40 by ABC in 1961. Like the jewelers on West 47th Street he personally cut every facet of programming and promotion.

Sklar's direct competitor, The Good Guys 57 WMCA, did not have the Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut reach of WABC and it didn't court upscale Manhattan. WMCA targeted working class neighborhoods in the boroughs. If Bill Drake's fantasy listener was a sun-drenched blonde on Malibu Beach, WMCA's target listeners were mundane -- a 13-year-old at St. Joan of Arc grade school in Queens or a clerk at Loehmann's clothing store in The Bronx.

In New York's humid June of 1964 it seemed like every other person in the boroughs wore a Good Guys T-Shirt. Ruth Meyer, a legendarily empathetic program director, was like a Jewish mother to the jocks -- The Good Guys.

Paradoxically high spirited but low powered WMCA was less challenging to Sklar than the corporate politics at ABC Inc.:

The ABC Radio Network, which had lost audience to TV, desperately needed WABC to clear its hourly talk features consisting of soft-news surrounding national spots -- Top 40 tune-outs. It also wanted WABC to continue airing its long running Chicago originated The Breakfast Club, a daily hour with a live studio audience of senior citizens, held over from the time before TV. The Network and the O&Os, of which WABC was one of seven, were run by rivals each plotting to be radio boss of bosses.

(The soft-news features and The Breakfast Club were dropped following a major reorganization in which the ABC Radio Network exited the entertainment business and became four separate format-friendly hard-news services.)

WABC's own sales department, self-referenced "the band of thieves," lobbied management for at least 18 minutes of time an hour to sell to the advertisers restlessly waiting in line for spot availabilities.

And although WABC was a pop music station not involved in national politics, ABC Inc.'s lawyers choked when Richard Nixon unleashed his attack dog Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew's infamous "nattering nabobs" speech chastised the media -- singling out TV network news which had been giving the Nixon administration an exceptionally hard time for expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The lawyers interpreted Agnew's diatribe as a license revocation threat. They immediately lobbied for an increase in the amount of "virtue" categories, particularly public affairs, for all ABC TV and radio stations. 15% of "virtue" programming was foreordained to be the mandatory license insurance -- a staggering amount for a pop music station positioned Musicradio. Thus, more weight was added to WABC's saddlebags resulting in -- less music -- more talk.

(Today's F.C.C., worshiping at the deregulation shrine, relieves stations of virtually all of its news responsibilities. Without the nutriment that only daily hourly newscasts can provide, teens and younger adults couldn't say where Afghanistan was before 9/11. The F.C.C. doesn't always act in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." But it always reacts to the prevailing political ideology.)

Another obstacle to be hurdled was WABC's militant technicians union. The New York local didn't give a damn about teamwork. The union contract stipulated that records were to be run by the technicians -- not the jocks. The problem was that many WABC techs were nearing retirement and, intimidated by unfamiliar TV technology, they chose to "pick-shift" in radio. Sklar's solution to the problem? He put the jock and the tech face to face in the same studio. The tech could no longer doze behind a glass partition in a dimly lit, elevated control room.

Except for radio, the rest of ABC Inc. was struggling. ABC-TV was called "the half network" -- kept alive by its TV O&Os' cash flow. ABC's record division was counting a warehouse of unsold LPs and 45RPMs as assets. ABC's half-a-star movie division consistently contributed to the top 10 worst films of the year and, unable to devise a more compelling brand name, ABC's theme parks' logo remained, ABC Non-Broadcast Division.

(It was common knowledge that ABC-TV passed on All In The Family in 1968 and 1969. The show's gritty portrayal of a bigot made it nervous. Another missed opportunity was known to only a handful. Corporate planners recommended reorganizing ABC into two entities. The first would be composed of the broadcast divisions. The second would include a new venture -- recreational products [e.g., sports gear, vacation resorts, etc.] along with records, movies and theme parks. The notion was to recast the ABC Inc. image and launch the set: American Broadcasting and American Lifestyle. "Lifestyle" first entered the language as a 70s buzzword. Top brass considered it a lexical fad saying: "It will never last.")

With the other divisions breaking even in the aggregate -- the radio O&Os in New York, Pittsburgh (KQV), Detroit (WXYZ), Chicago (WLS), Houston (KXYZ), San Francisco (KGO) and Los Angeles (KABC) comprised the nation's highest rated radio group with 50% profit margins. That endeared ABC's "radio guys" to ABC Chairman & CEO, Leonard H. Goldenson, number three in the network founders' pantheon after NBC's Robert Sarnoff and CBS' William S. Paley. Goldenson gave them stock options and small personal gifts in lieu of year-end bonuses. A decent man, he meant it when he said he wished he could afford more. Without the "radio guys" there would have been parentheses around the ABC Inc. bottom line.

