Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Radio Waves Podcast #121

Radio: April 1, 2016
 Why radio is doomed to failure. And why it won’t.
 The announcement by CBS Chairman Les Moonves to look into various ideas to “maximize shareholder value” in regard to the company’s radio division led to numerous statements by industry observers that the stations would be sold, perhaps as a unit, perhaps individually. I don’t see that happening (see this column last week) but it does allow for some reflection on the state of the industry.
 First off, radio is dead. The experiment in allowing unlimited numbers of stations to be owned by a small handful of companies has not resulted in benefits to either consumers nor owners. Not even advertisers. 
 Instead, large radio companies have found themselves saddled with huge debt loads they can’t repay. Radio’s most valuable asset -- creative talent -- has been cut to the bone causing extremely talented personalities, programmers and managers to leave the industry outright, with few to take their places.  Every major company -- including iHeart Media and Cumulus,  as well as CBS --  have seen advertising revenues tumble, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of problems, while cuts in talent and promotions have caused creativity and competition to decline, causing people to seek out other means of entertainment.
 To make matters worse, many stations have added to the number of commercials each hour, diluting the value of each spot and making advertising effectiveness decline. 
 The net result? Companies like iHeart Media and Cumulus are currently trying to convince debt holders to finance a new house of cards in order to give them more time ... most likely to fail as they fall into bankruptcy ... and CBS -- the crown jewel of corporate broadcasting -- is trying to figure out what to do.
 If it sounds like I’m down on radio, you’d be wrong. As it turns out, recent events in the industry -- especially the announcement from CBS --  actually have me hopeful than in years that things will turn around, and radio can thrive once again. Essentially, CBS is sending out the message that deregulation has indeed failed, but that market conditions will do what the FCC has been unable to do: bring back rational ownership limits. Radio is not dead after all; I believe it may be ready to soar.
 I see it this way: a company with hundreds of stations cannot possibly focus as it needs on content and sales. Resources are just spread too thin. As companies are forced to divest of stations to pare down debt or free resources (and the formerly corporate-owned stations go independent or to small companies) managers can focus on content, truly compete, and bring listeners back.
 Call it a radio renaissance.
 As in all businesses, radio thrives when it competes. Deregulation and the removal of ownership caps allowed companies to set up virtual (and real) monopolies. What’s the difference between KOST (103.5 FM) and KBIG (104.3 FM)? Besides frequency, not much. Because both are owned by iHeart, they don’t compete so much as try to be different enough to attract listeners while not taking listeners from each other. Far from the days when KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) and KLOS (95.5 FM)  would try to out stunt each other for attention. it’s what made radio fun.
 My hope is that the anti-consolidation trend continues. I don’t necessarily want any company to dissolve (though I would not be heartbroken if they did). If no company owned more than two or three stations in a market, it would go a long way toward bringing back the competitive forces that fostered creativity, fun and a variety of formats that are currently not being heard.
 In my opinion, radio done right cannot be beat for entertainment. Sure MP3 players and online music services are good, for music. But they can’t match the local content and live personalities found on radio. Stations like The Sound (100.3 FM) have even added more personality in the last few months. I find online services frankly boring. And the fact that so many people stay with radio in spite of the industry’s recent problems shows the potential to bring radio back to greatness is huge.
 I’m actually excited. I hope I’m right.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Radio Waves Podcast #120

Airwaves: March 25, 2016

A long rumored sale by CBS of its entire radio division is in the works according to numerous sources. CBS is the owner of local Los Angeles stations KNX (1070 AM), KRTH (101.1 FM) Jack (93.1 FM), KTWV (94.7 FM), Amp Radio (97.1 FM) and KROQ (106.7 FM). Nationwide the company owns 117 stations in 26 markets.

The rumor of a sale came from comments made by CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, who said last week that he was exploring “strategic options” for the radio division that was once a crown jewel for the company but now appears to be holding it back.

However, while I am the first to admit that I’d like to see the stations become locally owned and operated, nothing in the statement indicated that a sale was imminent, nor that it would happen soon. On the contrary, Moonves was clear to say that he was exploring options -- which could include anything from spinning off the division as a separate company to selling stations wholesale. He was also clear in stating that the company would take its time in deciding what to do as it hopes to “unlock shareholder value.”

