Jim Smith is a legendary radio programming guru. He is probably best known for his days as the music director of the Big 89, WLS.
(Photo from the Big 89 Rewind by Don Beno)
1969-1970, KDKA Pittsburgh (AC by day, talk by night), Music
Director by day and Talk-show Producer by night
1970-1972, CBS-FM Programming Services ("Young Sound"
syndication, CHR), Programmer
1970-1973, WBBM-FM Chicago (CHR), Music Director
1971-1978, FMI Chicago, programming music for syndication and
in-flight channels for several airlines in my "spare time"
1973-1978, WLS Chicago (CHR), Music Director
1978, WOKY Milwaukee (CHR), Program Director
1978-1979, WRVR New York (Jazz), Program Director
1979-1981, KSFX San Francisco (Disco, then Adult CHR), Program
1981 WBBM-FM Chicago (Hot AC / Adult CHR), Program Director
1981- , Smith and company, Consultant
(with a one-year tour of duty at:)
2002-2003, WJMK Chicago (Oldies), Program Director
(and, in what was jokingly called my spare time:)
1987-1996, Columbia College Chicago, part-time instructor in Radio
Department (course: Broadcast Research)
Rick: Somewhere along the line you got pegged with the nickname "Jukebox Jimmy." Where did that come from and how do you feel about the nickname?"
Jim: That dates back to BBM-FM in the 70s. We were basically a top-forty station but with a lot of album-cut variety. A typical listener tuned into a station like that and figured that the air talent knew everything about the music, not only the music being played but all popular music in
So people would call the studio line and ask the name of some song with the most obscure of identifying information, or who was the artist, or maybe "Wasn't that guy in another group before this one?", or "My friend says such-and-such song was #1. I don't think so. Was it?"
The callers weren't playing musical trivia or stump-the-star. They actually wanted to know, and they assumed that Mr. Deejay would know the answer. Bob Sirott did mornings at BBM-FM starting in 1971. He knew that he could come to me for those answers. (Photo: Bob Sirott with the Bay City Rollers)
Now, your average air talent maybe wouldn't want to let on that he didn't know the answer. He might say, "That's a tough one. Let me think about it. Give me a call tomorrow," and then get the answer from me and pretend it was his. Bob instead took the high road of giving credit where credit was due.
So he invented the character "Jimmy Jukebox" who, by Bob's creative description, "lived in a little office up in the attic of the BBM-FM building" and who "knows all this stuff". He would get the answer from me, the listener would be happy, Bob would be a hero, and my alter ego would take the figurative bow.
Most of that was off the air, if memory serves correctly, though, there were some on-air mentions of the character and the situation at times.
In any event, Bob left for WLS in 1973 and, thanks partly to his telling PD Tommy Edwards about me, that paved the way for me to make the move to WLS too. Somewhere in transition, the name got scrambled in translation. "Jimmy Jukebox" became "Jukebox Jimmy", which is pretty much what is has been ever since.
Feel about it? Hey, it wasn't an insult. If somebody called your radio station "nothing but a jukebox", that would be a putdown. But this nickname grew out of a pat on the back from a colleague. He was acknowledging that the backwaters of my brain had somehow trapped the insignificant information that nobody else could possibly care about --well, except for the person who called in to ask the question.
And anyway, it was much better than my high school nickname.
Rick: You're probably best remembered as the music director of WLS in the 1970s hey-day ('73-78). Did you have an overall philosophy of choosing which songs were "right" for WLS?
Jim: Radio & Records once asked each of its CHR reporters what we looked for in a new add to the playlist; my answer back then was "a future oldie". With few exceptions, we wanted to see as many adds as possible be popular enough during the chart run so that it would qualify to be played for the foreseeable future, once it was no longer a current hit.
Let me start with some background facts:
During most of that period, the number-one song of the week was scheduled to play every 65 minutes; that scaled down to #8 scheduled for once every other hour, and the least-played current coming up once every third hour. In short, every song on the current playlist had to be very strong because it was going to play frequently. There was no room for anything less than a mass-appeal hit in a rotation like that.
And because there was almost no dayparting of the current playlist, we didn't have a "housewife category" or a "teen category" the way some did. Songs were added because they could pretty much play 24/7.
Last but not least, because the current playlist was fewer than twenty titles, there was no margin of error even at the low end. Any new song being added to the list had to have a good chance of doing well, no matter how early we were in adding it.
The more slots on the current playlist, the easier it is to "balance" the list. WABC failed at that task in the late 70s during the disco binge; almost all of the big hits were disco, and a once-great top-forty station turned into a disco station.