In the face of corporate financial uncertainties, Sklar's tenacity and his diplomacy in persuading suits to see things his way were remarkable. He persuaded his bosses to hire the best on-air talent, to pay for newly minted jingle packages produced seasonally to vary the basic theme, Musicradio 77 WABC, and for contests like The $25,000 Button. He won support for exclusive audience promotions like W-A-Beatles-C. WABC was out in front when The Beatles' arrived in America in 1964 -- sponsoring the band's first American concert appearance at Flushing's Shea Stadium. He even convinced management to cut WABC's commercial inventory and to raise the rates substantially. FM competitors with light spot loads like KHJ's were beginning to come on line. The irony? At corporate meetings the AM General Managers would brag about how little they paid their program directors.

But the mere mention of WABC would drive New York's cognoscenti up the wall -- the Manhattanites that voted for John Lindsay and patronized Zabars Deli and Lincoln Center for sustenance. There were also snide references to WABC in The New York Times. Its policy was to ignore radio as entertainment. Perhaps it resented WABC for having twice its circulation for a generation.

(The "no radio" ban, except for stories that cast it in a bad light, is still enforced -- along with the prohibition on comic strips in that relentlessly serious and self-absorbed newspaper.)

Drake programmers visiting New York would go crazy listening to its in-your-ear style -- jingles on top of songs, jocks talking back to song lyrics, high audio compression making it sound louder and cranked up reverberation making it instantly recognizable on the dial.

Bobby Rich, a competitor at WXLO-FM that had just started up in New York in the 70s, understood: "The jingles -- the jocks walking on the lyrics -- the compression, like a fire hose jet -- the reverb, 'W-A-B-C-E-EE-EEE' -- and the chime-time were like the people on Sixth Avenue elbowing to get ahead."

In the summertime WABC chime-time echoed at Jones Beach and Coney Island and re-echoed along the East Coast shore -- from a million transistors simultaneously. The sweltering weekend multitudes knew who owned tri-state radio. WABC reached over five million teens and adults a week in the metropolitan area alone -- a third of the population. It wasn't pretty but the people loved it.

There were 300 stores in Sklar's survey of singles' sales. Random calls were made to a different sample of 30 every week. The process of randomizing the weekly sample defeated the record companies' earlier practice -- giving free 45 RPMs to the same 30 stores known to be reporting unit sales to WABC. The stores had been declaring the free "pre-releases" as cash register sales to hype WABC into playing unqualified material.

WABC ran the #1 song every hour on the hour. In the fall of 1968, WABC's #1 song was The Beatles' Hey Jude. It was the creative pinnacle of the band's many querulous responses to the era's cultural revolution and it was the ultimate Progressive Rock statement. WABC embraced Progressive Rock hit singles like Hey Jude pulled from LPs. Early Progressive and Alternative Rock FMs ducked them because of the stigma of being complicit with WABC in the destruction of art. They played the album leftovers. It took them three years and a change in attitude to show in the ratings.

(It was not Progressive Rock that killed WABC. Dance music, introduced at Disco Stereo 93 WKYS-FM in Washington, D.C. in 1975, came to New York radio four years later. Sklar's up-tight competitors had dismissed Disco as a fad. Introduced after Vietnam, dance music transported the music scene from rock angst to urban joy. It fueled the growth of FM ending a generation of AM dominance by stripping the AM Top 40 giants of their African and Latin American listeners. In 1979 Disco finally found a place on the New York FM band -- badly wounding Musicradio 77 WABC. It fell below a 10% share for the first time. The Disco derivative called Urban [i.e., dance music but without the evanescent Disco name and image baggage] soon followed. The many new FM Urban and CHR [Contemporary Hit Radio] stations finished off WABC. It changed to Talkradio 77 WABC in the early 80s.)

The immense success of Hey Jude, more than twice as long as the average single, would become WABC's albatross. It's exceptional length, redundant arrangement, grandiose lyrics and heavy orchestration, and its implacable presence on the hour precipitated an internal crisis. It would be ruined if edited. That would only aggravate WABC's Philistine reputation. And Sklar was not about to mess with a perfectly attuned design that had taken him so far. But WABC salesmen were getting complaints from know-it-all time buyers and schedules were threatened with cancellation. "Enough already!"

