Great Radio

Over the weekend one of my Jersey buds, Big Jay Sorensen sent me a Facebook message to say that he was going to do a shift Sunday night on WCBS-FM in New York as one of their "radio greats".

CBS-FM is my favorite terrestrial radio station so it doesn't take much to get me to listen and I was thrilled for Big Jay -- a yeoman radio guy who loves what he does. Jay has had some bumps in the road of late -- as a lot of my radio friends have -- but I knew he'd be a killer when he turned the mike on.

Great radio. A hot personality that wanted to entertain so much that it came through the speakers -- even on my Mac where I listened from out west.

Great jingles as always. Great voices. A great format. A local feel. Love of the music, artists and era. And, if I may say it -- fun. You couldn't help having fun listening in.

The music is challenging because CBS wanted to mix the 60's and 70's with the 80's -- a delicate balance to say the least. The Tokens and Heart in the same hour -- it's tough. But it isn't a deal breaker and the new CBS-FM format is attracting a younger audience and great ratings.

Once the bickering stops in New York over Arbitron's People Meter, I'll bet you CBS-FM is the number one station. It has returned to the market elite so they are close. It just needs a few more adjustments and they are there.

But this is more than just about CBS-FM -- a station that owes its rebirth to one person -- Dan Mason. You may remember the former CBS Radio President, Joel Hollander, saw fit to kill the format and the $40 million in annual billing that went along with it for "Jack" -- the station that plays what it wants. Well, Jack laid an egg in New York. Tough New Yorkers never bought into a station that didn't play what they wanted. Anyway, CBS-FM was loved. The listeners rightfully punished the company for leaving them without an oldies station.

I realized as I was listening to Big Jay that future generations will be robbed of their CBS-FM whatever that could have been. In the day, there were stations like WCBS-FM in every city. They were characterized by their ability to sell lots of records, loved the artists, cared about their audiences and had fun on the air.

You know I am not saying that the next generation should listen to CBS-FM. But the radio business got out of the radio business in the late 1980's when innovation became imitation and the idea became prevalent that teens would always be waiting to become the next 18-24s and then 25-54's.

This turned out to be wrong.

It's that mindset that became ingrained in the would be poobahs who eventually became today's radio CEOs -- the ones who hijacked a great industry and turned it into their own personal version of monopoly.

There are few Park Places left (CBS-FM is one).

They no longer can pass go and collect $200.

And I'm sure as hell not going to give any of them a "Get out of Jail" card. These shortsighted individuals are how we got into this mess in the first place.

Back to great radio.

Don't get me wrong. The students I came to know while teaching really don't want radio. They listen when they are in a car or when there is nothing else. It's like using toothpaste to them. It gets the job done but isn't something they live for.


I want them to have their own CBS-FM.

I want them to experience what it is like to have this seamless stream of all good things music, news, personality, contests, local involvement, love of artists and -- fun -- always on, always good.

And maybe -- just maybe -- there is a connection between the demise of radio as we are experiencing it today and consolidators' inability to invest in the product.

Today, there is only one entertainer in music radio -- and that's Ryan Seacrest. Two in talk radio. Rush and Hannity.

Okay, I kid. But you know what I'm saying.

The poor owners don't have the money to run a real radio station with live local personalities and all the goodies that people love. But wait. CBS isn't exactly going broke running CBS-FM in its reincarnation. Boy, it sure sounded good to hear them giving away $1,000 a day from now until Christmas. I know it's New York and they can afford it, but $1,o00 is chump change in the Big Town. Still, CBS has found ways to make good radio on a budget.

I have been fortunate to learn from some excellent programmers. One of them is Dick Carr who programmed and then later managed WIP in Philadelphia when it was the number one adult station for years. Dick does a great big bands special now -- and when I say great -- I mean the kind of show that my young students would like because production values are high and it is just that good.

When Dick Carr ran WIP he built the station into a monster on the back of personalities, the number one news operation in the city (better than the all-news station at the time), music that was right on target even without research and -- Cash Call.

