Recognizing, Utilizing, And Escaping History posted on October 2nd, 2014
By Sean Ross
They were subtle, but when the early ‘70s airchecks of Dan Mason and Bob Pittman were played from the stage at Radio Show 2014 in Indianapolis earlier this month, you could hear differences in their influences.
Mason was channeling the tail end of the Bill Drake era of top 40 – big, bold, and “Boss Radio.”
Pittman was a product of Buzz Bennett (whom he acknowledged from the stage), whose “Super-Q” era of top 40 upped the ante, even more high-energy than its predecessor, but also even tighter than Drake. And Drake had been attacked by jocks from a generation previous for his tightness.
Pittman was one of the key PDs in the next iteration of top 40. WNBC New York was one of a handful of AM top 40s that kept the tightness of “Super-Q” but with a far more conversational delivery, a nod to the influence of FM rock radio and its lower-key presentation.
The station that came to call itself “W-NNN-BC” did well enough to push past (and outlast) the legendary WABC, already an odd presentational holdover from the pre-Drake era. By the time WHTZ (Z100) brought Top 40 to FM in New York and sent WNBC looking for another franchise, Pittman was already at MTV (which, ironically, helped foster the top 40 resurgence that made Z100 possible).
The next chapter of WNBC is familiar to anybody who read or saw Private Parts. WNBC, already the home of Don Imus, adds Howard Stern and turns to more personality. Kevin Metheny, who had also programmed a handful of low-key WNBC-like AM top 40s, became Stern’s public foil, but also deserves credit as his co-conspirator. Stern famously mocked “W-NNN-BC,” but by that time, it was one of the few Pittman-isms left.
The clash was more fraternal than generational. Pittman, Metheny and Stern were all around the same age and all influenced by ‘70s rock radio. The PDs and the morning man had just taken vastly different things from it.
If you’ve made your way through all of this radio history, it’s worth mentioning that every so often somebody writes an article or makes a comment on a convention panel that says, basically, “Enough with all this talk about radio history.”
You would think the people making those comments would be 25-year-olds, but they’re almost always radio veterans of the Pittman/Stern generation (and from both camps). New talent has other outlets. They don’t need radio. The 55-year-olds do, and I’ve always felt like some are trying to demonstrate their continued currency by going after the weakest people in the room – hobbyists and those who have been nudged out of radio and have the temerity to be upset about it.
And yet, the battles of 30 years ago are playing themselves out on the air today. Team Howard was winning until the advent of PPM measurement. Today’s tight, low-key radio predates Pittman’s return to radio, but there’s a lot of W-NNN-BC in radio’s present D-NNN-A. The promotional flair of Pittman’s MTV era is visible on iHeart Media’s concert stages. What happens between the records after 10 a.m. is brief and conversational.
And that’s why nobody should be ashamed of knowing or discussing radio history. Those who know radio history know that neither “less talk” nor more personality ultimately saved music on AM. The biggest AM programming problem – too many commercials – was never addressed by AM in a sustained, meaningful way. The technological issue, for most stations, was eventually insurmountable. Today’s equivalent of the AM-to-FM transition is traumatic for broadcasters largely because it’s not an inside job. We don’t own most of the “FM stations” as well. But when we do, we are saddling them with AM spotloads.
Here’s some good news. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, the viability of top 40 – not just on AM – was in question as well. The consultant credited with reviving it, Mike Joseph, preceded Bill Drake as a prominent programmer. The “Hot Hits” format he created had elements of Drake (in its brassiness), Bennett (energy level), and Pittman (tightness). WABC, too (jingles). Joseph’s WCAU-FM Philadelphia was as disciplined as any early-‘80s “liner card” radio station, but a lot more entertaining. Playing only currents kept WCAU contemporary. And no 17-year-olds knew they were hearing a throwback.
Being able to draw on 50 years of successfully entertaining and engaging an audience is the thing that broadcasters have in their quiver while newer, better-funded, consumer-press favorites like Apple, Beats Music, and Google continue to sort it out. It is only when you think of broadcasters’ track record as the limit of our offerings that invoking history becomes self-indulgent or a study in denial. Much of radio’s history is useful. None of it is enough.
Ironically, what I am most often nostalgic for is that radio used to offer something new on a regular basis. Great new hit songs every Tuesday. Another new station that galvanizes the business every nine months. Attack radio geeks from the dais if you will, but geekery in general is also about obsession with the new, and it’s a salable commodity these days. But broadcasters are not the ones offering it these days. We need to go back at least long enough to reclaim radio’s self-reinvention. And we need to do it to move forward.
Shortly after the release of “Private Parts” the movie, Kevin Metheny gave me one of my best Billboard interviews, talking candidly about his tumultuous relationship with Howard Stern at WNBC.
“Did we endeavor to bring Howard into compliance with NBC standards and practices? Yes, we did. Did we drive Howard up a wall? You bet. Did he know that we were going to do it before he agreed to come work for us? Absolutely. Was there ever a sinister insidious plot to force him into compliance with our small-minded criteria that would have stripped his art of all its programming potency? . . . Absolutely not. We had a vested interest in his success,” Metheny told Billboard in 1997.
It was that discussion in part that shaped my above characterization of Metheny, who died Friday Oct. 3, a few days after the above article was posted, as Stern’s co-conspirator, not just his nemesis. Over the next 30 years, Metheny would continue to program both well-tuned music stations in every conceivable format and full-service talk stations, putting him at various times in both the galvanizing personality and “tight-and-right” camps.
The reaction to Metheny’s death confirms that many of those on one side or another are still fighting those battles today. One of the WGN Chicago personalities who clashed with Metheny during his tenure opened up the phone lines on Saturday to ask if it was sometimes appropriate to speak ill of the dead. According to reports, Stern mustered appropriate sympathy for Metheny and his family before turning more critical.
Even during Metheny’s lifetime, I felt bad that Stern’s public derision, in “Private Parts” and elsewhere, was allowed to become such a part of the public record on a non-celebrity’s life. I’d prefer the many positive reminiscences on Metheny’s facebook page to stand as the definitive public record. What emerges is that if you respected the art/science mix of radio programming, Metheny respected you and the feeling was usually mutual. Stern just happened to be in another business.
And now it really is time for broadcasters to move on from the battles of 1983. It is dismaying that a 25-year-old doesn’t want the airwaves bad enough to fight for them, but perhaps there’s just no need to grapple over custody of an infinite dial. Sirius XM, Stern’s current home, proves that with its wide range of offerings – mainstream and niche. Any appropriate battle for broadcasters is, at this moment, with the outside world.