BOOKS / Bob Simmons : Two on the American Radio Revolution

Dead Air and Early ’70s Radio:
The formatting revolution
in American radio

By Bob Simmons | The Rag Blog | January 26, 2012

Kim Simpson, author of Early ’70s Radio, and Jan Reid, editor of Bill Young’s Dead Air, will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guests on Rag Radio, Friday, January 27, 2012, 2-3 p.m. (CST), on KOOP 91-7-FM in Austin and streamed live to the world. They will discuss the American radio revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Rag Radio is rebroadcast on WFTE-FM in Scranton and Mt. Cobb, PA, Sunday at 10 a.m. (EST).

Dead Air: The rise and demise of music radio, by Bill Young, edited by Jan Reid. (CreateSpace, 2011); Paperback, 302 pp., $19.95.

Early ’70s Radio: The American Format Revolution, by Kim Simpson (New York: Continuum, 2011); Paperback, 288 pp., $32.95.

Two books about media, radio in particular, have recently been released for the public’s consideration: Kim Simpson’s Early 70’s Radio The American Format Revolution and Bill Young’s Dead Air: The rise and demise of music radio, edited by Jan Reid.

Both books cover roughly the same era of American radio broadcasting: the turbulent late 60’s and the decade of the 1970’s. Early 70’s Radio is more of a weighty cultural criticism full of well-researched information from those decades. Dead Air, on the other hand, is a personal memoir and first-hand tale from someone who fought in the trenches of the media war and lived.

If you’re a student of American media or cultural analysis of the period, then these books may be worth your time to explore.

For those too young to remember, or who need to be reminded, the 60’s and 70’s were times of tectonic shifts in American culture and society. You know, assassinations, Vietnam, black power, feminism, energy crises, impeachments, etc. It was a rockin’ time for sure. In the middle of it all, jockeying for position, or just to stay alive like Eliza on the Ice, was the medium of radio, trying to lead, hoping to follow, and to continue to be or become a key part of its listener’s lives.

In those days radio wanted to be, and perhaps was, a “social network” — before there was any concept of such a thing. Radio sought to be more than just a medium, radio wished to mediate the culture around it.

In the 60’s and 70’s, radio went wherever we went — in our cars, in our homes, at our work. Our little buddy was there, talking to us, playing the tunes that defined our hearts, blabbing about the navel lint of our lives, shocking us, informing us, and cajoling us to buy some product that likely as not we were better off without. Waterbeds! Hot tubs! A Mercury Montego!

That box was more than just another media choice. We didn’t have 500 channels of TV, we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have PDA’s and cell phones. We only had… that little radio and some guy sitting on top of an Astrodome or flagpole telling us what it was like. We could take it with us, in our car, to the beach, to the mountains, in our bedrooms at our most intimate moments. Radio could be there, defining us, refining us, and perhaps keeping us from the loneliness of just being alive in our skins.

A stupid disk jockey might irk us, please us, or maybe clue us in about an event that simply should not be missed. We could dial up our tastes — country, rock ‘n roll, hit music, the marischino strings, music and news from dusk till dawn — helping to release endorphins in our brain.

Mood elevators? Who needed Miltown or Prozac? We had K-Lite or K-Life or K-Whatthehell to keep us in the corral. Let it snow, let it snow I’ve got my radio to keep me warm. Radio made us feel like we belonged to something. It wasn’t a country club, it wasn’t a sorority or fraternity, but dammit, we belonged to… something. Good morning, sunshine… we’re here to getcha’ goin’. Looks like it’s gonna be breezy so wear a slip, OK?

Talk about pressure! As they used to say in Creem magazine: Boy Howdy!

Imagine what it must have been like to be the guy in charge of remaining relevant to an audience of some 20,000 people at any given moment, to do something to maintain your “cume” (your listening audience’s total numbers) of one or two hundred thousand people a week. Do you think you might feel a little, um, squeezed, a little apprehensive?

