“Decisive Action”

wtac-detroit

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

DECISIVE ACTION

For the next major ratings period, WTAC pulled-out all the stops. Nothing was overlooked.

We posted billboards all over town. We ran television campaigns.

I created an updated version of a spot I had produced several years before which had won a number of Gold Ad Club Awards in the “Television” category, the only time a local radio station had achieved such distinction. It had featured one hundred and fifty-two edits in thirty seconds. I had my MTV six years before it ever hit cable.

WWCK couldn’t touch our promotions.

We gave away ten days on the road with Alice Cooper.

We flew a couple to London, England with Bob Seger for his European Debut at the Palladium.

We gave away three hundred seats in a special “WTAC Section” at Pontiac Silverdome for Led Zeppelin.

There were cash give-aways galore, exciting contesting, innovative prizes and excellent listener involvement.

The station library was trimmed to only the most proven material. Air presentation was impeccable. We were awake and ON twenty-four hours a day.

We got killed.

The morning the Spring ’78 Arbitron was released marked the worst day in my entire professional career. WTAC dropped from the 6.0% to a 5.4% share. WWCK had rocked and rocketed from their 7.2% to a 12.5%. They had not only trounced us, they had maimed us better than two-to-one.

QUADRUPLE FUCK!!

I was in agony.

I called Joe Windsor. The worst news is always to be delivered as quickly as the best. I gave him the numbers. I expressed my sorrow and frustration. I admitted I had no answers. I offered my resignation. He told me I was silly and to take the rest of the day off. He said we’d talk the following morning.

He called the next day shortly after our offices opened. He said that he’d checked-around. WTAC was still doing better than most other AM operations with a “Top Forty” format. He reminded me that I had predicted years before that FM superiority would finally win the day. He had thought I was wrong at the time. My point had now been proven, albeit in a personally painful manner. Joe Windsor then gave me the best advice I had ever received.

“Peter, you learn a lot of things in the military.”

Joe had landed in Italy during World War Two as a Buck Private and had fought his way through Sicily and up past Rome. He was transferred to the German front as a Sergeant and had scratched and clawed all the way to Berlin. I had gone back along with him several late nights over copious quantities of memory-enhancing Scotch. Mr. Windsor was a superior story-teller and I had always found myself fascinated by his war stories. The guy had been there. What’s more, he had married a General’s daughter! I was certain he had the answers to our dilemma. Alright!

“Peter, listen carefully.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“When you’re in the military and you’re commanding artillery fire, you have to keep adjusting trajectory on your target.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You change your azimuth and your zenith and you keep firing until you hit it!”

“Yes, Sir.”

“But, sometimes that just won’t work. There are times that come when, no matter how much you try or work or care, that target still can’t be hit. And what you do then in the military is what you need to do right now at WTAC!”

He had me breathless. And clueless.

“What’s that, Sir?”

“Resort to initiative and take BOLD, DECISIVE ACTION!!”

With those words, he hung-up the phone.

I was shaken. I was stunned. I was inspired.

I spent the next several days in severe meditation. Joe was right. It just wasn’t working and had to be changed to something which would. My job was to be creative and determine a new type of programming weaponry. Then, I was ordered to attack boldly without fear or hesitation. Damn! Whatever we did would take no prisoners!!

I decided to review every reality.

We were pounding out heads against a “pure Rock ‘n Roll” wall. As much as I loved the music form, I had to admit it sure sounded better in FM stereo and to think otherwise was foolish.

Although WTAC had leaned much heavier into rock than most “Top Forty” stations, at least half of our music in daytime hours still properly fell into other catagories. If a song was selling singles, you could hear it on WTAC. We could not deny the continuing dilemma, only partially addressed years before with the “WTAC Underground”. It was the same problem.

An AC/DC barn-burner might be segued into “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow. I, in earlier times, had more than once unkindly introduced the title as “I Ride The Dongs”. “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin might be followed by Debby Boone and “You Light Up My Life”. “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand would give way to “Smoke on The Water” by Deep Purple. “Close To You” by the Carpenters would disappear under the opening strains of the Beatles “Revolution”.

