Check out 15 timeless practices of music radio programming, inspired by an interview with the founding father of Boss Radio, the late radio consultant Bill Drake.
For many years, radio people from all over the world were inspired by what happened Stateside. American broadcasting legend Bill Drake helped to define the basics of Top 40 and format radio, and most of these rules still apply to (counter) radio programming today. Why to “almost go against the grain” and how “even subtle differences make differences”.
Format rules and programming ideas
that are still valid and relevant
Bill Drake’s radio career
Bill Drake (real name Philip Yarbrough, 1937 – 2008) begins his career as a DJ, but makes his name as a successful program director and authoritative radio consultant with a great influence on the American radio industry during the 1960s and ‘70s. He and his former boss Gene Chenault start a consultancy firm that builds legendary Top 40 brands in major markets across the US, such as KHJ Los Angeles, KFRC San Francisco and WOR New York. Drake-Chenault create and roll out the Boss Radio format, which proves to be a ratings magnet in the mid-late ‘60s. They not only provide format consultancy, but also radio jingles, syndicated shows and music tapes for automated radio stations.
The Drake formula is about building a big stationality and maintaining a strict format policy, like a closed music playlist and limited tune-out factors. Talk, jingles and spot breaks are kept short. Listening to Z100, KIIS and Capital in 2013, it feels like Top 40 is in a ‘Boss Radio phase’ again. Due to decreasing attention spans, shorter listening occasions and PPM ratings methods, clean formats with minimum interruptions and maximum flow are the rule.
15 radio programming lessons
We can learn a lot from the heydays of Contemporary Hit Radio and one of the best sources for it is This Business of Radio Programming [book] by Claude Hall and Barbara Hall. You can also find it in our list of the best radio books. Although it was written in 1977, this classic includes format rules and programming ideas that are still valid and relevant. After reading Hall’s interviews with Bill Drake, I took many notes and from these, I have listed 15 ideas to make better music radio, especially for Mainstream CHR, Rhythmic CHR and Hot AC. So here we go!
“You can’t be all over the road”
1. Take objective & researched decisions
In a time when call-outs, auditorium music tests and focus groups didn’t exist – and music research mainly consisted of keeping up with record store sales, incoming song requests and music industry magazines, Drake underlined the importance of doing it thoroughly. He made clear that a program director or music director should remove any personal taste and be objective. “Those stations that are more objective are those making the strongest gains”, he said, adding it’s crucial to continuously “make sure that what you’re researching still has validity”.
Bill Drake (here with KHJ music director Betty Brenneman) argued that even a Top 40 station should not just play every best-selling record under the sun. He wanted his client stations to reflect the (contemporary) lifestyle, beliefs and tastes of the (young) audience. Furthermore, all songs on the playlist had to be compatible (“you can’t be all over the road”) and also fit the desired on-air sound and brand image.
3. Stay tuned into trends
Drake found it important to monitor developments for both music cycles and individual songs. 93 KHJ kept a close eye on local record sales and national music charts to follow the life of a record, like if it was moving up or down and how fast. Apart from the 30 top hits (Boss 30) they promoted songs running up (Hit Bound), as seen on the promotion flyer below. The station also had a special shortlist of less often exposed image songs. Such low rotation songs were played to establish a certain perception of the station.
“In order to not be in the same bag,
you do it the other way”
4. Play currently relevant music
The radio consultant believed that even if a song was a number 1 hit, it should not automatically be moved to an Oldies station’s Gold song category nor stay there forever. Instead, stations should play music that fits the format policy and market situation at that time (and not forever). So even though was he was never wild of The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville, they played it anyway on KHJ. At the time, the station wanted to build teen listenership, and The Monkees were becoming popular and about to launch their TV show. “We felt that would be a phenomenon, no matter how short-lived. That doesn’t mean every record they put out, is going to be a good record for us.”
Drake explains why it’s key to think about how many currents vs. classics you play as “the entire sound depends on how fast your records turn around” and reveals that KHJ usually had around 35 currents in rotation, like 30 hits and 5 new ones. Interesting is the wide song separation time (“a minimum of 4 hours” for current hits) – a lot higher than what listeners are exposed to now. Besides hits, KHJ played some ‘golden’ songs (and probably also recurrents).
6. Develop Unique Selling Propositions
93 KHJ launched in a competitive market, challenging rival KRLA and secondary competitor KFWB. The newcomer was smart enough to enter a crowded market by finding a strong USP. “What we did was come in with a much cleaner thing”, Bill Drake recalls. “If everybody is loose, then a station that eliminates that sounds different and fresh.” KHJ sounded less obtrusive and much quicker. They also had a distinct music profile. When other stations were “Englishing themselves to death” during the British Invasion, KHJ played What The World Needs Now by Jackie DeShannon. “Just to avoid sameness… almost go against the grain. In order to not be in the same bag; to attract listeners and be different, you do it the other way.”
