Tag Archives: Music Radio 77

Radio & Urban Contemporary, Is the End Nigh?

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.

Who’s the Black Guy?

I got my best friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before, 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 that got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC often 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 from Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being Black. Once we found out, we didn’t care.

Urban Contemporary Radio

What does that name mean to you and what does it mean to your listeners?

Has the term “urban contemporary” migrated over the last several decades as to its meaning?

The answer in two words: Most Likely.

At the beginning of June 2020, Republic Records announced it would “remove ‘urban’ from the label’s verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres,” explaining that “over time the meaning and connotations of ‘urban’ have shifted and developed into a generalization of Black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by Black artists.”

A few days later, the Grammy Awards announced it would be renaming its “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — category now being — “Best Progressive R&B Album.”

Motown Sound

Once upon a time, “kid’s music” was just called contemporary or Top40. 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 as well as many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.

But it was DJ Alan Freed at WINS, who coined the term “rock & roll,” 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,” also known as music by Black artists.

WBLS

In 1974, legendary disc jockey and program director Frankie Crocker, coined the term “urban contemporary.” Crocker said his format on WBLS was a broad mix of R&B, hip-hop, disco, rap, and everything from James Brown to Dinah Shore.Frankie Crocker

In essence, it was the best music featuring the songs his radio station’s listeners wanted to hear most.

Black music stations, while popular with listeners, had trouble attracting advertising back then. So, the brilliance of calling WBLS “urban contemporary” enabled Crocker to evade being branded with the Black label. The urban contemporary imaging helped make white advertising executives more comfortable with placing advertising for their clients on that radio station.

Format wise, Crocker brought the concept of ‘playing the hits’ that made radio stations like WABC so loved, from AM to FM radio.

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.

iHeart Phasing Out the Word ‘Urban’

Most recently, Rolling Stone magazine wrote an article about how iHeart, and the radio analytics company Media Base owned by iHeart, were working to remove the word ‘urban’ due to the word being controversial in industry-wide discussions around systemic racism.

The use of the word ‘urban’ will be removed from not just the way formats or playlists are described but from job titles too. A representative for iHeart says the term is “definitely outdated.”

Black & White

Unfortunately, this issue may not be as black & white as it might first appear. Not all organizations or individual Black executives are willing to give up the ‘urban’ descriptor, believing that it’s more of a distraction than action for change, saying the “problem lies in the infrastructure, in the system – not in the word.”

Real Change

This issue is not just an American one, but a global one. The student newspaper, The Boar, from Warwick University in the United Kingdom wrote about the “Institutionalized Racism in the Music Industry.”

The article, written by Bailey Agbai, perfectly summed up the current situation:

“As more people start to actively recognize just how deeply racism infests our society, it is no surprise that it plagues the music industry too. It’s important that we continue to speak up and advocate change so that the institutions within the industry amend their ways and finally reflect the music that they unfairly exploit. The industry is a pool of wealth and it is important that those with influence use not only their words to combat racism, but also their resources to impact real change.”

 

 

 

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Efficiency vs. Resilience

Rick SklarOn November 9, 1965, around 5:21pm in the afternoon, WABC listeners heard something unusual coming through the speakers on their battery powered transistor radios. WABC was playing Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” but it sounded different. It sounded like it needed a shot of Geritol, as the recording turned slower and slower. Even WABC’s famous chime was off key, and popular afternoon personality Dan Ingram tried to make fun of what was happening. You can hear that moment by clicking HERE.

The 1965 Northeast Blackout

As it was happening what no one knew, was that the power grid was collapsing. Inside Dan Ingram’s studio, the lights were flickering, the music cartridges were playing at slower and slower speeds and the journalists in the WABC newsroom were beginning to see the wire services report that city after city along the Eastern seaboard were going dark.dan ingram 1965

From Maine to New Jersey, America was experiencing a regional power grid failure. Many radio stations without emergency generators were silenced, but WABC was still on the air due to the station’s transmitter facility being located in Lodi, New Jersey. New Jersey was on a different power grid than New York City.

