Throughout the dialogue on the correct role of imaging in 2008 and the new presentational austerity of many Clear Channel stations in particular, there has been one oft-repeated set of comments that can best be characterized as the following: “While I personally liked the exciting foreground radio that we all grew up with, it has no relevance to today’s iPod-equipped listener.”
It’s a very seductive line of reasoning, particularly when you’re in the backyard of a station like WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia that plays a lot of music and has made inroads into a market full of veteran air talent. Or on the day after Last-FM announces the ability to stream individual songs. It’s not hard to cast anybody that believes in radio as a foreground experience as clinging desperately to their old airchecks of CKLW Detroit and WLS Chicago, unable to embrace anything new.
The need for something new isn’t at issue here. But the new austerity isn’t new either. And it doesn’t have such a good track record as a panacea.
The new austerity, as practiced at today’s Top 40, often sounds suspiciously like the Top 40 stations of the late ’70s and early ’80s – at a time when that format was trying to distance itself from the screaming Q-era hype of the early ’70s, That era was typified by AM stations that were chasing the hipper, cleaner presentation of FM, and FM Top 40s that were chasing the Album Rock behemoth that was becoming the dominant popular music of the era.
What Top 40s from that era offered were cold segues, very little production, and the lowest-key air-talent possible. Since the idea of tempo at the top of the hour was also an old meaningless cliche in that era’s thinking, you could often hear these stations doing live (not produced) legal IDs over “We’re All Alone” by Rita Coolidge. When more produced stations like WRQX (Q107) Washington and WBZZ (B94) Pittsburgh emerged a few years later, their laser zips and zaps were incredibly exciting compared to what typified Top 40 at the time.
But in the mindset of 1978-79, it was hard to imagine a time when anything as archaic as Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” format could be successful (even though it was on the air in Hartford). Many of these stripped down stations were very well-programmed, for what they were. They were the entry into the business (or the first PD jobs) for many of today’s best programmers, but not a continuing inspiration–judging from the relative paucity of airchecks of these stations that now exist.
It wasn’t just new stations that bought into the old austerity of the late ’70s/’80s, it was existing Top 40 stations as well, including AMs. One of the few airchecks available from that era is a 1978 aircheck of Charlie O’Brien on CKLW at www.reelradio.com (subscription required). By that time, of course, most self respecting 12-year-olds had made the move to FM, to AOR WRIF or at least to Top 40 WDRQ, leaving CKLW to try and compete by offering cold segues and three-song AOR-style backsells.
That wasn’t the answer, of course, and in the five years before getting out of Top 40 altogether, CKLW would also try the following:
- Building a full-service Hot AC format around Dick Purtan (who did get some initial traction for the station), billed as “The Great Entertainer.”
- Competing with the WLLZ’s “More Rock, Less Talk” juggernaut of 1980-81 by billing itself as “Rock ‘N’ Talk.”
- Finally, in the summer of 1982, responding to the resurgence of Top 40 and the advent elsewhere of “Hot Hits” by putting the Drake-era jingles back on the air and returning to Mainstream Top 40. Within a few months, however, Joseph’s own format was on FM at WHYT and a second FM Top 40, WABX, had launched. In 1983, Purtan left and the Top 40 format was gone within months.
On FM, the stripped-down Top 40s lasted until the early ’80s when stations like Q107 and B94, then the Hot Hits stations, kicked in. The minimalist stations either retooled to a higher-energy presentation, or were usurped by somebody that offered one. By that time, of course, Top 40 had better music that Album Rock couldn’t easily play. And for programmers who worry about the Web owning musical discovery today, Top 40’s comeback came at a time when MTV, not radio, owned discovery, but came nonetheless.
But here’s the chilling part: while merely stripping a station down to compete with FM and cassette decks didn’t save AM Top 40, ultimately nothing else did either. Among the powerhouse AMs that hung in a little longer, WLS Chicago went the full-service personality route. KFRC San Francisco cranked up the energy level–becoming one of the most-admired Top 40s of the decade on either band. Each station bought itself a few years while other counterparts were changing format. Neither survived the ’80s as a Top 40 station.
Even as other Top 40s were going away, KKBQ (79Q) Houston managed a successful launch in the fall of ’82–successful enough to transfer itself to FM a few months later. WAPE Jacksonville, Fla had gone away completely as a contemporary station by the time it relaunched on FM in the mid-’80s, its call letters and top-of-the-hour “ape call” just as potent on FM as ever. And CKLW tried to move its Top 40 format to FM but was blocked by the Canadian radio regulations of the time. Content, at least for AM radio, was unable to trump platform.
If radio’s current content is to transcend platform in 2008 and beyond, the station that leads the way will be foreground enough to command listeners’ attention, but presented with the greatest possible economy (rarely something that listeners don’t want), and executed in a way that sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard. At this moment, there are few stations that match that description and few broadcasters who can truly brag about living in the future.