“Even subtle differences
7. Discuss programming ideas collectively
Listening to Bill Drake’s stories of 93 KHJ, it seems that they really carefully thought about the functionality and structure of every element. The programming team had a habit to discuss plans for programming changes before implementing them. “We ask every guy to knock all of the holes in the idea that he can – let’s find out where the flaws are before any idea gets on the air.” Drake, for example, was a big fan of consistent-sounding station imaging. He didn’t like one of the jingles, which said ‘93 KHJ Plays More Music’ as every other jingle only said ‘93 KHJ’ and left out their main positioning statement. “I said: why don’t we just invert the whole thing and be different? We just say ‘More Music KHJ’ or ‘Music KHJ’. There was a three-day discussion about that.”
Drake-Chenault’s main activity wasn’t consultancy, but to produce, copyright and re-sell broadcast-ready program content – all from pre-recorded radio automation tapes to music specials. A bestseller was The History of Rock and Roll, a 48-hour (and later 52-hour) rockumentary produced by the staff of 93 KHJ. According to Drake, it was a huge ratings success for KHJ and many of the (hundreds of) stations across the US that it was licensed to.
9. Change small, profit big
Drake thought that while your station’s programming strategy should include your own, original ideas, you don’t necessarily have to create a huge contrast. “Take things that are obviously there – they’re facts – and build from those. Even subtle differences make differences.” He learned how to achieve great results by fine-tuning little things one by one. When he programmed K100 (KIQQ, now KSWD), another CHR station in Los Angeles, it did very well in the female part of the 18-to-24 demographic, but not among males within the same age group. After a slight adjustment of the music playlist and overall tempo, the next ratings book was better. “It’s amazing how quickly adjustments like that will show and work.”
“Most contests are garbage”
10. Think twice about contests
The legendary programmer believed that contests and promotions are not absolutely necessary. “We did a lot of on-air promotions at KHJ, and we did almost none at KFRC in San Francisco – both stations were successful.” In his opinion, “most contests are garbage” and just “slapped on the air because the program director may be keeping up with what he thinks he has to do because you’re supposed to do it.” Instead, PDs should question whether a promotion really adds value, as most listeners aren’t interested. Contest participants are typically small in number and young of age. In terms of off-air promotions, he’s found that “anytime you put your call letters [or brand name and positioning] out anywhere that’s good”.
Drake and 93 KHJ’s original program director Ron Jacobs understood how to deliberately create diversions through counter programming and counter promotions. During the whole Beatlemania, KRLA took the position of being the Fab Four station in town. KHJ hyped Sonny & Cher instead, and made an event out of being the first to play I Got You Babe to disturb the competitor’s promotion and establish an original identity.
12. Assemble a great team
Bill Drake had a clear vision on how to build a motivated on-air staff that includes audience-appealing personalities. “Talent, brains and discipline” is what he found the major attributes of a good disc jockey. Even though Drake-Chenault’s Boss Radio format was known for cutting clutter, it had nothing to do with eliminating personality. “It was never the idea just to have jocks who gave the time and temperature. Being a personality is not a thing of how long you talk; it’s what you say”, he points out, referring to personality Boss Jocks like Charlie van Dyke, Charlie Tuna, Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele.
“There’s a hell of a lot
more to the business than mathematics”
13. Create more tune-in factors
Even if he did eliminate many tune-out factors, the consultant also thought the other way. He always tried to avoid hasty conclusions based on audience research. For example, when the average listening span is X minutes, some program directors might assume that they can then repeat their music playlist every X minutes. “Isn’t that dumb? They fail to take into consideration the most important part of the whole matter – that the reason people are listening for X minutes is because of how the station was programming in the first place.” The radio veteran suggested that a wider song separation (creating less repetition) could be a great tune-in factor.
A good program director knows how to handle radio personalities and knows what he wants. “He’s got to have a programming concept himself, before he can persuade somebody else to agree with it, or even carry it out. He has to be able to communicate what that concept is and the reason behind it”, Drake said, adding that another major plus is the ability to really understand music – like knowing what differentiates one song from the other.
15. Trust your gut feeling
Bill Drake’s main advice for young program directors is to “stop trying to copy everybody else. You must not have a closed mind to your own intuition and your own inventiveness.” While research is important, he knows that half of radio is gut feeling. “I believe in research, but there’s a hell of a lot more to the business than mathematics.” Therefore, radio programmers should develop their own judgment and shouldn’t be afraid of using it. “The feel area is the key to success at any radio station.”