We avoided that at WLS during my watch by playing the hits but keeping one eye on balance with each week's adds. That is, if the rest of the currents already had too much of one musical type or tempo or texture, we would think twice about adding yet another song of that type or tempo or texture in any given week, even if that song was the strongest of the potential adds.
Let's say we had room for two new songs, and let's say that of the other 15 hits already on the current playlist, four were polkas and three were Hawaiian love ballads. Unless we had reason to think that the listeners wanted more polkas or more Hawaiian love ballads, we would look for something else to add.
So if the climbing songs -- the ones for "playlist consideration" -- in a given week were, according to our extensive regional sales research, say,
#18 - a polka
#19 - a Hawaiian love ballad
#21 - another polka
#22 - a non-Hawaiian ballad
#24 - a pop rocker
we would likely skip over the polkas and Hawaiian love ballads to add the non-Hawaiian ballad and the pop rocker. Or that might be the week to pull a longshot out of the hat and to add a song that may only chart #42 in our research but was by a core artist and which had, in my estimation, strong potential to be a big hit.
(Since we weren't WCFL, there was no charge for #42 to be added early.)
That didn't mean that those other polkas or Hawaiian love ballads would get skipped forever. But by waiting an extra week or more, there was a chance that the imbalance glut would cure itself. Maybe the next week, one of the four polkas we had been playing would drop off of the current list and would play less frequently in a non-current category. In that subsequent week, adding one more polka could conceivably work.
That didn't always work from the record company point of view, of course. I can think of examples of songs in that period which WLS never played, despite being huge nationally, because of the pattern of growth in our research (ie, not compelling) and because of the type of song. If we had had stronger competition, those songs might have sold well enough that we would have been forced on them; that is, anything which got into our top fifteen was (with one or two exceptions) an automatic add. But if the song only got to #20 or so, and if there was no musical-balance need to play it, we simply didn't.
(One more thing to keep in mind is that the currents made up only about half of the music in a given hour. Another way to provide balance and variety was with the non-currents. Those would stretch from last month's hits all the way back to hits from twenty years earlier. There was a certain amount of structure for how those would play, but each jock did have some latitude in how and when to play them.)
Other than the balance consideration, though, what we were mostly looking for was to find the best future hits (or future oldies, if you will) which would continue to give WLS what Arbitron research in that era showed was the largest cume in the nation. Any listener could always count on hearing "the best music" -- based on whatever was the most popular and best-selling at any given time -- on the Big 89.
As an aside, that slogan -- well, let me digress (some more) by briefly explaining the process and the sequence of the weekly decision-making.
Back in the pre-callout days, everything was based on reported record sales. Secretaries and interns did our store calls on Mondays. It really did take all day to gather those reports. Our available sample was literally a couple hundred record-sales locations throughout the multiple-state (as defined by Arbitron) "Total Survey Area".
Then on Tuesday morning my secretary would punch all of those numbers into a computer terminal. Back in those days before PC's, of course, that terminal was connected to a mainframe on the East Coast. I had written the input and tabulation programs, and the results were slowly spit out by midday, both in overall totals -- which is what made up our numbered chart-- and also in various subcells.
I would then prepare a list of the songs for "playlist consideration" which were not yet on the current playlist -- including [a] those which did the best in our sales research, [b] sometimes one or more which were strong nationally but which weren't looking so good in our sales research, and [c] sometimes one or more of the core-artist-but-only-#42 type mentioned above. Typically there were about a dozen total on that list; typically we would be choosing two adds for the week.
Because of Dick Clark having been on ABC-TV, the CEO of the American Broadcasting Company had endured giving Congressional testimony during the payola scandals of a previous decade. He made it clear that he never wanted to do that again, and we all made sure that we were clean and that we could prove it by surrounding ourselves with paperwork and policies that would thoroughly document that fact.
For that reason, top people like the local VP/GM and GSM theoretically signed off on each add. The way what happened was basically that we, PD John Gehron (photo) and myself, would present the list of choices in a Tuesday afternoon meeting, would point out our two picks from that list, and that would be that. We intentionally didn't let them listen to the songs in those meetings. Heaven forbid that the General Manager was deciding with his ears! We wanted him to look at the list and to agree with the rationale for our decision with his eyes.
But before that meeting was a pre-meeting. I would go over the list with John so that the two of us were on the same page in the final meeting. We always wanted to be presenting a united front with each choice.
