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Chapter 8: Top 40s Radio Legacy through KYW’s Eyes

Top 40 rock and roll radio stations came in all shapes and sizes. First envisioned by Gordon McLendon and Todd Storz as a way of steadily increasing station revenues by promoting greater numbers of lucrative spot advertisements per hour, shrewd program planners rapidly seized upon this broadcasting sensation with great results. Unquestionably, Top 40 radio in the ‘50s captured the excitement of live broadcasting in a way few other past programming choices had done. By the 1960s, Top 40 programming had far exceeded any of its initial goals or objectives. It successfully brought together the never ending need of advertisers to sell greater and greater amounts of consumer items on air with the many ardent listeners who wanted to hear even more rock and roll music on their favorite AM station. That fabled story enabled Top 40 broadcasters to generate consistently high profits year after year.

It became clearer and clearer to most commercial radio programmers that the hype they had used to entice larger and larger numbers of advertisers did indeed reflect their company’s carefully throughout business objectives. In their minds following any other agenda seemed less than smart given their current high return on their investment. That being said, station promoters and programmers in the 50s’ and ‘60s more and more customized their advertisements to better reflect the changing needs and wants of their distinct listening audiences. Once perfected, advertisers repeatedly hammered home their special messages 24/7Believe me, no radio listener ever confused a Manufacturer Hanover Bank advertisement being broadcasted on New York’s leading classical music station WQXR with a Coppertone skin care product featured on that same city’s leading Top 40 station WABC. Those products they advertised appealed to vastly different groups. The same might be said about popular Top 40 strategies found in mid-size markets such as Cleveland. No matter the promotion employed by a specific station, Top 40 programming played the same group of two to three minute 45s over and over again with plenty of ads; community announcements and jingles thrown in for good measure. Talk shows and special features only added to the daily fun. A fast tempo kept the whole thing going.

News broadcasts at the top of the hour, five minutes before the hour and sometimes on the half hour rounded off their daily lineup. Many also aired religious programming. Those shows were frequently broadcasted on Sundays or in the wee small hours of the morning. Local jockeys not only had the responsibility of coordinating the ads and music to be heard on their different shows; but also, engaging in friendly banter with their admirers. They were also to help lessen public anxiety when emergencies such as the Northeast blackout of November 9, 1965 occurred. It that was not challenging enough, those same jocks were expected to make it all fun. After all, teens would not hesitate in the least to turn to another rock and roll station if for some unexpected reason their favorite spot on the AM dial should no longer entertain them.

For many Top 40 stations their daily broadcasting days closely resembled a three ring circus. In fact, many critics jokingly called it the “Greatest Show on Earth.” However, that was the whole point of itWell into the 60s, most Top 40s exhibited a mishmash of loud bells and piercing whistles intended for the sole enjoyment of their highly energized, younger listener. That also meant slightly off-color jokes and of course non-stop talking with plenty of rock and roll music in between. Many listeners turned to Top 40 stations to escape their boring daily routines while others simply enjoyed its personalized form of entertainment. In fact, many young people established a close bond with other teens, both far and near, who listened to those same stations. Ask nearly anyone who was a teenager or young adult during the late 1950s or early 1960s what his or hers favorite Top 40 station was, and they will not only yell out the call letters; but also, sing its jingles or mimic their favorite DJsThis experience was magnified even further by 50,000 watts giants like WABC, WBZ, WSB, WLS, WLW and KYW. Their clear signals at night extended over much of the U.S. and Canada. Many kids living in states like Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and New York forged a close bond as they listened to the fun sounds emanating from the greatest disc jockeys of the era. They included the likes of Bruce Bradley, Cousin Brucie, Jay Lawrence, Robert E. Lee and Joey Reynolds, to name but a few. The same held true in the West where Tom Donahue, Jimmy O’Neill and Real Dan Steele held court regularly.

Top 40 program coordinators more and more catered to their many devoted fans who depended on them for the very best in radio broadcasting. Of course, certain stations stood out among the crowd. Who can forget Top 40 leaders such as WMEXBoston, WABC-New York, WFIL-Philadelphia, WQXIAtlanta, WNOENew Orleans, WLSChicago, KIMNDenver, KJR-Seattle, KFRC-San Francisco and KHJ-Los Angeles? However, there were many others in smaller markets that left their indelible mark. WKBWBuffalo, KXOKSt. Louis, WHBKansas City and KOY-Phoenix fitted into that latter category. Of all those mid-sized markets, Cleveland, OH has been largely overlooked by many researchers in this field. That seems somewhat surprising since that city produced some very influential Top 40 stations, important broadcasting icons and some of the greatest rock and roll bands this nation had ever seen. Also, don’t forget that Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