“Top Forty” had always tried to be almost everything to just about everybody. FM “AOR” (Album Oriented Rock) was specifically aimed at a well-defined audience. In addition to technical superiority, it offered exclusive configuration. WTAC needed to do the same, but in a different way toward a massive group with common, singular tastes.

It was time to detect, select and direct.

I reflected upon what had always seemed to make sense in broadcasting and what had not. We needed to leap-frog conventional wisdom and throw-out all the old rule books. Many had already been discarded, but it was time for “zero-based programming”. Nothing was sacred and everything fell under strict and objective analysis. Jay “Jammer” and I spent several weeks considering even the wildest of thoughts. We finally determined that we would proceed with a completely energized format with music selection determined by familiarity and tempo. We would also move ahead with a quintessential definition of “Rock ‘n Roll”.

Early “Rock ‘n Roll” had been derivative of both Black and White musical influences in virtually equal proportion. Even “Woodstock” had featured Sly and the Family Stone taking everyone “High–ER” as the seemingly toothless Richie Havens had flapped his gums in praise of “Pppfreedum”. However, formatic compression had already initiated a pronounced racially-based separation.

“White Rock Radio” had begun excluding almost all Black artists with certain notable exceptions such as Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry, who had always primarily appealed to white audiences in the first place. Gone were all the Motown sounds and Aretha and the Isleys and Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding. “Black Radio”, always traditionally ethnic, was only available in Flint on an AM-daytimer (WAMM) and the new Black 24 hour FM (WDZZ) would not sign-on for well over another year. The Black population within the city of Flint stood at thirty-five percent and was growing.

A Scottish group calling themselves “Average White Band” were selling millions of copies of soul-based music around the world. “Disco” had absolutely gone through the roof with “Saturday Night Fever” and the Bee Gees had convinced millions of long-haired American White boys they “should be dancin’!” Look at all the pussy John Travolta got in that movie! Sheeeit!! You could see the phenomenon in every major Flint bar. It was “The Beat”, man, “The Beat!”.

As all major radical moves should be, the “New WTAC’ was a model of simplicity. Anything “slow” was pulled from the air. Anything without a “danceable beat” was dropped. Everything that made musical sense and was instantly accessible (i.e., “familiar”) would be included. Most important of all, our library was color-blind. The mix of White to Black was fairly even.
Energized “dance music” was run under every “talk element” on the station, including newscasts. These were trimmed to two minutes of headlines. All WTAC jingles were discarded in favor of call-letter “shouts”, with both “White” and “Black” versions rotated. All songs were coded for balance and blend. It sounded great and I put “Miss B” on the air with a Saturday morning show. I even enticed Pete Flanders to return for weekend exposure. His theme was Wild Cherry and “Play That Funky Music, White Boy!” He was glad to oblige. I didn’t need to wait for the ratings. The phones had gone wild.

I extended our formatic concept into station promotions and live appearances. In cooperation with the City of Flint, WTAC ended the Summer staging a massive “Disco-Rock Extravaganza” at the IMA Auditorium. “Miss B.” danced on stage with WTAC Account Executive Thalia Diebler, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Nordic beauty. The crowd went crazy. Six thousand packed the arena with an even split in racial composition. It was a wild night of exciting entertainment and absolute harmony.

A number of Blacks approached me with testimony regarding their new allegiance to WTAC. Several mentioned having seen me at all the James Brown Shows which had come to Flint through the years. I always got there early, found a seat down front upon which to stand, and tended to be unique in complexion under such circumstance. James was certainly a major part of the “New WTAC”. Good God!

Although the “New WTAC” had greatly shifted musical accent, a number of basics remained the same. Everyone pushed in the new direction with uncommon zeal. We all shared a sense of urgency and commitment. Production values reached new heights and contesting was wilder and crazier than ever before. We moved further into “theater of the mind” conceptual presentations. Everything we did had to be bigger than life.”

On Halloween, we broadcast a real “Seance” from a “Haunted House”. We used actual “witches” and “mediums”, or at least they thought they were and would convincingly testify to the fact. They brought back Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. How could I be more pleased?