Pity the poor PD (Program Director) of a major city radio station. His DJ’s hate him, his manager beats him like a rented mule, the sales department thinks he is a tyrant and a stubborn jerk for not allowing some manufacturer of specialty latex products to be advertised on the air.

The league of decency is on the phone, the record promo men are in the hall with the latest directive and LP from Columbia’s Clive Davis. Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun says play this, or we break your legs. What is your weakness pal? You like girls? You like drugs? Money? As PD, you are the key to all their locks, and they are going to find a way to pick you.

Out there in the street are listeners who depend on you. They don’t know it, but they do. You’re the gatekeeper, you are the chef, you are the culture cop protecting them from inferior or bogus goods. You are the juggler trying to keep six things in the air: a chocolate cake, a running chainsaw, a medicine ball, your kid’s birthday, your wife’s anniversary.

David Bowie once sang, “It ain’t easy to go ahead when you’re goin’ down.” On top of all that was the fact that your audience was shifting and changing more than a woman looking at her closet before church.

Gordon McLendon on the air at KLIF in Dallas, 1948 / History of KLIF.

Top 40 or “All hit Radio” was the invention of a couple of guys, mainly one Todd Storz, who had noticed back in Omaha in 1955 or so, that people would put quarters in jukeboxes and play the same song over and over. People didn’t get tired of the song and move on. Listeners were getting some kind of rush from the repetition.

Storz had the revelation that most people don’t listen for more than an hour or two at a time. A radio station could repeat itself as much as it wanted. In fact, repetition was good, not bad, as had been thought before. People liked knowing what they were going to hear.

Hit radio was born and prospered like an army base hooker. This of course led to competition. But for years Storz and his buddy, Gordon McClendon, made millions on that simple idea.

Dead Air: The rise and demise of music radio is about Bill Young’s experience from inside that radio circus — from its rosy innocence in 1955 to the days of deepening cynical market research in the late 70’s and beyond. Young worked the wheelhouse of a couple of Gordon McClendon’s flagship stations in Dallas and Houston, leading them to top ratings and helping to maintain McClendon’s fortunes, until the day the music, or more accurately, the music machine, began to cough, sputter, and spit parts out on the highway.

Call it a challenge? I think so.

Once the format was discovered in 1955, radio operators had it pretty easy until the late 60’s and early 70’s when Americans began to evolve into walled off cells of opinion, class, and age. Marketers who kept their fingers on the pulse of the tastes and desires of the public noted with great interest the erosion of our “one nation indivisible under God” into increasingly distinct demographic and psychographic profiles. Market consultants and psychiatrists started testing “consumers” from behind one-way glass to try to figure it out.

The teenagers were coming of age. That wise guy Bugs Bunny was growing a beard, smoking pot, and singing, “I ain’t marching any more.” The kids that had liked Mickey were now on a C-131 headed for Nam. Black guys who had watched the news from Birmingham in the 60’s were wearing berets and saying things like, “By any means necessary.”

Pity the poor radio stations trying to figure out where their audiences were going. Again, “Boy howdy.”

By the late 70’s it was estimated that over 100 different radio “formats” had evolved. It had Bill Young scratching his head along with several hundred other radio programmers and tipsters around the country. What the hell should I play? To whom am I playing it? Teens, young adults, housewives?

Dead Air is a self-published work edited by historian, novelist, journalist Jan Reid, and is the story of Bill Young’s relationship with hit radio in Texas at Houston’s KILT, Dallas’ KLIF, Waco’s WACO, etc., and the myriad of people with whom he came in contact. Personal saga time.

You know the plot line. Youthful yearning hick shows up on doorstep of local East Texas radio station, and uses wits and pluck to work his way up to… Waco. And from then on folks, it’s all history. Bright lights, big city. Houston, Dallas, um, Tyler.

