"Cleveland is no joke"
You can joke about Cleveland all you want, like the time The Cuyahoga River burst into flames in Cleveland, but in the 50’s and 60’s, Cleveland was the Mecca of music, no joke.. Bill Randle at WERE could make or break a new record. Records were introduced and sampled there, then relayed-or not-to New York and Philly.
It was in the early 60’s that I was contacted by Westinghouse and asked to join Specs Howard at KYW in Cleveland in a two man morning show. I had never done a team show, and doubted that I would ever be able to talk to someone else and listen and react to what he was saying the way team jocks are supposed to do. But, I decided to have a go at it. “ Having a go at it” meant negotiating a one year firm contract in case I was a dud.
Most of the E-mail response I receive as a result of this epic Radio Daily News series concerns my five year stint at the legendary KYW in Cleveland, asking how we toppled WHK, the supposedly invincible force in that market. Oh well ... okay. I’ll tell you … but only if you promise not to accuse me of being a smart ass.
I date their initial downfall back to the time when Specs and I went as audience members to a Beatle concert at Cleveland Municipal Auditorium sponsored by WHK.
You may read about how Specs and I kidnapped the Beatles Show from WHK. Click onto the long version at the bottom of this page how we “saved the Beatle concert .”
I will give you the short version.
A riot was going on when Specs and I arrived at the giant concert hall. 12,000 out of control teenage girls were about to overwhelm the cops who were standing with arms locked at the footlights to fend off a mass invasion of the backstage area where the Beatles were cowering.
It was a crisis. The Chinese have an apropos term for what we call a crisis. The ideograph reads “danger /opportunity..”
We took advantage of the danger /opportunity
The danger : The Police Chief was in danger of canceling the concert when Specs and I overheard him, and intervened, promising him that we would restore order. He reluctantly agreed.
The opportunity- We asked him to remove the WHK jocks from the scene. He dutifully shooed them off, then Specs and I went on stage and calmed the girls and persuaded them to return to their seats so the show could start.
While the girls were getting control of themselves, we shamelessly plugged our KYW morning show and promised them we would play a Beatle triple play at 6:45 on the following Monday morning They screamed in surrender to us, the new powers in town so abjectly that many of them lost bladder control. A fine mess as Stan said to Ollie.
That weekend, there was a rippling effect. 12,000 girls told 12,000 other girls who told 12,000 other girls ad infinitum until Cleveland was saturated with the allegory of how Martin and Howard had saved the Beatle concert.
Timing is everything.. The Gods smiled all over us at that time when Ken Draper arrived as the new PD, accompanied by his new Production Manager, Dick Orkin.. It was Draper’s job to unite the KYW jocks, to create a sound that enveloped the entire day from 6am till 6pm. In the other jocks, Jim Runyon, Jay Lawrence and Jim Stagg, he had a lot to work with. He had brought Orkin, a genius, to create a synergy of music and talent. You may recall that it was Dick Orkin who later created “Chicken Man”. and ultimately went to Hollywood where he wrote and produced the funniest commercials in radio history. Right now, he was ours.
Ken Draper had already done his pre-production work, bringing in a scintillating set of jingles, catchy and memorable tunes extolling KYW. He then got down to the challenge of packaging 9am till 6pm.
Jim Runyon, on from 9am till noon, had a tectonic voice that he never exerted full force, using it instead as a comforting presence.. He was gifted with a conversational brand of wit. You may recall hearing him in later years as the “announcer” on Dick Orkin’s wildly popular “Chicken Man” series that permeated the country. He is best remembered for how he came out of each episode with a mellifluous “welll!”. A prominent female marketer said that Jim gave her the feeling that he had just made love, and now was paying the woman the ultimate respect by staying with her and listening to her opinions.
Like the others, he pulled his own music which he softened after the kids went to school. Also, like us, he mixed the music and the commercials in real time in the studio, based on flow.
Jay Lawrence took the Noon – 3pm slot. Listen to Gene Wilder in your mind and you will hear Jay. To hear him was to start laughing. In fact, he often laughed at his own humor, an infectious laugh that made others laugh with him. His humor poured out of him, spontaneous and unforced. He also had a built-in red light in his head. He did a bit, paid it off and went back into the music.
A sample of Jay’s humor: In the Beatle era, the big issue with kids was whether or not to have long hair. Jay said, “I had long hair when I was a kid. My mother never minded. My brothers and sisters never minded. (Pause) but the boy who carried my books home from school He really minded when he found out I was a boy.”.:
Jim Stagg held down 3pm -6pm When I say “held down” I mean he held it down, and wouldn’t let it up.. He treated rock music as great classics, and his program as the most important show on earth. Stagg was possessed of a crackling, rich baritone delivery. No witty remarks for him. He was all business, that business being the exaltation of the music.
That was the lineup Now, it was Draper’s job to create synergism in a group that individually was big league..