Corporate officers on the 39th Floor had college sons and daughters home for a Thanksgiving weekend that fell late in 1968. They had been listening in their dorms to Progressive Rock on the new FMs: Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Judy Collins, The Doors, Cream and Bob Dylan -- not the "bubble-gum" of their grade and high school days still being played on the passé AMs. Intimidated by the college kids in their families and needled by their doctor, lawyer and teacher friends, Hey Jude inspired laugh-lines at lunch among ABC peers in the 40 th floor executive dining room. Hey Jude was convincing evidence, and WABC was found guilty as charged of "grinding repetition." That forced a momentous decision point.

Despite the double-digit shares that made WABC #1 in New York and the huge profits it cashed in, Harold L. Neal, Jr., the President of the radio O&Os was unhappy. Sensitive to a half-a-degree change in corporate temperature, he took personal charge. Neal told Sklar and Sklar's nominal boss, the WABC General Manager, that although he recognized it was certainly hard to run a branch store in the company town -- there had to be a way to rid themselves of the Hey Jude albatross. It prevailed in the #1 spot for an unprecedented nine consecutive weeks.

Neal's reputation was -- "visionary, shrewd, complex, demanding and frugal," but also, "vain, insecure and cold." Aware that Neal flattered his 39th Floor superiors, Sklar was forced to the wall.

(In radio before the invention of more sophisticated audience research methods for music than record sales, careers were made or ruined by being on the right or wrong side of an issue like Hey Jude. Creative programmers that were overruled, like artists in other media unable to express themselves verbally, would simply quit over seeming trivia that in fact masked deep-seated problems that could never be resolved rationally.)

Flexibility (i.e., the ability to carry two seemingly conflicting idea's in one's head without ever deciding in favor of one over the other) is characteristic of majestic intelligence. Sklar showed it under this extreme stress. He trumped Neal's challenge. He restructured his music system -- improving it and making it near impossible to copycat.

(Perhaps more difficult to figure out was Sklar himself -- uncorrupted family man in a meretricious business, self-contained to the point of being a conspiracy of one, and intuitive. Unlike most New Yorkers he owned a big car and he had a truly uncanny knack of finding open parking spaces on Manhattan streets.)

The result of Sklar Agonistes? WABC's shares -- went up! -- beyond any reasonable expectation. His revised system was synchronized like planetary periods in the solar system. Timing was everything.

A timing light was wired to each of WABC's super-hits -- the #1 through #4 songs that accounted for about a third of all singles' sales in the New York market. When the assigned time came, the warning light went on alerting the jock to play that song next. The intervals were separated by five minutes. Thus, in the late autumn of 1968, #1 Hey Jude went not every hour as it had previously but rather every 75 minutes. #2 I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye went every 80 minutes. #3 Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf went every 85 minutes. And #4 Love Child by Diana Ross & The Supremes went every 90 minutes. Although the rotation of #1 Hey Jude was 15 minutes slower, the rotations on #2, #3 and #4 were speeded up a notch. The end results? A listener would hear one of the four super-hits on average every 22 minutes, and each of them would be in another quarter-hour when heard next -- resulting in an unpredictable playback pattern. The #5 through #14 hits, representing the second level of sales, were played every two hours. The rest of the songs were fillers: The third level of sales were #15 through #24 played every four hours, and there was frosting on the cake -- an oldie every quarter hour.

(Sklar had much earlier parted company with Drake's equal rotation of the Boss 30 in favor of a hit-list of 24 because he ducked brand new material like Drake's hip but unproven Hitbounds. A song had to be test marketed on low powered WMCA before he would add it.)

Previously, at another top rated New York station, All News All The Time 1010 WINS had been saying: "Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world" -- since its inception three years earlier. When it started out in 1965 WINS stacked its news so that an update of its top story appeared three times an hour. Nobody in the business then thought that WINS would work because of its "grinding repetition." If not as momentous as Newton and Leibnitz inventing the calculus simultaneously, without either genius knowing what the other was up to, it would later be understood that conceptually both stations were the same. Sklar realized the coincidence only after the Hey Jude issue had been put to bed.

