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Airwaves: December 5, 2008

Drake Passes

Bill Drake, half of the successful and influential team of Drake-Chenault, passed away last Saturday, November 28 from lung cancer. he was 71.

Born Philip Yarbrough, the programmer set the top-40 world on fire in Fresno, California in the early 1960s when he teamed with station manager Gene Chenault and took low-rated KYNO from “worst to first” within a matter of months. During this time he was battling against Ron Jacobs, PD of competitor KMAK.

It is said that this was a true battle, with secret phone calls to each other, going through each other’s trash, and trying to make a mockery of each other’s contests and promotions.

In the end, Jacobs lost and left town as Drake and Chenault’s KYNO had ratings that surpassed every other station in Fresno ... combined.

In 1964, Drake and Chenault branched out, first taking over the programming of KGB/San Diego -- another case of “worst to first” -- and later many stations in the RKO Radio chain, including KHJ (programmed by Drake-hired Jacobs) here in Los Angeles. Once again, worst to first -- KHJ dominated the Los Angeles ratings within five months. Ditto at KFRC/San Francisco and cities throughout America.

To say that Drake and company were influential in top-40 radio would be putting it far too lightly. The programming team changed the face of popular music radio forever.

How was it done? Psychology and brains. Drake and Chenault took over stations that were at the bottom of the ratings. They instituted tight controls including a reduced commercial load -- 12 minutes per hour maximum, as opposed to the 18 allowed by FCC rules. DJs were to minimize talking, and promotions had to be high-profile.

Smaller elements played a role as well. DJs were never to say the call letters of the station into a commercial break, as that mentally ties the station with commercials in the minds of listeners. Because most stations ran news at the top of the hour, Drake moved his to 20 minutes before the hour so that he would get listeners as they switched from the others. Jingles were quick, often a few seconds compared to the standard in the 1960s when they could go on for over a minute.

Programmers at his stations were the only managers at the stations who were allowed to deal with on-air personalities, and those programmers had 24-hour access to Drake and his team through car phones. Underlying all of this was a system of training and support for the airstaff and programmers that was unmatched in the industry then, and now. It wasn’t an accident that Drake DJs sounded alike throughout the country, it was by design.

Drake jock and future programmer Charlie Van Dyke likened the support system to the military, explaining to Don Barrett’s that “a real attitude developed that grew into pride. It was kind of the Marine Corps of Radio.”

Still today, the influence of Drake/Chenault is felt. Certainly many elements have been lost -- the clutter on some contemporary music stations is drastic, for example -- but the elements of “the Drake format” are all over such stations as KIIS-FM (102.7) and even KLOS (95.5 FM).

And the format essentially still exists on KRTH (101.1 FM). Drake once joked to me regarding the success of KRTH, after he was brought in to consult in the early 1990s, that he could just as well have been playing tapes of KHJ: the format was so much a recreation.

Drake is survived by his domestic partner Carole Scott, his daughter, Kristie Philbin, and three grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Cancer Society.


Copyright © 2008 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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