Authors: Richard Neer
But Schmidt spoke up. “Sorry boss,” he said, “but that damn mic switch was sticking again. The kid thought it was on but I had to jiggle it to make proper contact.”
“Well damn it, have it fixed before the next sports report. Can’t you get anything right, Schmidt? Embarrass the poor guy on his first show with your incompetence. Actually, Dick, once you got going, you sounded pretty good. Are you busy at eleven? That’s our final sports wrap of the night.”
Schmidt had just performed the most courageous act I’d ever seen in person. He winked at me as we walked out of the office to grab a cup of coffee and said, “Don’t let that guy bug you. He yells at everybody.”
That’s how I learned radio—by doing it. I did sports for a couple of weeks and then a DJ position opened up. The elusive chief announcer was supposed to meet me before I went on and explain the guidelines, but he never arrived because he had a hot date that night. So I just went on and winged it, playing whatever I liked from the albums contained in the office filing cabinets. It was an eclectic mix, some light jazz, folk, rock, whatever they had. I started trying to imitate the Top Forty patter of the jocks I grew up listening to, but the style seemed unnatural to me. So as the show progressed, I toned it down, finding a comfortable level of conversation. My dorm roommate, George Yulis, stopped by to wish me well, and I invited him to join me. We talked as we did off the air, about girls, music, comedy, clothes, whatever we found relevant. We got absolutely no feedback from management about the show; we assumed they hadn’t listened. So we did it the same way the following week, and continued unsupervised throughout the semester. We didn’t call it free form at the time: We didn’t call it anything. We played album cuts, singles, comedy bits, whatever we felt like. I’m sure hundreds of other college kids were inventing their own kind of radio concurrently. The baby boomers were getting their first taste of a new kind of radio that spoke to them directly. It certainly wasn’t the hyped-up, commercialized pap we grew up with on the AM dial. Some FM stations were even attempting to duplicate this largely college phenomenon for profit.
In 1966, free-form radio was in its infancy on commercial airwaves. To understand what led to it becoming a dominant form of radio just a few years later, one must understand what came before.
Rock and Roll High School
It was all about fun, fun, fun till your daddy takes the T-bird away, or at least that’s what we thought growing up.
As the Beach Boys reverberated on low-fidelity AM radios in the early sixties, no one expected much more from the box. Most of the popular music of the early sixties was exceedingly forgettable. Recording artists rarely possessed much talent. The songs were written by others, often nine-to-fivers in New York’s Brill Building. Cigar-chomping promoters and managers discovered kids with pretty faces and molded them into stars, steering them toward the right songs, hiring tutors to improve their presentations, and arranging airplay or guest shots on influential television shows. The teen idols of the day were often as disposable as their music.
Those who endured did possess something special. Maybe it was the intelligence to foresee the inevitable decline in looks or the cruel whimsy of fad, and lay a foundation for a more substantial career. Perhaps it was a gut instinct for survival and an entrepreneurial ability to sense the next big thing. Or maybe it was truly a God-given gift, the ability to interpret a song and make it one’s own, translating a three-minute escape into an emotional experience fans could relate to. In a very few cases, it was the skill to express those sentiments without the middleman, giving birth to the singer-songwriter.
No matter what form it took, the music needed a forum to be heard and to be sold and radio provided that. When Martin Block began playing recordings in the thirties under the moniker
The Make-Believe Ballroom
on WNEW-AM, it opened a new era for the medium and the music. Previously, live entertainment ruled. Radio stations had house bands, or traveled to remote locations to bring the stars of the time into your living room. The ballroom was real: Audiences paid to be serenaded by Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. The announcer’s role was simply to present the artist, usually in sonorous tones, reading from prepared text. The script, enhanced by the imagination, served to transport the listener to the site, painting a “word picture” of an actual event. Block simply took it one step further: The event itself was imaginary, the ballroom existing only in his mind and in those of his audience. Instead of costly live remotes, one could just play records, and fill in the blanks with sound effects and lively banter. It was cost effective for the radio station, and ultimately beneficial to musicians, having to create the performance only once to gain national exposure, night and day.
With the coming of rock and roll, the basic formula was unchanged but stylistically light-years away.
music was presented became important, since the actual recorded content was the same. One couldn’t sign a band to play exclusively for one station or even one network—the material was there for all to play. Executives like Rick Sklar were charged with taking the same records that the guy across town had and convincing people that it was cooler to hear them on his station.
