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First Look: WRLL Chicago — An Interview with Tommy Edwards

Entry by Tom Webster | Wednesday, October 15th, 2003 | Permalink

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

When RKO flipped the legendary, but ailing, KHJ Los Angeles to a pre-Beatles gold format in the mid-‘80s as “Smokin’ Oldies” KRTH-AM, the oldies format as we’ve known it for the last 15 years was only starting to coalesce. Oldies FMs were still a few years away from popping up in every market. Those that did exist were only beginning to phase out their late ‘70s AC titles, or, in the case of sister KRTH-FM (K-Earth 101), their currents, and focus on 1956-71.

Against that backdrop, stations like KRTH-AM or ABC’s Kool Gold network were great for oldies fanatics because they could cover the late ‘50s/early ‘60s in greater depth than the oldies FMs. But with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly still widely available on FM, those stations didn’t have a wide berth. And for a while in the early ‘90s, some E. Alvin Davis-consulted FMs such as WGRR Cincinnati and WBIG Washington, D.C., got a boost from leaning even more heavily on the MOR’ish side of the pre-Beatles era.

But you’re not likely to hear “Don’t You Know” by Della Reese or “My Heart Is An Open Book” by Carl Dobkins, Jr., on either of those stations anymore. And as the era window for many oldies FMs moves into the ‘70s, a new crop of pre-Beatles flankers has emerged. Former Infinity manager Alan Gray did the format on a Las Vegas AM in 1999 and has since launched similar stations in Harrisburg, Pa., Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Charlotte, N.C., and elsewhere. Clear Channel, which has repositioned many of its own oldies FMs as “Super ‘60s and ‘70s” has launched pre-Beatles AMs on Dan Allen’s WSAI Cincinnati, WCOL-AM Columbus, Ohio, and KOTK Portland, Ore.; its own KLOU is being flanked by a similar Bonneville AM in St. Louis. And some oldies AMs, such as WKAP Allentown, Pa., and Entercom’s WWKB Buffalo, N.Y., don’t cut their libraries off at 1964, but play more pre-Beatles music than most FMs.

But while it’s not the first in to the genre, Clear Channel’s WRLL (Real Oldies 1690) Chicago will be one of the most closely watched pre-Beatles stations: it’s trying to launch a music franchise in AM’s expanded band, it’s leaning a little more to the MOR side than most of its counterparts, filling a standards void that also exists in the market, and it’s also managed to again lure “Superjock” Larry Lujack out of retirement to co-host mornings with PD and fellow WLS Chicago veteran Tommy Edwards. In fact, with the help of ISDN and Prophet system, Edwards has assembled a virtual rotisserie lineup of Chicago legends: Scotty Brink, Jerry G. Bishop, Ron Britain, Herb Kent, Len O’Kelly, and Ron Smith.

As part of its ongoing efforts to offer a First Look at innovative stations, Ross On Radio talked to Edwards about launching WRLL.

Ross: Tell us how the new station came about.

Edwards: Clear Channel had requested a transmitter site move for one of their radio stations from Johnson City, Ill., to Berwyn in suburban Chicago, and that of course sat with the FCC for quite a while. When they got permission, John Gehron contacted me. I was director of programming for AGM/New Mexico and responsible for five stations down there. He told me about the intention to do something on the AM that really had not been done before. There had been some similar formats, but not the same thing that John had in mind.

Maybe it’s time to give away some of these great new AM radios with good antennas

I flew in and met with him and CC RVP of programming Bob Kaake. We talked about a format that was a hybrid between traditional nostalgia and oldies. We all believed the time had come for a format for the 45-plus audience that isn’t being serviced that much by traditional oldies stations, which are skewing much younger. Those stations are playing ‘70s and even some ‘80s music and have abandoned ‘50s music with exception of one song each by Fats Domino or Elvis or Chuck Berry or Little Richard.

I spent the summer in New Mexico and had spent quite an amount of time with Larry Lujack, who I was teamed up with at WLS for a number of years; we’re still good friends. After John, Bob and I talked about this format, I said, “I think if I approached Larry, he might be interested in going back on the air with me in the morning.” They hadn’t planned on that, but they saw that as tremendous bonus. I went back to New Mexico and eventually resigned down there and called Larry and asked him if he’d be interested and he was. Then I got on the phone and started calling some of the other legendary Chicago DJs like Scotty Brink, Jerry G. Bishop, Ron Britain, and they all got very excited about this. Using modern technology like ISDN lines and the Prophet System, they were all able to join us.

