Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bill Drake and Radio, R.I.P.

Bummer, man.

Radio programming innovator Bill Drake died recently at the age of 71. Drake, along with his business partner Lester Chenault, created the top-40 format known as Boss Radio that took stations such as KHJ in Los Angeles, KGB in San Fransisco, and WOR-FM in New York to the top of the ratings. It was a music driven, hyper speed format designed to get you to listen, and to maximize ad revenue. Depending on your point of view, it was the dawning of a new day, or the beginning of a real drag.

The format hinged on the delicate blend of personality DJ's who could condense their patter down to the essentials - sell it during the eight second intro Petula Clark's "Downtown" and make sure your last syllable hits just before she sings "When" - power jingles, newscasts at 20 after and 20 'till, and MORE MUSIC. Fourteen or fifteen songs, compared to Station X down the dial where the jocks have diarrhea of the mouth and the newscaster sounds like Walter Cronkite played back at half-speed. Youth-driven, powered by the Beatlemania-fueled/psychedelic Motown sound of the 1960's, Boss radio was a product of its time. No sad songs from folkies on this station. Take your hootenanny somewhere else. You know in the deep recesses of the windmills of your mind that getting airplay on Boss stations was the real reason Dylan went electric.

But as groovy as this happening was, the Man was actually calling the shots. The jocks had a short leash. Keep it short, and no dead air, or else the Bat phone lights up. BUT, there were no liner cards.

Drake and Chenault had grasped a fundamental business reality of radio: economy of scale. Winning LA is great. But taking this gig nationwide is where the real bread is, baby. Step one: trademark "Boss Radio." Make it your brand, man. Don't let some square steal your idea in Cincinnati or Santa Fe and harsh your mellow. Then, you sell the format to stations around the country. Prepackaged, condensed radio. Just add water. You know, like that can of soup Warhol painted.

What's that? You're stuck sitting in your nowhereland, and the air talent is hard to come by, and the jocks you have just don't dig what you're puttin' down? No problem. You can buy the whole format in automation. Yeah. Just load those ten-inch reels of tape, load the jingles and spots on cartridges, punch in your commands, and before you can say, "Hal, open the pod bay doors," you're in the groove. And here's the best part: computers don't smoke pot in the studio.

Hey, don't get all uptight about this syndication jazz. Wolfman Jack says it's all personality. Yeah, but dig it, the Wolfman you hear in Cleveland is actually a vinyl record. Some high school kid is punching in a cart of Wolfie with the local call letters. But who cares? It sounds great, right? And there's always going to be room for good local air talent. It's not like someday the station managers are going to let radio stations just shovel the music at us and then dump a ten-unit, five-minute commercial break on us. Yeah. Like that could ever happen.

So, was Boss Radio the pinnacle of top-40 radio? Or was it the siren song that led to our destruction? Heavy. All I know is my CD changer and my MP3 player doesn't help any radio stations make money.

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