Unlike Cumulus and iHeart Media, CBS never went on a buying spree that left it saddled with debt it cannot pay. The only station recently sold is KFWB (980 AM), a station it held illegally for over a decade as it found itself over the ownership limit. But as a company, with notable exceptions such as KFRC/San Francisco where it stupidly sold the best signal in the area, it tends to do at least a decent job running stations.

CBS is even one of the last group owners to have live personalities on many stations overnight, something dropped by many stations years ago.

Essentially, CBS is the victim of bad moves by competitors that have brought down the entire industry. Bad programming and huge commercial loads have driven people to find alternative means of entertainment ... and advertisers to find ways to make ads stand out. Radio itself, though -- at least in my opinion -- still has a lot of life left in it, and can easily be “fixed.”

Personally, I don’t see CBS selling outright. They MAY spinoff the division as a separate publicly-traded company, at which time it would ironically be able to buy the likes of Cumulus and iHeart Media which ave been teetering on bankruptcy.
But what I see instead is CBS selling what they consider underperforming stations or clusters in underperforming markets and holding on to its crown-jewels, such as KNX, KROQ and KRTH. The remaining group of stations would add much to the bottom line of the company while allowing resources to focus on rebuilding a brand damaged less by itself than by its competitors.

That’s actually what should be done by iHeart and Cumulus, though time is short for those companies feverishly trying to restructure debt. And it’s why the FCC should reinstate ownership limits so that no company can own more than three stations in a market and no more than 50 stations nationwide. The combination on local ownership and reduced or eliminated debt will do much to save radio.
It’s not Spotify or iTunes or anything else hurting radio, it’s the current ownership structure created by the FCC deregulating the industry and essentially eliminating caps on the number of stations one company can own. We know that now. Will the impotent FCC ever do anything about it?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Radio Waves Podcast #119

Airwaves: March 18, 2016

Shortly after the sad news that legendary disc jockey and programmer Charlie Tuna had passed away came news that programmer John Rook had died. Then just a few days later, programmer -- and former boss of Tuna himself -- Ron Jacobs passed away.

You may not necessarily know the names Rook and Jacobs, unless of course you read this column religiously. But both are known as industry leaders who helped shape radio; both influenced radio in their own ways ... at the same time.

John  Rook

Rook is perhaps best known in Chicago, where he programmed top-40 WLS, building it into Chicago’s highest-rated station. WLS led the ratings during Rook’s tenure of 1967 to 1970; in 1970, he left to head radio consulting company AIR -- American Independent Radio -- later known as Drake-Chenault. By 1972 he formed his own company, John Rook and Associates; among his clients was WLS competitor WCFL which, with Rook’s help, soon overtook WLS and dominated the ratings in Chicago for a few years.

His connection with Los Angeles comes by way of KFI (640 AM), which hired Rook as programmer in 1977. Rook made KFI into what might be called an adult-leaning top-40, compete with new jingles, full promotions and a real advertising budget. Almost out of nowhere, KFI’s “hot parade” format started making inroads against longtime leader KHJ (930 AM) and relative top-40 newcomer Ten-Q (KTNQ, 1020 AM). Among KFI’s personalities hired by Rook: Big Ron O’Brien, Eric Chase, Jackson Armstrong and Charlie Fox, all of whom gave the former sleepy giant a level of excitement that was hard to beat. As it turned out, KFI ended up out-lasting both KHJ and Ten-Q in the format, with KHJ going country in 1980 and Ten-Q going Spanish in 1979.

Like WLS and WCFL, KFI’s ratings dropped after Rook left in 1982, as it morphed into a light-rock station and essentially holding on until it went talk in 1988.

Interestingly, Rook was hired in 1988 to program KABC just as KFI was making it’s serious move into the format. He quickly found that management questioned every move and often reversed his decisions. One infamous example: Rook tried to sign up Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated program for KABC; management said “it was not KABC material” and he was rebuffed. Limbaugh’s show ended up on KFI is considered major reason for KABC’s nosedive in the ratings as KFI quickly dominated the format.

Rook was a strong opponent of deregulating the radio industry, especially in regard to the ownership limits. He felt allowing companies to hold large numbers of stations would hurt independent owners and ultimately harm the industry; history proves he was absolutely correct. Unfortunately the inept and impotent Federal Communications Commission didn’t listen, didn’t care, or both. Today’s sad state of radio is exactly what Rook predicted.

