The invention of Boss Radio
Originally published in 2002, and republished as an e-book in 2010, Ron Jacobs Inside Boss Radio is the story of Top 40 radio’s highest peak. From 1965 through 1969, Jacobs served as program director for KHJ-AM, and together with the legendary radio consultant Bill Drake, created the Boss Radio format that conquered Los Angeles and was duplicated successfully in markets around the country. Jacobs covers the format’s origin, the boss jocks who brought it to life, the promotions that furthered KHJ’s reach, and the day-to-day workings involved in seeding and growing a format into a competition stomping dynamo.
The story begins in Fresno, where, as program director for KMAK, Jacobs battled head-to-head with Bill Drake, who was consulting for station owner Gene Chenault at KYNO. Rock ‘n’ roll had reached the major markets through Chuck Blore’s “Color Radio” Top 40 format at KFWB (a time documented in Blore’s Okay, Okay I Wrote the Book), but by the mid-60s, Blore had left KFWB, and KRLA, with Dave Hull, Bob Eubanks and Casey Casem was getting hot. Drake had decamped from Fresno to work at KGB in San Diego, and upon moving to KHJ he brought in Jacobs as program director. The station switched formats in May 1965, rechristening Los Angeles as “Boss Angeles,” and rewriting the mechanics, content and focus of Top 40 radio.
Jacobs’ book is in two parts. The first half of the book is a multi-person verbal history that threads together stories and anecdotes from many of the original characters. The second half, and really the meat, is the blizzard of memos that Jacobs rained upon his DJ staff, announcing changes to the hourly clock, pushing upcoming promotions, nitpicking the details of their on-air work, highlighting records, discussing ratings and always reminding them to program their music (particularly the “goldens”) with thought and flair. The verbal history is difficult to follow the first time through, as the characters aren’t drawn with enough detail to become sticky in the reader’s head. But after plowing through the memos, you’ll want to circle back to the book’s first half for a second read.
KHJ’s innovations and methods were many, including 20/20 newscasts, fresh and numerous promotions (including The Big Kahuna, Mr. Whisper and Location X), a KHJ-branded television program, premieres, exclusives, musical specials (such as 1969’s 48-hour The History of Rock ‘n ‘Roll), and teen-targeted day-parting. Jacobs was relentless in driving towards a “standard of attempted perfection,” and his drive was rewarded by towering ratings. The format was technical, complex, intricate and always under revision. Jacobs’ biggest headache seems to have been the fight against complacency as the station quickly rose to #1 and crushed its competition. By early 1968, KFWB switched from music to news and KRLA was cutting shifts and eventually turned to automation.
What’s missing is an explanation of the philosophy or stimulus that led to many of the changes outlined in the memos. The reader is often left to guess what Jacobs was responding to, or exactly what he was trying to accomplish, but even for Jacobs, annotating the memos nearly fifty years after the fact may just not have been possible. Still, it would be fascinating to have him break down a few of the format tweaks, to give lay people some deeper insight into the day-to-day mind of a program director. Also missing from the memos is Bill Drake’s voice, and so the daily dynamic between consultant and program director is not seen.
By 1968, you can feel KHJ losing its dominance as the golden age of teen power began to wane. KHJ aimed itself at “mass appeal” musically, ignoring the youngest teeny-boppers and the oldest stoners, and shifted to fewer and bigger contests. Jacobs resigned four years after he arrived, departing in May of 1969 at the ripe old age of 31. Two of Boss Radio’s key jocks, Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele, were leaving at the same time, and though KHJ carried on, it never again flew as high. Jacobs’ book is enhanced with reproductions of Boss 30 flyers and trade advertisements, showing how the station positioned itself with both listeners and advertisers. What’s missing most is the sound of KHJ, which you can find in airchecks on You Tube and Reel Radio. [©2016 Hyperbolium]
Ron Jacobs’ Obituary
Ron Jacobs’ Blog