It was in one of those pre-meetings -- and the focus of this lengthy digression -- that we were kicking around one of those huge-nationally-but-not-scoring-in-the-Midwest tunes as a topic of discussion. John liked it. I did too but preferred to wait. He wanted me to make the case for not adding it that week. He was new to the station, after all, and wanted to make sure that my recommendations were solid.
"But Jim," he pleaded, "it's a good song." (Actually, it was. But my belief was that it would not be a Chicago home run, whether we played it or not.)
"But John," came my response, "there is a lot of good music. We have to play only the best music."
His head jerked. He looked wide-eyed at me, looked at the paper, looked at me again, looked back at his desk, and picked up his black felt-tip. I had no idea what was taking place, as he started to write "the best music" on the paper and underline it.
"That's it!" he said. "I am going to be cutting new jingles next week and am looking for slogan lines. 'We play the best music.' I'm going to use that."
And that was part of the beauty of how John Gehron did things. For me, playing "the best music" was simply a description of what we did. For him, that was a slogan, a sales line.
In fact, even after he said it, it didn't really resonate with me. But then it got pounded into me by playing about a zillion times. More significantly, it got repeated to me by our target listeners in our ongoing research. Why did they listen to WLS? "Well, like the jingle says," they would tell me -- as though it was so obvious that only a moron like me wouldn't understand -- "WLS plays the best music."
End digression. (Oh, that "good song"? WLS did add it, and we played it for three or four weeks. It peaked in the top three nationally but stopped somewhere between #15 and #20 in Chicago. I love the song, but it simply wasn't "the best music" for our audience at the time.)
Rick: You worked there at a time when some of the biggest names in Chicago radio history worked there (Lujack, Sirott, Landecker, Winston, et al.) Who gave you the most headaches when it came to messing with your music, and do you have any examples?
Jim: Ha! Your implicit assumption is that good jocks can't handle the music format? Actually "the most headaches" came from John Gehron wanting to play his favorites instead of the listeners' favorites!
Seriously, all of the people you named and all of the others were pretty good about understanding how things worked. A truly successful radio station is the one which is firing on all cylinders. There isn't room for sloughing off or cutting corners.
That means not just sticking to the music format but also executing every other aspect of the format, from delivering the simplest liner card properly to entertaining the audience overall while on-air and even at promotional events.
We were fortunate to have a great team -- on-air and off-air -- during those years at WLS. That's what made it all work.
I remember Yvonne Daniels dropping in after we had made some changes in the music structure. I had gone over the changes with each person in advance, but she was a little shaky. She was almost apologizing for taking up my time, but she wanted to make sure that she was doing it right. The fact is that she was. We went through her music log together, and she was right on everything. But for her to come to my office in the middle of the day, that was like the middle of the night for her sleep patterns. She just wanted to make sure she was doing it right.
I also remember Larry Lujack, after he returned to the station from beautiful-music WCFL in late 1976, paying me a visit with the same thought in mind. He wanted to be sure that he was doing it right, as he re-adjusted to a WLS way of doing things. I patiently explained the various items, going through some areas twice because the look on his face told me he maybe wasn't clear on it the first time. Only later did someone tell me that Larry was actually put off by my quiet approach. I guess he was used to people yelling at him about how things had to be done. His concern, though, was that if he didn't learn to do it right, "That kid is going to start yelling at me." (Not likely.)
Beyond all that, though, there is one vague recollection of some of John Landecker's, um, creative latitude within the format. I think he only did this trick once, for repeating the bit would have spoiled it.
You will recall my mention of the #1 song being scheduled to play every 65 minutes. The way that worked is that it (nor numbers 2, 3, and 4) was not scheduled within the regular format. There were four lights in the studio, each set on a timer. When the light for #1 went off, it was up to the air talent to work the week's number-one song into his music sequence next. When he played it, he would re-set the clock, and the timer would start counting 65 minutes until the next time. (And we in the back office could, if necessary, check the written music logs and even confirm via the logger tape if ever that pattern were not being correctly followed.)
So imagine, if you will, what happens when the record buyers are endlessly plunking down the bucks for a song which stays at #1 for seven weeks in a row, and when the song happens to be a slow drippy one which any self-respecting give-me-the-fast-songs nighttime jock would totally hate. In those days before callout research, if it was selling #1, it would keep playing like #1. (In the callout era, we would have measured not only how much people liked it but also how much the target listeners were getting tired of it.)
One night, John (photo) reached the last straw with having to play "You light up my life" three times in his four-hour shift. He knew he had to play it; the freaking light went off, that's why! But he didn't have to like it.