Rook died in his sleep of natural causes on March 1st. He was 78.

Ron Jacobs

Before programmer Ron Jacobs arrived to work with consultants Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, KHJ was a has-been. One of LA’s oldest radio stations (dating back to 1922), KHJ had a long history of great programming. But the decade prior to 1965 was  not kind. It had gotten so bad that most employees inside the building at 5515 Melrose in Hollywood didn’t think the new team would last any longer than the previous few programming teams.

They were wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Based on what all of them learned as they competed in Fresno, the team put together a tight top-40 format that came to be known as Boss Radio. Launching as a sneak preview in late April, 1965 due to competitor KFWB (980 AM) trying to steal format elements without actually knowing what they were, the station was the first in Los Angeles to be programmed primarily for teens, but with careful attention paid so as to not push away adults. In doing so, Jacobs, Drake and Chanault’s KHJ revolutionized top-40 radio throughout the country.

Airchecks of KFWB (980 AM) and the original KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM) of the era demonstrate the difference. While all three played top-40, both KFWB and KRLA tended to be a lot less music-intensive. DJs were allowed to talk more, jingles ran longer, and there was a lot more “clutter” on the air. While attracting teens, the primary focus was more broad, and KFWB even ran promos highlighting that “my mommy listens to KFWB.”

At KHJ, however, Jacobs enforced a strict policy of minimal DJ chatter, well-produced promos and commercials, a limit on commercial minutes and high-energy at all times.  Call letters were never to be said before commercial sets, only music, so that mentally KHJ would be associated with music. Contests were big: big-budgeted as well as designed to sound bigger than life ... as was the goal for the station. Even the time was to be brief: 7:40 is much faster to say than “20 minutes before 8.”

Jacobs changed the music mix when teens were out of school and listening to the radio, meaning that the station sounded a bit different depending on the time of the day and the time of year. He constantly monitored the station and could be quite feared by DJs who were the brunt of his calls on the studio hotline.

He also made sure that the air staff worked together. Jock meetings were held weekly and everyone had to attend. “How can you feel part of a team if you never get together with the rest of the team?” he reflected in an audio interview Mike Stark and I did with Jacobs last year. DJs promoted each other on the air.

Within months, KHJ was at the top of the ratings; KFWB would switch to news in 1968, while KRLA would eventually try an album-oriented approach.

Jacob’s final project at KHJ was the original production of The History of Rock and Roll in 1969 (interestingly, John Rook would help with a syndicated version of the documentary when he worked at Drake-Chenault), a 48-hour look back at the development and evolution of rock and roll music. Voiced by Boss Jock Robert W. Morgan, you can hear it on (donation required).

After leaving KHJ in 1969, Jacobs co-founded radio content supplier Watermark; one of the first projects was to create -- with Casey Kasem -- beloved national countdown show American Top-40.
In 1972 it was on to San Diego and radio station KGB, which was being beaten badly by KCBQ (one of the few instances in which a Boss Radio station was beaten). Jacobs evaluated the market, produced a repeating program that ran all one weekend mocking himself as the station was “recycled” (recording also available on ReelRadio), and then launched KGB as an album-oriented rock station. It was Jacobs who created the “Homegrown” series of albums that highlighted local bands; he also came up with the idea for the KGB Chicken, a wildly popular mascot that attended events throughout San Diego and helped promote the station.

Jacobs was also a concert promoter, writer, blogger and Facebook poster; his influence on radio will be felt forever. His “Inside Boss Radio” is available on Amazon.Com as a Kindle download (for the KHJ price of $9.30) He died March 8th at his home in Pearl City, Hawaii. He was 78.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Radio Waves Podcast #118

Airwaves: March 11, 2016

Last week was not a good week for top-40 radio fans. News came out that two of the people who helped shape the format -- Charlie Tuna and John Rook -- passed away. Tuna is a legend in this town; this week I will focus on him; next week I’ll speak of the many accomplishments of Rook.

