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.