Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ron Smith

Ron Smith is the author of five books including the most recent "Eight Days a Week." He's also a long time Oldies music programmer, including in Chicago for WJMK (104.3) and Real Oldies (AM 1690).

Rick: I just got my hands on your excellent new book "Eight Days A Week," which is the printed version of your Oldies calendar from your excellent website What inspired you to put this out in book form?

Ron: It was always my intention to put it out in book form someday. But it seemed like the chart books were a higher priority. I’m glad I waited, though. First of all, imagine how much smaller the book would have been 15 years ago. Plus, my experience in publishing the other books allowed me to create what I think is not only an informative, but attractive volume. I guess that judgment’s up to the general public, though. Your readers can get a day’s sample (along with a link to buy the entire book) at

By the way, I’m especially proud of the rock ‘n’ roll caricatures in the book which I had drawn by a 25 year-old woman from the Ukraine! This music is truly universal.

Rick: In your Introduction you describe the way misinformation appears on many "This Day in History" sites on the Internet--something I've found to be true. I was burned several times during my producing days. What are a few of the most egregiously incorrect facts you've spotted over the years?

Ron: I once saw the birthday of George “Spanky” McFarland of “Our Gang” comedies listed as that of Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane from the group, Spanky & Our Gang. The 14-year difference in their ages was a dead giveaway. I mention in my book how, for years, half the sources you read said October 13 was Paul Simon’s birthday and the other half said it was Art Garfunkel’s. I asked the visitors to my web site to give me definitive proof and each anecdote I received made it clearer that Paul was born in October and Art in November. That’s now accepted as fact. I’ve had DJs all the over the country help me sort out discrepancies with birth dates for artists like Bobby Lewis and Len Barry. And with the Internet and email, I’ve been able to ask Ben E. King and Nick Gilder for their help directly.

Rick: I know this whole Oldies calendar concept goes back to your days as the music director of WJMK (in the 80s and early 90s). I just missed working with you there (I started in 1993, you left in 1992), but people still talked about you and the calendar you provided for the jocks. How did that come to be?

Ron: The calendar actually goes back to my college days but really got started when I was the morning personality at then-Oldies WCCQ-FM in Joliet. I simply presented it to the jocks at WJMK (and later Real Oldies 1690) as show prep. That’s what Music Directors are supposed to do-- help the air talent sound their best. What’s not well known is that I was eventually asked to stop distributing the calendar at WJMK because mentioning events from the past “just makes people feel old.” For a long time they wouldn’t say the word, “Oldies” for the same reason.

Rick: The Foreword to your book is written by the legendary Dick Biondi. You're a Chicago radio historian. Where you would you place Biondi among the all-time Chicago radio greats?

Ron: We’ve been so fortunate to be able to listen to Dick almost every day for the last 28 years (and for eight years in the ‘60s and ‘70s) that we tend to take him for granted and forget how influential he was even before coming to Chicago. Dick Biondi’s appeal is truly national. He’s better known across the country, I’d say, than any other jock to work in this town. In their own way, Larry Lujack, Howard Miller, Steve Dahl and Jonathan Brandmeier also influenced the course of radio but Dick certainly belongs on, if not atop, that list.

I should also add that, having known Dick for decades now, he is the most honest and loyal friend anyone could have. He’s been there for countless people over the years. I’m so glad to see him get the recognition (like the dedication of “Dick Biondi Way” last year) that he richly deserves.

Rick: I have your other books (Chicago Top 40 Charts 1960-1969, Chicago Top 40 Charts 1970-1979, Chicago Top 40 Charts 1980-1990, WCFL Chicago Top 40 Charts 1965-1976) in my archives and find them to be an invaluable resource. What I've always found interesting about the Chicago charts from that 60s and 70s era is how much they differed from the national charts. That's not really the case anymore. You've obviously studied this subject matter in great detail. How and when did that change?

Ron: There were over 150 songs in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that made the top ten in Chicago without cracking the top 40 nationally. That’s a credit to people like Sam Holman, Gene Taylor, Art Roberts, Clark Weber, Ken Draper, John Rook, Jim Smith, Steve Perun and John Gehron who made these stations unique to Chicago. Part of the reason for my writing my chart books was to document the music we grew up with in Chicago that’s been lost as Oldies radio relies on the top ten from a Joel Whitburn book for its playlists.

You ask how things changed. That’s the same answer. Radio gradually started taking the safe approach-- shorter playlists, over-reliance on research and cookie-cutter consultants. I’m not pointing fingers here. Program Directors used to play “You Bet Your Desk” four times a year when the ratings came out. Now it’s twelve times a year. Ratings used to cover 16 weeks a year. Now it’s 52. The big national chains have too much money invested in their stations to wait for long-term results. They want quick fixes. There’s a certain safety in always watching your behind.

Rick: You've been working in the Oldies format/genre now for nearly 40 years. What is it about that era's music that makes it so timeless?

Ron: Obviously, the music’s been groundbreaking. The rock revolution of the mid-‘50s and the British Invasion of the mid-‘60s were earth-shattering sociologically as well as musically. And the personality radio of the times had a lot to do with it. The two were intertwined and synergistic (am I getting too intellectual here?). Most of all, though, it was “our music.” We went out and bought those 45s and made them hits with our hard-earned allowances. Nowadays, stations play the latest tunes the record labels are “working” and the audience has little say in the matter. Often they can’t even buy the tunes. There’s nothing “timeless” about music you’re force-fed.

