Monday, May 22, 2006

REWIND TO THE GREAT AM STATIONS: PART 1

Most people passionate about radio have an all-time favorite station. Usually it’s one they grew up with. That station you’d listen to late at night under the covers. The station would paint pictures with the music and the magic that happened between the songs. Often it was a cinematic experience. True theater of the mind. It was for me. When I first started listening to radio I was amazed that the “fact” that the jingle singers would march into the studio every few minutes and sing the jingles…always perfect. Of course I later discovered that they were tapes, but it was fun while it lasted. That was just part of the experience. It was a soundtrack to life.
Mesmerizing. I feel bad for younger people today who may have first gotten turned on to radio during the 90’s—the consolidation era. Many have NEVER heard a “great” station. That’s probably a core reason why so may under 30 find the Internet or other technologies far more engaging than radio. I’ve run into 18 year olds who think radio sucks…always has…always will. I try to explain that XM isn’t the kind of radio they’re used to...but the point remains that they were born too late to know of radios potential magic.

My life changing station wasn’t WLS in Chicago where I grew up. WLS was a wonderful station, but to me nothing tops WQAM in Miami circa 1966. They had it all. We used to drive from Chicago to Miami on Holidays. You’d go through Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and every city has stations that reflected the character of the region. Make that same trip today and the local stations all tend to bind together into a very generic sound. But rewinding back to the mid sixties, the trip was capped by WQAM coming into range:

STAFF: You could feel the camaraderie. They were cool. I loved that they took their two local teen
idols-- Roby Yonge (later known as the populizer of the Paul is Dead rumor while on WABC) and Rick Shaw-- and “packaged” them together as the “Rick ‘n’ Roby”
show. I now believe they didn’t really know what they were doing as a station, but it worked. There was no research, just a keen understanding of what the audience wanted…and man, did they deliver. They were probably making 200 bucks a week…and probably a ton more from appearances…but that didn’t matter back then-- they were genuine stars.

THE COMPETITION: They murdered WFUN. WFUN had 20/20 news, so QAM had 20/20 Twin Spins. When the Beatles played Jacksonville, FUN rented a bus..then QAM came back with a fleet of buses…then FUN countered with a DC 7 Prop…QAM checkmated with a DC 8 Jet to take listeners there…it was that kind of battle…and WQAM always prevailed.

THE PRODUCTION: There was no more densely produced station on earth. It was Technicolor. You might here five pieces of production between two songs…but it worked. Short bits. Long jingles. Homemade stuff. They knew how to use production to manufacture excitement. It was riveting. They had this old device called a Mackenzie in the studio which allowed the DJ’s to rapid-fire production without loading tape cartridges. These DJ’s were master of the lost art of doing a SHOW, not a Shift. A machine gun barrage of sound that pulsated rather than rattled.

MUSIC: They had The Fabulous 56 Survey and they actually played all 56 songs. They were on the edge musically. The station was anchored in the hits, but the DJ’s had such cred that if they thought a new song was cool, you’d believe it…or at least listen and check it out. And they relished being first on songs…they SOLD that to listeners. Music was in their DNA and you could hear it.

THE STATON CAR: A blown-out GTO, of course, and it was actually driven around South Florida not parked in the back lot until a remote broadcast from a car dealer on a Saturday.

VIABILITY: They were everywhere. No Billboards or print…but they CREATED events. They had TIGERS’ DENS (They were “Tiger Radio”) around the area for dances…later in 68 they put on the legendary Miami pop Festival complete with George Harrison doing promos saying “maybe we’ll see you there” (they never showed). They seemed to avoid the goofy car wash remotes and focus on events that were in sync with the vibe of the era…Surfing Contests, for example.
They of course had their own magazine and their weekly music survey was available EVERYWHERE. It was the Bible of music in South Florida.

INTERACTION: They were masters at the phone. Requests...they even had high school stringers reporting on local school info. “Fortune Phone” was one of their premier contests…far before the resurgence of phone contesting in the 70’s & 80’s. By today’s standards the station was extremely cluttered...but again, it worked.

ANTICIPATON: You hated to tune out because you might miss SOMETHING. And they always delivered. The DJ’s seemed to have this telepathic rapport with the listeners. Spontaneous. Madness. Always ON IT.

CLICHES. They had every one in the book. But they INVENTED most of them!

WHAT HAPPENNED: Things unraveled for WQAM in the early 70’s. Most importantly, culture changed dramatically in the late 60’s: Moon landings, Drug Revolution, Sexual revolution. Riots in the streets, Viet Nam. WQAM was SO firmly rooted in the middle-60s Surf generation that they just couldn’t cut through. Add to that the emergence of FM, a new generation of artists that hardly identified with the WQAM era, and many unfortunate internal issues like a strike, firing their kingpin Rick Shaw, a haircut rule amongst the jocks and a management-forced deal where they had to wear these goofy blazers with a happy tiger on them to public appearances and a general losing of the vibe. OK in the Paul Revere and the Raiders era…kinda stupid in the Jimi Hendrix era. WQAM was one of the first Top 40s ever, a Todd Storz station. A guy credited, along with Gordon McLendon, with inventing the Top 40 format. My former partner Kent Burkhart was the original Program Director. Rumor has it that Top 40 was invented while sitting in a coffee shop, noticing that the patrons kept playing the same hit songs over and over—thus the “repeated play concept” aka Top 40. It was probably a bar. I can’t imagine sitting in a coffee shop all day. Anyways, WQAM dominated in the late 50s…then to cut costs they were probably the first popular station to automate. They died. Then they scrapped the automation in 63 in time for the Beatles invasion and in 64-68 they were untouchable. It seemed like an eternity, but to me that magic was a fleeting four-year spread. It shows how greatness is fleeting if you don’t work at it.

