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PART ONE: SURVIVOR
IN 1949, ROBERT STORZ, the owner of Omaha's leading brewery, bought his boy a toy. Todd Storz was twenty-five and something of a disappointment to his father. The heir to the Storz beer fortune had spent much of his childhood in his room, discovering another world. At eight, he built himself a crystal set and spent his evenings scanning the airwaves, listening to voices that spoke of a world beyond the flatlands of Nebraska, a world of crowded ballrooms and swell gents and ladies who could dance all night. At sixteen, he qualified for a ham radio license — permission to scan the airwaves and chat with strangers in faraway places — and suddenly, he was both alone in the far reaches of the Storz mansion and aloft, flying around the Midwest, his voice calling out to other anonymous amateur broadcasters on the prairie. Todd and his fellow hobbyists didn't talk about much other than the fact that they were talking to each other. Marveling at the machinery they had put together with their own hands, they were enraptured by the mere fact of their contact. Todd was a loner, but his radio granted him the courage to reach out to strangers. In that room, he could step away from the shadow of his father. In there, he could reach beyond the expectations that his family and community had for him. In there, he could be someone who was not merely the brewer's son.
Taking over the family business was the last thing Todd wanted to do. He craved something more than the stultifying life of upper-crust Omaha.Todd went away to Choate, the New England boarding school where the nation's leading families sent their sons to be groomed for power, and there, his passion for adventure blossomed. He retired each night to his ham radio, listening in on a world of people who yearned to connect with each other. Todd's hunger for the wider world led him, following a year at the University of Nebraska, to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps. It wasn't a military career that he sought, but rather the chance to be part of an operation that seemed to have no borders.
When his stint was up, Todd returned to Omaha intent on finding a place on the radio. He soon found work at Omaha's Mutual network affiliate, KBON. Assigned the late-night deejay slot, Storz scrapped the swing and bebop, playing instead the most popular records of 1947 — the sweet crooners and lush instrumentals of a period of pop music that would never make it to any latter-day oldies station. Todd soon switched to a sales job at another station in town, but he was smitten with radio's power.
In 1949, when the Omaha World-Herald put its hometown radio station on the market for $75,000, Robert Storz made his boy a deal. Dad would put up $30,000; if Todd could raise $20,000, the family would borrow the rest and Todd would have himself a station. Todd mortgaged an Iowa farm that he owned, and father and son created the Mid-Continent Broadcasting Co., owner of KOWH, a moneylosing, low-rated station that aired the usual mix of chatter for housewives, hillbilly shows, sweet music, light classics, jazz, and religious programs. The common wisdom of the day was that radio wasn't going to make anybody rich. Commercial spots sold for $1 each — "a dollar a holler," the salesmen would say. But Todd Storz believed that even if that TV thing that was just starting up ever made it big, radio was far from over. Storz's instincts told him that a mass audience could still be found, even if Americans decided they'd rather watch their favorite shows than listen to them.
This was not a widely shared view.
"IS RADIO DOOMED?" Life magazine asked in 1949. Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Johnny Carson, the Goldbergs, the Lone Ranger, Superman — they'd all seen the writing on the home screen and bid radio adieu. From 1949 to 1953, the number of TV stations in the nation rocketed from 97 to 550. You could sit in New York or Los Angeles and listen to radio fade. The assumption in Manhattan was that if technology was destiny, television would do to radio what radio itself had done to sheet music, home pianos, and vaudeville halls.
But most Americans that summer assumed that radio was the same as ever, something permanent and satisfying, like Schlitz, Schaefer, Storz — all those beers sponsoring all those cracks of the bat. After twenty-one years on the air, the Amos 'n' Andy comedy serial remained in the top ten, week after week. When Todd Storz bought KOWH, 108 of the programs on network schedules had been on the radio for a decade or more; twelve had been anchors of American entertainment since the dawn of network broadcasting. Radio network revenues were steady, year after year, an astounding $200 million a year in 1948, '49, and '50.
