Why Bill Drake Still Matters

I've been trying to get out of the habit of looking at my email after midnight, but I had a lapse early Sunday morning. I'm sorry I looked.

John Rook thoughtfully emailed his legion of followers that we had lost the legendary radio programmer Bill Drake (Phil Yarbrough) to lung cancer at the age of 71.

It couldn't be.

Bill Drake was in his thirties, wasn't he? Or was that just the way some of us will always think of him. I still remember my first meeting with him in Philadelphia when he drew a few hot clocks for me over lunch. He was great at hot clocks and a lot of other things that made for good radio.

Bill was thinking of getting back into radio again -- was even toying with a new format.

It's radio's loss -- again.

Todd Storz, Gordon McLendon and Bill Drake -- in my opinion -- led what I call the second golden age of radio -- after the advent of television. Each made major contributions to radio's comeback, but it is Bill Drake who takes with him the answers that radio should be searching for today -- how to make radio appealing again.

It's all there -- if the current owners care to look.

Bill Drake and the Drake format touched many of us -- programmers, talent, owners. I became conversant with the Drake way when I worked as a young man for Paul Drew, arguably once one of Bill Drake's great technicians.

The entire Drake format fits double-spaced on fewer than five pages. Paul Drew used to write our names on the five pages just in case we got the idea of copying it. I was so intimidated by "Chief" (as I called Paul) that I would never copy the format. I inherited Paul's files when I followed him as a PD at a Philadelphia radio station years later and got my copy back (with my air name on every page).

To have a format that can be embraced by air talent, make it easy to understand and logical to follow.

I've seen what passes for formatic leadership today and there is no wonder why what's left of air talent has a different mission for every shift.

Drake always showed respect for the listener. Who else would have personally cut station IDs that started with "... And now, ladies and gentlemen, Gary Mitchell".

These were youth-oriented radio stations. Perhaps it wasn't cool -- or in the day, hip -- to refer to teenagers as ladies and gentlemen, but as Dale Carnegie always said, "give a person a reputation to live up to".

Respecting the music was also major. We owe Drake for getting overly loquacious jocks off the vocals -- on both the intros or on the back sells. Listen in any market now and see how far adrift jocks have come. In focus groups over the years -- again and again -- listeners say, stay off the vocals. Drake institutionalized that respect. You wouldn't last as a Drake jock if you violated the rule.

Respect for the audience

Today consolidated radio can be summed up by using Clear Channel's own favorite phrase "less is more".

Drake gave just enough to make every 15 minutes work -- totally self-contained. In other words, he carefully and thoughtfully placed more formatic elements in just the right amount of time.

Uptempo records after the station break which, after all, is and was the signature of the station's identity. Jock logos following the break (and also in the odd quarter hours). The dj's name sung by Johnny Mann singers with station business, oneliners, being done in the personality of the jock.

Contests that were exciting.

Double goldens (two oldies in a row). Remember, this was before oldies stations. Drake respected the past and found a place for former hits by including oldies in a hit format, features like "Years Ago Today" where Drake himself voiced the setup using a crashing tympani.

Million Dollar Weekends.

Every other song an "oldie" -- to shorten the wear and tear on a top 30 playlist over the weekend when listening time increased.


A nice percentage of new music added each week -- what a revelation to stations these days that seem to have forgotten how important new music is to a hit radio station.

Lots of entertainment built reliably into the hot clock.

Drake also had the right idea then and now for what to do with commercials.

He limited them to 12 an hour in morning drive and during his glory days, it was one unit per stop set. The idea of running six or more minutes of commercials together was someone else's bad idea, not Drakes.

When I asked my students at USC a few years back what the right number of commercials would be assuming they would listen to radio (which they were reluctant to do), they couldn't agree on the total number but did believe Drake was right -- one commercial, back to the music. Another commercial, back to the music. A third commercial, back to the music. And then music sweeps around the quarter hours -- with no commercials. The length of the commercial, by the way, didn't matter to them.

The right number of commercials per stop set is -- one unit.

Drake knew that promising "More Music", which was his thing, would only work if it was "More Music" all the time. Not just after ten minutes of commercials in a row. If a Drake hour had only four commercial units, the music sweeps got bigger without making listeners pay for it with bloated stop sets elsewhere in the hour.

Drake paid a price for this inflexibility later when greedy owners wanted to stuff as much revenue as they could into his hours. He eventually walked away. Of course, Drake was right here, too.

It's better to raise the rates than the commercial load.

One would think that because the format was tight, with very strict rules of engagement for djs, that it would be bland and without personality.

Bland and without personality is today's voice tracking. Not the Drake format done right.

If you have never heard Robert W. Morgan or Charlie Tuna, then you can't fully grasp how great talented personalities sound when they work within this magical format. Drake was a personality format after all. It was the antidote for sloppiness that set into music radio by the early to mid-60's.

If Drake hadn't come along, radio might have lost its golden encore.

Personality radio works best within a well-defined format.

Of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Stations all over the country, in every genre, began adopting Drake formatics. Sometimes they failed, because their PDs failed to understand them. Other times, these format elements enhanced great radio stations.

In Philadelphia, Jim Hilliard, Lee Sherwood and the great Jay Cook did their version of Drake which was pretty true to the best elements of the format. WFIL was a mega station for a long, long time.

To give you an idea of how well Drake formatics worked in such a tight environment, morning show legend Dr. Don Rose was not exempt from keeping his mouth shut. I still can hear him coming out of a record, doing the call letters, time, temperature (a sound effect for his "cow" Lula Belle) and Rose saying this -- "I used to go out with a girl with a wooden leg but her parents made us break it off".

Bang. Into a commercial.

Joe McCoy, a Drake PD, led WCBS-FM, New York to several decades of dominance in the oldies format. McCoy knew what he was doing. He knew how to implement it. Cousin Brucie, who was an icon from his less structured days at WABC, never sounded better than he did working for McCoy using Drake formatics.

I consider myself lucky to be called a Drake PD although it wasn't always a compliment. Remember that sales manager I worked with called "the Snake"? He wanted me and the format out the door. His answer? Air anything a client would sponsor and as much of it as possible.

My many programming friends who also consider themselves Drake PDs are hurting today. We lost a great radio person who knew what to do, had the guts to do it -- and paid the price later in his career.

When he came back to reinvigorate K-Earth in LA, he lost nothing from being away from the action. His instincts served him well.

Still, as we lay this unusually important icon to his eternal rest, radio would be better off to do whatever it took to channel its inner-Drake going forward.

You see, Less Is More, is John Hogan's hallucination.

More Music was Bill Drake's life's commitment -- with respect to the audience, the advertisers buying the commercials and the jocks whose careers he made better for having been a radio programmer.

So forgive me for borrowing one of Bill's own familiar production pieces to pay tribute.

Bill Drake was "Number One then (cue the crashing tympani) -- And number one now".

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