I forget whether he announced his intention at the start, or whether he just did this: Because the light went off, John started the song -- then stopped it after a few seconds, hit a jingle, and went into another song. When that song ended, he played a few more seconds of Ms. Boone, then stopped it again and continued with the show. Another song, a few more seconds of Debby, a stopset, a few more seconds of lighting up her life, something else, and so forth to the end of the song.
Hey! He had to play it, and he did. He just didn't play all of it at once.
Rick: Part of the excitement of being a music director for such a big time station must have been helping out up and coming acts hit the big time. I was in the room the day Dennis DeYoung of Styx saw you for the first time in nearly twenty years and he still gave you full credit for giving them their big break. Talk about that decision to play Styx for the first time on the Big 89.
Jim: Truth be told, it was always more important to find the song which the audience would like. Giving a "big break" to the artist was secondary. That said, here is the full story of "Lady" by Styx on WLS.
I had been MD at BBM-FM for three years (1970-1973) before going to WLS. That was during a period when  WLS had pretty much stopped its 60s practice of supporting local acts, unless forced to play one,  WCFL did some of that, but often played songs seemingly for what some people politely called "non-musical reasons", and  the progressive FMs (WDAI, WSDM, WGLD, and WXFM and WXRT at night) didn't yet have enough listeners among them to have broken much of anything, so  BBM-FM tried to continue the tradition by going early on Ides of March "LA goodbye", New Colony Six "Roll on", Aliota Haynes Jeremiah "Lake Shore Drive", Styx "Best thing" and "Lady", and a zillion others which probably nobody remembers.
I started at WLS in 1973. John Gehron joined us in 1974. One of the ongoing concerns we shared, early on, was how to keep nighttimes "hip" without straying from the hits. We discussed putting some non-single tracks from the currently biggest-selling biggest-artist albums, but that didn't happen until the following year.
What we did first was to sprinkle in a few songs from catalog LPs, "album-cut oldies" so to speak. Some were easy choices; you may have heard of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to heaven" -- a whole separate story! -- which some AM top-forty stations had already played, but WLS had not. (Heck, merely getting "Layla" on the station was a previously fought battle with unnamed outsiders.)
I wanted to include at least one with a strong local following. Of the ones mentioned above from the BBM-FM era, WLS by then already had "LA goodbye" in the regular oldies category. "Roll on" hadn't come through enough to hit, and the group, good as it was, didn't really have the hip image we wanted for this category. I gave serious consideration to "Lake Shore Drive", a strong song but by an act which at that point hadn't really developed a following.
So it basically came down to almost a mental coin flip between "Best thing" and "Lady". I thought that either could do well for us, and each was well-known to the group's local following. My personal preference actually was for "Best thing", but "Lady" got the nod for basically one reason: A couple of the FM's were playing "Lady" -- not much, but more than zero.
(The PD at WDAI was not local and didn't really have a good grasp of Chicago music. "Best thing" probably would have been a better song for them, if he had known that it existed, but who's counting. WBBM-FM, on the other hand, did have a PD -- Bob Johnston -- who had a good musical sense and who fully understood the appeal of local acts. But unfortunately, corporate had hijacked that radio station and had taken it softer. They still played "Lady" but, to the best of my knowledge, had completely dropped "Best thing" by then.)
Anyway, the process of pulling all this together took literally several weeks. John okayed my initial list, and we agreed on how we would handle this nights-only batch of tunes on the air. It wasn't going to be a fanfare sort of thing -- no special jingle, no "Omigosh, we're finally playing this one", or anything like that. The songs would simply work their way into a particular rotation and would stay there until either they had run their course or else we came up with something better.
(One more aside: Jeff Davis at about that time had just joined the station. He did a couple of weekend airshifts, did vacation fill-in on some weeknight shifts, and helped me during the week with store calls, music-library tasks, and other fun stuff. He was from Alabama by way of Virginia and probably didn't know Styx from Megan McDonough, but he heard "Lady" in a club or at a dance and he liked it. He came to me touting the song while this song category was in the deliberation phase. I was sworn to secrecy and didn't dare even crack a smile that he had stumbled onto one of the choices which would soon air. To this day, he thinks that he caused it to happen. Not so, but let's just say g.m.t.a. and give him benefit of the doubt. Photo: Jeff Davis with Tommy Shaw of Styx)
What happened next was one of those serendipity moments, never to be forgotten. We had kept the idea quiet -- not even, as noted above, telling airstaff what was coming.
