Friday, May 11, 2007

The Day the Music Died

It went almost unnoticed, but yesterday marked a sad anniversary in the history of radio. On May 10, 1982, WABC in New York ended its legendary run as a Top 40 station, switching to it current--and highly successful--talk format. Borrowing a line from Don McLean's "American Pie," the change at WABC is sometimes referred to as "The Day the Music Died," literally and figuratively. Not only did the station stop playing records, it also signaled the end "Top 40" music on AM stations, a fixture on that part of the broadcast dial for more than three decades.

In some respects, rock and roll saved radio. With the end of network radio in the 1950s (and the rise of TV), local stations were searching for a format that would attract listeners, particularly among that huge wave of Baby Boomers that were growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While DJs like Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips were among the first to play R&B and rock on "white" stations, the Top 40 format was pioneered by programmers like Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon. They hit upon the idea of playing the most popular rock and roll songs over and over again, punctuated by patter from up-tempo, popular disc jockeys. By the late 1950s, Storz and McLendon's had converted a number of stations into successful Top 40 outlets.

While WABC wasn't the first major radio station to adopt the format, it quickly became the most successful. The station switched to a Top 40 format in December 1960, and spent the next couple of years battling it out with rivals WMCA and WINS for supremacy. With a 50,000-watt, clear-channel signal that blanketed the New York metro area, WABC had an advantage over its competitors and became the city's #1 station by 1962. A few months later, a young NYU grad named Rick Sklar was appointed program director, and he took WABC to even greater heights. Sklar shortened the playlist even more--the top song was heard almost every hour--and hired some of the personalities that were forever identified with the station: "Cousin" Brucie Morrow; Ron Lundy, Dan Ingram, Harry Harrison, Chuck Leonard, George Michael and Johnny Donovan, to name a few. Mr. Sklar also had the good sense to align the station with the Beatles during their first tour of the states, which resulted in thousands of teenagers singing the station's jingles--on the air--outside the group's New York hotel.

At its peak in the early 1970s, WABC had a cumulative audience of 7 million listeners a week, a total that remains unsurpassed in radio history. But with the rising popularity of FM--and oddly, enough, the arrival of disco--WABC began losing large numbers of listeners to stations like WKTU. By that time, Sklar had become an executive for ABC's radio network and his successor proved unable to stem the tide. The station began experimenting with its play list, added more sports, even added an early talk show, but nothing worked. In early 1982, WABC announced that it would switch to an all-talk format later that year, and the transition occurred on May 10th, after a final, farewell program hosted by Dan Ingram and Ron Lundy. The final song that aired on WABC as a Top 40 station was John Lennon's "Imagine."

Ironically, WABC struggled during its early years as a talk outlet. It finally gained traction after hiring Bob Grant away from WOR and importing a fellow named Limbaugh from Sacramento. Today, WABC is the most listened-to talk station in New York City, although its cumulative audience (and revenue) ranks behind that of KFI-AM in Los Angeles.

As for the "old" WABC, it lives on at an excellent tribute website, an annual tribute weekend, and via a Saturday night "oldies" show hosted by Mark Simone. Twenty-five years after the music died, it's still fun to tune in (or go on-line) and experience the magic all over again.

No comments: