Thursday, September 15, 2011

And Now Ladies and Gentlemen...The Big 8!

 Frank Brodie in the main air studio at CKLW, Detroit/Windsor
Hear Pat read this entry

I remarked before how difficult the radio business can be on marriages, the number of people who can survive the many twists and turns of this career choice is small indeed.  The problem is often compounded by the fact that radio people are extremely insecure, almost anyone who works on the air can be replaced at any time.  I had one Program Director tell me “put your finger in a bucket of water, and pull it out.  The hole that's left is how much you'll be missed when you leave.”  Another well known consultant once likened on-air talent as “pieces of meat... use them and throw them away.”  I learned this early on in my career, and determined that if I was to be a “piece of meat” I'd be a damned expensive one, so I made sure that I had a exit plan in the ready when I needed it.  Also I decided that I would never feel any loyalty to any radio station... that's playing the sucker, and I was nobody's sucker.  If someone offered me a better deal, I wouldn't hesitate to jump on it.

For a talent like myself on his way up in the business, I couldn't waste time reflecting on my current status, there were just too many opportunities out there.  Everybody that ever sat behind a mike longed to work in one of the top markets.  The big cities like New York, L.A. Chicago, Philly etc.  is where the money was, and that's where the glory was.  The stations in those towns were legendary.  In New York there was WABC, the kingpin of ALL American Top-40 radio with fantastic air talent such as Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie and Herb Oscar Anderson.   In L.A. It was KHJ with Robt. W. Morgan, Charlie Tuna and Humble Harv.  In Chicago there were WLS and WCFL, engaged in a classic top-40 battle.  In Toronto there was 1050 CHUM, the greatest Top-40 station in Canadian radio history and one of the four or five top stations in the entire world.  It was to play a huge role in my future.  

But for now in Detroit there was CKLW!

CKLW was part of the RKO radio chain.  Located across the river in Windsor, ON it was a 50,000 watt, clear channel, fire breathin', Top-40 monster.   It was consulted by none other than the Great Kahuna of all consultants, the legendary Bill Drake.  Unlike WTTO, which relied on a tightly controlled playlist devoid of any local artists, CKLW boasted the greatest music director in radio history, Rosie Trombley.  Rosie could sniff out a hit from 2000 miles away.   Of course being within a bridge ride to the hottest music town on the planet helped a LOT.  Berry Gordy would actually hop in a car, and drive over to Windsor artist in tow, just to court Rosie's attention on a song.  She was untiring in her efforts to find great songs by Detroit artists to play.  Bob Seger wrote “Rosalie” as a tribute to her.   She could make any record a hit just by adding it to the CKLW playlist for a few days.

The “Drake Format” was really only an attempt to tame the excess clutter of most top-40 radio, and streamline things so that the music could flow unencumbered.  Bill insisted that we never play less than three songs in a row and that they be separated by short, acapella jingles which would serve as a bridge between two songs... fast to fast, fast to slow, slow to fast etc. Production was king with the Drake stations, and the format was designed to make the talent sound good.  RKO had a great farm club too.  Once a talent got their feet wet in the Drake formatics in a smaller RKO station, such as WHBQ in Memphis or WRKO in Boston, Bill Drake would bring them up to Detroit or San Diego, and later to WOR in N.Y. Or KHJ in Los Angeles.  It was a system that relied on a combination of great, locally focused programming, and flawless on air execution.  In other words, it's where I wanted to be!

WTTO was doing OK I suppose, but there were signs that things were beginning to fall apart.   Once Mike Joseph had depleted his bag of tricks, and we ran out of options for big giveaways, we began to see ratings slip again.  Now here's where the wise Program Consultant pulls his quick getaway.   Inevitably these tightly formatted stations lose listeners because they're just too sterile, too predictable.   When the novelty wears off, so does the audience.  So what does a slick programmer do?   Fire a jock of course!!!  “We know the format works, the fault must lie in the execution, fire such and such...”  By passing on the blame to some poor air schmuck, the consultant buys some time to fix what's really wrong.   But, of course they never do since “fixing” it would require a repudiation of everything he sold the station owners on in the first place, so the wise consultant knows when to cut bait and run.  That way he can say the the station failed because they didn't execute his brilliant formatics well enough, and in order to preserve his reputation he simply HAD to leave.  

Slick huh? I could see it coming.

I had driven up to Windsor to drop off a tape at CKLW. I really didn't think I had a snowball's chance in Hell of getting a job there... I'd have been delighted if I could just get a look at the place, but alas there was no one around to take me back.  I handed my tape to the guard at the desk and asked him to pass it along to Alden Diehl, the station's Program Director.  The guard agreed to do so and I left, not even thinking that Alden would ever get the tape let alone hire me.  But lo and behold, a couple of days later I got a call:

“Pat? Alden Diehl here.  I listened to your tape, and loved it.   Frank Brodie is coming off the overnight to work mid-days, would you be interested in taking over the all night show?”

WOULD I?   Man I broke the world's land speed record getting my fanny up to Windsor!   I was ushered back to Alden's office and hired immediately.   He took me around to meet Rosie, one of the most pleasant people I've ever had the good fortune to know.   I met Pat Holiday who was MOST enthusiastic to meet me, since he'd been working a double shift until they got someone.  Most importantly I was given my introductory packet and asked to be ready to start in a week.   I was on cloud nine, CKLW was my biggest dream, and I was sure it would be the highlight of my career.

I was wrong, it was just the beginning!

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