But the networks were starting to pump some of that revenue into the new technology. Television had been under development since the twenties, but the medium's rollout had been delayed by bureaucratic wrangling over which technical standards to adopt, by war and the diversion of engineers to military work, and by skepticism in the broadcasting industry about whether TV would catch on.
In 1948, TV was up and running in New York and Los Angeles, but most big cities had only one channel, and in much of the country, the medium remained a distant rumor. Still, where TV entered the scene, life changed quickly and dramatically. In 1951, movie attendance held steady in cities without TV but plummeted by 20 to 40 percent where TV provided an alternative to going out. Movie theaters closed by the hundreds. Jukeboxes, nightclubs, professional sports, bookstores — all reported declining business in TV cities. Radio felt the heat. First audience numbers sagged, then sponsors started fleeing to the new medium. Finally, radio lost its programming.
The old network standbys fell down. Bob Hope's radio ratings died like a bad joke, from a 23.8 percent share of the audience in 1949 to 12.7 the next year and 5.4 the year after that. Radio's stars and top shows migrated to TV: Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Gunsmoke, Captain Midnight. TV's early successes were direct copies — and sometimes simulcasts — of radio's hits: Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town variety hour, Philco Playhouse's serious dramas, Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar's comedy sketch shows, and Arthur Godfrey's personality chat show, a carbon copy of his radio program. Talent rushed out radio's door in a panic — writers, directors, salesmen, technical workers.
TV's rise was stunningly swift: In 1950, 9 percent of American homes had a set. Three years later, half the households had TV. At the same time, a youth explosion swept the nation: the baby boom topped out in 1957, when 4.3 million children, still a U.S. record, were born.
The national radio networks that Todd Storz had grown up with suffered first and hardest. When the big stars and their shows migrated to TV, so did national advertising for cars, gasoline, cigarettes, and household products. Radio station owners woke up without their programming or their old revenue stream. Network advertising receipts plummeted from $131 million in 1950 to $64 million in 1955. Station owners had to find some other source of income — fast. Storz instinctively knew where to turn. He might have yawned at the idea of following in his father's footsteps, but the son had absorbed the role Storz beer played in Omaha — he understood the intricate web of relationships among beer distributors and local bars, restaurants, shops, and families. Storz knew that the local grocer, car salesman, and clothier needed to form and maintain that kind of emotional bond with their customers. That was the American way, and radio — local radio — could make the connection. Television's national programming might suit the big cigarette companies and automakers, who sold to the entire country, but the corner store would want to get its message across through the cheap time available on radio shows with purely local appeal.
Storz took pride in being open to whatever was new, especially if it was something that the old establishment in Omaha hadn't yet cottoned to. During all those hours he spent alone as a kid, Storz developed a sharp eye and keen ear, and his travels had persuaded him that the country was changing. He saw young people leaving the cities and farms for suburbs where life revolved around the car, and radio, he figured, would become the nation's clock, waking us in the morning, accompanying us to work and back home again, babysitting the kids after school, lulling us to sleep at night. The burgeoning suburbs would alter the American day: now, in addition to work time, evening, and bedtime, there would be "drive time," and the only entertainment medium that had a pipeline into the American auto was radio. Storz watched the demise of network radio and concluded that families would never again gather around in the living room, sitting together to stare at a talking wooden cathedral. But he had a hunch that radio could take on an even more intimate, if less obvious, role: it would just be there, always on, in the background, serving not as the main entertainment of the evening, but as the soundtrack of American life.
Storz was open to all this in ways that veterans of the Golden Age of radio could not be. He had no special allegiance to the old serials and variety shows, no nostalgia for the networks in New York and California. In the heartland, Storz wanted to sell radio the way his family had always sold beer — in massive quantities, with Prussian efficiency, to local people who knew, trusted, and enjoyed his product in part because it was well made, but also because it was native to Omaha. It was theirs.