Our new playlist of currents was ready Tuesday evenings. Wednesday morning was when the record promoters came in to see me. They would push their happenin' hits, stacks o' wax, platter picks, [insert favorite cliche here]. I would explain why we added what we did and, if asked, why the other songs didn't make it this week. Sometimes the local promoter would bring along the regional or national counterpart. I often didn't know in advance that that would happen, not that it really mattered.
But one Wednesday morning, Skip Pope, the local RCA guy -- with no warning to me and for no apparent reason -- brought along one member of a group which was on the RCA-distributed Wooden Nickel label, a fellow named Dennis DeYoung. Not a problem, but ironic in the timing.
Skip, with his usual level of hyperbole, told me how great Styx was, how Dennis (middle, in the photo) and the group were looking for a break, how many wonderful songs of theirs had been aired during my BBM-FM days, and how cool it would be if someday they could develop one of their songs to the point where an AM station like WLS would play it.
I waited until he finished his spiel, then calmly went into a meandering explanation of how WLS was always interested in being hip for the nighttime 12-24 audience, but without straying so far into AOR territory that we were no longer perceived as a hit radio station. I explained the concept of the "album-cut oldie" and how a song like "Stairway" was well enough known that we could feel comfortable playing it. (I have a feeling, from the looks on their faces at this point, that they either thought this was all either an impolite change of subject or else a lead-up to a total rejection.)
I then concluded by saying that this new category was being introduced on the air at 6:00 that night, that "Stairway" was one of the songs, and that "Lady" was another. No surprise, they both were jubilant.
How often would it play? I told them the average frequency that each song in that category would come up.
How long would we play it? I remember my exact answer: "Until it becomes a hit; and then it would go into regular rotation. Or until it has run its course in this category and we replace it with something else."
Dennis, of course, only heard the first part and has told the story innumerable times, then and since, that "Jim Smith says WLS is going to play "Lady" until it becomes a hit!" Uh, not quite.
Or was it? What happened next was beyond my expectations and possibly theirs too. Styx did have a local fan base, and they knew how to dial the telephone. Very soon, the song was one of our ten most-requested despite being in a very limited rotation.
The record company re-serviced the record and one of two things happened; either it started selling, or else they persuaded an extraordinary number of record stores to lie to us, week after week. We saw the growth pattern, "Lady" qualified for "playlist consideration" despite a total lack of national chart action, and we moved it onto the regular playlist, where it initially would come up every three hours.
That by itself isn't what made the song a national hit, though, and the unsung hero in this story is Bud Stebbins. Bud was the regional guy for RCA. His marching orders from his bosses at the national level were to push the "priority" records that they had determined. "Lady" was not on their radar screen. Bud basically ignored them.
He took the record to our supposed competitors -- the fading WCFL, the consistent but non-threatening WIND, and the struggling FM WDHF (or were they WMET by then? hmm, don't recall) -- and got them all to add it. More importantly, he worked the record at top-forty stations in the other markets in his region, getting airplay throughout the territory as far east as Pittsburgh.
We played the song, but it was Bud who "broke" the record. "Lady" soon charted nationally. And RCA soon fired Bud for ignoring their priorities. Within about a year, Styx changed record companies.
But again, the reason we played the song in the first place was for the listeners. It had nothing to do with making a record company happy or launching the career of a local group. Those are delightful consequences but irrelevant to the radio station's goal: Play the hits.
Rick: Were there any other bands that you had a similar effect on?
Jim: Oh my, yes. Too many to mention.
The most recent examples were during my consulting days, when working at WLS was a distant memory.
The earliest example dates all the way back to my college-radio days. That song broke out of that particular market and went to #1 both there and nationally, launching the career of a group which had six or eight more top ten hits.
But the goal then, as since, was not to play the hero nor to put a deserving artist onto the charts. Keep the listeners happy. Anything else either happens or it doesn't.
Rick: You were instrumental in picking out the music for the recent WLS Rewind, which was so much fun to listen to. What was it like to be back there with the old gang that day?
Jim: You are making a bit too much of my role. The basic music lists and the clocks were already in place. I simply suggested a few tweaks, some of which could be done and others couldn't be done due to lack of time. I was merely happy to contribute in any manner.
Participating and especially seeing that old gang? I would describe the Big 89 Rewind as a "magic" moment, but most people would think that was a very bad pun. So let's say "nostalgic".
For me, the high point was when the bunch of us got together for drinks and dinner the night before. That put us all in the same place at the same time, unlike the day of the Rewind itself, when people were coming and going throughout the eighteen hours. I heard much of the broadcast between about 9:00 am and 7:00 pm, and it was a hoot. But in terms of memories, for me the night before was even better.
