Radio AM to FM: April 28, 2000
Happy Boss Birthday
Thirty-five years ago yesterday, the sound of Los Angeles radio changed forever.
April 27th, 1965. Roughly a week before it was scheduled to go on the air, KHJ (930 AM) was forced to launch a "sneak preview" of the sound that would attract "modern Los Angeles" music radio listeners: Boss Radio. And the radio world was never the same again.
When word got out that RKO's little 5000-watt station KHJ had planned to adopt a top-40 format, most observers wrote it off. How could a 5000-watt station make a dent in the ratings against powerhouse 50,000-watt KFWB (980 AM), let alone ratings leader KRLA (1110 AM)? KHJ was a has-been MOR station for years, and the newest format would do nothing to change that fact, they said. Or worse.
Don Page, longtime radio reporter for the Los Angeles Times put it this way on May 2nd, 1965: "Whether KHJ moves into the hallowed ratings circle is unimportant. It remains that purposeful programming has lost at KHJ.
"Perhaps you've been sampling KHJ's interim format, which has been excellent. The boys who'll be rockin' this week are the same pleasant chaps you've heard during the transition period. You will, if tradition holds firm, hear them sacrifice themselves to rock 'n' roll standards. You probably won't recognize them.
"One thing you have 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."
And my editor thinks I am opinionated.
The full story behind the switch is far more interesting. The day that programmer Ron Jacobs and consultants Bill Drake and Gene Chanault had chosen to launch Boss Radio was Monday May 3rd. But a newsman at KHJ who thought he was going to be fired went to KFWB and brought along all the ideas that would be part of KHJ: the term "Boss Radio," "20/20 News," and so on.
Robert W. Morgan heard these things on KFWB the morning of April 27th and brought the information to Jacobs. Jacobs in turn instructed music director Betty Breneman to rush down to Wallach's Music City to buy what KRLA was playing, in order to have something ready to go ... in just a few hours. The Real Don Steele, whose name was a partial take-off of the television program "To Tell the Truth," (will the real Don Steele please stand up?) would be the first to go on the air with the sneak preview, forcing the "Cavalcade of Hits" (the transition format mentioned in Page's column) off the air at 4 pm.
The sneak preview lasted until 7 pm Friday, April 29th when the Million Dollar Battle commenced, playing hits from 1950 to 1965 for 93 continuous hours. Finally, at 4 pm on Monday, May 3rd, the regular Boss Radio format began.
In spite of what Page or others may have thought, KHJ caught on fast. So fast that within six months it was the number one music station in Los Angeles, forcing KFWB -- the top-40 leader from 1955 to 1964 -- into an all-news format by 1967. Stations throughout the country copied KHJ's sound, perhaps most successfully in San Francisco at KFRC -- The Big 610 -- also owned by RKO-General and consulted by Drake and Chanault.
KHJ itself lasted as a top-40 station until November, 1980, but its influence can be found on stations still today ... even if they don't do it as well. Commercial sets? No longer than 70 seconds. maximum. Try to find that on any Los Angeles-area radio station now. It can't be done.
For examples of pre- and post-KHJ, check out the archives of airchecks on www.reelradio.com. You'll need an internet connection and a Real Player.
Copyright © 2000 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.
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