KYW-Cleveland remained one of this country’s most admired radio broadcasters for over nine years. Its highly professional managers, fun lovin disk jockeys and top notched technicians were very impressive examples of how efficient AM outlets should have operated. As we saw earlier, the different managers at KY-11 did not automatically embrace the new Top 40 craze that was sweeping the nation in the late 50s. In fact, WBC eased into it gradually. It had every reason to proceed with caution. That proved to be a very wise move given the occasional cultural and racial flare ups that occurred in that largely blue collar community. That being said, its shrewd programmers knew that eventually their station would have to join the Top 40 bandwagon and they were entirely right.

Unfortunately, a host of internal and external business pressures made KYW’s successful transformation from a middleoftheroad music, news and talk station to a Top 40 contender slower than one might have initially expected. Like a middle weight boxing contender, it had to repeatedly prove its worth in the broadcasting ring before it could take the lead. Westinghouse’s seemingly never ending legal entanglements with the National Broadcasting Company, the Philco Corporation and RKO-General throughout the late ‘50s and early 60s did not expedite this process. Given what transpired over those critical years, how could the results have been much different? As we saw repeatedly, the NBC-WBC exchange in 56 was anything but smooth. As was pointed out throughout this writing, legal problems beset the whole thing from the very beginning as the National Broadcasting Company repeatedly tried to secure blanketed television coverage from New York City to Washington, D.C. For that to occur, NBC had to own and operate one of Philly’s prime television stations. Its Board of Directors considered several options before endorsing a station swap between WTAM in Cleveland and KYW in Philadelphia. The FCC finally approved the exchange in January 1956.

Questionable business ethics and thorny legal issues pertaining to NBC business practices greatly concerned the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. 3rd District Court in Philadelphia. The discovery that the National Broadcasting Company had coerced the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company into accepting that trade forced the feds to issue a cease and decease order against NBC in 59. Among other things, the DOJ consent decree demanded that RCA-NBC divest itself of its Philadelphia television holding no later than December 31, 1962. Additional pressure leveraged on NBC by the Philco Corporation in an attempt to snatch the WRCV-Philadelphia license out of the hands of the National Broadcasting Company resulted in a lengthy court battle that pitted the legal genius and financial resources of both parties against the other. Further legal complications surfaced in the fading months of 1960 when RKO-General approached the FCC to approve a similar NBC station trade. That exchange would have affected major radio and television stations in both Boston and Philadelphia.

After much legal wrangling, the feds finally denied the RKO petition claiming that it would not serve the public’s interests. Meanwhile, the 56 exchange received even greater scrutiny by the courts. Evidence increasingly revealed that NBC had knowingly and willing threatened to pull its affiliation from two Group W television stations, one in Boston and the other in San Francisco, if that deal failed to materialize. That network’s wrongdoing coupled with other potentially damaging evidence of gross misconduct by RCA-NBC directed the feds in the summer of 1964 to do something it rarely did reverse their earlier consent to the ’56 swap. The feds subsequently ordered both networks to return their stations to their original cities. That resulted in KYW-Cleveland going back to Philadelphia to become that city’s all-news radio station while WRCV-Philadelphia returned to Cleveland as WKYC to assume its new role as that city’s new prime Top 40 outlet.

All that legal uproar distracted Westinghouse from following through with its prime responsibility namely operating a successful AM-FM station and a local television outlet in Cleveland. Accomplishing that challenging business task was certainly a no brainer for Group W since that broadcasting company had a long history of success in that regard. It was the unnerving legal situation occurring from 1956 to 1965 that made what would have normally been a relatively simple task into an unsightly mess. During its first months of broadcasting in Cleveland, KYW managers wisely followed the same play book developed by its NBC forerunner at WTAM. KYW’s growing reliance on middleoftheroad music complemented by top quality newscasts, first class talk shows and very worthwhile community shows were reminiscent of its predecessor. However, that would soon change considerably. By mid-57, Cleveland’s KYW-Radio had started to break away from the accepted broadcasting norms. In fact, it debuted more, in-depth talk shows and highly sophisticated jazz programming as well as frequent newscasts and larger and larger doses of rock and roll music. It was all carefully orchestrated as listeners became acquainted with the exciting new sounds emanating out of 1100 on your AM dial. Its insightful program planners eagerly promoted such things as “cooler” DJs as a new and perhaps better way in which to get the message across to their listeners. Those radio personalities also prided themselves on offering a wide range of easy-to-win, fun contests. That tactic worked very well from the very first day of broadcasting.