I don't remember ever seeing gruff ol' Uncle Lar smiling so much. Maybe they have finally adjusted his meds correctly.
He and Little Tommy definitely were clicking during their three hours on the air. Of the folks whose tenure overlapped with mine, Fred and John also showed that this isn't a skill one loses at age 32.
Or how about that Bill Bailey, who had left WLS before my arrival, though we crossed paths later as PDs in different markets for another company a few years thereafter. He now has been at the same station in Grand Rapids for eleven years. Golly, that's longevity!
The news guys and gals were professional, as always, and the board ops and phone ops and production wiz provided by WLS were also impressive in what they brought to the effort.
But the unsung hero in this story has to be Kipper McGee (photo), who now programs the Big 89. I think he was putting in 25-hour days to make it happen. Without his efforts, the dysfunctional others never would have pulled it off. I hope he is able to do it for a third time next year and that the station doesn't take the cheap way out (which a similar station has done).
For that matter, it occurs to me that the rich heritage of WLS may be sufficient to support more than a single day within a holiday weekend. Furthermore, if their FM is still playing music from that era a year from now, there's something to be said for the suggestion of simulcasting the Rewind. That could be a perfect opportunity to mention the AM programming to the FM listeners and to remind the AM listeners that the FM plays that music 24/7. Just a thought.
Rick: You also had two different stints with WBBM-FM, one in the early 70s and one in the early 80s. People don't remember that station was a player in the market in those days, with talent like Bob Sirott, Steve King and more. Looking back on those years now, what are some of your fondest memories from those days?
Jim: I had grown up downstate, listening to Chicago radio. Certainly one fond memory about my first CBS tour of duty was my getting to work at a Chicago station after only one year in the business. And a similar Chicago memory about the second tour of duty at BBM-FM was that it brought me back to Chicago after three years of programming elsewhere. The difference was that for the 1970 move, my brother helped me drive the U-Haul to get here; for the 1981 move, CBS paid Bekins to bring me back from San Francisco.
In 1970, to the best of my recollection the only successful FM stations in Chicago and most markets were playing "beautiful music", lush instrumentals with two-minute stopsets four times an hour. Chicago had five of them at that time.
The progressive rock stations had the buzz, but they also had only fractional audience shares here in the ARB and Pulse ratings. The young audience here was still on the AM top-forty stations for most of that decade.
Chicago has always been a pop-music town, and at BBM-FM we wanted to reflect that. So we split the difference. Up until late 1973, its foundation was that of a play-the-hits station. Its uniqueness, though, was in playing a wider and hipper variety than the AM stations dared to do.
WLS, as explained above, tightly rotated the current hits and the strongest oldies. Their heaviest rotation may have been 90 to 120 minutes at that time; our heaviest started at five hours in 1970 and then tightened all the way to
The thinking was that an FM listener thought of himself as more aware, and we played to that self-perception. I remember hearing one 1971 back-announce where the guy on BBM-FM, a former WLS jock, commented that he had never before heard the end of a particular song. "At that teenybop station" where he used to work "we would have played a jingle and a commercial instead." BBM-FM had no jingles and only a limited commercial load.
So if we held a listener for an hour, he or she would have heard about half an hour of proven hits, eight minutes or less of spots, and the rest made up of things the AM stations weren't playing -- album cuts and (hmm, sound familiar?) album-cut oldies.
I first walked into WBBM-FM when it was totally automated. And not even a halfway sophisticated automation system. Each entire hour (except for the commercials and voicetracks) was on one tape. I could shuffle the order in which the hour-long tapes played, but not the song order within an hour. It was my responsibility, in providing the music for the "Young Sound" syndication service, to make that listenable.
Six months later, though, the station was mostly live and local. Bob Johnston was brought in as PD by new GM John Catlett, and Bob filled the on-air slots.
Steve King (photo) was not on the original airstaff but was an early hire. So was Bob Sirott, who started with one weekend shift using the air name Robert R. Bradley because his fulltime job was being a page at NBC in the Merchandise Mart. BJ saw the potential of BS, however, and soon promoted him to full-time.
We had no news staff initially, but we did have our own teletype, from which Bob would rip and read in morning drive.
It was a very young group overall, as most other contemporary FM stations were at the time. We found that we were also the favorite station for many of the young female media buyers, which certainly didn't hurt the sales effort.
There was a strong sense of camaraderie among the staff. I had experienced that in college radio and again at WLS, but much less so at KDKA. At BBM-FM in the early 70s, we were on a mission. We were FM. We were the new kids. And as we swept quickly past the other FMs which were targeting the same age group, we knew we had something special.
