Monday Memo: “Hollywood,” Co-starring
AM Radio

| August 5, 2019

By Holland Cooke
Consultant

WARWICK, RI — This week Showcase Cinema at Warwick Mall is herding movie-goers into side-by-side theaters showing – at the same time – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood:” here.

Credits for “The Ninth Film From Quentin Tarantino” include Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, and (in his final performance) the late Luke Perry.  Those credits should also include the late, great 93KHJ.

“How we listened to the radio back then is different than the way we listen to the radio now.”

The story is set in 1969 Hollywood.  Director/screenwriter Tarantino grew up there, and recalled to Entertainment Weekly that “you kept it on one station.  You didn’t move around looking for songs.”

In Los Angeles Magazine, Alison Martino reports: “Tarantino and his longtime music supervisor, Mary Ramos, listened through 14 hours of original KHJ airchecks from 1969 to set the perfect tone…and the result is…well, a bit emotional.”  And her wistful column links to an audio montage of those classic Drake jingles and station promos: here

Although few of today’s corporate programming decision-makers were around when radio popped like that, guys my age who made the mojo recall it in a way that seems antique…until you see this movie demonstrate how “sticky” radio can be.

Camelot, twice.

For six heyday years when WPRO-AM/Providence was “The Station That Reaches The Beaches,” I did 7-midnight there.  And you didn’t need to bring a radio to hear us on the beach.  In 1974, PD Jay Clark hired me “JUST so I would stop calling” him, and schmoozing his protective secretary to pass-along my 5” reel.  It was a buyer’s market for on-air talent.  When I asked Jay, now consulting and coaching, where he finds local on-air talent these days, he chuckled “That’s a very, very, very good question.”

Fast-forward to 1994: I amused and horrified Washington-area acquaintances who only knew me as a WTOP or USA Today suit by reenacting my misspent youth doing weekends and vacations as “Washington’s Sixties SuperStation” WBIG-FM went from format flip to #1 P25-54 in 3 years.  Then-PD Steve Allan explains that “the philosophy was simple: create a contemporary sounding adult radio station that happened to play old songs. And the #1 emotion we traded in was fun.  Not funny – fun.  Every time you tuned-in, it had to sound like people were enjoying themselves while playing all those great tunes.”

For the same reason, WCBS-FM/New York is heard in every pizza joint in every borough.  Not because it’s re-enacting the Boss Jock/WABC MusicRadio/Wolfman Jack era; but – as night time DJ Dave Stewart puts it — “the presentation is still fun, but it’s also one-on-one and relatable.  Anything that makes the listener laugh or fist pump in agreement is a winner.  Building excitement never goes out of style.  The foundation of good programming has not changed; only the presentation has.”

FM is the new AM.

A dozen years ago at the Talkers’ annual conference, publisher Michael Harrison predicted that “Talk saved AM, and it will save FM.”

Jay Clark was WABC’s last music-format PD, and he foresaw the Talk flip as inevitable: “FM radio was trending younger, and AMs were not able to sustain as young music stations.”  From the opposite camera angle — at budding KMET/LA and WNEW-FM/NY, “the ‘un-Colas’ of radio” — Harrison recalls that the stations “didn’t play jingles, didn’t talk over the beginnings and ends of records, and didn’t talk down to young people.”  Michael says “we celebrated our ‘not number one’ status.  It was far more organic than formulaic.”  Although, eventually, “that changed with commercial success.”

Spoiler Alert: When you see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” stay for the credits.  You’ll hear KHJ do what Stewart aims to do every night on ‘CBS-FM, which begins by asking himself: “What happened in the world today that would bring joy or laughter to your best friend?  Go with that.  What are today’s young people doing that we middle-aged people also do?  Concerts, movies, theme parks, beach parties, etc.  Go with those.”  And don’t make the station sound like a museum: “We minimize content that makes people feel old. I won’t point out that Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’ was the #1 song 40 years ago today.  When I play it, I might say it was the #1 song on this day in 1979. The audience can do the math if they want to.  Make them feel alive, not old.”

“It’s official old buddy, I’m a has-been.”

DiCaprio describes his character as having “reached his expiration date culturally…he’s stuck in this rut,” not having made the medium-to-medium transition from television to film.  Modern day analogy: short-staffed radio stations struggling to produce meaningful digital content.

Los Angeles Magazine’s Martino remembers the moment when “an older friend told me, ‘AM is dead. It’s all about FM now.’  And that was the end of AM radio for me.  But the colossal impact of KHJ cannot be overstated.  AM radio WAS everything, and to some it provided the soundtrack of our lives.”

In the mid-seventies, Harrison’s R&R column predicted that KMET and KLOS would beat KHJ in the ratings before the end of the decade.  “Many people in the radio industry thought I had lost my objectivity, let alone my mind,” he winks, “however, I was right.”

RX for relevance?

As young listeners who grew-up without their parents’ broadcast radio habit now get their music from Alexa and Pandora and YouTube et al, can FM survive as a music appliance?  Not if it’s just an appliance, in Clark’s view: “Personality, targeted toward the market they’re in” is imperative.  To succeed, stations “can’t just be music per se.”

We remember FM fails when the deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were learned after afternoon drive.  Many music stations were in nighttime auto-pilot mode and sounded oblivious.  Clark says “you can’t have that happen.”  Although WBIG’s nickname was “Oldies 100,” Steve Allan recalls that “we broadcast the OJ verdict live.”

Now a research guy, Steve detects “fear that ‘talk’ is a PPM killer.  And it is if it is boring.”  But as his air staff understood, “being interesting, playing the right emotional notes will always get someone’s attention.”  And, to his ear, “reminding listeners about the station’s Alexa skill or the next text-to-win contest is ultimately meaningless.  People want to relate to people.”

Recently another consultant’s Facebook post invited applicants to apply for on-air work in “a very desirable market…please indicate if you’re applying to voice track or relocate.”  ‘CBS-FM’s Dave Stewart admits that, “unlike many old school jocks, I don’t loathe voice-tracking; I loathe BAD voice-tracking.  If you have compelling content, if you build excitement, if you talk about the things they care about, it won’t matter whether it’s live or voice-tracked.  But you can’t phone it in and expect the audience to get excited about the station. It doesn’t cost a penny to create FOMO, like KHJ did, it just takes a little effort.”

Back to the Future

Harrison reckons that “Boss Radio KHJ with its one-to-many approach (‘Ladies and gentlemen, you’re listening to…’) would be terribly out of step in the age of ear buds, podcasting and the current one-on-one radio attitude.  Radio today must create its own mojo that applies to current circumstances and sensibilities.”

Stations with the will to contemporize KHJ’s mojo better get on with it, given the recent fates of WPLJ and WRQX and similar inevitable implosions elsewhere that untenable corporate debt will force.

As Neil Diamond croons “Hawwwt August night…” you’ll be glad you spent one in the air-conditioned comfort of a movie theater; an experience which, like happy-sounding AM radio, is an anachronism.

Holland Cooke (HollandCooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet.  He is the author of “Holland Cooke: Greatest Hits” an instant download available exclusively from Talkers Books.  Click the ad banner on this page.  And he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show on RT America.  Read HC’s Monday Memo each week at Talkers.com, and follow him on Twitter @HollandCooke

 

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Category: Advice