The Last Days of CKLW: Why the New Austerity Isn’t New

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.

13 replies
  1. john gehron
    john gehron says:

    Radio can’t be an iPod and radio can not compete on just 1 plane, music. 30 years ago young people got music in 2 places, radio and record stores. Now young people get their music from neither. Music is available everywhere, so there is nothing special about getting it on the radio. What radio has been and still is is a community of listeners of which music is only one of the many attractions. Radio must emphasize the other elements important to the community, information for their lifestyle,entertainment and a voice that speaks for that group. Radio is still a filter for many of what is important to them. Stripping those elements away removes that ability to speak and represent that community or group. Then you’re no better than one of many music sources available where you are only as good as the song that’s playing.

    Reply
  2. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Why The New Austerity Isn’t New

    Throughout our debate on the role of imaging, there’s been a recurring theme from advocates of the new presentational austerity that can be roughly paraphrased as follows: “No matter how much I liked listening to CKLW Detroit and WLS Chicago…

    Reply
  3. Diane Shannon
    Diane Shannon says:

    Great article. I would like to add one thing to this discussion. One thing radio is missing is that people in today’s world like and use the ability to connect. From social sites like FaceBook and Girl Friends Cafe, people are now connecting in ways we never dreamed of in the 80s. Radio is still stuck on being a one way medium. One of the things we try and work with our clients on is creating networking and two way communication. You have to stay relevant to be part of today’s converstation. I can play whatever I want on my iPod, but if someone can make me sit through a song I don’t really like because I am connected to them in some way, that is the future of radio. Kelly McKay at WZPL in Indianapolis does an excellent job of staying connected to listeners. The days of one song after another with no reason to listen besides the songs is almost over. It is only those who recognize it now and make moves before they lose the franchise that will still be around in 10 years.

    Reply
  4. Mike Berlak
    Mike Berlak says:

    Amen to the thoughts in Sean’s article and the comments posted so far. Two things I can add: 1) It would seem the more austere the presentation, the less impact on top-of-mind recall (which in all but the two current PPM markets is still the way the game is played). The excitement or feel of the imaging can really be a vital part of the “brand” no matter what the listenership measurement methodology. And, 2) I offer for discussion an idea (details at http://www.soundcharlotte.com) that puts actual compelling content between the songs and makes the station the basis of a “social network.” A whole demographic group sharing a communal experience thru the marriage of old and new technologies should be a rather attractive “sell.” And the passion of the presentation would be a big part of it.

    Reply
  5. Charlie Cook
    Charlie Cook says:

    I think that both John and Diane are right on target with pointing out that radio is much more than just the music. Is the right music important? Yes, but even if researchers collected 1000 I Pods from 18-34 years in their markets to fashion a playlist they would miss hundreds of viable titles for one reason or another. Radio has to play in another arena. Entertainment is more than the right songs, back to back. Plus I can’t see how keeping your identity a secret by not using production and call letters is good idea. Extend your hand introduce yourself, make contact with the listener. The best was to do this is with exciting production, jingles (build a musical image) AND SAYING YOUR NAME.

    Reply
  6. Michael Lowe
    Michael Lowe says:

    As a PD of a Mainstream AC that’s under attack by an increasing amount of new adult-friendly formats (3 oldies/classic hits formats in 1 year), I’m thinking the older audience is where most radio stations are going. And, for now, staving off the decline of terrestrial radio listening. But, the older demos are finding out what the 12-24s already told us–radio offers them nothing. So they don’t listen anymore. I was a guest lecturer at a college Broadcasting class the other night and over 70% of the people in that class (avg. age 22)said they didn’t turn on their radios in the past day. AND THAT WAS A BROADCASTING CLASS! Scary stuff, folks. Everyone who has commented to this point are on the money, if you ask me. We’re hearing the comments that we’re too cluttered…we talk too much…too much hype…blah, blah, blah. If that’s the case, why are there successful news/talk stations? Isn’t that all they do? We’ve been successful for years by connecting with this audience. Sure, it’s about “listener benefit.” Sure we have to plug into their lives and not be so arrogant as to tell them what we think they should hear. Like John said, there were two places to get music–but not anymore. Segues aren’t the answer, but, old fashioned-imaging isn’t either. You’ve researched your stations to play the right music. But, for once, assume the next song you play sucks. Now, find a way to keep your listener through that song to the next. Find a way, grasshopper. Then you’ve snatched the pebble from my hand and you’ve saved all our jobs.

    Reply
  7. Rick Minerd
    Rick Minerd says:

    These are all good arguments about what radio could be doing to compete with the other available alternatives for music and information.
    The day’s are gone when listeners rely on it for just music and for that matter as the main source for news. But what radio can be that other forms of communication/entertainment can’t compete with is a forum for more localized companionship. A better source for the smaller issues affecting communities such as centralized local news, traffic, weather and items of interest in the community. That is if stations are willing to invest in talented people who can effectively articulate an interest in in whats important to a community. In the old day’s of AM Top-40 radio, WCOL in Columbus, Ohio was staffed with a news department that some of today’s bigger television stations would die for. Reporters actually went into the streets and covered stories of importance to Columbus. They would interview crime victims, law enforcement personnel, city council members, school principals and anyone else connected to stories of importance. In the day’s of 20/20 news breaks the news was all local.
    When WCOL was enjoying 60 shares in any given book the station appealed to all age groups even though it’s music format was contemporary hits. Yes the music was targeting a particular demographic, but the overall product was the information authority in Columbus even though it competed with much larger stations. Before the days of “Morning Zoo’s” and other nonsense the clock radio would go off with actual overnight news stories and what was important for the day ahead. The music captured the kids attention, but the overall personality of the station grabbed everyone else. And the listeners knew that they could tune in at anytime, day or night and not only hear a real person actually sitting in a studio downtown, but they had access to them. They could call anytime and actually speak to a real person. And that’s what’s missing now. Too much reliance on satellite delivered programming, empty studios and stations trying to be jukeboxes specializing in only one genre of music and doing it with with little to no personality.
    Even the talk show’s leave little room for audience participation. Allowing a listener to get on the air, but rushing him to make his point quickly and cutting them off to make room for commercial or topics completely away from whats at hand. Radio stations would do themselves a service by looking less for “new” ways to become cost efficient in the short term and look instead back at what people relied on them for in better days.I’ve often argued that the competion isn’t as much about AM vs FM as it is about quality, useable programming, instead of this cookie cutter programming that they buy from consultants who are advising from thousands of miles away. Radio needs to be local and should reflect it’s own community and be and more user friendly. Something rarely available on AM or FM.