Even as TV began to capture the national imagination, radio was changing too. Thanks to ever-smaller tubes and batteries, radios were shrinking. Handheld radios were still a few years off, but "portables" the size of a small overnight bag came on the market, and automakers were offering far more cars equipped with radios. The radio was emerging from the living room. By 1953, nearly one in three Americans used the radio to wake up in the morning.
But what would they listen to? Storz wasn't sure what he wanted to put on KOWH, but he knew what he didn't want. He started killing off the "minority programs" — the classics and country tunes that he believed appealed only to small clusters of listeners, and the fifteen-minute music remotes from New York nightspots, a bit of Harry James, a quick set from Peggy Lee.
The way Storz told the story, he hit on the replacement for those programs back when he was a cryptographer in the Signal Corps. The answer was sitting in every jukebox in every diner and nightspot. As Storz watched customers plunk coins into the machines at his hangout, "I became convinced that people demand their favorites over and over. . . . The customers would throw their nickels into the jukebox and come up repeatedly with the same tune." Fascinated, Storz would stick around until after the front door was locked. "Let's say it was 'The Music Goes Round and Round.' After they'd all gone, the waitress would put her own tip money into the jukebox. After eight hours of listening to the same number, what number would she select? Something she hadn't heard all day? No — invariably she'd pick 'The Music Goes Round and Round.' Why this should be, I don't know. But I saw waitresses do this time after time."
In the annals of radio history, there are as many variations on this tale as there are stations on the dial. By some accounts, Storz was at that restaurant night after night because he was dating the waitress who loved her song; in other tellings, the inspiration for radio's future was an anonymous woman in white. Sometimes, Storz's revelation comes to him alone; other times, he is with his future sidekick in radio management, Bill Stewart, on Sixteenth Street in Omaha or over lunch at the Omaha Athletic Club.
To be sure, Storz was generally in the market for a comely waitress, but he was too single-minded about radio to adopt a business plan picked up in a diner. The less dramatic but more accurate version of the story finds Storz reading everything he could get his hands on about radio listening. In 1950, a University of Omaha researcher brought Storz the results of an industrial testing project that asked people what they listened to on the radio. Storz eagerly read that KOWH's only top-rated programs were music shows and that listeners wanted to hear their favorite songs, over and over.
If repetition of top music hits was what it would take to salvage radio, Storz was more than happy to dump the remaining hours of network programming, as well as Aunt Leana's homemaker show, the Back to the Bible Hour, and the third-rate soap operas he had been importing from England on jumbo-sized transcription discs. He started in 1951, adding a 9 A.M.- 11 A.M. hit parade show for housewives. The gospel in radio in those days was that no tune ought to be repeated within twenty-four hours of its broadcast — surely listeners would resent having to hear the same song twice in one day. But Storz now instructed his announcers to blend some of the songs played on Your Hit Parade, the long-running weekly network show, into KOWH's morning program.
Over the next several months, Storz extended music to more and more of the broadcast day. The idea was simple — music and news, each presented as a purely local product, with announcers who knew Omaha and worked its daily rhythms into their patter: what was happening at the high school, this day's price of wheat and corn, those new houses going up on the edge of town. A traffic report, the latest tornado watch, a pancake breakfast at the Jaycees' next meeting. And above all, the same songs, repeated a few times each day, simply because they were the most popular tunes in town, as measured by sales at local record stores. By the end of 1951, KOWH's share of Omaha listeners shot up from 4 percent to 45 percent.
Those who knew Storz highly doubt whether he ever read Sigmund Freud, but the father of psychoanalysis had focused on the essential human need for repetition half a century earlier. Freud's "repetition compulsion" theory said it is human nature to try to repeat childhood traumas in order to work through them. As Storz ordered up repeated spins of hit records in an Omaha studio, psychologist Harold Mendelsohn stretched Freud's ideas about repetition into a theory about the essence of pop culture. The pleasure people get from mass entertainment comes in good part from the simple repetition of actions, sounds, and situations that connect to emotional tensions in our own lives, Mendelsohn said.