Rick: There are really two Oldies stations, or at least Oldies-like stations in Chicago now, WLS-FM and K-Hits (WJMK). I know as a Chicago-area resident you check both of those stations out. What's your take on their current formats?

Ron: I’m not sure I would classify either station as “Oldies.” K-Hits is clearly intended as a Classic Hits station. It plays a smattering of late ‘60s music, but the focus is on the late ‘70s and ‘80s. It reminds me musically very much of the Drive ten years ago. And the air sound is not unlike that of B-96 in the early ‘80s. Those, by the way, are good things. But not “Oldies.”

WLS-FM has been very successful as an Oldies station but is now trying to lower its demographics by playing music into the ‘80s. While the variety is staggering, this is leading to “whiplash” in both era and timbre. The strangest segue I’ve heard was going from the Platters to Foghat. If I had to predict, I’d say they’ll eventually solve this by phasing out the earlier music and becoming more of a Classic Hits station, as well. In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, “I don’t like it but I guess things happen that way.”

Both stations are fortunate in having excellent on-air personalities-- Eddie and JoBo, Gary Spears and Tommy Edwards on K-Hits and Dick Biondi, Greg Brown and Scott Shannon on 94.7. That’s a real plus.

Rick: You were also a pioneer in internet radio world, and continue to program channels for (50s hits and 60s hits). Do you think that internet radio will ever overtake terrestrial radio?

Ron: I think Internet radio has a lot going for it-- low (or even no) commercial loads, deep libraries, specialized genres and true audience interaction. I’m very proud of the channels at Slacker. Compared to the computer-algorithms that come out of the competition, our radio experts (actual human beings like you and me) are creating high-quality listening experiences and we’re adding cutting-edge features like personalized news and sports and-- just added this week-- songs on-demand. The future is truly limitless.

Having said that though, I have to admit that Internet radio has a way to go before it really competes with terrestrial radio. The programming tools are still a bit primitive, songs don’t actually segue and there’s very little personality. Plus I’d kill for a good jingle package. The good news is that each of those faults is easily overcome. And as the channels grow in listenership and profitability, they will be overcome. That’s when the fun begins.

Rick: The acknowledgments section of "Eight Days a Week" reads like a Who's Who of Chicago radio. You've obviously been inspired by and worked with some of the best. Let me put you on the spot here. If you could put together a dream line up (with an unlimited budget), who would it include?

Ron: You do want to get me in trouble, don’t you?

Certainly Larry Lujack would be doing mornings. I doubt that there’s any disk jockey in the last 45 years who hasn’t been influenced by Old Uncle Lar’. Even on his worst days, he outshone every other jock. And Tommy Edwards is the perfect complement to Larry. Separately they’re both outstanding. Together, they’re damn near perfect.

The late Art Roberts is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor in the business. His sage advice is still a part of who I am. He was a thinking-man’s DJ who never overthought anything and was totally relatable to his audience. Whopper waffles, I miss him.

I never had a chance to work with either Bob Sirott or John Landecker but I’ve met them both and stay in touch with Bob by email. They’re a study in contrasts-- Bob is the local-boy-made-good, approachable, with easygoing charm and natural intelligence while John is quick-witted, hard-working, often sarcastic and at times quite bombastic. They were and are true personalities. I so wish radio was developing talents like these today. Television, by the way, has really expanded my perception of Bob. He’s proven to be an outstanding interviewer and I don’t think Channel 11 has ever really recovered from his loss.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned Dick Biondi. But here’s a name that might prove surprising-- Kris Eric Stevens. I loved his rapid-fire style, humor and “talk-up-to-the-post-without-ever-stepping-on-that-vocal” delivery. If the others I’ve mentioned taught me how to be a personality, Kris taught me how to be an announcer. I was fortunate to have worked with him when he filled in for a week on Real Oldies 1690.

And how about letting Bob Stroud go nuts and “roots salute” all night long?

I’d still have to find a place for such unique individuals as Fred Winston, Jerry G. Bishop, Robert Murphy and Connie Szerszen. But then, weekends during the ‘60s and ‘70s were always manned by top-notch talent who were every bit as good as the full-time staff. Why not on my station? In addition, Dick Orkin would have to be creating features.

Now, can I cheat and create an HD-2 channel for out-of-towners and fill it with guys like Don Imus, Charlie Tuna, Gary Burbank, Dick Purtan and Dr. Don Rose? And how about an HD-3 channel for talk hosts like Howard Miller, Clark Weber, Dave Baum, Bill Berg and Eddie Schwartz? Okay, I think I’ve spent enough money.

UPDATE: Ron just sent me the following via Facebook..."In reading the interview I realize I made a big mistake. After talking about Chicago's top 40 jocks, I meant to bring up its R&B talent. But I got sidetracked. My apologies to Herb Kent, Richard Steele and the late Al Benson for the glaring omission. Especially Herb, who I loved working with for 3 years. Mea culpa."