I once worked for a “Group Guy” who talked a lot about how broadcasters didn’t have a good sense of history, either of their own station or the industry in general. He was spot on, and I’ve seen that time after time over the years. One glowing exception to that is my friend Bob Shannon, who through his book Turn It Up! American Radio Tales 1946-1996 has captured radio history in a way that few before him had.
Bob wrote an article for a website today, and graciously allowed me to share it with you. If you have ANY connection to radio, I think you’ll enjoy it, and maybe learn a thing or two.
radioinfo | September 11, 2012
The importance of those who came before
By Bob ShannonSpotMedia ServicesPresident
MINNEAPOLIS – “Today the definition of media is changing at a pace that’s almost unrecognizable. It’s an exciting time with unlimited possibilities and opportunities for re-invention. But, it would be sad to forget, or worse yet, to never know what came before and how and why it set the stage for the future.”
Those are words I wrote in the foreword of my book, Turn It Up! American Radio Tales 1946-1996. The thing is, they’re true. Case in point, Elvis Presley.
As a child, Presley listened to Southern Gospel, Grand Ole Opry Country, hardcore gutbucket blues, and race music, what Billboard’s Jerry Wexler re-named rhythm and blues. Before he was 13 – this is just conjecture on my part, but I’ll bet it’s true – Elvis was listening to a local Memphis station, WDIA, where he likely heard 1948’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Wynonie Harris. And by the time he turned 15, in 1950, like every kid within earshot of a radio, there was WLAC beaming out of Nashville re-defining what American nighttime listening pleasure meant, especially in the backseat of cars.
What Presley learned he synthesized: Somehow, he took gospel, country, and R & B and mixed them together to create something new, something maybe even a little dangerous, a new potion the world had never heard before. Without his early influences Elvis would never have become what he did. But without Presley, what came after wouldn’t have either.
“Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been a Beatles.” – John Lennon
“When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” – Bob Dylan
“It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear, and somehow we all dreamed it.” – Bruce Springsteen
The Fathers and Sons of Contemporary Radio
What Elvis was to rock ‘n roll, Gordon McLendon and Todd Storz, the two men often called the “Fathers of Top 40,” were to radio. But, they didn’t do it alone. Among the names often lost to history is Bill Stewart. In 1954, right around the time Elvis was recording “That’s Alright, Mama,” Stewart, who’d been with Storz in Omaha to witness and “midwife” the birth of top 40 at KOWH, was in McLendon’s Dallas tightening KLIF’s playlist, creating a cume magnet, and re-inventing radio as a modern medium. Within 90 days KLIF went from #10 to #1. And it stayed there for years.
But, lest you miss the point, before music (read as records) came to radio, the medium was a giant, and what it did and how it did it still influences what we do today. Sadly, most of us don’t know it or even care.
On October 18, 2011, just short of six months after he celebrated his 101st birthday, Norman Corwin died. Ever heard his name? No? Well, I’m not surprised.
Corwin’s body of work has been described as “too prodigious, perceptive, personal and profound for me to even begin to list.” Whoa! Not only are these grand superlatives but they come from a man who is – I want to say this gingerly – not given to easy praise because, well because, his standards have always been incredibly high and he’s never, ever, accepted mediocrity. So, believe it when Ron Jacobs writes: “If you think it all began with Allen Freed and the rest of the Rock ’n Roll/Top Forty stations and deejays then you might want to learn more about the father of the “Theater Of The Mind” and most things good in radio.” (Click here.)
You may be saying, “Cool.” My response to that is — I wonder if you know who Jacobs is or why his contributions to American contemporary radio informs most of what is still being done today? Here’s a snippet of his story.
In 1965 Jacobs, along with consultant Bill Drake, re-invented Top 40 at KHJ, Los Angeles. Like many of radio’s success stories, KHJ’s Boss Radio was quickly copied in cities everywhere, by programmers who loved the way it sounded but had nary of notion of how the station was built to reflect the culture of the city it was licensed to; and, by aspiring baby disc jockeys trying to hone their craft and knew a good act when they heard it. (“Good Morgan, Tulsa!”)
“A friend from LA sent me a tape and I was stupefied,” says WPLJ, New York’s Scott Shannon. “Robert W. Morgan’s intelligence and one-on-one manner were an inspiration. When I was designing my early Scott Shannon ‘personality,’ I tried to borrow Robert W.’s speech patterns and intelligence and combine it with some of the Real Don Steele’s energy.”
In 1958, Jacobs flew from Hawaii to Flint, Michigan, where he met Mike Joseph. He recalls that Joseph changed the way he looked at things. “He was into formatics,” he told me, “and I’d never thought of radio that way. Before Mike Joseph there were no pie charts, and no clocks. For the first time, I could picture a wheel and shrink things down to an hour.” Another Jacobs’ mentor was Bill Gavin, the founder of The Gavin Report and the Music Director of “Lucky Lager Dance Time,” a pre-top 40-countdown show. “Bill taught me discipline. He told me that ‘we’re here to play the hits, not to sell records.’” Gavin also taught Jacobs how to structure a countdown show, a skill that came in handy when he and Tom Rounds launched “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem, in July of 1970.