Charlie Tuna is a name almost everyone who grew up listening to KHJ (930 AM) -- or most recently KRTH (101.1 FM) -- knows. Legendary doesn’t quite describe Tuna, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1967 to be among the original KHJ Boss Jocks, first following Robert W. Morgan in the 9 a.m. to 12 noon shift and eventually taking over mornings when Morgan left. Twice. His first show in 1967 came on Thanksgiving Day, Tuna on Thanksgiving. 

He came by way of KGFW in his hometown of Keraney, Nebraska where he used his given name of Art Ferguson on the air. After that it was Wichita, Kansas (as “Billy O’Day”), Oklahoma City where he took on the name Charlie Tuna as the end result of a station;s inside joke, and then KHJ. On KHJ the original plan was to use his given name; a few days before his first shift management decided to stick with Tuna, which he used ever since.

It is said that Tuna was part of more stations and air-shift times than any other DJ in and around Los Angeles, and that may be right. Besides KHJ where he hosted mornings under different programmers and three different tenures, he was on the original KROQ (then at 1500 AM), the great KKDJ (now 102.7 FM) which Tuna oversaw becoming a simulcast of KIIS (1150 AM and new call letters for 102.7 FM), KTNQ (1020 AM), KHTZ (now KAMP, 97.1 FM), the original KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM), KODJ (now KCBS-FM, 93.1), KMPC (now KSPN 710 AM), KABC (790 AM), KIKF (now KEBN 94.3 FM), KLAC (570 AM), KBIG (104.3 FM), and of course KRTH.

He was the announcer on numerous television shows, acted in movies, had syndicated radio programs on stations throughout the United States, was heard on Armed Forces radio, voiced numerous commercials, and until recently was the voice of KDOC Channel 56.

In 1971 just prior to the Sylmar earthquake, he signed on for his morning shift on KHJ, mentioning that he had trouble sleeping and was “feeling a little shaky” due to a recurring dream. As the first song of his shift spun on the record player, “Born to Wonder” by Rare Earth, the quake hit and the record record started warbling. Eventually the station was knocked off the air
Through everything and through the years, he was absolutely upbeat with the same pipes he had as a hip young Boss Jock. He sounded as great this year as in 1967, and he never wanted to focus on the past. “I think I have the best job in the world, and I’m having as much fun on the air now as I ever have,” he told me in an interview from his KBIG days.

He passed away in his sleep at what I consider a too-young 71 years old. He had been ill for a few weeks and doctors couldn’t figure out what it was. He leaves behind his wife, two daughters and two sons, who ask that memorial donations be made to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Tuna’s longtime charity.



“What I’ll always remember about Mr. Ferguson is is versatility. He was at 710/KMPC when they were all sports, I remember the late Joe McDonnell greeting Charlie Tuna while McDonnell-Douglas were doing their afternoon show. Tuna was there preparing for the next day’s morning program, Big Joe admired Tuna’s work ethic. 

“Whatever format he was doing, Charlie Tuna came prepared. I also heard him on KIK Country (KIKF) as well as doing both Top 40, Adult Contemporary, and Oldies at different L.A. outlets. Best to his family and friends.” — Alan Oda


“It was 1976…about 18 months after leaving my first radio job at KDES-Palm Springs, to join the fading former Orange County AM Giant, KEZY 1190-Anaheim. In March of ’76, the management decided to fire us all…the entire line-up of DJs to create a new image with a new team (didn’t work!).

“I arrived at the station around 3pm before my nightly 7pm show after finishing an appearance that afternoon with another KEZY DJ, Paul Freeman, at an Irvine school to promote our big March of Dimes Walkathon. In my In Box was a memo from management announcing our termination (no warning, no phone call, no meeting). 

“I read it in the lobby in disbelief when the receptionist pointed out that I had another message in my box. It was a phone message that Charlie Tuna, then Program Director of KIIS AM & FM had called me to offer me a job! He already knew that I was out of work and had a job for me the next day. That job at KIIS-FM lasted over 7 years, and I ended up being the Program Director there for several years before moving on to Corporate Programming jobs.

“Thank you Charlie!