Sklar came to be known as the man who embodied all that was good and bad in Top Forty radio, as the new genre was soon named (because it was based on the forty top-selling records). Born and raised in New York City with a love for radio, Sklar responded to an ad in a trade publication and found himself working locally as a gofer at WINS. The station had just brought in the legendary Alan Freed, “King of the Moondogs,” from Cleveland to host a nightly rock and roll show. Some have given Freed credit for inventing the very term “rock and roll,” although that is in dispute. Sklar’s work ethic and promotional creativity saw him rise quickly to the post of assistant program director at WINS, sharing an office and ambitions with Freed. His résumé included a stop at WMGM, but he made his name at New York’s WABC, where he started as community affairs director in 1961 before becoming the program director in late 1963.
Sklar quickly learned three basic tenets that would sustain him throughout his lengthy broadcast career. First, he learned the value of promotion. Today it is common for radio stations to flood the television airwaves with commercials, heavily produced and/or featuring expensive celebrity endorsements. Sklar had no such budget available to him. In fact, the rise of television caused many to believe that radio was dying and not worth investing in. After all, why just listen when you can watch and listen simultaneously? So Rick Sklar had to come up with innovative ways to promote his product without spending a lot of money.
Second, his association with Alan Freed instructed him that a short playlist works better than a lengthy one. Although called Top Forty, the playlist was pared to fewer than twenty songs throughout much of his career. At one point, Sklar’s research told him that the audience didn’t want to hear anything more than three years old. Overnight, to the jocks’ chagrin, oldies disappeared. But even with a longer list, emphasis was always put on the seven or eight most popular songs. Rotations and clocks were designed to ensure that at peak listening times, the record would always be played, to the point where the number one record might be aired every forty minutes. Repetition, the bane of all who work in radio, was seen as a key to keeping an audience. An old saw goes, “Just when your jocks are getting sick of a record, the audience is just discovering it.”
The third cornerstone to Sklar’s success was to hire interesting personalities and give them some creative license. Like a football coach, a programmer must sketch out a framework of inviolate rules that apply to everyone, but allow room within the system for individual expression. Thus, when Sklar took over at WABC, Bruce Morrow was allowed to screech and bellow at night, while Dan Ingram delighted his afternoon audiences with racy double entendres and self-parody. Scott Muni was the music guru who respected artistry and lionized those who created the songs that were the mainstay of his early evening soirée. Diversity was encouraged as long as one executed Sklar’s mechanics flawlessly.
WABC’s success was largely a product of Sklar’s design, but sometimes plain old luck entered into the picture. As with any product, “ease of use” is something the consumer expects, and only notices in its absence. If a product isn’t simply and logically laid out, people gravitate toward one that is. In radio, this translates to dial position and signal strength, something a programmer can’t easily control. At 770, WABC enjoyed an easy-to-remember frequency and call letters. Along with the network engineers’ foresight in choosing an antenna height and location, the low dial position resulted in a strong signal that could easily be heard throughout the metropolitan area. Its reach was so powerful that longtime afternoon jock Dan Ingram once accurately quipped, “We’re only the fourteenth-highest-rated station . . . in Pittsburgh.” To add to the natural edge WABC had, Sklar believed in boosting the compression and equalization on the station to maximize the sound. They also used a slight echo when the DJs were on microphone to give them a more powerful presence.
Above and beyond having a great signal, a radio station needs to provide tangible reasons to tune to it over another. Why should I listen to WABC over WMCA or WINS? Sklar and his contemporaries had to gain an understanding of how the consumer mind works, especially the fickle minds of teenagers. Of necessity, it began with music. Clever promotions and entertaining disc jockeys aside, music comprises two thirds of the broadcast day. The selection of songs has to be right. Originally, this was the most important role of the disc jockey.
In the early days of rock radio on the AM band, broadcast companies were confounded by the new music. They didn’t understand the appeal of what was commonly refered to as “race music.” But the numbers didn’t lie—the music was selling to teenagers with disposable income and those same teens were glued to the radio, often on distant stations when local ones didn’t serve their needs. As a boy in Lynchburg, Virginia, I listened to the powerful signal of WABC booming in at night, and revered Scott Muni and Dan Ingram from four hundred miles away. It didn’t take long for every market to realize the economic windfall to be reaped by playing rock and roll on the radio. So they followed an age-old pattern: Find a successful disc jockey in a small market and pay him more to work in your bigger market. Listen to him, analyze the reasons for his success and either nurture him to greater heights or replace him with a cheaper model when you’ve replicated his act or he leaves of his own volition for a better job.