Improved local ratings was a testimony to that outlet’s growing importance in the Greater Cleveland area. On the flip side of the dial, its popular FM station at 105.7 relied less and less on simulcasts as it furnished more and more top quality classical music shows accompanied by a multitude of stimulating conversations dedicated to numerous arts-related topics. In a very spirited move intended to promote even higher profits, KYW’s savvy programmers began adding a great deal more rock and roll music to their AM playlist. That newly revised format came at a cost to more traditional listeners. The station increasingly downplayed such things as the traditional big band sounds; favorite Sinatra-like crooners and fantastic Broadway show tunes. In its wake, fast-talking jocks complemented by speciallyattuned programming began to win the day. Community leaders in larger and larger numbers began publicly to thank KYW-Radio for promoting such things as better driving habits through its weekly broadcasts of traffic court. Its commitment to Cleveland also resulted in the decidedly successful “KYW Road Show.” Considered a prime training ground for future entertainers, this show donated most of its proceeds to local charities. That proud radio outlet also broadcasted the Westinghouse Broadcasting Companys much acclaimed nightly newscast while simultaneously expanding its own prize winning newscasts.

More and more the latest folk tunes and rock and roll music dominated KYW’s broadcasting day in the early 1960s. It also regularly sponsored exciting record hops intended for teenagers and young adults. As was pointed out earlier, its astute officials soon realized that the immediate future of AM radio definitely belonged to Top 40 programming and that this powerhouse had better join that movement quickly. The Westinghouse Company’s Board of Directors immediately reacted to mounting pressure to convert KYW-AM from a comfortable, middle-of-the-road radio outlet to an exciting Top 40 contender ASAP. It did just that in the autumn of ’63 when the Westinghouse board appointed one of that network’s brightest stars KEX-Radio’s Ken Draper as the newest KYW Program Director. He rapidly transformed that middle-oftheroad music station into Northeast Ohio’s biggest rock and station now known as KY11. Those inspiring business developments were not something new for this insightful stationAfter all, its leadership successes dated back to its earliest broadcasting days in Chicago. Understanding how both WBC and KYW operated not only enabled Ken Draper to gain the full trust of his many colleagues within months of his arrival; but also, encouraged him to pursue other, more radical program changes than were first proposed. A shoe-in as a major Midwest Top 40 station, 1100 AM quickly became Cleveland’s number one rock and roll outlet. That quick turnabout in its fortunes left many of its local rivals speechless. Had that popular station remained in Cleveland, in all probability, it would have continued to serve as a pacesetter. Its seeds for future greatness had been firmly planted within Cleveland’s very fertile soil by the late 50s. That is why many prominent radio personalities wanted to be a part of it.

However, KYW signified much more than just a great training ground for ambitious disk jockeys on their way up the corporate ladder. It was a rewarding experience for many jocks even if their station’s managers could be difficult. Most importantly for struggling radio stations, KY-11 afforded a workable blueprint that broadcasters could easily apply to almost any competitive setting. In fact, large and small stations alike frequently drew upon KYW’s vast programming content and unique delivery style to help them during difficult times. Fun guys, exciting jingles and promos, great sounding records, timely newscasts and the very best in sports coverage, traffic conditions and up-to-the-minute weather reports distinguished KYW-Cleveland from the emerging pack. In addition, its shrewd management encouraged its many prime broadcasters to become both the eyes and ears of their listeners. The continued financial success of any major U.S. radio outlet, during the uncertain times of the 50s and 60s, rested exclusively on achieving two major goals repeatedly. First, it had to maintain an intimate relationship with its many loyal fans. Second, it had to consistently broadcast the very best in music, news, sports, talk shows and weather.

Those business practices that governed the not so distant past should not be lost to modern broadcasters who are forced to meet the growing challenges posed by the abundance of listening options available in today’s market. Changes in broadcasting forms and styles may be good especially when your radio station takes a forceful lead when it comes to using them. Commercial radio leaders instantly knew that to be true seven decades ago. Their reward manifested itself repeatedly in large listening audiences, soaring revenues and minimum overhead costsFrom Cleveland to Parma and from Rocky River to Akron, 1100 AM was always there for you day and night. “My Baby Loves KYW, Yea, Yea, Yea,” but so did most of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio for over nine incredible years.


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KYW Radio by Richard Klein, PH.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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