WABC would rush Dan Ingram to Lodi with a stack of records and have him continue his show from there.

Rick Sklar & Building Resilience

Rocking AmericaRick Sklar wrote in his book “Rocking America” that the blackout helped him to focus his attention on technical reliability. “A station can have the best mix of music and the top jingles, but if the tapes break, the cartridges jam, or the music fidelity is off, the ratings (aka audience) begin to evaporate,” Sklar wrote.

Early in his tenure as the program director at WABC, Sklar would be frustrated by the technical obstacles that got in the way of his building Music Radio 77 into the #1 radio station in The Big Apple.

Lessons Learned at NASA

When America was ready to put a man on the moon, Sklar decided he wanted to be there for that significant moment in history.

He was fascinated by the confidence of NASA that they would land men on the moon and bring them back home safely. He was envious of their certainty and of their equipment and systems to get the job done. He wanted to attain that same kind of certainty for WABC when he returned home to New York.

In drilling down mission control’s engineering confidence, he learned that NASA used triple measurement and triple backup on everything. Sklar would learn from Walter Häusermann, the man who designed the guidance systems for the V-2 rockets, and those of the Apollo command module, “If two of the three readings on any measurement agree, we assume that it is the third meter and not our readout that is at fault.”

WABC Builds Resilience

When Rick Sklar got back home, he began to implement what he had learned at NASA, in the operations at WABC. He built two identical main control rooms and made sure a production studio could act as an air studio if needed. He built the studios with eight cart machines, instead of the previous five, three being ready in case of a failure of any of the primary five machines. He had every one of the two thousand-odd cartridges that made up the WABC sound, duplicated for each studio. The studio to transmitter broadcast land lines were broken into a northern and southern route from the main studios to the transmitter site in Lodi, with a microwave link as the third method for delivering programming to the transmitter.

George Michael WABC in NASA inspired studio

George Michael at WABC in NASA inspired air studio (photo by Frank D’Elia)

Rick Sklar had thoroughly reviewed every element of the operation and implemented ample redundancy to insure a consistent and reliable delivery system for his programming.

Resiliency in People

There’s only so much repetition in equipment that can protect you from disruptions, in order to truly have a “fail-safe” operation, you must have good backup people.

And there’s the real rub in today’s radio world. Where are the people?

As I wrote in last week’s blog, Good Money After Bad, the need to build efficiency in my Sussex, New Jersey radio property saw the elimination of not only full-time employees but the backup people so critical in providing the over-the-air and online services so necessary during times of winter storms.

Global Pandemic

COVID19 is revealing the tradeoffs between building operating systems for efficiency, versus resiliency. These tradeoffs have been occurring in all areas of corporate America, not just broadcasting. This pandemic presents us all with opportunities to rethink of how prepared we are to handle a Black Swan Event. It also has shown us ,simply doing things the way they’ve always been done, isn’t necessarily how they can be done or should be done going forward.

Resiliency and efficiency are polar opposites and every business needs to mind its bottom line and deliver a profit to stay in business. The leaders will learn to invest in resilience efficiently.

Look for that to be the in demand skill in all companies as we digest the lessons of this global event.

 

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Great Expectations

OR FMI read with great interest the five part series by Matt Bailey on “The Alexa Effect.” In the 5th and final installment Matt shared what he called the “radio weapon Spotify will never have.” What is it? The radio personality. He wrote:

 

  • “A radio personality can tell you the backstory of a breakthrough artist that makes you want to hear her work.”

  • “A radio personality can point out that crazy line in the second verse to stay tuned to hear.”

  • “A radio personality can engage you to smash or trash a song on the station’s social media.”

  • “A radio personality can give you the chance to be among the very first to hear a new song by a star artist.”

