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.
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.
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 www.reelradio.com (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.