That changed in late 1973. I had followed Bob Sirott (photo) to WLS by only a few weeks, with Steve King joining us a couple of months later. So the three of us missed the crush of corporate-imposed changes after the station had had only one bad ratings book. Fall was when they fell, and BBM-FM was forced to move from its mainstream approach to a mimicking of KNX-FM, which was very successful in LA.
In Chicago they never had quite that same level of success with it, though it wasn't for lack of trying on the part of Bob Johnston, who continued to program the station for a couple more years. When a new GM blew him out, though, they really hit the skids.
I pitched the PD job a couple of years after that, but the GM hired Alan Mitchell (ex-WIND) instead. She later told me that the deciding factor was Al's willingness to do an airshift. I had this silly notion that in the nation's #3 market, there should be a large enough talent budget that the PD could opt out. I regretted my stubbornness.
A couple more years later, though, it seemed that my chance had come. There was one of those scandal-ridden firings in 1981 which left a PD opening again at BBM-FM. I was programming for ABC in SanFrancisco, where the GM of KCBS-FM was singing my praises to corporate. Even that didn't make me the Chicago GM's first choice, but he pissed off his top candidate and that gave me the nod.
The guy who turned him down was an old friend, and he told me why he didn't take the job -- which should have been a warning signal to me, but it wasn't loud enough. I was way too eager to get back to Chicago. It lasted five months. I was fired before they had even paid my moving expenses, as promised (which they finally did almost two years later). That GM suddenly left the company a couple years later. I hope he still has managed to avoid the DEA's watch list.
My efforts, in those five months, were to move the station back to where it once belonged, to borrow wording from Paul McCartney. From summer to fall, we went 2.1 to 2.7, 12+. Astonishingly, that was the highest number they'd had in years.
Six months after my departure, they went "Hot Hits". I felt even more redeemed after the fact, though, by what "Hot Hits" consultant Mike Joseph told a mutual friend, once his format was on the air. He said that my gameplan would have taken the station to a four share, though it would have taken a book or two longer than what he did. He debuted with about a five.
Then again, which would you rather have -- a five-share with a median age of fifteen? or a four-share with a median age of 27? (I say, with no regret: We'll never know.)
Rick: You've been running your consulting business for nearly thirty years now, with one short detour in 2002-2003 at WJMK. I was there that year too, and it was a strange time. People were getting fired left and right, including, eventually, you and me. What did you learn about the business during that year and in retrospect would you have done anything differently?
Jim: Ah, one of those live-your-life-again-but-knowing-then-what-you-know-now questions.
I don't know that there was anything new about the business, to address part one of your question briefly, that wasn't already apparent to me from the consulting side. The radio business had definitely changed. I will leave it for the complaining others to lament those changes.
(This lecture will be brief.) To my way of thinking, there will always be those of us who see change and who do our best to adapt to it; and there will always be those who think that whining will accomplish anything.
I worked with someone a couple of decades ago who now is, um, inactive in radio. I have stopped even looking at his blog because it seems such a bitter, negative exercise. One would think that the world was coming to an end. For him, perhaps, it already has. He and others like him should be reading Spencer Johnson's "Who moved my cheese?" or something similar rather than writing constantly about how the radio business, which no longer has a place for him, thus is obviously a failure.
In contrast, my friend David Martin recently quoted his own radio-veteran father at http://davemartin.blogspot.com thus: "When the winds of change blow, some build walls, smart guys build windmills."
Some of my earliest career and pre-career memories include listening to radio people bitching about how things had changed. Implicit in their griping was "Radio has changed. I haven't." My thought, never spoken, was "Fine. You move on; the rest of us will deal with it." And we did. (End of lecture.)
But to the far more interesting second part of your question, there are no doubt some things which could have been done differently (aka done better) and some which we simply could not.
I didn't know until hired, for one example, that the station was going to move to a new facility. I definitely, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, should have tried to interject myself into that process. You will recall, Rick, that the studio telephone system was amuck from day one of the move and for several months thereafter.
Now, let's say there's a morning show which relies heavily on the use of telephones. Let's say the phones are farkled for months. Would that [a] improve and enhance the morning show or [b] cause problems? (Everyone reading this got the answer right. Give yourself an A for choosing "b".)