For Thanksgiving, we arranged a “WTAC Turkey-Shoot”. Listeners would phone-in to play the game. When they got on the air, dramatic audio staging would run in the background. You would hear all the turkeys gobbling-away as you picked your weapon; a rifle, a cannon or an atomic missile. You would then say, “Fire!”. Depending upon selection, chaos and carnage would reign supreme for three to ten seconds. The “atomic missile” choice offered most prolonged mayhem.

At the end of the sequence, the turkey might agonizingly croak one last, pathetic, gurgling gasp and loudly thud to the ground, which meant a frozen turkey had been instantly won. Or it just might victoriously screech a “na-na-na-na—na-na”- type turkey-jeer, which meant that you’d missed and wouldn’t get a thing. The turkey surviving the atomic missile blast was always the source of substantial personal amusement. I did receive several complaints from animal-rights people about the “Turkey Shoot” and had to point-out that they weren’t real turkeys, which seemed to make absolutely no difference to them.

For the ’78 Christmas Season, we invented the “WTAC Magical Legend of the Christmas Cuckoo”. According to us, an old Bavarian wood-carver had long-ago created a special, magical cuckoo which came to life only during the Holiday Season and was flying over Flint with gifts and prizes for WTAC listeners. If you called and were chosen, we’d have him fly over your house. You would have to look up into the sky to see him.

When you said, “Drop-it on me!”, the WTAC Christmas Cuckoo would let loose. A long, dramatic “dive-bombing” sound would follow. Many times, you might receive great gifts; including expensive watches, diamond rings or color television sets. Other times, you would hear just a loud, splashy “splat” sort-of-noise. That meant that you lost and had been hit with something other than a prize. I thought it was all quite fun and offered a refreshing change of pace from normal seasonal smarm.

On New Year’s Eve, we presented “Miss B”, very live and in-person, broadcasting “Miss B’s WTAC Top Forty Countdown” of the year’s best dance music from the hottest Disco in town. It was packed to capacity two hours in advance. She finished at the stroke of Midnight. We then switched to Jay “Jammer” Johnson broadcasting live at the Flint’s biggest Rock Bar ’til 4 a.m. with his “Top Forty WTAC “Jammer-Rock” Spectacular”. Lines around that club were two blocks long.

Our first surprise came with the release of the DETROIT Spring ’79 Arbitron. Major markets were always released first. WTAC in Flint was #5 in Adults (13-34) and #3 in Teens in the fucking Motor City!!! What????? We had never shown-up in Detroit ratings! We couldn’t believe it!!

The Flint report was issued one week later. We had climbed up to a much healthier 9.2% total audience share, even as WWCK had edged back from their 12.5% to a 10.5%. Moreover, we beat WWCK in teens, in young adults, and in total listeners from 7 ’til Midnight. WTAC had increased adult count by nearly fifty percent over the previous “book”.

A headline article in the Detroit Free Press cited WTAC’s penetration into the Detroit market, precipitating major local newspaper and television coverage. Radio trade magazines ran articles on WTAC being the only AM facility in the country to successfully reverse previously FM-held dominance in teens or night listening. They mentioned our “unique contemporary fusion format” as an “entirely innovative approach in modern broadcasting”.

The first person I called with all the excellent news was Joe Windsor. He offered sincere congratulations and jovially stated, “My battle plan worked!”.


He then hung-up the phone.

I was well aware that WTAC’s amazing showing in Detroit was caused by extraordinary station listenership in Lapeer County which, although directly
adjacent to Flint, was part of the “Detroit Metro” sample. Our signal was weak to the south and barely reached Detroit proper. Thus, we were celebrating a statistical curiosity. Who minded? It made great press! Similarly, we were proceeding through a limited window of opportunity. I anticipated WDZZ’s pending sign-on as a problem for our fusion format.” Our new audience composition was thirty percent “ethnic”. Still, we were “heavenly-hot” for the moment and took full advantage of our renewed strength with advertisers. Station revenue rose proportionately. I also got a raise and was corporately upgraded to President and General Manager of WTAC. The last one to hold such title was Gene Milner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: