“Ruthless Efficiency”



CKLW in Detroit had moved to a tighter, highly controlled and very well programmed Top Forty approach consulted by a Californian named Bill Drake. The “Drake Format” essentially cleaned-up many elements which had wandered into “Top Forty”. Drake had streamlined everything with razor-sharp precision. Playlists were reduced from fifty or sixty cuts to thirty, with the “Top Ten” played every hour and a half. Radio identification jingles were cut from twenty or thirty seconds to two or three. With a few rare exceptions, disc-jockey talk was limited to reading “liner cards” in an exact, pre-determined manner. “Clutter” was completely eliminated. Commercial “load” (the number of announcements per hour) was slashed in half and advertising rates were doubled in compensation. Newscasts were presented with extreme editing and maximum hyperbole. It was “back to the basics” with ruthless efficiency and brilliant execution.

With 50,000 watts, “The Big Eight/CKLW” had an enormous signal. It was #1 in Detroit, Lansing, Toledo, Cleveland and, with the release of the Fall ’70 PULSE survey, in Flint.

That it was “happening in other markets” was of no consolation to Charlie Speights or Don Mayle. Ultimately, a radio station sells its listening audience to the advertising community. When that audience is reduced by half, which is what had happened at WTAC, decrease in revenue can become proportionate.  Anticipating a “hit” from CKLW, Bob Dell had made some adjustments of his own at WTAC, pirating a number of concepts from the Drake school of programming. They had come too late to reverse a powerful trend.

General Sales Manager Don Mayle had long since become convinced that Bob Dell’s priorities were not aligned with the basic interests of WTAC. The “Grand Funk Railroad” episode had made him crazy. The entire station had been transformed into a personal electronic bullhorn for nearly two full weeks and Charlie had registered no objection. Bob hardly spent time at the station anymore outside his own air shift, other than writing programming memos and issuing instructions which were starting to become consistently ignored.

The Mt. Holly owners met with Bob and asked him to counter our offer. He was outraged. He was infuriated. He detonated.

He told the owners of his primary source of personal income they could go fuck themselves.

He told Charlie Speights that unless Johnny Irons and I weren’t instantly fired, union or no union, he could go fuck himself.

Within twenty-four hours, John Irons and I signed a contract with Mt. Holly for the 1970 season.

Within forty-eight hours, Bob Dell had resigned from the station and I was appointed Program Director of WTAC.

Within seventy-two hours, John Irons was demanding a change in shift to prime-time afternoons and a pay raise.

While John and I were equal partners in the dances and concerts, I regarded my new position as a serious commitment and a personal challenge. WTAC programming had spun seriously out of control. Bill Gibson, currently hosting the afternoon segment, was an excellent performer. It would be brutally unfair to remove him from the slot for no reason other than John’s desires. Such a move would signal to the entire staff a lack of integrity and objectivity on my part. They would be right.  It was my objective judgement that Bill was significantly better for the operation in that time period than John would be. If our situations were reversed, I would honor John’s decisions in such matters without question. I would also not expect our external friendship and/or promotional exercises to negatively impact on WTAC’s internal organization. I was absolutely serious. It was asking a lot from John. I knew this and expressed my understanding. Reluctantly and with reservation, he agreed to honor the new definitions. There was no other way.

The revenue from concert promotions had been more than a bit handy with a wife, two daughters and a third child expected in September. I also loved the music and challenge of the game. Yet, I had also come to realize that limitations in the pursuit were increasing every day. Rock ‘n Roll wasn’t only fun anymore; it was becoming big business. Prices for major groups were starting to escalate. Competition was breaking out everywhere.
The bandwagon was rolling and everybody wanted to climb on board.

Interest in promoting Rock ‘n Roll had evolved as an ancillary aspect of my radio career. The degree of expansion I envisioned necessary to maintain credibility and capability would require entering Detroit and other major markets with significant financial funding beyond my personal wherewithal. It would require investors and partners. I would need to leave radio.

I had given the matter much thought and prolonged consideration. There really was never a true choice to be made. It had been made years before when I first listened to “Let’s Pretend” as a two year-old on Lancaster Avenue in Syracuse and had come to know an old floor-model Zenith receiver as my invisible window to the world; a magical gateway to thoughts beyond belief, belief beyond dreams and dreams beyond imagination. I would remain magical. I would bring WTAC back to the top. It was now my charge and responsibility.  It was my enchantment.

“Cream of Wheat is so good to eat. We eat it everyday!”

I spent the next week almost exclusively devoted to completely revamping WTAC’s formatics, music rotations and programming mechanics.

I contracted for a new jingle series that was even tighter than packages commissioned by the Drake organization and included “phasing” and “spacing” technology just being introduced to radio. The sung call-letters were surrounded by electronic “sounds” which would be blended and merged with other programming  elements for compatability and continuity.

The WTAC list of “current music” was cut to thirty records and the amount of exposure accorded was directly proportionate to popularity. Several new categories of music were introduced, including “recurrents” (monster hits which had dropped off the sales charts),  “powers” (developing mega-hits) and five types of “oldies” (rated by style, popularity, tempo and artist).

News quantity was sharply curtailed and quality increased by editing, heavy production and use of “actuality” inserts.

Non-music features were totally eliminated. Music was added to all commercial production, without exception. Disc-jockey talk was eliminated unless executed over the “fade” or “intro” of a record.

Only creative contesting was allowed. Just a handful of audience members ever entered radio station contests. The goal became “interesting to listen to” more than “winning anything”. Positioning was a priority. Every aspect of the programming product offered excitement and entertainment. Imagery was imperative. Everything counted.

My work schedule had shifted rather dramatically. I replaced Bob on the weekday morning show and would spend the rest of each day involved in the  programming area. Programming began to take shape in a unified fashion, all elements moving in the same direction. With one or two school appearances along with Sherwood Forest and Mt. Holly efforts, I was typically working over ninety hours a week and enjoying every second.

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