When he first arrived, we avoided him. Our first impression of him, when we first met him, was that he had the personality of a grave. He was dour when we passed him in the hall. He nodded but never smiled. When and if he spoke to us that first week , it was with a voice that sounded like Clint Eastwood on downers. Had he sung a song, all of the notes would have been the same. Our feeling was that when he finally spoke to us, it would not be something we wanted to hear. We had a lot going and didn’t want him to screw it up. .
Specs and I were doing cutting edge stuff. One example of this was a daily three minute comedy vignette featuring an anti-hero named Congo Curt.. We produced and performed over three hundred Congo Curt episodes. The vignettes were patterned after the radio adventure programs of the 40’s.
Opening theme, a made-up commercial and into the episode.
One commercial featured “Arkie, the Alligator Purse.” .
It was a 30” but here is the gist of it.
Announcer: When you own Arkie the Alligator Purse you will no longer scream.
Female Voice Stop thief! You stole my purse.
Announcer From now on it will be
Female:: Stop purse!. You stole my thief.
Announcer: Because you see boys and girls, Arkie is a real live alligator.
The commercials always ended with a pitch for money.
Announcer: Sneak into your mom’s purse and take out her check book. In the empty space, write the number 1,000. Then write your mother’s name on the bottom and send it to “Congo Curt, my hero” Walla Walla, Washington.”
Curt exploited his girl friend, The Beautiful Veronica, without conscience.
Congo and Veronica are trapped in the middle of a woven vine bridge hundreds of feet
above a raging river. They are surrounded on both ends of the bridge by the fierce Flinchite tribe that we hear howling in blood lust in the background.
Veronica: Oh Congo We are surrounded by those horrible natives and this bridge will only hold one person.. What will we do?
Curt: ( With Rush Limbaugh-like authority) There is only one thing to do.
Veronica :What is that, my beloved.? Oh…what are you doing. No! Congo No!
(Congo has obviously thrown Veronica off the bridge. She screams a long CONGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooo.
Congo: (Hollers down to her as she falls ) \
Try to relax when you hit the water, Veronica.
The time came for our first meeting with Draper. We were apprehensive, but determined not to buckle. Specs has a gentle demeanor but I had seen him flare up a couple of times He is feisty. We were ready to do battle. .
We walked into Draper’s office and were startled to see him smiling. “I just listened to tomorrow’s Congo Curt,” He said amiably. “Very funny stuff.” I actually heard myself taking the opposite tack. “Well it was a little long,. “ I said for a reason which still escapes me. “No it wasn’t, He countered.” I don’t care how long it is as long as it is funny.”
He elaborated to us as we sat dumbstruck. “My one rule is, don’t start something you can’t finish. It is true in love, in a bar room brawl, and in radio.” I haven’t heard you guys go into a bit yet without a pay off.” Was this the same Ken Draper ?
Then the coup de grace. He said, “The only reason I want to know what you are doing is, that I want to be in on the fun.” He had the same disarming approach with the other guys.
Giving us this kind of support inspired my fellow jocks to bond. Feeling the security of his support, we devoted our energy to figuring out how to help each other. Weekly jock meetings gave us material about each other for generous cross plugging, because we were mutual fans. The need for a plug sheet disappeared. Dick Orkin attended those meetings and wrote brilliant promos for us. based on who were.
Each morning, Runyon would come in a few minutes before his show for a “crossover.” Being an Irish story teller at heart, he was never at a loss for words. His crossover with the very funny Jay Lawrence was classic. Each day was a big laugh fest.
KYW lasted for five years and came to an end when the FCC decreed that NBC had to trade their Philadelphia radio station. for KYW. Westinghouse had no transfer clause in their corporate talent contract which meant that we could extricate ourselves from NBC and go where we wished.
Like I said: timing is everything. Hal Neal the president of ABC Radio flew to Cleveland and hired Specs and me for mornings at WXYZ in Detroit.
I recently asked Chuck Blore, the daddy of 'em all, what happened to radio since those glorious days when he masterminded its evolution. To get things going with him, I said that great jingles are a thing of the past, and asked him to list a few other things using “whatever happened to” as the basis..
Blore asked whatever happened to ……….
entertaining personalities after 9am.
audience oriented thinking
Exciting, provocative, really fun station promotions
programming that was fresh, interesting, and varied from one day to the next.
Blore continued, unconstrained by the list format.
The list can get very very long, Hare. All it takes is someone who knows the magic that can result from radio that doesn’t dull your senses. See? There’s another one. Whatever happened to radio that doesn’t dull your senses?
We knew that something special was happening. at KYW. We evolved into much more than a teen rock and roll station. The kids had served as the shock troops that opened the market up for us. This tactic goes by the Freudian term, “teen penetration.” Fact is, we did something unique when communicating with our teen audience We didn’t talk down to them, giving them the feeling that they belonged to a much larger family. Our rapport with our audience, encompassing all of the elements that Chuck enumerated above were such that we appealed not just to teens, but adults who wanted to get in on the fun. The result was that KYW evolved into a classic radio station starting from scratch, without a rich history from which to evolve. Within a year from our beginning, WHK vanished as our nemesis.
We stood alone, as near all things to all radio as could be..
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