“A radio personality can add context that will make listeners excited to hear a song that otherwise would simply be weird and unfamiliar. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally engaging weapon no algorithm can match. When we stifle their voices and their role in introducing new music simply to avoid potential tune-out, we might win a few tenths of a point in the PPM battle, but we will lose the new music war to Spotify.”

Consolidation & Voice Tracking

I don’t disagree with Matt, but I lived through the ramifications of the Telcom Act of 1996 and the consolidation of radio stations, along with the rollout of voice tracking.

Clear Channel called it “Premium Choice,” and we were told it would replace our local personalities with big market talent.

I watched in market after market as radio personalities, who were like members of the radio listener’s family, were sent to the unemployment lines. Relationships that took years, even decades to establish, wiped out in an instant.

Early Media Expectations

I grew up at a time when the family television set received a signal from a couple of antennas on the roof. We had two channels, which meant we received two television networks, CBS and NBC. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to get off the couch and change it. There was no remote control.

Our radios had both the AM and FM bands, but I remember wondering why. I often scanned the entire FM band to hear nothing at all with only the AM band picking up radio signals.

My early media expectations were two TV channels and AM radio stations. The radio provided a lot more variety, plus I had a radio in my room and our family had a single TV located in the living room. I controlled my radio, my parents controlled the family TV.

Media Expectations Change

In time, I would come to expect television to be in color, to be connected to a cable and have a remote control to easily change the multitude of channels I could now receive, from the comfort of my couch.

Radio would expand to the FM band and a whole new type and style of radio was born. The one thing that connected AM and FM radio was the radio personality. Every station had them and the decision to listen to one station over another was because of the radio personality.

In fact, I wrote an article on the power of the radio personality back in 2015 entitled “We Never Called It Content.”

I wrote this article after reading about the latest round of “forced retirements” in the radio industry.

And if you thought this type of downsizing was only occurring in large radio metros, the movie “Corporate FM” told the story of how in the 80s, ninety percent of mass media in America was owned and controlled by about fifty different companies, but after the Telcom Act of 1996 it was down to just six corporations.

New Media Brings New Expectations

Let’s fast-forward to today. I cut the cord on cable TV two years ago and all of my television viewing is streamed. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and YouTube provide me with more hours of television entertainment and information than I could ever have time to watch, and I’m retired.

Amazon Echo provides me with all of my audio entertainment and I do mix it up between stations via TuneIn and the pureplays like Pandora and Amazon Music.

I also read a lot and subscribe to several online newsletters that all link to the original source of the material.

Which leads me to this conclusion, my calendar age did not cement my media habits. They’ve been fluid all of my life.

My 21st Century Great Expectations

  • I expect NPR to open up my world to things I should be aware of, that I might not have been. I expect them to also provide me with more depth to the stories in the news. I expect them to have all of this posted online for almost immediate access. They don’t disappoint.
  • I expect my television viewing to be On Demand and commercial free.
  • I expect my music listening to match my mood and be there by simply asking Alexa to play my favorite channels when I want to hear them.
  • Finally, I expect I’m not alone in these “21st Century Great Expectations.”

Rewound Radio DJ Hall of Fame

On Saturdays, I enjoy asking Alexa to play Rewound Radio so I can hear another fabulous radio personality featured in the weekly “DJ Hall of Fame.” The other weekend they featured WOR-FM out of New York City and the air personality was Johnny Donovan. OR-FM air checks are all in stereo and the music mix has plenty of variety. It was a time when Music Radio 77 – WABC dominated the world’s airwaves on the AM band. But the one thing I notice in these weekly trips down memory lane is how integral the radio personality was in the total program. They were a constant companion. They really were radio’s “secret weapon” to attracting faithful listeners.

The question I ponder often is, was this period of radio history akin to the vaudeville period of theater. It filled the right hole at the right time but won’t ever be coming back again.

I welcome your thoughts.