8 Comments:

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your comments every week. Grew up in Memphis listening to Dewey Phillips (Sam's brother or cousin, I forget) Wink Martindale also started in AM radio there. Those were the days.

 
At 11:48 PM, Anonymous Bob said...

Terry Young of Sixties on Six does a great job of recreating those old stations every Friday afternoon, using a mixture of jingles packages and old transcriptions. It's fantastic.

One thing I never noticed back then, but that sort of jumps out at you when you listen to these recreations, is that the jingles sound like they're firmly rooted in the fifties. I've yet to hear a jingle from that era that sounds anything like the music that was being played on the stations. Strange, but it all seemed to work.

 
At 1:05 AM, Anonymous Ron Stevens said...

Ditto the previous comments! I'm really enjoying your posts, Lee, and I also like Terry's Friday shows! I grew up in rural south Georgia, and radio for me really started at sundown, when I could hear WLS, WCFL, WOWO, and a station in Little Rock. It's just like you said, Lee...theater of the mind. Whenever I visited Atlanta, "Quixie in Dixie" was my favorite, and when weather conditions were good, I could hear "the Big Ape" in Jacksonville. I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience that "golden age" of radio.

Later, the "free-form" rock stations of the late '60s and early '70s also captured some of that magic for me...stations that played the 'long versions," along with soft-voiced announcers and sometimes background sound-effects. My favorites of those were WNEW in New York, KAAY in Little Rock, and a little station in Tallahassee called "The New Gulf" (WGLF) which used sound effects of ocean surf to lead in and out of the album cuts. oc. Lee, if there's any way that somebody could try something like this on XM, that would be outstanding! Thanks again for what all the good things you're doing there, Lee!

Ron

(Summerville, SC)

 
At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think part of the downfall of stations like WQAM was the change in the music the record companies were pushing in the early '70s as compared to the mid '60s? You didn't have Hendrix or Cream or even the Seeds or the Electric Prunes on the playlist in, say, 1973. You had Carole King and Jim Croce and the Carpenters. For harder rock, you had BTO or the turgid, art-rock sludge of EL&P and Yes. Even the soul was different -- you couldn't hit the top of the hour with the softer sounds of Al Green or the Stylistics the way you could with "Heat Wave" or "Bernadette." While there was a lot of very good music being made in the '70s, much of what was being sent to Top 40 radio sounded either very safe or very corporate.

Point being: Top 40 music changed, and there really wasn't a way for a Top 40 station to sound relevant anymore, at least not to the listeners who loved Top 40 in the mid '60s. The jocks at WRKO in Boston, for example, were just as creative, and the production was just as tight, but when you had "Hurting Each Other" and "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" on your playlist instead of "Psychotic Reaction" and "Purple Haze," nobody looking for hipness was going to listen to your station.

Howard

 
At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Bob Olhsson said...

Something that pretty much remains unmentioned is how critical jocks actually were to the quality of the music. They glued wildly different songs together into compelling radio. We listened through the songs we hated so we wouldn't miss what someone like Dick Biondi was about to do next.Along the way we ran into new music we loved but others probably didn't care for. Bob Dylan is doing exactly this.

The result was an immense diversity of music reaching the general public. Take away the jocks and you're left with the "tested" genre-flavored background music that dominates radio today.

I wanted to go into radio as a kid but ended up in the record business for 40 years. It's very gratifying that you seem to "get it." Hopefully the Wall Street crowd will give you enough of a budget to increase the number of star jocks you can develop on XM.

 
At 10:19 PM, Blogger scarrmn said...

Lee, I love reading your blog. I always learn a lot from you (just like I did working for you in Dallas). Keep up the good work!

 
At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Richard said...

Lee -- On a topic related to WQAM and Miami AM radio (I grew up there), were you the same Lee Abrams who was a DJ on a low-power progressive rock AM station in the Melbourne area many years ago? My memory from that era is sometimes a little fuzzy (can't imagine why!), but you (or the DJ in question) had many conversations about music and other subjects of the day.

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger Kent said...

Just found this old blog post in a Google search...I grew up on KXOK in St. Louis, and listened to WQAM on several vacations and then, in the '70's, when I re-located back to my native Florida.

I love these old stations so much that I have re-created them, complete with jingles, commercials, and audio clips from DJ's between great 60's songs.
Virtual WQAM is at http://www.live365.com/stations/560wqam and KXOK, complete with the definitive Johnny Rabbitt and his sidekick Bruno, is at http://www.live365.com/stations/flarrfan

Special thanks to Steven Geisler (WQAM...www.560.com) and Mike Anderson (KXOK...630kxok.stlmedia.net) for the generous permissions to use their vast jingle and aircheck collections.

 

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