Tag Archives: Alan Freed

When Radio Was Color Blind

35Once upon a time, radio was pretty much like the TV show The Voice. We only knew what we heard coming through the speaker on our radio.

Those pilots of the airwaves were magical.

We may not have had a clue as to what they looked like, but we created a persona in our minds as if we did. It was never even close to the real person, if we ever happened to meet them.

As a young lad, most of my radio listening occurred at night, after the sun had gone down and when AM radio signals enjoyed the benefit of the skywave effect. The reasons for this were simple. First, during the day I was in school and when school got out, I was outdoors playing sandlot sports. Second, at night the only TV set in the household was controlled by either my parents or older siblings. But the transistor radio was completely in my control. I’d listen to radio stations from all over North America. One of those stations would be the most listened to AM radio station of its day, WABC out of New York City.

Who’s the Black Guy?

I got my best school friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before and how far away the stations we picked up were and where on the dial they were located.

Music Radio 77 – WABC out of New York City threw a pretty consistent signal over Western Massachusetts at night and so it got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC a lot as well, so you can imagine our surprise the first time we saw a picture of the WABC All Americans (that’s what they called their air personalities back in the 70s). We looked at one another and said simultaneously, “Who’s the Black Guy?”

That personality was Chuck Leonard. His cool factor just went up in our eyes. Chuck Leonard was not only heard over WABC late at night but on one of our local ABC network affiliated radio stations doing the feature show “Sneak Preview.” Chuck was famous for one-liners like “The best that ever did it and got away with it.” Yes we heard a lot of Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being black. And once we found out, we didn’t care.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry

In 1958, two hit recording artists were having a backstage fight over who would close the show that night, Lewis or Berry. The decision would be made by the show’s host and producer. He chose Berry. Lewis would end his act with Great Balls of Fire and then torch his piano.

The man who enraged Lewis was the radio personality who is credited with coining the term “Rock and Roll,” Alan Freed.

While many remember Freed for his involvement in accepting payola for playing records on his radio show, Freed was instrumental in integrating Top 40 radio with black artists.

Motown Sound

Contemporary music on the “kid’s stations” was integrated with the birth of this type of radio. Everything that wasn’t your parent’s music was embraced. It was the silent rebellion for many of us.

My favorite artists were The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Al Green, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson among many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.

I remember thinking; I should have been born black.

But it was Alan Freed that would be the first to break down the color barrier and integrate the music he played over the radio. It’s almost hard to believe that people in his day considered Freed a threat to society because he was playing “race music.”

You can read a really interesting history about Alan Freed and this period in his life at my professor friend Jay Douglas’ “Out of My Mind” blog.

Radio Formats Begin to Silo

As music radio began moving from AM to FM, the Top 40 – or the best of the newest songs type of format – began to silo into their own formats. Depending on who’s counting, there are at least 20 different music radio formats today. It’s hard to find any radio station nowadays that plays the wide variety of artists, styles and music that one could hear over a single radio station back in the 70s, as this 1970 Top 100 Songs from WABC demonstrates.

Bowling Alone

In  2001, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone. His thesis was that our American society was breaking down as we became more disconnected from our families, our neighbors, our communities and from the republic itself. While once upon a time bowling leagues had thousands of members, today we are more likely to bowl alone.

The great Yogi Berra captured this societal breakdown this way, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”

PTSD

More recently, Sebastian Junger made an interesting observation about PTSD. What he wrote about and famously talks about in his TED Talk is that soldiers don’t experience PTSD from being at war, but from coming back home to America where today’s society is such a disconnect from the close tribal life of a soldier’s military unit. Where they eat together, sleep together, care for one another and protect each other’s life. When they come home from today’s modern warfront, what they find is an alienating and bitterly divided modern society. Maybe a better term for what our soldiers feel should be called “post deployment alienation disorder” says Junger.

The question becomes not can we save our vets, but can we save ourselves?

For radio’s future, the question might not be all that different.

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Bring Back the Radio Hackers

We never called them that back in the early days of radio’s reinvention period after the birth of television in the 1950s, but that’s what they were.

Radio from the beginning basically was a medium that killed Vaudeville. Radio enticed the performers of Vaudeville to bring their acts to this new mass medium. The sales pitch went something like this: you won’t have to travel every day of the year, sleep on trains and eat your meals on the run. When you move your act to radio, you will be able to go home every night to your family and have a “normal” life. And you’ll make more money!

Not all performers would make this transition. The downside to moving their act to radio was that no longer could they have one act that they could perform night after night. On the radio, they needed a new act every performance. That’s a BIG CHANGE.

When television came along, the successful radio acts moved to TV and radio needed a new idea.

Enter the Hackers

 Alan Freed would hack the term Rock ‘N’ Roll and become the first famous disc jockey introducing a new venue for radio.

Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon aka “the Maverick of Radio” would hack the idea of Top 40 radio introducing a tighter playlist and higher repetition of the biggest hits. After observing teenagers playing the same songs over and over in a juke box.

Better Practices

 Today’s world is infested with the concept of “Best Practices.” It can be a stifling thing when it comes to creativity.

Today’s radio was born out of hackers that were constantly thinking up “Better Practices.” Ron Jacobs and Bill Drake certainly did at Boss Radio in Los Angeles with 93 KHJ. John Rook did it in Chicago with both WLS and WCFL. Rick Sklar did it in New York at Music Radio 77 WABC. Plus there were so many others in all size markets. Radio was different everywhere you listened because it was being hacked in so many wonderful ways. It was exciting to turn on your radio and hear what was going to come out next.

Insanity

 The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We have a lot of that kind of stinking thinking today and I’m sure you’ve heard all the reasons for why this is the path some of our biggest broadcasters are taking. As the radio business grew from a mom and pop business to the behemoths of today a ritual of “Best Practices” replaced hacking.

Today’s Economy is a Hacker Economy

 We live in a world where it seems everything has been turned upside down by the World Wide Web, the Internet and mobile Apps. The power is shifting from the big to the nimble; the hackers. Learn to hack or be attacked by those that hack.

Radio is not exempt from this shift. And it doesn’t have to lose.

Radio has what everyone else would love to own, a mass audience. Radio today is delivering the largest mass audience of all the mediums.

It’s why every entity trying to play in the audio medium calls itself “radio.” Pandora Radio, Spotify Radio, TuneIn Radio, RadioTunes, Beats 1 Radio etc. What radio folks have that these folks don’t have is a broadcast signal that is ubiquitous and a listening habit that has been cultivated over many years.

However, what those pure plays have that radio is missing are hackers.

Radio needs to stimulate agility, creativity and take risks.

Stop thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and start thinking about what problems you want to solve most right now. The winners will be those most able to adapt.

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