This is not to denigrate those accomplishments, given that succeeding in popular radio, whether in Mid-America or on the more sophisticated East or West Coasts, was akin to scaling icy mountains or driving in a Grand Prix race where all the cars were driven by psychotics who would just as soon run into you as win the race. Becoming a success in Top 40 was not easy for the men at the top, middle, or bottom.

Bill Young gives us a taste of what that long-gone world was like, a whiff from the inside of the glass-windowed rooms where the mics were live and the air had better not be “dead.” Young was behind the mic in Dallas the day they killed the President, he was on stage when the Rolling Stones wondered if they should flip their cigarette butts at the audience before they started playing. He crawled atop the Astrodome as his deejay pal finished his 400th hour living up there.

It might be said that Dead Air‘s virtues are also its limitations. As a personal memoir it is a success; as an inside history of the game, it works too; but as a book for the reader who is trying to understand media and its relationship to the broader culture, well, don’t look for much of that here, folks.

A lot of Dead Air is a list of names who are only familiar to people from within “the industry” whose careers were important to trade publications like Billboard, Cashbox, and Advertising Age. Sure, some were hometown hero DJ’s to teenaged listeners. But the other names like Bill Drake, Buzz Bennett, Bill Stewart, Don Keyes, Claude Hall? Who they?

Radio cognoscenti know them; most people though, didn’t then, and still don’t. Fame is so fickle, especially in the world of pop music and radio. Who remembers Jobriath, David Blue, Frankie Ford, Nervous Norvus? One of these days no one will know who Howard Stern was. Praise Jesus!

KILT disc jockeys. Bill Young is second from left.

It was said by someone somewhen, that radio was/is the bottom rung of the show business ladder, and one wishes in a way that Dead Air covered a bit more of the “up-close-and-personal” of what it was like to be a deejay at the time. You know, the “cleaning up after the elephants” stuff.

Maybe Bill Young should have included some vignettes of what it was like to “work in the window,” with the DJ on display as listeners drove past the studios, where DJ’s might be threatened with a stick of dynamite, or had to worry about someone taking a pot shot at them?

A portrait here and there of the radio guy who lived with a U-haul trailer on reserve for the day when he would be transferred to another city or be fired and forced to move from Oklahoma City to Detroit inside of two weeks. DJ’s? Born to be fired. (Radio bums!)

Or maybe a story about the vicious RKO Radio program director who installed sun lamps in the studio so that when an announcer wasn’t up to snuff he could turn the lamps on remotely to make him sweat. At the end of the week, the DJ with the best tan was on the shitlist.

Or saddest of all, maybe something about all the losers who forewent college to be in the “entertainment business” and found themselves burned out and tossed out of media at the ripe old age of 40 with a taste for the fast life and no skills to back it up? Being a deejay might have offered brief fame, but for many it was a one way ticket to Palookaville. Mama told you not to join the circus.

Young talks a bit about the development of innovations like hot clocks, stop sets, day-parting of music, limited rotation, “jingle packages,” etc., which may be of some interest to media junkies, but in the long run were only about how thick or thin to slice the baloney and still make people think they were getting a sandwich. Just how many ways could one devise to play the same 30 records anyway?

Flagpole sitting DJs might promote the call letters of the station so their station would be remembered in the listener surveys and make a strong showing in Pulse or the Arbitron ratings, but they made the real rubber meet the road by simply playing the artists who were the rage of the moment.

Picking hits with a tip sheet and sales charts? Could Donald Duck have done it as well? Who knows? But when it came to self-promotion and log rolling, the guys mentioned in Young’s world were tops. And that programmer who came up with a new innovation about how to arrange a limited play list of 30 hits and a hundred oldies in some new manner? He was the “genius” of the month… Ok, ok, of the year?

Big bucks would be dangled by one of several radio group owners. Gordon McClendon, Todd Storz, Don Burden, and the others would hire this “programmer of the year” or subscribe to the tip sheet that seemed to offer insight into which way the ever-skittish crowd would respond to certain sounds.