    Reply
  8. Steve Jones
    Steve Jones says:

    The book “Made To Stick” has it right for radio. “SUCCES” – Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete Stories get remembered. Radio stations today need to use every window to tap into the passion for music as a bonding tool between the listener and the station. Imaging isn’t just a tool for station identification… it is an opportunity to share the “experience” of the radio station.
    Over-hyped and over-produced imaging that says nothing but sounds cool isn’t going to cut it today. Tell a story. Share the experience and essence of your radio station with the listener. Give them something their mp3 player can’t. The challenge is doing that consistently, and doing it is such a compelling way that your listener grants you the precious 30 seconds you need to share the experience.

    Reply
  9. Jim Walsh
    Jim Walsh says:

    Some excellent points here. The same basic principles can apply to my particular specialty – spoken-word programming. Energy, momentum, an exciting “produced” sound (which entails a lot more than heavy-metal bumper music)…and topics that engage the demo: all are largely missing from today’s “Squawk Radio” wasteland (with a few notable exceptions, e.g. NJ101.5).
    All it took to turn around radio in the past was a handful of guys who has the foresight (and the courage) to take a gamble and go against the grain. Bill Drake; Tom Donahue; Lee Abrams; Mike Joseph; Howard Stern. Next…?

    Reply
  10. Charlie O'Brien
    Charlie O'Brien says:

    Well, here in the Motor City we’re still fighting that good fight on AM (AM580 CKWW.) 2500 or so oldies in the universe with lots of personality and jingles!
    It’s kind of ironic that we’re doing it from the old Big 8 studios!
    And that 1978 aircheck…gawd, can’t believe the bad ones are the ones that survive. That whole Rock ‘N Talk thing was the stupidest thing we ever did at CK.

    Reply
  11. Gregg Colamonico
    Gregg Colamonico says:

    I’m not sure we’re factoring one additional aspect into the whole i-pod vs. radio debate… how old is the consumer?
    I think that the older the consumer, the less likely that person will want to program his own i-pod… or have time to do it. Just as we cared about whether our favorite Yes album was #3 with a bullet but don’t know today how well our current favorites are selling, I think the same may be true of the i-pod generation.
    Will the busy young adult also want to find and download “Bubbly” as it becomes a hit to them… then bother to delete it when he hears it too often?
    I think once today’s teenagers hit working age, they’re still going to leave it up to radio stations to choose their music for them and move their favorite songs to slower rotations when they’ve heard those songs frequently over several months.
    Convenience and time-saving seem to be the most important goals of today’s have-it-all and do-it-in-a-flash young adult. How many people pay 50 cents more for a loaf of bread (with fewer choices in what type of bread it is) at 7-Eleven because they can hop in and hop out (and maybe leave the kid in the car) than at a supermarket. Did anyone forsee drive-thru DRUG STORES? Those who are using the drive-thru window at Waldgreen’s probably don’t have time to program their own music or know what to download among the new releases.
    I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom for music radio even as music becomes more easily available. I think we’ll continue to count on program directors, music directors and DJs to choose and play music for us, even if the way the station arrives at our ears could be via radio, internet streaming or some other technology.

    Reply
  12. Jeff Laurence
    Jeff Laurence says:

    Let’s see..an iPod is kind of like owning your OWN station isn’t it? Music that is self-chosen is well tolerated, and each person can own thier own playlists and program thier own music rotations. Don’t see how radio can improve on that. What radio can improve on is it’s attitude of self-importance. It’s a business to us, but it’s an option for listeners. The key seems to be to offer something that the iPod can not. LOCAL, appealing and compelling content that is delivered by HUMANS for HUMANS.
    The voicetracked content that is offered by so many stations is dry, and unimaginative. Many stations REQUIRE that airstaff do not only thier own shifts, but one or more shifts for other stations in the company. One can only imagine the kind of passion and exciting delivery that an air talent can muster when FORCED to do this. Is there any wonder why these VT’ed shifts lack creativity, and interest? Talk about penny wise and pound foolish. It’s interesting to note that the imaging (both talent and production) have more exposure and relevance than the air person. So it better be creative, and interesting to hear. It had better tell a story, and project positive motion to the next event to hold a listener. If it doesn’t..it’s just another annoyance.
    Remember Jack McCoy’s “Last Contest”? If you don’t, find some of the old promos floating around. Each one was a movie..each one held interest, and each one promoted as well as entertained.
    This is what radio does best..if given the chance.
    Hey! Maybe I can sell imaging packages for individuals’ iPods!?
    (Lazer Zap..and drums) “MELISSA’S IPOD!”
    yeah..yeah I’m gonna work on that..

    Reply
  13. Frank Provasek
    Frank Provasek says:

    The ipod generation wants community as much as the WABC and KLIF listeners of 40 years ago. , Look at facebook and myspace. Does radio offer them community? No – lifeless voice tracking and playlists from a distant corporate HQ.

    Reply

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