On The Radio Columns: November 2008 Archives

Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.

The thing we seem to talk about the most here on Michiguide.com is something we dislike the most and that's CHANGE. However, while the local terrestrial radio scene has been holding somewhat stable of late, the major alterations are coming in the next few days on the radio dial that you have to pay for, and that's the newly combined Sirius XM....and it ain't pretty.

Last month I spoke about how many people, once employed by the two companies, are now in one of the world's longest bread-lines. I find it amazing that a radio service, which unlike free over-the-air broadcasting, is willing to take the risk of losing customers due to what is always termed "business decisions." I recall when Tom Bender of Great Media here in Detroit switched classical WQRS-FM (105.1) to alternative rock WXDG-FM (The Edge). It angered many up-scale listeners who loved the classical fare, but Bender called it "a business decision," and it was. They needed to make more money than the classical format was generating...but the rock didn't work. For those with a good memory the morning show on The Edge was Spike and Sara who enjoyed much more success with MoJo in the Morning on Channel 955, WKQI. Spike is still there, Sara is now with Jay Towers and Bill McAllister at The Ticket, sports WXYT-FM (97.1). Sara's exit from WKQI too was a "business decision." The 105.1 frequency also tried "groovin' oldies" a black gold format as WGRV and that didn't work either. Today, it's WMGC and they finally found "The Magic." It takes a lot of time and patience for radio formats to take hold and actually work. These are two elements that are in short supply by both the listeners and broadcasting executives.

On or around November 15th, if you subscribe to either XM or Sirius, you can expect a lot of changes on your satellite radio dial. Many of your favorites will no longer be there, and even more likely, as we discussed last time, many of the on-air personalities will be gone. Most of you who read things on this site know the term "voice tracking" which is a means of knocking out a six hour radio show in about 30 or 40 minutes and having a computer put it all together as it is broadcasted. Many of the shows you hear, other than on talk radio, are tracked...especially on the weekend. Higher-priced air talent do not want to work weekends, so it's mostly all pre-recorded.

The thing that I have a big problem with, in radio, is why the most popular people are often sacrificed in the interest of the bottom line. The satcaster managers seem to be obsessed with "big names" even if they are not radio broadcasters. Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, Bob Dylan, and Martha Stewart all THINK they can do radio. Bill O'Reilly is another one, along with Dennis Miller, who thought he could do the wireless act. O'Reilly called his show the Radio Factor. Well, now Bill is calling it quits on radio. He will, however, continue his Fox News Channel TV show. Dennis Miller is on deck. Steve Martin said it years ago, "comedy ain't pretty" and I'll say it now, "radio ain't easy," especially GOOD radio.

We are blessed with a couple of excellent stations for news and talk listeners via WJR-AM (760) and WWJ-AM (950). Add to that mix 700 WLW in Cincinnati, arguably the best programmed news-talk station in the country...known now, as it once was 60 years ago, as "The Nation's Station" when it operated at a staggering 500,000 watts! It's been available on XM Channel 173, but not for much longer. The powers-to-be at Clear Channel, who owns "The Big One," will take it off satellite radio because they can make more money with other programming that they can sell advertising on.

One of the big draws to XM and Sirius was commercial-free music and entertainment. With Mel Karmazin at the helm, a natural-born salesman, I can guarantee you will hear more and more advertising on the pay radio channels.

What perplexes me the most is why they continue to pay Howard Stern $500 million and now they have just lured "Mad Dog" Russo away from sports WFAN in New York for well over a million bucks! Who, outside of New York, even knows who Russo is? But, since most of the ad dollars are placed out of agencies in Manhattan, Karmazin feels it was a good move. Think how many salaries could be paid with the money they've allotted to just one person. It's insane.

Since my last rant, the backlash has really boomed. Over 1,000 truckers have signed a petition to keep Country Dan Dixon, an Ann Arbor native, on the air. His last show is scheduled for November 14th on XM 10 America. That channel is (most likely) going away and will be re-assigned to another format. There's even a slick "Save Country Dan" web site and e-mails and letters are pouring in, but sadly management doesn't seem to care.

Matt the Cat, from the XM 50's channel is overwhelmed with the level of support he's been receiving. The jocks on the "new" 50's channel will probably be 100% voice-tracked by big names who have other jobs and do this for "extra money," since it's not a full-time job. Now, we just learned that Sirius has dumped the Doo Wop show on Wednesday nights hosted by T. J. Lubinsky. He produces all of the Doo Wop TV specials on PBS that originate at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh. His final show was peppered with callers from all over the country devastated by the news of his cancellation.

The only beautiful music/easy listening station available anywhere is XM's Channel 78 known as "Escape." It started as Channel 24 under the name "Sunny" and fortunately it has been saved, but will be moving from 78 down to Channel 28, currently known as "On Broadway," a channel that will probably be gone. So will dozens, if not thousands of satellite radio subscribers who are feeling as though no one in the front office seems to care about what we want to hear.