Cash Call -- you know, every hour the jackpot goes up until a random phone call to the metropolitan area found a listener who knew the Cash Call total -- 2,459 dollars and sixty one cents. It was always 61 cents because the frequency was 610. His audience used to listen all the time so they knew the amount of the jackpot -- and the entertainment wasn't too shabby either.

Unlike the radio that followed, Cash Call was synonymous with WIP. No one could equal it because no one was committed to it as WIP was.

Dick Carr was smart enough to never drop the contest. It was always on. No listener got tired of it and winning money never went out of style. Today, Cash Call is when Citadel's Farid Suleman gets a call from his accountant in which he learns he'll be making $11 million a year as CEO.

Dick Carr's way was better for radio -- as subsequent events have proven.

But here's the killer.

One day, a competitor of Metromedia, then owner of WIP, bought a crummy little station called WPEN and decided to hire away as many WIP personalities as it could and go head to head.

They spent $60,000 on a jingle package that droned on about something to do with "Warm and Wonderful". It made you want to buy Depends -- and they didn't even make them back then.

There was WIP -- raided, exposed, up against a rival who was giving away bigger jackpots of cash in a similar contest -- this had to be the end.

But it wasn't.

Forget that WPEN's signal at 950 was quite inferior to WIP's with a clear channel 610 frequency. Unfortunately the tombstone of many a manager will be engraved with "here lies so and so who had a great radio career until he tried to turn a lousy signal into a great one".
But I digress.

With all that competition and all the billboards and promotion you would have thought WIP would be a goner.

Actually it was the other way around. Seems that adult listeners liked their WIP personalities on WIP. I learned then and forever more that radio is a joint venture between great personalities and a great radio station. One without the other is not possible.

Many others proved it along the way. Bill Drake. Ron Jacobs. Paul Drew. John Rook. Rick Sklar. Bill Tanner, Buzz Bennett, Jim Hilliard. Innovators like John Sebastian. Formatic experts like Todd Wallace. I could get carpel tunnel if I typed everyone's name. What a great problem to have.

Ever the student, I learned in the employ of Dick Carr that great radio was this marvelous mix of elements aimed at a target demographic -- in WIP's case -- adults.

Today, great radio is an exception, not the rule.

Personalities are not valued -- they are being systematically eliminated from their stations for budgetary reasons.

Contests -- you're kidding right? You think consolidators are going to give anything away. It wouldn't be accretive for the shareholders -- you know, the ones they stuck with 25 cent stock.

News -- stop tormenting me! There is no local news on too many radio stations. Shame on them -- listeners like local news.

Jingles, production values -- this industry is either too cheap or too sophisticated to think investing in these things is worth the expense. Foolish little control freaks.

Fun? You try having fun when almost every owner is in firing mode. Have fun when your PD is running three other stations and is barely qualified to program one? Or as one of my readers told me recently, he was doing mornings quite successfully and then his station fired the PD and told him to take the job -- with no experience. He didn't want it, but what could he do? Now, the ratings are in the toilet. A great morning jock -- not so good a PD.

I'm saying it took more than poor financial management on the part of today's radio CEOs to ruin a good thing.

But I never forget that what went wrong with radio happened long before consolidation. When you listen to a throwback to the golden age such as CBS-FM you realize how much we've lost.

There are many people in the industry who could have done whatever the next CBS-FM would have been for Gen Y. But they never got the chance. And the next generation never got their chance to hear what all the excitement was about.

Even WIP couldn't be killed off by a competitor. It died when listeners migrated to FM.

By the way, in case you're wondering -- how did Dick Carr position his outstanding radio station on and off the air?

It's simple. He just called it what it was.

Great Radio 610.

For those of you who would prefer to get Jerry's daily posts by email for free, please click here. IMPORTANT: First you must check your mail or spam filter to verify your subscription immediately after signing up before daily service can begin.
Thanks for forwarding my pieces to your friends and linking to your websites and boards.