Richard Nisley


The Animated Jukebox - Top 40 Radio
Pop Culture Released - Mar 23, 2014

Radio was on the way out, all but dead and buried. The major networks--NBC, CBS and the like--were selling off their affiliates left and right and moving into the Next Big Thing--television. All the advertising money and major talent was following their lead. Radio was relegated to the minor leagues of local broadcasting. In other words, radio was dead.

Or was it? While television was sinking its hooks into American culture, something began to happen in local radio around the country. In Cleveland, a disc jockey named Alan Freed was discovering a generation of white kids who couldn’t get enough “race music” (a.k.a. rhythm and blues). In Los Angeles, Hunter Hancock was making the same discovery.

At the same time, a program director named Todd Storz at KOWH Omaha noticed that people in the local diner kept punching up the same songs on the jukebox, over and over again. Even after the dinner crowd cleared out, the waitress punched up the same songs again. When he asked her why, she replied simply: “I like ‘em.” That gave Storz an idea. With the waitress’s help, he wrote down the titles of all the records they’d been hearing. Since the less popular records, although available in the box, had received not a single nickel, the list was short.

Storz returned to his station, instructed his DJs to dispense with playing their usual mix of pop, country, jazz, and classical, and to play only the songs on his list, with special emphasis on repeat playing of the ones at the top of the list. That way, anyone tuning in to KOWH at any time was liable to hear their favorite pop tunes. KOWH, which had been last in the ratings, rose to Omaha’s number one radio station.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, a program director named Gordon McLendon was making the same discovery. He expanded his station’s playlist to 40 tunes, added special promotions and jingles which he coupled with less talk and more music, and called the format “Top 40 Radio.” Ratings soared, advertising dollars poured in, and before long both Storz and McLendon bought more radio stations and expanded their concept into new cities. Other stations jumped on board, and within a few short years Top 40 Radio was a coast to coast phenomenon. With less air time to speak, disc jockeys were forced to talk faster and before long supercharged radio personalities like New York’s Murray the K were ruling the airways.

What Top 40 Radio did was make the industry democratic. Before, disc jockeys brought their own records to the station and played their personal favorites, whether it was jazz, country or adult contemporary. That changed with Top 40 Radio. Disc jockeys now played what was selling in record stores. Program directors collected the data, drew up weekly playlists, and DJ’s played songs from the playlist. Period.

In the beginning, Top 40 Radio had little to do with teens. It was simply disc jockeys following a tight playlist. Then, in 1956, Elvis Presley performed on television for the first time. His label, RCA Records, did the unprecedented by releasing five Presley singles all at once, which climbed to the top the charts and crowded out the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Perry Como, and Doris Day. At the same time, the “race music” played by Alan Freed (now in New York City) and Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles was cracking the Top 40 playlist. Teenage taste in music was determining the hits. Advertisers got the message and began redirecting their pitch to the growing teenage market.

Suddenly, radio was Big again. By 1960, the number-one stations in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles were all Top 40 and local DJs were the new stars of radio. One of them was Dick Clark, who also hosted a national television show from his home base in Philadelphia.

THE L.A. SCENE: FROM “COLOR RADIO” TO “BOSS RADIO”

In Los Angeles, where I grew up, there were three Top 40 Radio stations vying for number one. The men behind the stations were as slick as the best carnival barkers you’re likely to run across. They were Jack Kent Cook, who got his start selling encyclopedias door-to-door; Chuck Blore and Bill Drake, both failed DJs who became program directors to stay in the business.

The first to arrive in town was Chuck Blore, who installed his own brand of Top 40 at KFWB and dubbed it “Color Radio.” With vibrant on-air personalities like B. Mitchell Reid and Bill Balance, by 1958 KFWB was L.A.‘s number one station. Then, like some pied-piper going from city to city, Blore installed “Color Radio” at KEWB in San Francisco, KDWB in San Diego, and KMWB in Minneapolis, but L.A. remained his home base. Cashing in on his success, Blore opened his own advertising agency and became a millionaire.

Jack Kent Cook owned a number of radio stations in Canada. He arrived in Southern California in 1959 and bought a small radio station that played country music and catered to the farm community in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. He repositioned the broadcast towers toward the L.A. basin, upped the station’s output from 5000 to 50,000 watts, played the hits, and in no time KRLA was challenging crosstown rival KFWB for the number-one spot. His aggressive (and illegal) radio contests crossed the line and the FCC pulled his broadcasting license. Cook’s dream of owning a chain of U.S. radio stations ended there. He sold KRLA and bought the Los Angeles Lakers.

KRLA continued without Cook and by 1965 was the number-one station in Southern California. That was the year Bill Drake arrived in town. If Top 40 Radio seemed frantic at times, Drake made it more so. To play more music than rival stations, he shortened DJ patter between records to eight seconds, and cut record length to two-minutes. When Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys arrived at the station one afternoon with his newest single--”Good Vibrations”--the DJ working at the time said he couldn’t play it because at three-and-a-half minutes it was TOO LONG. In order to get permission, the DJ called the program director who in turn called Bill Drake (who was out on the golf course somewhere). Finally, back down the chain of command, Drake gave his blessing and the DJ was allowed to debut the Beach Boys’ next big single. With Robert W. Morgan anchoring the morning drive and the ever-frantic Real Don Steele anchoring the afternoon drive, “Boss Radio” KHJ surpassed KRLA within three months of taking the air.

As with Chuck Blore before him, Bill Drake spread “Boss Radio” from station to station, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to Detroit, Boston, Memphis, and finally to New York City. In every city “Boss Radio” took over the airwaves--except New York, where WABC and WMCA had the Top 40 market locked up. Why did it fail in New York? WABC DJ “Cousin Brucie” Morrow offered this explanation. “To me, what’s wrong with consultants (like Bill Drake) is that they’re strangers, they’re out-of-towners. They don’t understand New York. Every market has its individual spirit and feeling.”

THE RISE OF FM

With FM radio on the rise, by 1968 Bill Drake had more than New York to worry about. FM was “the Next Big Thing” and mirrored what was happening in the market place. Kids were no longer buying singles but albums, and FM radio was playing them. The industry was changing. FM DJ’s weren’t frantic ravers but calming voices who played entire albums without commercial interruption. With its wider frequencies, FM sounded better and could be heard in stereo. AM had no response, and innovators like Bill Drake knew it. They switched Top 40 from AM to FM but not with the success they had once enjoyed. Radio was still Big, but from 1970 onward, it was no longer ruled by the Top 40 format.

Now, some forty years later, Top 40 Radio continues, but like everything else in radio it has become a niche industry, catering to a small but dedicated group of listeners.

In his book “The Hits Just Keep on Coming,” published in 1999, author Ben Fong-Torres who grew up listening to KEWB in San Francisco, writes: “Top 40, I thought then, and now, can last forever--especially if people realize, as the format’s forefathers did, that teenagers and young adults want only a few things in life: a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, and, socially, a sense of what’s happening . . . and no matter the onslaught of changing technology and the resultant myriad entertainment choices, radio remains unique in its ability to cater to the local community.”

According to Fong-Torres, Top 40 Radio did as much or more to foster racial integration as any legislative act of Congress.

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