Louisville Scene Feature - March 20, 1971

Rock Radio: Sweet Sound of Money
Gone are the beeps and the shouts, the treasure hunts and the blare, but the cash registers jingle on.
By John Christensen
Louisville Times Staff Writer

WAKY's Weird Beard

On the wall in Carl Truman Wiglesworth's office at Radio WKLO, off from the posters of Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Dells, Grand Funk Railroad, The Who and Bob Dylan (upside down), over in a corner where it is mostly obscured by the open door, is a picture.

It's a large, black-and-white glossy of Lee Gray, a WMCA (New York) Good Guy! ("BONG!"), with a big, gleaming smile and an air of aggressive good cheer that so much as says "Look out Levittown High, I'm coming your way this Friday night with Ramar of the Jungle and the Rock Crock!"

Written on the left in black magic marker, in high reaching letters, is: "If I told you how much I miss Louisville, it would take tears." And on the other side of that New York show biz-personality smile, "Love you all, Lee."

Lee Gray: Louisville's not Brylcreem, but he came back. He is at WKLO.

Lee Gray had been at WKLO for five years, spurned two previous offers to go to the big time and was well satisfied until he got yet another offer. He accepted. Within months after he left, he was back at WKLO where he is now the morning man, doing the 6 to 10 a.m. shift playing the "Working Girl's Special" and telling his listeners, "I hope this is the best day you've ever had."

Shortly before Gray returned, Bill Bailey, the self-proclaimed Duke of Louisville as he was the Duke of Houston, Winston-Salem, Anchorage and Salt Lake City before that, left to become the Duke of Chicago. Going to the big time, Bailey was getting a reported $300,000, five-year contract with a chance to make more at 50,000-watt, clear-channel WLS, if his ratings were strong.

And not a year later, WAKY here ran ads in the papers and on billboards saying "Bill Bailey Came Home!" He came home, all right, tired of what he called the "teeny-bopper" music WLS played, and tired of what others called the management's attempt to muzzle him.

And he came to WAKY, not WKLO where he had an extremely popular morning show, saying, "I go where the money is. I don't do this for fun."

The money is definitely there. Bailey, it is commonly known in the business, has a base salary of $28,000, receives a talent fee for doing commercials and gets $1,000 for each point he leads his competitor in the ratings. It is also commonly known that Bill Bailey's morning show is No. 1 in the ratings.

Gray, a knowledgeable source says, is probably making a base salary of between $20,000 and $25,000 plus other considerations. Which leaves him with something more than a fine-tooth comb himself.

The point is this: While Louisville is hardly cosmopolitan and "big time" only in the money its basketball team plays college seniors, it is a lucrative marker for (sorry parents) rock radio.

People in glass houses sell rock. "Dude" Walker in WAKY's Fourth Street "showcase" studio.

IN THE BEGINNING…such a beginning!

A madman, everyone decided, had come to town. His name was Gordon McLendon and he made such an outstandingly good offer for WGRC - an exceedingly good price, agreed those in the know, for a station that was sixth in the ratings - that its owner agreed to sell, although he hadn't even thought of it.

Interestingly, McLendon began getting other offers. The Brooklyn Bridge? How about a promising sand bar in the Ohio River?

But McLendon was undaunted, un-flapped and most important, uninhibited. He inserted spots in the station's programming, promising that on July 7 of that year (1958), Louisville would go "wacky." What people didn't know was that he meant "WAKY," since he planned to change the station's call letters.

On the appointed day, he did just that, then ordered his disc jockeys - imports from Top 40 (rock) stations in Texas and Louisiana - to play "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor." For two days straight. After which, he promised a boggled reporter from The Courier-Journal there would be a more "flamboyant" (i.e., rock 'n' roll) format instituted.

It was.

And it was devastatingly simple (simple-minded, many would argue). The disc jockeys arrested their listeners with a hard-sell, hard-rock, rapid-fire delivery, very much like the guy who does those 1,000-words-a-minute commercials on late night TV for Veg-A-Matic and other wondrous household items: "THAT WAS BOBBY DARIN AND 'SPLISH SPLASH!' NUMBER THREE ON THE BIG 11 SURVEY! STICK AROUND! YOU'LL HEAR IT AGAIN IN FOURTEEN MINUTES! BLANG-G-G-G!! WAKY, THE BIG 790, REACHING YOU AND ONLY YOU WITH ALL THE HITS!! BLANG-G-G!!"

