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Airwaves: May 1, 2015

Boss Radio Birthday

If your radio seems a little happier this week, perhaps it is celebrating... this is the week -- 50 years ago -- that KHJ (930 AM) set the radio world on fire with a top-40 format called Boss Radio.

I could write this story every year. And I probably do.

KHJ was a has-been station for many years, offering up five different formats in five years. That is not to say that the station was always unsuccessful.

As the West Coast affiliate for Mutual Broadcasting, KHJ in its early years actually had much success, and many network shows originated from the studios of KHJ. But the 1950s and early ‘60s were not kind to Radio 93. The big money came from sister television station KHJ-TV Channel 9. KHJ Radio was a bad joke.

When consultants Bill Drake and Gene Chanault were brought in to change KHJ, they hired Ron Jacobs as programmer; Jacobs had previously competed against Drake in Fresno. In early April, 1965, the staff around the station figured these new managers were simply the latest of the format of the day ... and would be gone soon enough.

Even the LA Times had doubts. In The Radio Beat, columnist Don Page wrote:

“Requiem for a lightweight. It’s too depressing to to recount the long unhappy life of radio KHJ. By now most of you know that 40 years of programming will hear the referee say ’10” on Monday. Mercifully it will be a clean knockout. Whether KHJ moves into the hallowed rating circle is unimportant. It remains that quality, purposeful programming has lost at KHJ.”

This was published on May 2, 1965, during the “Sneak Preview” KHJ launched to counter competitor KFWB (980 AM) trying to steal KHJ’s thunder. The format change was supposed to happen May 5, but a newsman from KHJ thought he was going to be fired and jumped ship, taking some of the secrets with him.

Suddenly KFWB was calling themselves Boss Radio, playing Boss Hits and 20/20 News. Jacobs decided to transition earlier, and The Real Don Steele launched the sneak preview at 3 PM on April 27th. To show the quick thinking inside the KHJ building, a promo was prepared by Drake in which he put KFWB on the defensive, stating “some stations may try to copy KHJ’s boss sound and we cordially invite them to try.” He invited listeners to sample KFWB and KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM) as example of pre-Boss Radio, then return to KHJ - ”originators of Boss Radio.”

The format was simple: no long jingles, no DJ chatter, and a strict commercial limit. Build excitement with promotions on a clean, uncluttered sound and make the station larger than life.

That commercial limit actually accomplished two things: It allowed KHJ to always be back to music faster than the competition, and it allowed the commercials time to be sold for a higher amount since it would be more valuable to advertisers.

Jacobs was the man to put all of these ideas into action. He was and still is a radio programming genius. Even in his advanced years, I am convinced he could take a station today and decimate the competition, especially since so many stations today have the same problem as the leaders of yesterday: they are burned out, boring, and predicable.

I caught up with Jacobs by telephone; he returned to his longtime home of Hawaii years ago. Some of the more interesting facts I discovered:

• There really was very little time from the conception of the ideas of Boss Radio to its ultimate launch. Jacobs wasn’t even hired until early April. That’s less than a month to develop a format that changed radio forever.

• Those rumors you may have heard regarding Jacobs calling the jock on duty over a special telephone line to ream them over perceived mistakes? Totally true. But it may have not been anything they actually did. “I would drive around town and listen to jazz on the radio,” he told me. “Then I’d call and yell ‘What was that?’ The DJ would say ‘you mean ...’ I’d say ‘yeah that. Don’t do that again.’ Then I’d return to listening to jazz. That worked as well as monitoring the station.”

• After he left KHJ in late 1969 to start Watermark and American Top-40, he never listened to KHJ again.

I’ll have more from that interview another time. Back to Don Page:

“One thing you’ve got to say for RKO-General (the owners). By eliminating personalities such as Michael Jackson, Joe Dolan, Red McIlvaine, Paul Compton, Army Archerd, Steve Allen (plus good music and news) and replacing them with rock ‘n’ roll, it showed class. All third.”

I wonder if KHJ ever grew on Page. In less than six months, the station was number one in Los Angeles. Stations around the country emulated it, some successfully, others not. KFWB changed to a news format three years later, and KRLA by 1970 was sounding more album-oriented.

KHJ really was the station that changed radio. Airchecks as heard on ReelRadio.com easily show what the typical station sounded like pre- and post- 1965, and it is dramatic. That influence is the reason people fondly remember the station’s top-40 format 50 years after its launch and 35 years after the format was dropped. Too bad so many programmers have forgotten the lessons learned, but that influence does still hold today even if so many stations have gotten lazy again.

Happy 50th, Boss Radio.

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Copyright © 2015 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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