Inside Boss Radio, Many Years Later
Here’s what legendary program director Ron Jacobs wants you to do during a ratings period.
Winning, he writes, depends on:
- “Selling the contest and back-plugging the winners!
- “Keeping excitement up about the [station] concert!
- “Plugging the other jocks [and] mentioning [local] areas!
- “Rewording the one-liners!
- “Watching the music balance! Keeping a hit on at :15!
- “Selling ‘more music’ at the start of sweeps!
- “Preparing what you’re going to say so it’s entertaining!
- “Considering who is listening. [Teens and active listeners] make up [only] about 5% of the general audience!
- “Preparation! Concentration! Moderation!”
These days, of course, many broadcasters are in a ratings period all the time. But KHJ was generally contesting all the time in the mid-‘60s, not just during ratings. In fact, many of Jacobs’ mid-to-late-‘60s memos to the staff of “Boss Radio” KHJ Los Angeles prove surprisingly timely (one shares the results of a survey where 59% of respondents preferred station events to big-ticket prizes).
Many of the memos are prompted by battles that programmers have fought with their airstaff for the last 50 years — or some, like answering the request lines, that ended only because the phones stopped ringing. There are a lot of memos about jocks’ choice of gold titles, back when those were still at the jocks’ discretion and not on a log (although Jacobs threatens to install one). In a business that was itinerant until recently, there’s a memo to the overnight jock assuring him that he’s safe to buy a house.
Many of Jacobs’ memos are written in a tone that a radio-station general manager would actively discourage in 2019. (I’ve spared you the all-caps, underlining, and multiple exclamation points that actually punctuate the above checklist.) In his memos to the entire airstaff, Jacobs individually critiques KHJ’s jocks — including such stars as Robert W. Morgan and the Real Don Steele — in detail that dramatically fails to comply with “praise in public, critique in private.”
A lot of that badgering is about complacency. Under Jacobs and Bill Drake, KHJ was already the much-copied double-digit station behemoth commemorated in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Long before Tarantino, the memos show, KHJ was being featured in TV and movies on a regular basis as a way of signifying that the action was taking place in L.A. Yet, the message to the staff was often, “Damn it, we cannot afford to coast, ever, for even one [break].”
Jacobs died in 2016. His memos are a significant part of KHJ: Inside Boss Radio, the 400-page station commemorative that Jacobs and veteran programmer Guy Zapoleon published in 2002. (Zapoleon still has copies of the hard-to-find print edition available, e-mail him here for info). But there’s also an extensive oral history of the station from Jacobs, Drake, Morgan, Steele, Humble Harve, Charlie Tuna, competing programmers, record producers of the era, various members of the Monkees, and numerous other station staffers less remembered today.
There’s also a lot of top 30 surveys, print ads, and other station ephemera, as well as detailed contest memos from a station that was always in at least one major promotion. (The Monkees connection is that the station got an early look at the pilot episode of the group’s TV series; when Monkeemania began, the station had already secured a “Last Train to Clarksville” for listeners to ride with the band to a special live performance.) When KHJ actually decided to start putting time in between major contests, Jacobs had to write a memo explaining that one, too.
I came to my appreciation of KHJ gradually. WABC New York was in my backyard. WLS Chicago was easily audible at night. So were my chief influences, CKLW Detroit and WKBW Buffalo, N.Y. When I began to understand radio programming in the mid-‘70s, a 5,000 watt station in Los Angeles could be known to a teenager in the northeast only through its weekly adds in the trade magazines. In 1977, KHJ had one of the tightest playlists in the country.
As I began to hear more about the station responsible for tighter playlists and shorter jock breaks, it was easy to work backwards and assume that KHJ was the station that made radio boring. Isn’t that what the station where Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” was No. 1 all summer would have done? CKLW had the same Drake DNA but it meant much more to me, and it still started songs in 1977.
With time, and with access to airchecks of Steele, Morgan, and others, I came to understand that KHJ wasn’t the station that eliminated personality — the easy, reductive take often heard from the consumer press and disgruntled older DJs — but the station that codified it. As AM music radio faded, KHJ’s domination ended relatively early (it was last the market leader in 1974), but most subsequent major programming developments of the next 25 years, from the early-‘70s Super Q to the hot hits ‘80s, were informed by Drake top 40, and the best ones were attempts to make it even tighter and hotter.
I also came to realize that KHJ in its heyday was far more interesting musically than the station I learned about a decade later. Friends who grew up in Southern California remember KRLA as being first on more songs, but looking at surveys now (in the book and the many available online), KHJ played a lot of songs that were far from confirmed national hits, and many of Tarantino’s choices commemorate that.
I first delved into Inside Boss Radio on the weekend that Once Upon a Time opened. Weeks later, I’m still finding new things. A broadcaster reading today will come away with a dozen still-usable contest ideas (if not the seemingly unlimited budget to execute them). One of Jacobs’ cajoling memos reminds the Boss Jocks how many promotional dollars are being spent on their behalf while they “sit reading the racing form.”
The memos also provide a social history of the late ‘60s — KHJ softening its format in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations; Jacobs peppering his memos with the slang of the time (but still telling the jocks that the word “psychedelic” was now passé); above all, trying to figure out how to follow the music as it evolved, but remain mass appeal. Tarantino remembers KHJ as the soundtrack of the spring and summer of ’69. It was really a feedback loop.
Zapoleon, whose first connection with KHJ was winning a car from the station in 1969, went into semi-retirement earlier this year, but only semi-retirement, meaning that he continues to carry the lessons of the station forward. That’s important at a time when complacency for broadcast radio means more than merely jeopardizing double-digit shares. He can be reached with inquiries about the book at firstname.lastname@example.org.