News was delivered in the same upbeat fashion; harsh, staccato blasts from neo-Walter Winchells with a "BEEP!!" to punctuate each item. The news itself was seldom more than a random collection of glorified headlines, with a hyped treatment. Whether Elvis Presley's wife had a baby or 31children were killed in a school bus crash, it was announced with the same strident, detached voice anxious only to keep things "BEEP" moving.

The noise was unremitting. The music was, to the adult's way of thinking, a harsh, throbbing clash of sounds inconsistent with sanity, beauty and peace. It was also exactly what the kids wanted, and that was (and is) the target audience.

In fact, all of Louisville was fascinated, as if the station had been overrun by a crazed band of unemployed carnival barkers who locked themselves in and turned up the music. Most thought the frenzy would pass, that the cacophony would shatter the nerves, and we'd all go back to Perry Como.

Hah! McLendon came up grinning as WAKY exploded from sixth in the ratings, with but 5 per cent of the listening audience, to first in the ratings, with more than 40 per cent of the listeners. And did it in one month.

Suddenly, people who had thought McLendon to be not a little soft in the head were trying mightily to put money in his pocket. Advertising. And WKLO, basically a country music station begun in 1948, switched to a Top 40 format in August 1959, duplicating McLendon's successful formula.

In 1962, McLendon sold his still successful, still No. 1, first-in-Louisville rock station to the LIN Broadcasting Corp. for $1.35 million. A healthy profit and proper reward for someone with 20/20 foresight.

IN CASE YOU didn't know, rock radio continues to flourish. There are 12 AM stations in the metropolitan area (including WSAC in Ft. Know), and all of them are making money. Some more than others, but making money nonetheless.

Jeff Douglas of WHAS: And a Ya Ha to you, too.

"There are three stations in the area with a gross billing of more than $1 million a year," said WAKY station manager Don Meyers. "And we're one of them." The other two, it seems safe to say, would be WAVE and WHAS. WKLO, also doing quite well, is not far from the million mark.

Stations make money, because their product - rock music, country music, middle-of-the-road stuff, you name it - costs them nothing. Their expenditures are limited to salaries, utility bills, etc. Meyers added, neither boasting nor moaning, that "I think it's safe to say we also have the highest payroll in the area."

Which doesn't really bother him since WAKY also occupies the top spot in the ratings. (A note here about ratings. There are nearly as many ratings as stations, and they are based on everything from the sex of the listener to the number of pairs of white shoes he has. Each station is fond of quoting the rating which lists it highest - for obvious reasons. The hapless reporter, then, is left to wander through the labyrinth and make a coherent road map. Therefore - a flourish of trumpets, please - we're going with WAKY.

Something else. While rock radio has refused to fold, as was, and is, fervently hoped for by the more staid citizens in our republic, it has refused even to hold its ground. Rather, it is advancing, expanding, acquiring new listeners the way Israel enlarged its holding in the six-day war of 1967. Where it once claimed listeners hovering around the age of puberty, it now reaches more people up to the age of 34 than any other kind of radio. Or that's what they say.

Their argument is persuasive. The kids who loved "Blue Suede Shows" and "Hound Dog" have stayed with the music, and it has been 15 years and then some, and many of them are mothers and fathers now. Meanwhile, the bottom (in age) end of the market remains constant in its interest; children go from guns and dolls to James Taylor and The Jackson Five - and guys and dolls.

Another reason is the music itself, says Johnny Randolph, the 27-year-old program director at WAKY. Seated in his comfortable, paneled office, he gestured at a speaker in his office from which came The Fifth Dimension, singing "Love's Lines, Angles and Rhymes." The music," he said, "is more palatable now. Like this one.

"Besides that, the accent in our society is young. Look young, stay young - and people are discovering that rock stations are not as bad as they thought. And during all this, the middle-of-the-road stations like WAVE and WHAS were asleep. Now, they're coming back and they play much of the same kind of music we're playing."

The reason is simple. "From a standpoint of revenue, there's bundles of money in teen-agers and young adults," said Randolph.

In the past year and a half, WHAS, Radio 84, the clear-channel, 50,000-watt middle of the roader with a daytime listening audience in five states, has vastly changed its programming. And it is a change directly attributed to rock.