True originals might be copied but not duplicated. Just as many singers tried to be Elvis Presley, Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack were models for aspiring DJs. But the package was more than just the sound of their voices, or the quality of their humor. Much of it was not in the larynx, but in the ears. They knew a hit record upon first listen. One jock was even nicknamed “the man with the 45 rpm ears.” They understood what their audience wanted because they, unlike their corporate superiors, actually loved the music. They listened to it at home, in the car, in the office. They took pride in being the first to expose an artist that would go on to achieve greatness. They went to clubs to hear new bands. They gave struggling local acts spots on their live extravaganzas. Therefore, their selections weren’t based on what the audience said they wanted through research, but by what their guts told them to be right. They were trendsetters and taste
as opposed to followers. Whereas much of today’s punditry is based on polls, these pioneers knew on a visceral level what was great and what was fraudulent.
But with any sector where big money can be made, it follows the path of least resistance. Rather than earning success the old-fashioned way, by producing compelling records that couldn’t be ignored, record companies tried to cut corners by corrupting influential disc jockeys. This evolved into what came to be known as “payola,” a form of bribery that eventually destroyed freedom of choice on AM radio.
The theory was simple. More radio exposure = more sales. More sales = more airplay. The cycle repeats exponentially. Offering bribes to play music was nothing new. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, folk songwriters in the 1850s were paying to have their songs performed in concerts to increase sales of sheet music. It was a common practice of Gilbert and Sullivan to subsidize live performances of their work to ensure greater exposure. It got to be so accepted as the way business was done that record execs actually wrote checks to disc jockeys and kept records of their payments. When some states started passing laws against payola, checks gave way to cash.
Veteran promoters will regale you with stories of the evenings when they’d retreat to the studio of their favorite DJ—smoking cigars, playing cards, drinking beer, and swapping tales. Every so often, one of them would approach the jock with an ensleeved 45 rpm single.
“Maybe you’d like to play this one next. I think you’ll like it.”
Discreetly tucked into the sleeve was a crisp C note. One promoter tells of a new single that he got played five times in one three-hour show with a big New York personality. It cost him five hundred dollars. The next day the record sold ten thousand copies, for which he received a large bonus.
Some jocks thought that cash payments were a little too crass, not to mention a bit obvious. Word could get around, so payola became more subtle. “Cleans” is music biz terminology for shrink-wrapped, salable albums that could be quickly and easily redeemed for cash at a local record store. Services could be provided—trips, women, booze, whatever one’s particular preference happened to be.
The most ingeniously devious path lay in royalties. Listing a prominent jock’s mother on a songwriting credit might result in a royalty of a penny per copy. A million seller could be quite a payoff. If questioned, a record exec could say that he was a friend of the lady’s and that she had contributed a line or two that was better than the original.
The most widespread excuse given for payola was that everyone did it—it was accepted practice. However, the detail that gives the lie to that pretext is the secrecy in which most transactions were conducted, and the lengths to which most conspirators went to cover their tracks. If there is absolutely nothing wrong with an act, why hide it? And from whom?
All along, the music had enemies who thought that rock and roll was a corrupting influence on teenagers, and that disc jockeys who used code words for sexual activity were winking at promiscuity. Sadly, there was also a racial angle. Since many of the top artists and songwriters were black, white parents feared that their daughters would be driven by primitive rhythms into the beds of “savage Negroes,” to be ruined forever by the experience.
Most of rock’s opponents were from a generation tempered by war and economic depression, who just wanted a better life for their sons and daughters and feared losing them to this phantom evil. Some were just frightened of the unknown. The appeal of the music didn’t make sense to them. Lyrics were hard to fathom even when they could be heard over the din of the instruments. As Bob Dylan sang (quite clearly over only an acoustic guitar): “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’.”
There was also an economic reason for scuttling rock and roll. ASCAP, the longtime licensor of broadcast music on the radio, had failed to anticipate the popularity of rock. As a result, most of the new music was licensed to rival BMI. Since ASCAP considered rock a fad, anything that would hasten its demise would strengthen their hold on the music industry. Their powerful Washington lobby pressured a congressional subcommittee to probe “commercial bribery” in radio to derail BMI and restore ASCAP to its rightful place. Politicians capitalized by jumping on the bandwagon, because America was fascinated watching popular disc jockeys suffer on live television. The new medium gave the pols access to free publicity, and its power with voters was just beginning to be felt—witness the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Constituents could see their congressmen in action, fighting the evils that threatened the next generation.