I had a goal of getting mornings to outperform the rest of the station. After all, there was an excellent team in place -- John and Leslie, Bonnie on news, Rick the producer, and Vince the engineer. (Photo: WJMK morning show, 2001, Rick Kaempfer, John Landecker, Leslie Keiling, newsman Richard Cantu, and Vince Argento) We only made subtle changes, but by golly mornings did outperform the station overall in the first month. Again in the second month, yippee. But in the third month we moved from tired old studios (which worked) into fancy new studios (which sucked). It immediately showed in the morning numbers.
And that's without even mentioning the rest of the technical facility. It was one thing to tell myself that the average listener may not notice half of the glitches and problems. It was something else altogether to realize what that does to staff morale when things simply don't work.
Only several months later, after a change in Chief Engineers, did some of that slowly start to get addressed. So if there were one thing that could have been done differently --
Okay, in an ideal world, the above would actually be my #2 choice, but the first choice is also in a dream world: Make "the Drive" go away.
Musically, WJMK was moving the music forward -- less 60s, more 70s. That has to be done carefully in any context, but it is more tricky when the market has a station that's already there. For those who have never heard it, Bonneville's 97.1 "the Drive" was a well-positioned mostly 70s station, hipper than the average classic hits but softer than classic rock.
I thought we could co-exist. WJMK could be the station for people who grew up on AM top 40; WDRV could be for those who grew up on the FM side.
But their advertising budget that year made mincemeat out of us. Twice. We got a peek at the size of their tv buy. Amazing. They did it right.
I have seen CBS do seven figures of tv in NY or LA but not in Chicago. It is doubtful that anyone could have made the case to spend that kind of money on WJMK at that point in its radio lifecycle. But it would have helped.
So, you take an established, well-positioned, well-programmed 97.1 and add a saturation ad campaign with one of the best tv spots in my memory, and what have you got? They took cume and quarter-hour away from us that spring. Then, not satisfied that we were still alive, they came back and did it again that fall.
I take great pride, though, in what happened in between. With the Drive off of tv (though still doing a bus and transit campaign, if memory serves correctly), we had closer to a level playing field. WJMK delivered its best numbers in several years. Twas a summer book, however, so who cares; and it was bookended by a devastating spring and an equally devastating fall.
My replacement the next year was Charley Lake, a fine all-around programmer with many successes to his credit. I really wanted to see Bonneville throw a million against him -- not to see him fail (though that may have been the result) but to see what he would have done in the face of that onslaught. It could have been a lesson in how to do it, both for me and for everyone else who cared to watch. But they didn't, so it never happened.
In retrospect, it occurs to me that there was nothing that we could have done differently in that environment other than to endure it and then hope to come back and fight again.
The same goes for the commercial load. I don't know that there was anything that we on the programming side could have done, given the intense pressure on the sales department. WJMK had some good people selling and managing, but there was no way that they could meet budget with the effective spot rate and the available inventory. They had no choice but to add commercial units.
I recall counting what was presumably the high point (or low point, depending on how one sees things) of an hour which had 27 units for a total of between 21 and 22 minutes. It is difficult to hold listener quarter-hours on a music station when literally a third of the clock is tuneout material and there are other good places on the dial. But we all did the best that we could.
Regrets? I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I would do it all over again, if that's what you're asking. After all, it gave me the opportunity to work with an excellent General Manager (Mike Fowler, now at WLS AM&FM) and great people in sales and programming and operations, including two unsung heroes -- Promotion Director Lisa Piovosi (who later moved to Comcast) and combination Music Director / Imaging Director / Assistant PD Bob Lawson (who is still with the company).
There are many things NOT to change if a time machine were to allow me to "go back Jack and do it again". I would still have wanted --
1. To treasure the market-heritage air talent we had, namely Dick Biondi, John Landecker, and Greg Brown (photo);
2. To supplement that by putting Fred Winston, Bob Dearborn, and Connie Szerszen back on Chicago radio;
3. To play the hits that the target audience remembered from that era and which they wanted to hear again; and
4. To reach out to those listeners with every sort of personal appearance that our guys could handle, since that is a very effective way to strengthen that bond between a radio station and its audience.
Rick: OK, one last question, and this one will be totally unfair. If you had to put together a dream lineup of jocks to execute your dream format, what would that format be, and who would you hire for what time slots?
Jim: To those who would guess that my dream format is polkas and Hawaiian love ballads: Wrong!
I will therefore dodge your "totally unfair" question, Rick, with an equally unfair answer. For the purposes of this blog, my dream format is best described as Jim's iPod. I can't imagine anyone wanting to devote even an HD signal to it, however, for the potential cume is probably about one person.
It could operate 24/7 but would need no airstaff, not even voicetracks to announce the tunes, since they're all familiar to me.
Thanks for asking!