Monday 26 Sep 2016

Sklar Rocked America
Matt Seinberg

Any radio aficionado knows that the best programmed Top 40 radio station of all time was MusicRadio 77, WABC-AM, in New York City. Sure, there were other great Top 40 stations across the country, including KHJ-AM, in Los Angeles, WRKO-AM, in Boston, KLIF-AM, in Dallas, WKBW-AM, in Buffalo, KCBQ-AM, in San Diego and KDWB-AM, in Minneapolis. This column is a glance at what radio used to be.

I just received a copy of “Rocking America: An Insiders Story,” by Rick Sklar, from an air check friend who wanted it to have a good home. The book, published in 1984, two years after WABC-AM, in New York City, changed from a music station to a talk radio station; seven years after Sklar left as its Program Director to become the Vice President of the Radio Division, of ABC.

I had previously searched for this book in my local library and on various websites including e-bay and Half-dot-com. If it did turn up, the price was ridiculous, well north of $100, with an original price of $7.95. I’m glad I got it free.

Many of us who work or worked in radio, especially on the east coast of the USA, were motivated to radio and influenced by WABC-AM. We loved to listen to the station or wanted to work there. We wanted to be the next Dan Ingram, the DJ of all DJs.

I’m lucky enough to have met Dan Ingram, on several occasions. I met him once at the WABC-AM studios and twice at events at The Museum of Television and Radio (MTR), now the Paley Center For Media.

When I was in high school, the radio bug hit me and my favourite stations were WABC-AM, WPLJ-FM, WNEW-FM and WXLO-FM, 99X. I used to call the stations all the time and talk to the DJs. Getting through to WABC-AM was next to impossible. I took the long way around and got through to WABC-AM through WPLJ-FM, which was right around the corner and on the same floor. I think Pat St. John first introduced me to Dan Ingram, and Ron Lundy might have been there as well. I don’t really remember, since that was a long time ago.

I can still see the picture I had taken of Dan and I, with huge cart racks surrounding us. Unfortunately, that picture got lost. Years later at MTR, I had another picture of Dan and me taken, which is here. Dan is now retired and living in Florida.

The story of how Top 40 radio started is fairly well known. How a young Todd Storz was sitting in a Dallas bar, watching the patrons and servers playing the same songs, repeatedly, on the jukebox. Rick Sklar took that idea many steps further. He used research, of a sort, to augment the basic ideas for varied demographic groups and added much personality. In Chicago and Pittsburgh, John Rook had much success, for ABC, using the same techniques.

The complete story of WABC-AM is available at MusicRadio77-dot-com, a web site devoted to the station.

I thought I knew a lot about Top 40 radio, but reading “Rocking America” taught me a few things. Most people think that means playing the top 40 songs from some magazine or newspaper chart. That was only part of the Rick Sklar plan. He held weekly music meetings, rotating different staff members in and out of them, so have different views on the music. He would or wouldn’t add a record or records, to the station music sheet, in a particular week; sometimes everything worked fine, why change. Rotating music meeting participants also eliminated the chance of payola by record companies and promoters to get their songs played on WABC-AM. Sklar had previously been through payola problems, at WINS-AM; he didn’t want it to happen at WABC-AM.

One other thing I learned from the book was that WABC-AM tried to appeal not only to the teenagers that bought the songs played on the station, but their parents as well. WABC-AM was playing records that appealed to a wide audience, young and old.

The other big thing that Rick Sklar believed in was big promotions. The bigger the better; the more people that entered their contests the happier was Sklar. The best example of this was their Mona Lisa contest in 1963, judged by artist Salvador Dali. They had prizes for the best, worst, biggest and smallest entries. There were over 15,000 entries submitted!

Another big promotion was the “Principal of the Year” contest held in 1962 and 1963. In 1962, three million ballots arrived at WABC-AM; they thought that was successful. In 1963, over 176 million ballots arrived, more than had been cast in the previous presidential election. That was truly an amazing feat!

The kind of radio that Rick Sklar programmed is long gone. The personality DJ all but gone; so is the radio station that recognizes that each listener is important. Too many automated stations exist, with no live person on between, say, 7 pm and 5 am.

If you want to know about what radio was all about in what I call the “good old days of Top 40,” check out the following websites, dedicated to local radio air checks AirChexx-dot-com, NorthEastAirChecks-dot-com or BigAppleAirChecks.com. ReelRadio-dot-com, a membership site, is also great.

Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.

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