Advertising fortunes rode on being right. Pimple cream merchants and Ford dealers waited for the ratings to offer the big payoff to the stations that could pick the ponies. “I want men, 18-34 goddammit. I want housewives who like those Saturday sales. We’ve rented balloons and searchlights, some people better show up or it’s your ass.”

But Young does make a good argument that the showcase for the music counted for something. The frame around the picture made the music more important, and since this was his world, one should not expect that he would not emphasize that.

And a wild bunch some of those handmaids to the music were. What a gang of cut-ups! Setting each other’s news copy on fire while on the air! Ha ha. And consorting with record promo men who wanted to (gasp!) give them money to play records! Never mind that Nixon was being impeached, or that Jimmy Smith from down the street just got his ass shot off in Veetnam.

One can’t help but notice from the blurbs on the back of the book that the same cast of mutual backslappers is still at it. Kent Burkhart, Chuck Blore, Ron Alexenburg, Sonny Melendrez all have comments about this book “written by a radio legend.” These guys could promote a dust bunny from under your bed. Of course it would have to be a “good” dust bunny. In fact a dust bunny with legs! “This dust bunny is breaking wide at 18 with a bullet. Got your finger on my trigger, now pull it.” Those guys are going to be promoting each other’s coffins.

Always lurking in the background of Young’s story is the doppelganger image of Herb Tarlek — with his plaid jacket and white tasseled shoes — from WKRP in Cincinnati, anxious to promote turkey giveaways dropped from helicopters like bombs in a parking lot at the A and Poo Feed Store. But admit it, if you liked WKRP, you liked Herb Tarlek (played by Frank Bonner.) “I swear, I thought turkeys could fly!”

Herb Tarlek of WKRP in Cincinnati, played by Frank Bonner.

While reading Young, the older reader’s mind wanders back to the time of the dreaded teenagers to whom the radio dial had been abandoned while mom and dad watched the glowing tube in the main rooms of the house. Junior and Missy retired to their rooms to listen to Danny and the Juniors, Earth Angel, and Connie Francis, germinating their own world that would eventually lead to the fragmenting of both the culture and the audiences into worlds that not even the most statistically minded sociologists could predict. (Think Married With Children.)

England? The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan? What would those voices mean to someone who was playing the music of Leslie Gore, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to?”

But Bill Young was there, caught in the middle of it, “too cool for the room, too square to be rare,” helming one of Gordon McClendon’s ships-of-the-line through the stormy media waters. “You may fire when ready, Gridley. Damn the torpedos.” Don’t worry about that FM program director Tom Donahue declaring in Rolling Stone that, “Top 40 is dead and its rotting corpse is stinking up the airways.”

And it did take another five years to die and for the culture to morph into Disco, Contemporary Hit Radio, Middle of the Road, AOR, Urban, Country, and News/Talkers, and all their subgenres. It also took an assassination of a president, his brother, and a civil rights giant, a horrible and unjust war, the popularization and mass use of drugs (both legal and illegal), the rise of FM radio, LP records, and cable television to split the listenerships into microsegments that became an advertiser’s nightmare of demographics, psychographics, and statistical weighting.

Bill Young was there and lived to tell the tale for students of mid-America, mid-century, and media-as-a-message. If that stuff interests you, then dig right in.

Working the same fields, but plowing much more refined furrows, is the book by Kim Simpson, Early 70’s Radio The American Format Revolution.

Simpson, also a musician and a host of folk music shows on Austin’s KUT and KOOP, is from a different generation than Bill Young, and approaches the period as a historian and studious cultural critic. Born in 1969, Simpson experiences the 70’s mainly as research first begun in his dad’s stashed archives of old Billboards, Cash Boxes, and Record Worlds. Curiosity led him further.

He was fascinated by the genesis of the idea of “formatting” — that is, the process of trying to design a medium to fit the perceived preferences of a preselected “target audience.” It was an idea that was in its complete infancy in the early 70’s, and Simpson thought that he could follow its development and demonstrate that a study of “hit radio formats” could provide a unique and useful means for examining and understanding the period and the culture as a whole.