Ross: Doesn’t that mean it’s 4 a.m. his time when Larry starts morning drive?

Edwards: That’s not all that unusual for Larry, who was always an early riser since his morning show days. Ron is doing afternoons from Louisville. Scotty is doing his shows from Oklahoma City. Jerry is on in middays from KPOP San Diego. I’m getting tremendous cooperation from the Clear Channel family in providing these guys with studio time and assistance, something I’m very thankful for.

Ross: We’ve all heard about how quickly some voice-tracking jocks can do a whole shift. But how long does it take when you’re dealing with 2-1/2 minute records on an oldies station?

Edwards: Scotty can do a five-hour shift in approximately an hour or 1:10. After we had the lineup, we were able to put the rest of the station together in a two-week period. We put it on at 2:27 last Tuesday (7) with “The Best Is Yet To Come” by Frank Sinatra.

Ross: Since WSAI is probably the pre-Beatles station most people are familiar with, how do the two stations differ?

Edwards: WSAI covers a pretty wide spectrum. We’re really focused on ’54-63. We’ll play a few songs from 1964, but those were holdovers by groups like the Four Seasons—there’s no British invasion music whatsoever. The songs we play from Sinatra and Nat King Cole were songs that were on the pop charts, although there are a few album cuts like “Chicago (My Kind of Town)” for obvious reasons. We also play a lot of the great R&B stuff that was segregated off the pop chart at the time … and the country crossovers and instrumentals of that era. Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka had a lot of hits; we’ll play 10-15 when you only hear one or two on other stations.

Ross: You were overseeing an oldies station in Albuquerque. Had you managed to keep some of the pre-Beatles music on that station? Or had they also evolved towards the ‘70s?

Edwards: The big star in Albuquerque is Bobby Box, the morning guy, who plays very few ‘70s but a tremendous amount of the music that we’re playing—the stuff that traditional oldies stations don’t play.

Ross: WSAI, at least by inference, does a lot to attack WGRR on-air for being too ‘70s. Are you talking about WJMK at all?

Edwards: No, but we do remind listeners that we don’t play the same hundred oldies over and over again.

Ross: What’s surprised you most about the station after a week on the air?

Edwards: The thing I’m having the most fun with is doing the morning show with Larry. We’re doing all-new Animal Stories. This morning we talked a little more about how the tabloids have covered the Roy Horn tiger attack and how ridiculous some of the stories are. We also talked about the woman who lived below the guy in New York City who had the tiger—how she’s now saying there are large urine stains on her ceiling. So that was something we had a great time with.

Ross: How is the audience doing with finding the station on the extended band?

Edwards: I don’t know yet. Some people never paid attention to how far the dial goes—people in radio did, but don’t think listeners did at all. If people see that their car radio can get up there, then they can set a button. We’re also marketing the fact that we’re on-line [at http://www.realoldies1690.com/] and that people who want to hear us can hear us on the Internet. When I was at WOR-FM New York and we were going up against WABC, we gave away FM radios because we knew not too many people had them or used them, so maybe it’s time to give away some of these great new AM radios with good antennas.

Real Oldies 1690, 11 a.m.

Stevie Wonder/Fingertips-Pt. 2
Paul Anka/Diana
Jan & Dean/Heart & Soul
Impalas/Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home)
Jerry Butler/Moon River
Jimmie Rodgers/Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
Brook Benton/Hotel Happiness
Bobby Darin/You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby
Frank Sinatra/Witchcraft
Shirelles/Foolish Little Girl
Miracles/You Really Got A Hold On Me
Marty Robbins/El Paso
Fats Domino/Whole Lotta Loving
Johnny Burnette/Dreamin’
Elvis Presley/Wear My Ring Around Your Neck
Perry Como/Round & Round
Ruby & the Romantics/Our Day Will Come
Jorgen Ingmann/Apache
Jesse Belvin/Goodnight My Love

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.

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