Quick Hits: Murray Gula, the home improvement guru from WXYZ-TV Channel 7 may be back on local radio again soon. When we know, you'll know ... Conservative talk radio hosts are delighted that Barack Obama won the White House, since it will afford them four years of material they wouldn't have had with a Republican as the president ... If my math is right, Dick Purtan's contract with WOMC is up for renewal on December 1st. If not, I'll be embarrassed, but I will get over it.

Art Vuolo has published the Radio Guide for more than 30 years and runs Vuolovideo.com. Contact him at artvuolo@aol.com.


Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.

He truly charged the face of Top 40 radio in the 1960's, when he decided that teens would rather hear "much more music" rather than lots of DJ chatter. Personally I thought he was killing "personality radio" which today is available primarily in morning drive or on talk stations....period.

His real name was Philip T. Yarbrough, but when he worked in Atlanta on WAKE, he chose the name Bill Drake to rhyme with the station's call letters. He really did represent myth and reality--a mix of rumors, contradictions and power. He lived 71 years and passed away last Saturday, November 29th of lung cancer in Los Angeles. Ironically, legendary radio local radio personality Tom Clay, who worked at CKLW prior to the "Drake format" when it was The Big 8, also died on the exact same day, the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, but that was back in 1995. It was a bad year for local losses. In 1995 we lost; Byron MacGregor (CKLW-WWJ-WLLZ) in January, Nick Arama (WOMC) in April, Fat Bob Taylor "The Singing Plumber" (WJR) in July, J. P. McCarthy (WJR) in August and Tom Clay (CKLW-W4) in November.

Another strange twist to this story is that two of the jocks out in Los Angeles who were popularized by Drake and his "shut up and play the hits" format were Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele, both of whom also died of lung cancer within a year of each other. Steele died August 5, 1997 and Morgan on May 22, 1998. Morgan's old shift today is handled by Gary Bryan and Steele has been succeeded by Shotgun Tom Kelly. Kelly always says that he succeeded Don because nobody can "replace" the Real Don Steele.

In early September 2004, L.A. oldies station K-Earth 101 (KRTH-FM) broadcast the legendary documentary "The History of Rock and Roll" with a rare interview with Bill Drake, in which he spoke of the importance of that famous radio format named "Boss Radio" which he developed at KHJ-AM back in 1965, "There were some people who thought they were quote 'personalities.' If somebody was a 'personality,' we said fine. Robert W. Morgan certainly was, as was The Real Don Steele. The thing is: Even they [Morgan and Steele] didn't have something to say every time. And they learned that. Do it when you got it and keep your mouth shut otherwise, and keep the forward momentum going. People tune in to hear the music."

In 2006, Drake said "The REAL key to radio programming, is what you DON'T play...Anybody can come up with a list of songs to play...those lists are everywhere...What to leave IN and what to leave OUT is the REAL secret...and few people have that gift." Those words are true to this day. He was called an "all-business bachelor" by Time magazine in 1968, and his power and influence was the subject of many trade magazines and the mainstream media.

It was often written that Bill Drake was the most powerful man in American radio. He was also the most powerful figure in American popular music. Record companies all depend on 'air play' to make their wares into hits. Drake said that he didn't play favorites...he programmed only records that the public wanted and that fit into his format.

The "real" Bill Drake--was a very tall, well-groomed, polite, Southern gentleman, unlike his well-crafted corporate persona. He played up his image as a "rock and roll radio recluse" with a telephone at his side which he used to place calls to the radio stations he consulted. At the radio stations, whenever the "hot line" lit up, it could strike fear into the hearts and souls of the employees who wondered, "What if that's Bill Drake calling me?" At many stations, that type of fear still prevails when the hot-line strobe light flashes!

Some people compared Bill Drake as the Howard Hughes of radio, powerful, strange, talented, hard-to-read, a bit eclectic and certainly mysterious. It was his tight format that made CKLW a North America radio dynasty back in 1967. We have lost many of the great programmers who made radio a hard to top entertainment medium.

Often I have wondered what some of these people, who were so good at what they did many years ago, would do today. Would their techniques work, would the ratings be as high, would the buzz on the street be as loud? Probably not. The world has changed radically. As the lyrics once stated "not even the song has remained the same."

Whether you agreed with what Bill Drake did for the Top 40 music radio scene or not, one cannot deny his impact on this business, which today, could certainly stand an injection of fresh new blood and creative ideas. Regardless what the future holds, one thing is certain, as Bill Drake would say....."Ladies and Gentlemen....the beat goes on!"







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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the On The Radio Columns category from November 2008.

On The Radio Columns: October 2008 is the previous archive.

On The Radio Columns: December 2008 is the next archive.

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