It hired a new program director, Hugh Barr, a 35-year-old veteran of several rock stations, most recently in Salt Lake City, and to him must go the credit, or discredit if you will, for the transformation.

"We've always been strong with the people over 50," he said recently, "But we like to broaden our appeal. For two decades, we had been playing what we call 'chicken rock.' I mean by that, we'd play Ray Conniff instead of the original version. And people have either gotten into the habit of listening to us, or not, because of that. Their habits are ingrained.

"Now, we're tying to think in terms of today's music. We've tried to take a whole block of what's best in today's music wherever it comes from - some country, some soul, some hard rock, some pretty ballads. Like the album 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' That's really big with the kids. They go around singing songs from it in my kids' school. But nobody plays it. So we play three or four cuts from it."

The rock station have tempered their formats, made them less offensive, dropped the "BEEP" in their newscasts, eliminated the old tear-up-the-city treasure hunts and are playing music that is a product of the socially aware Sixties. That is, it's more thoughtful, better written and orchestrated and more listenable to more people (and we can thank The Beatles for much of it). But it is a commodity, nonetheless.

What then is there to choose from?

Personalities. If you don't like Bailey's rasping, cab-driver delivery, you can cut over to the gentle voice and soothing ways of Lee Gary. If you like neither manner, WHAS' Wayne Perky offers a happy voice each morning - on the station that's making it a point of wishing you a happy day.

In the afternoon "drive time" shows WKLO has Jim Rivers, a solid, dependable pro; WAKY offers Gary Burbank, perhaps the cleverest man on radio here and WHAS' Jeff Douglas boasts a low-key, but antic, wit.

Randolph says there are no particular instructions to his jocks, beyond the simple axiom that they must say it quickly and be offensive to no one.

Wiglesworth, Randolph's counterpart at WKLO, and Gray are spearheading a particular approach at WKLO which, they think, is worthwhile. Each Wednesday, they meet with the other jocks at the station and talk to them about really listening to, and understanding, the things the records say.

Carl Truman Wiglesworth: A little relevancy music, please. Also at WKLO.

"The question is," said Wiglesworth, "are we here to play games, shout 'Number 16!' and shuck the folks or are we here to say something and give them something of value? Like the record 'Doesn't Somebody Want To Be Wanted?' by the Partridge Family. People over 65, people who are lonely, they understand what they're saying in that song. But people 35 to 50 think there must be something more to it - something hidden in the lyrics.

"The value of a jock is to understand the music enough and care enough to say something about it besides 'Boy, this is really groovy!'"

The trend, at any rate, has been away from the programmed "zanies" to "responsible" individualism. Responsible because no one is going to say much of anything that would offend a large group of people, excepting the heralded Skinny Bobby Harper who left WAKY not long after he baited University of Kentucky football fans. He probably did his health a great service.

It is individualistic in that the jocks (or "announcers," "personalities," whatever you will) are allowed, if not encouraged, to develop personal styles, to be human, to be the guy who's communicating with you, not talking at you. As Bailey says, "I actually communicate with the average man. I'm not so much interested in entertaining them as talking to them."

The money is indisputably good - the average salary for a jock in Louisville is probably somewhere in the mid-teens. But is that satisfaction enough? Why do men get into the business?

Weird Beard, whose real name is Carl Markert, is a small, pale man, just turned 26, who decided early what he wanted. "I was sick in bed for two years as a kid and I listened to radio all the time. I decided then it was a good way to make a living.

"I think all jocks would like to think that throngs of people flock to the radio to turn on their show, but I don't think it exists anymore. If I'm sick, there's only a handful of people who'd turn it off because the Beard wasn't there, 'cause whoever replaces me plays the same stuff. It's the music the people want."

He paused for a moment. He has a late night show, and the street was empty. Then a car went by, slowly, and a girl waved to him. "I like to play records, being the Weird Beard, being a part of so many people. I like meeting the artists who come into town. I like who I've made myself become."

Weird Beard at WAKY: Put a star on the door.

IT STARTED here with Gordon McLendon, a noisy, boisterous industry not unlike a squally baby. Now, it's in the hands of men like Wiglesworth and Randolph, more sedate, by comparison, but still quick-paced and loud. The lesson learned after 13 years, and advanced by a man, Barr, whose station has learned only too well from rock radio, is this: "If you're doing the same thing a year from now that you're doing today, you're in trouble."