But, the Big Kahuna was the show Jacobs produced while he was still at KHJ. It was called “The History of Rock ‘n Roll.” When we talked about it in 2002, Jacobs explained that the program would never have seen the light of day had he not been exposed to NBC’s “’Biographies In Sound,” during one of his first radio jobs, at KGU,Honolulu, Hawaii’s first radio station. (For the record, “The History of Rock and Roll” set the standard for all long-play radio specials that followed, including “Album Greats” and “The Royalty of Rock,” shows created over 30 years ago byRadioInfo’s publisher, Michael Harrison).
As for Mr. Jacobs, he just turned 75 and is alive and well in his beloved Hawaii. Besides radio, he’s the author of numerous books, including Obamaland: Who Is Barack Obama? and his soon to be published tome about football:NFL Locker Room Confessions.
Always busy and always irascible, Mr. Jacob’s body of work, like that of his hero, Mr. Corwin, is too prodigious, perceptive, personal and profound for me to even begin to list. (What I’m sure of is that I’ll hear from him if he doesn’t like what I’ve written.) Click here for his blog.
All of us have our heroes and, if we’re lucky, most of us find a mentor or two along the way. For Jacobs, everything he did at KHJ and, subsequently, at KGB,San Diego, Watermark Productions, Radio Express, on the radio and in print came from what he learned from those who came before and his own sparking intuition.
By the way, I can’t write about Jacobs without acknowledging that one of his biggest heroes and mentors was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager. “The Colonel became one of the idols of my life. Whenever I produce anything, I ask myself, “How would Colonel do this?” (Omission of the word “the” in front of “Colonel” is intentional.)
Bytes and Pieces
Harvard was fine, but only to the degree that it helped him reach his immediate goals. Once it didn’t, Mark Zuckerberg, like Bill Gates before him, was gone.
In 1975, Gates left Cambridge, MA for Albuquerque, and left academia to meet Ed Roberts, the man who invented the Altair 8800, the first “personal computer.” Paul Allen and Bill Gates, along with thousands of hobbyists, first read about Roberts and his invention in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics and by March the boys – and they were still boys – were in the desert showing Roberts the computer language they’d developed, what came to be called Altair Basic. (By the way, Roberts wasn’t one to pay attention to product names and so he left it to the editor of Popular Electronics, Lee Solomon to come up with something catchy. It was Solomon’s daughter, Lauren, who suggested the computer be named after the planet the Starship Enterprise was heading towards that night on television, Altair Six.) Roberts agreed to distribute Altair Basic and he and the two Microsoft founders worked out a deal that would allow Roberts to earn ownership of the product once he’d achieved a goal based on sales. What the agreement didn’t foresee was that the fledgling MS would and did create other versions of Basic, which they alone would continue to own. This ownership position, prior to the development of MS-DOS in the early eighties, was what Microsoft’s success was built on.
In 2010, when Ed Roberts died Gates paid tribute to his mentor. “Ed was willing to take a chance on us – two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace – and we have always been grateful to him. The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things.” Indeed, and Gates never looked back. Interestingly enough, particularly if you’ve seen “The Social Network,” such behavior rings a bell. But, I’ll leave the dot connecting to you.
In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard with no degree, moved to Palo Alto and connected with Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster. Parker, while sensing that Zuckerberg was wet behind the ears, but on the right track, introduced him to the Silicon Valley keepers of the money train. Yes, it really was Parker who suggested it be called Facebook rather than THE Facebook and it was Parker taught Zuckerberg how to build a business and, more importantly, how to maintain control of it.
Another of Zuckerberg’s mentors – and you see this coming, don’t you? – was Steve Jobs. When Jobs died, Zuckerberg posted this message on his Facebook page: “Steve, thanks for showing me that what you build can change the world.”
Jobs, himself, was heavily influenced by a college friend named Robert Friedland, a man described as charismatic and able to bend situations to his very strong will. In Walter Isaacson’s book on Jobs, an Apple engineer remembers Friedland as being mercurial, confident and a little dictatorial. “Steve admired that, and he became more like that after spending time with Robert.”
On The Shoulders of Giants
I know I left out a lot of names. In radio: Marconi, Tesla, Armstrong, Sklar, Drake and Donahue. And, in the computer world: Hewlett and Packard, Tim Berners-Lee (the Father of the internet), and Andreessen. But, my goal isn’t to pay homage to individuals, it is to say that all of us owe a debt to those who came before, and have a responsibility to pass what we’ve learned on to those who will follow.
That doesn’t mean that just because someone is old, he or she has pearls of wisdom. (I particularly like what Bob Lefsetz wrote on this subject a few weeks ago: “That’s what’s wrong with the old farts. Especially in the music business. They’re so busy resting on their laurels, they don’t want to take a chance, they’re eaten alive by youngsters experimenting in new forms, taking risks.”) By the same token, it also doesn’t mean that those who fly around on the wild and crazy wings of youth have all the answers simply because they’ve just learned how to fly.
Here’s the takeaway: If you’re young and you think you know it all, you don’t. If you’re older and you think you’ve nothing more to contribute, it’s not true. And if you’ve been fortunate to reach what we call old age — like my father, who’ll turn 90 next March God willing — there aren’t enough words to thank you. Because of you, because of what you did, and because of what you left behind for me to build on, I’ve been able to move the cheese forward and give my daughter something to build on too.
I get that we didn’t start the fire, and I believe that the circle will be unbroken.
Bob Shannon, a veteran DJ, programmer, syndication executive and writer, is president of Minneapolis-based SpotMedia Services and the author of “Turn It Up! American Radio Tales 1946-1996.” He can be phoned at 206-755-5162 or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.