“I last saw him a few years ago at a live remote he was doing on K-EARTH at the OC FAIR. He sounded just the same as he always did. Was glad to work with him again at KRLA, where I was Program Director and where he did mornings for a few years.” —-Mike Wagner


“In November of 1967, I was the engineer sitting across from the KHJ Boss Jocks. I played records and commercials. All the DJ had to do was be a great DJ. My first shift of the day was 9AM to 12Noon. My second shift was 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. with The Real Don Steele. But one day during that November, a lanky new Boss Jock was introduced in the 9AM to 12Noon slot. His name was Charlie Tuna. Actually, his real name was Art Ferguson, but the station programmers liked Charlie Tuna better.

“Within a short few weeks, Charlie asked me to bring along my wife, and join him and his wife at their apartment in North Hollywood. We ate pizza and watched Laugh In. That turned into a regular Monday night thing for us all. Charlie would talk about some of the bits he was going to do and I would sometimes add a very small fraction of the humor. The Monday night hook-ups were great because it prepared us both for the shows that would follow.

“Spending three hours a day with any one person draws you very close. It doesn’t take long before you’re sharing great stories. I was already enjoying that closeness with The Real Don Steele. Getting to know Charlie Tuna was equally enjoyable. There are thousands of memories I’ll never forget.

“When Charlie and his wife Sharri moved to Tarzana, it would be where he lived the rest of his life. His legacy as one of the premier Los Angeles air personalities came full circle. His first LA station was KHJ. His last station in LA was K-Earth. Back in 1967, K-Earth was KHJ-FM.” — John Badeaux

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Radio Waves Podcast #117

Airwaves: March 4, 2016
The early days of FM broadcasting were interesting, to say the least. The genesis of FM came from the brilliant mind of Major Edwin Armstrong, who had done much to improve AM yet still hated it ... he hated the sound and he knew the limitations (some of which have more recently been solved) including static interference from both local sources -- household motors, etc. -- and atmospheric, such as lightening; limited audio quality; and interference between stations, especially at night.
Anyway, Reader and radio engineer Bob Burchett has some interesting tidbits regarding early FM broadcasting, especially as it pertains to local powerhouse KBIG (104.3 FM).
“KBIG started in 1959 on FM simulcasting the same audio as an AM station (KBRT) on Catalina Island owned by John Poole. It was Poole who hired the venerable Carl “Mr. Big” Bailey, the first DJ at KBIG. And it was Bailey who was the “BIG” that became the call sign. To make it really cool it was also the big POWER being 65,000 watts (to this day) which is pretty phenomenal … grandfathered in and all; we could NEVER get a station licensed legally with that much power these days! We used to laugh that to hear the station your radio didn’t even need a battery in it.
“SCA (Sub Carrier Authorization) came into being for stereo-only stations during the transition period when owners had to buy incredibly expensive equipment to transmit stereo to radios that could not even lock-on to the 19 KC pilot tone that that causes the radio to decode stereo (the stereo light glowing on your radio is triggered by that as well). In other words, they were sending stereo to radios that mostly could not even pick it up!
“But KBIG had SCA, and they were tagged by the SCA Paging company to transmit numeric data paging (beepers by another name) so folks could dial-in to the paging terminal and the signal was transmitted by KBIG in Los Angeles, as well as stations in each major metropolis across the United States.”
The New KCLA
It is Burchett, by the way, who is behind San Pedro’s own KCLA -- Calling Los Angeles, a low-power station broadcasting from the top of a hill in Palos Verdes. With one watt. And you wonder why you never heard them.
Burchett says the current location is and was always going to be temporary in order to keep the licensing process alive. He is working on moving it to a lower elevation thus allowing a legal increase to a maximum of 100 watts.
By the time you read this, KFWB as you know it will be gone. Of course many feel that happened already. Twice or three times. But Monday February 29th was the last day for The Beast 980; in its place is a syndicated South Asian format known as Desi 980.
Former KFWB reporter Steve Kindred checked in to say that a reunion for anyone who has ever received a paycheck from the station” is planned for 5 PM March 12 at the Golden Dragon Restaurant, 960 North Broadway in Chinatown. There is a sign-up page in Google Groups, and you can contact Kindred or engineer Richard Rudman for details. If you are an alumni and having trouble getting information, drop me a line and I’ll forward it to Kindred.
Quick correction
I had it right. My computer changed it. Last week’s mention of KPOP changing to KGRB and later KTNQ should have stated KGBS instead of KGRB. KRGB -- as mentioned the week prior -- was a station playing Big Band music on 900 AM.