A Top 40 approach to an all-news station, or a music station or, indeed, any station proffered a short attention interval of about 20 minutes, a medium attention interval of about 40 minutes and a long attention interval of about 80 minutes. TV's 60 Minutes is in fact three 20 Minutes. And in the contemporary Christian celebration calibrated by almost two thousand years' experience in measuring attention spans, weekday Mass is 20 minutes, Sunday Mass is 40 minutes and Christmas and Easter High Mass are 80 minutes.

Because of the staggered rotations, more than 50% of WABC's music came from only 14 songs. A typical week would see two "adds" to and "drops" from the hit-list of 24. The dynamics of the short hit-list? The library took only about three months to morph.

(One WABC General Manager who resented Neal's real authority at the flagship station left New York for an extended time -- combining a national sales junket and a vacation at a tropical paradise. Returning tanned and fit to his desk and puffing up to show his territorial bladder, he accused Sklar of making unauthorized changes in music policy behind his back. The first rule for General Managers? "Know what you don't know.")

Like Three Card Monte, Sklar's hit-list continues to baffle many in programming who should know better. So simple -- yet excruciatingly difficult for many to comprehend. The message for managers? -- the shorter the list -- the higher the quality -- and the faster the turnover.

Rick Sklar died prematurely during routine surgery. He had climbed to the top of the programming ladder as national program director for the O&Os. Eventually he left ABC Radio to consult.

Although still alive the exact whereabouts of Bill Drake is unknown. After RKO General, Drake and Chenault started up a music syndication service that sold tapes to small-market stations. His last success was rejuvenating the oldies format at KRTH (FM) in LA, the town he once owned.

Radio is now dominated by a few mega-groups and Drake and Sklar are perceived as romantic figures like their fictional contemporaries Butch Cassady And The Sundance Kid. But their work has been passed along by word of mouth to a new generation. All successful commercial stations in 2004 -- Pop, Rock, Country, Urban, Oldies, News, Talk, Classical -- have KHJ and WABC roots.

And one can see coincidental similarities to Top 40 in the world of commerce: in supermarket shelves, in fast food chains, in discount stores, in entertainment ventures, in the stock market and on the internet.

It seems the only certainty about today's business environment is that competition shall become fiercer. In looking at their options -- particularly in the equipoise of product lines -- managers would benefit significantly by evaluating Drake and Sklar methods for their businesses: -- the shorter the list -- the higher the quality -- and the faster the turnover.


Bravos, Bob! Well done. So, dear reader, are you a fox or a hedgehog?

Should you want more Henabery may I recommend his 1966 analysis of KHJ and his 1967 memo to WRKO talent. Some perspective: RKO and ABC were arch-rivals, the West side high vs East side high of major market 60s and 70s Top 40 radio. It is significant to note Bob achieved amazing successes serving as an executive for both firms.
Please allow me to suggest that we take those actions required to properly honor Bill Drake and Rick Sklar. In a recent conversation with Bob Henabery he informed me that Drake and Sklar have yet to be inducted into the various and appropriate Halls of Fame. Again, thank you Bob for making the obvious clear. Let us all agree to contact the relevant nomination committees at the NAB and broadcast museums to make this happen.

Please let me encourage you to also consider including Bob Henabery and Claude Hall in your letters of nomination; can I get a second?

You will find Claude on the web here, his prose is served fresh each Monday, fiction, and commentary, always a fun read. Claude and Barbara Hall's landmark book, This Business of Radio Programming, is out of print but you may find a copy for sale here.

The exceptionally gifted Bobby Rich (mentioned above by Bob) may be found here, here and here. Time well spent.

May I suggest a visit to Woody Goulart's site, Boss Radio Forever, where you'll find a great collection of writings including Ron Jacobs' Birth of Boss Radio, here.

The legendary genius Ron Jacobs has a site, here. I recommend purchase of his outstanding book KHJ: Inside Boss Radio which is on offer at his site.

Allan Sniffen has created a WABC tribute site, Musicradio 77 WABC, you may visit his site here, Allan also presents a Rick Sklar feature which you may find here.

Thanks for reading. Your comments are always welcome here. You may contact me via my email available above in the left column.

Go for greatness.

Next up, the second in my series on the state and future of music radio. You may find the first in this series here.


Anonymous said...

In 1967 at 10 years of age, I called KHJ Radio and won the 93 hits for the year, I got boxes and boxes of Lp's and 45's.

Chris Costello

Anonymous said...

Reading this article shows of the intelligence that was once involved in this business. And I'm not speaking of just the principles in the article, but the author himself. Find someone in mass media today with close to those language skills. A pleasure to read.