In Simpson’s words:

Radio historians, having recognized the early 70’s as a watershed in the medium’s history, refer to the era as the “format explosion,” the “crossover explosion” or the “FM revolution,” among similar descriptions. These all fit the bill — if commercial radio’s format offerings numbered in the single digits at the beginning of the decade, they had multiplied, according to a Broadcasting magazine tally, to an industry-wide cornucopia of 133 formats by the end of the decade, all but six of which could be classified as “Popular music” in one sense or another.

[….] the radio business’s formatting efforts were a cultural phenomenon that mirrored the identity issues with which the nation as a whole, had been grappling. It was no mere coincidence that this change in the radio landscape toward audience segmentation occurred in a period rife with heated politics, identity anxiety, and social fragmentation amid a steady stream of large scale disappointments and chronically insoluble social problems (Vietnam, OPEC, Inflation, and Watergate to name just a few).

In this light, commercial music radio formats, however industry driven, served two cultural functions, both of which appear as recurring themes throughout this book: (1) they provided a means whereby radio listeners could reimagine and renegotiate identity be it their own or another’s; and (2) the formats acted as coping mechanisms. For example, they could serve as escape hatches through which radio listeners might opt out of the social turmoil and anxieties of the day, while functioning for others as well-defined identity headquarters that offered meaning and resolve in equal measures to their corresponding demographics.

“Boy Howdy!” Once again, you just said a mouthful.

Well, is/was it true? Is that what music radio formatting was/is all about? Bubblegum, heavy metal, folk-rock, singer-songwriters, jazz, country, light-country, mellow, elevator music, classical, AOR, AAOR, MOR, Urban, Quiet Storms, Indie/College, Bluegrass, and so on through the spectrum of bins at your local music store? What the hell does all that mean? What do those tea leaves mean, Gypsy woman?

Well bless Mr. Simpson, he tries to make heads or tails of this ball of confusion of cultural demarcation. Genre’s, sub-genre’s, incongruent glops of cross-referential music emerging from the variety of eras and socioeconomic partitions, divided by race, culture, age, background, geography, and whatever other cultural identifiers offered for a lost people to grasp to find a sense of themselves.

Once, in Bill Young’s day — what Simpson (and others) call the days of “Unformatted Innocence” — radio and other media were broadcast out over the broad waters of the American landscape as though there was one body with one set of ears.

In the early 70’s, right about the same time people started recognizing the significance of Marshall McCluhan’s Understanding Media, the advertising world and the broadcasting world, moving in lockstep, recognized that the stuff they used to do was hopelessly naive and ineffective in reaching the people they wanted to motivate to do the things they wanted them to do. And what they wanted was for people to buy products, not to mention to buy the products that were luring them to buy more products.

(One of the great ironies of music radio was that probably the most salient merchandise that they were selling was not the “products” they were advertising with the “commercial spots,” but was the very program material they were playing on the air. The recordings from the major and minor labels were ads for themselves! This hasn’t changed a bit and continues to this day unabated.)

No wonder the major record companies vied so heavily for airplay. Their “product” was being used to advertise itself. The promo men from Atlantic, CBS, Warner Brothers, and from Hi, and Sarg, London, and from the local one-stop distributor lined up at the radio programmer’s door. “Pleeeze, play my record.”

And if the product was good, and was played in the right way, to the right audience, then listeners would tune in, and the station could sell more actual advertising to local merchants and manufacturers of goods and services. Maybe it was as the Marquis de Sade who once said, “All of them engaged in happy mutual robbery.”

Pity the poor programmer who had to negotiate among all these competing interests. (Wait, is that a spot or a song? Are they selling “Lady Came from Baltimore” or Lady Schick Razors? How do you know? Is the DJ talking to me, or selling me something?)

And pity the poor cultural critic who has to parse this into its constituent pieces. Boy howdy!