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Are We the Solution or the Problem?

albert-einsteinAlbert Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

I have noticed that when I publish a new article about radio, people seem to fall into a couple of different camps. There are those who say radio’s days are numbered, or over. There are those who think going back to the way it was will solve everything. And there are those who believe “radio” is a concept and not a specific transmission platform, such as the AM or FM bands.

WABC Becomes Talk Radio

In May of 1982 Music Radio 77 – WABC in New York City became a talk radio station. Music sounded better on FM and in stereo than on static filled, mono AM radio. This happened 37-years ago and yet many of us tune in to Rewound Radio every Memorial Day Weekend to listen to WABC, the way it was when we were growing up in the 60s & 70s.

WPLJ is Sold

WABC-FM became WPLJ on February 14, 1971 and by September of that same year it would become one of America’s first AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio stations.

“Watching All the President’s Men on TCM…thought it might be timely. Loved the reference when Bernstein asked Woodward “if you’re listening to the radio and you don’t hear any commercials for 10 minutes, is it AM or FM?” Kinda sums up the demise of music radio on AM back in the 70s and strongly underlines what’s happening to FM now compared to satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify, etc.” 
–John Sebastian

Now WPLJ has been sold and like a divorce, WABC and WPLJ will no longer be together. Frank D’Elia writes a wonderful personal history of WPLJ on his blog which you can read HERE.

Sadly, he ends his blog article with the following: “I loved the radio business, and it was my home for over 44 years, but today, radio sucks!”

The World Wide Web Turned 30 This Past Week

While it was 37 years ago that the music died on WABC, it was 30 years ago this past Wednesday, that Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a global linked information management system that included hypertext. Even more interesting is the fact that Sir Berners-Lee feels a little bit like Frank D’Elia and the current state of his creation. In an article published on the World Economic Forum website titled “The web is 30 years old. What better time to fight for its future?” Sir Tim shares his frustrations and recommendations for fixing things. He writes: “To tackle any problem, we must clearly outline and understand it. I broadly see three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.

  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.

  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”

Lots of Change

When I think back to those days when AM radio rocked my world, to today where Alexa serves up whatever my mood desires, things have changed a lot.

Berners-Lee also notes how much the web has changed in the past 30 years and that it would be “defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web, as we know it, can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.”

Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads, wrote recently that “The key to failure is to hang on to the belief that things have to be ‘the way they ought to be.’ The key to success is to be able to deal with things as they really are.”

Which brings me back to the title of this week’s blog article, are we the solution or the problem when it comes to the future of radio?

What are Radio’s Big 3 Areas of Dysfunction?

I’m sure you have your own thoughts on this, but the sense I have from reading articles about today’s radio industry from all over the world, along with reader comments, are that these three things are very important to the future of radio:

  1. Commercials. Radio’s commercial spot loads are too big. The 60 and 30-second ad lengths are over. Radio needs to re-think the way it monetizes itself OTA (over the air) and the creation of radio ads needs to be a specialty in every radio station. Jerry Lee understands this better than anyone in our industry.

  2. Companionship. Alexa is convenient and we even chat with one another, but I don’t consider “her” a companion. Radio needs to fulfill that social need for the listener. I believe NPR has done a spectacular job of fulfilling this companionship role through its variety of informational programs. Companionship is built by live personalities that broadcast from the area being served or focused on like-interests of the target audience.

  3. Quality vs. Quantity. The radio industry is focused on putting more signals on the air, and controlling more existing radio signals by fewer entities, than it is on the content that should be sent over those signals. The original benchmarks or staples of radio are often much more efficiently handled by other platforms. Radio needs to re-think what it can do that others can’t, and then do it. Radio needs to compliment today’s other communications media, as it no longer is the sole source of information for things like weather, traffic, school closings etc.

I would love to hear your thoughts, but even more important, I would love to hear the thoughts of people who don’t listen to radio and what would entice them to return.

The future of radio will be based on attracting the next generations.

We won’t know what they want if we don’t ask them.

“Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit

is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety.”

-Tim Berners-Lee

 

 

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