Progressive radio pioneer Tom Donahue. Image from Bay Area Radio.

So there goes Kim Simpson with his fine book, to make his contribution to the understanding of media and of pop culture. Watching Scotty Grow, Soul Crisis and Crossover, MOR and Soft Rock, Casey Kasem, Robert Plant, Country Music, oh hell, it’s all here.

I am here to warn you, this book is not light reading. It is deeply researched, it is thoughtful, it is rich with facts and insights of both Simpson’s and of the ideas from the source material.

Since he is doing his work from archives, from studies, and from interviews with the personalities of the times, he occasionally makes an error. He talks about the original FM revolution which ostensibly started in San Francisco, where he gives credit to Tom Donahue for “owning” the first “underground” FM station, KMPX. Simpson missed the fact that Donahue owned nothing and went on strike with his staff against the station owner who refused to share in the new gold mine that Tom and his rag-tag staff were creating.

But Simpson bravely wades into the fray. He covers every aspect of the culture — feminism, religious broadcasting, news, racism in media — from Olivia Newton-John to Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath to Merle Haggard. He studies all of the musical genres that are covered by bellwether artists and tries to give context and meaning about how they fit into the wider culture. It is a staggeringly difficult thing to do, but somehow he seems to pull it off.

And what does he predict from all this? More of the same of course. (Satellite radio, mood oriented. Terrestial radio, demographic oriented — but radio still needed, ostensibly for its “communal listening experience.”) But in further fragments and segments, maybe even a segment that goes back to the unformatted innocence of music that is incongruously served up as a bunch of this and that. Only in a highly segmented spectrum could an unsegmented format be included. It’s full circle time.

And all of it exists and continues to morph because of the wild multiplication of technical media delivery systems. Cable, Internet, over-the-air FM and AM, TV carriers and sub-carriers, satellite radio like Sirius, ad infinitum. Anyone need an all-Dolly Parton station? Technical change allows, nay, demands cultural change. Napster becomes Pandora, Pandora becomes Spotify. Next please! Everybody into the ditch!

So, Dead Air, and Early 70’s Radio. Both recommended for people who like this kind of stuff. But as they said about the Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf: “Not for Everybody.”

[Bob Simmons has been a radio producer and personality, oil biz entrepreneur, video maker, voice talent, construction worker, newspaper publisher, writer, and sports editor. Simmons has a storied career in radio, where he was a pioneer in the underground format, and has been a producer and personality at legendary stations — including KUT, KPFA, KSAN, KKSN, and KFAT — in places like San Francisco, Austin, and Portland. Read more articles by Bob Simmons on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to BOOKS / Bob Simmons : Two on the American Radio Revolution

  1. Kim Simpson says:

    Now it’s my turn to say “Boy Howdy!” It’s an honor, albeit of the knee-quivering variety, to see that my book has gotten the Rag treatment, especially from Bob Simmons. “Thank you very much,” as a noted Southerner once said. And yes, you’ve poked your index finger into one of the book’s tender spots, which is the appearance of the word “purchased,” which slipped past censors in reference to Donahue’s involvement in KMPX. This, naturally, implies that Donahue and Leon Crosby were one and the same, which is, naturally, not so. My understanding that Donahue first attempted to purchase overnight hours at the station (which were eventually handed over to him outright, right?) is the likely source of the P word’s errant and unfortunate appearance in the book’s early drafts. The staff regrets the error. (It also shakes its head and harrumphs over it.)

  2. Bill Young says:

    Thorn, thank you for the discussions of my book "Dead Air -The Rise & Demise of Music Radio" in yesterday's program, but most of all for the wonderful conversation and depth of understanding you, Kim and Jan brought to the party. Having spent a lifetime in this business, it's rewarding to know that those of us who 'lived the life' are still remembered.

  3. Thanks, Bill. And for anyone who missed the Rag Radio show with Kim Simpson, Jan Reid, and Bob Simmons, you can listen to the podcast here:

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