Bud Armstrong, who ran the station Storz bought in Kansas City, put it more simply. In his instructions to deejays who balked at playing the same records over and over, Armstrong said: "About the time you don't like a record, Mama's just beginning to learn to hum it. About the time you can't stand it, Mama's beginning to learn the words. About the time you're ready to shoot yourself if you hear it one more time, it's hitting the Top Ten." Thus was the course of modern radio set.
Many in radio dismissed the idea entirely. "They all laughed at him because you couldn't get ratings with just forty records," said Ruth Meyer, who parlayed her work for Storz in Kansas City into a position running Top 40 WMCA in New York City. Others inside and outside the industry derided Storz as a purveyor of pap, cheapening the culture and filling the air with meaningless trifles.
He pleaded no contest: "I do not believe there is any such thing as better or inferior music. If the public suddenly showed a preference for Chinese music, we would play it."
UNTIL TV CAME ALONG, the music played on the radio consisted almost entirely of live performances. From early in radio's history, music publishers demanded royalties for any records played on the air, a powerful incentive for stations to stick to live performances of the classics and other material in the public domain. And in those early years, it wasn't easy to transmit decent sound quality from records to home radio sets. Even when sound quality improved, radio's overseers favored live programs; beginning in 1922, the Department of Commerce made it clear to applicants for radio licenses that proposals for live programs would be favored over broadcasts of records. From early on, the FCC mandated that stations divulge on the air whether programs were live or recorded. Not until 1940 did the agency relax that rule to the point that one announcement per half hour would suffice to warn listeners when music wasn't live. Even then, the feds, who saw the public's airwaves more as a community-building tool than as a profit center, made it clear that radio was for live performance: the FCC promised accelerated approval of licenses for applicants who pledged not to air any recorded fare during their first three years of operation.
There was also a legal barrier to playing records on the air. Bing Crosby and other top crooners of the day, fearful of giving away their product, regularly had their records stamped "Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast." Their lawyers backed them up with suits against stations that dared to play their tunes. But in 1940 a federal court ruled that once a record was sold, artists had no further claim to control how or where it was played. Stations were free to spin any records they cared to.
Still, the bias against canned music persisted. In the excitement of a new medium, playing recorded music seemed tacky, lacking the grandeur of a live band. So the first deejay shows on radio sought to dress up the simple act of spinning a record with a zesty mix of show biz magic and pure hokum: in 1933, Al Jarvis launched his Make Believe Ballroom program on KFWB in Los Angeles, using sound effects and dramatic descriptions of the "action" to mimic the sound of a live concert. Jarvis became the star of the show — not just an announcer in a studio spinning records but the host of a make-believe concert.
Martin Block picked up Jarvis's idea in New York two years later, and his Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW added an informality of speech that Block stole from FDR and Crosby. No more stentorian announcer booming out introductions as if he were calling out to a crowded theater; Block realized that the president's fireside chats worked because of their intimacy, because of the illusion that this was one person speaking to one listener at a time.
"And now, just for the record [hint-hint], here's Benny Goodman and the band swinging out for all Ballroom patrons with 'The 10 O'Clock Jump.' Take it, Benny," Block intoned one night. And then, after the record: "Thanks, Benny, that was great. I never heard the band sound better, and I really mean that, fella." Did the audience at home really believe that Goodman and his band were in the WNEW studios — in Block's "ballroom" — at that moment? Most likely, few listeners thought it through; what they loved about Block's show was that it sounded fresh and personal. It connected. As Block's nightly sign-off said: "For you and you — and especially for you."
Radio executives doubted whether an audience would be loyal to programs of spinning shellac discs. Sponsors wondered why people would turn on the radio to hear the same records they could play on their home Victrola. One WNEW sponsor decided to test Block's appeal. Smack in the middle of a snowstorm, the company went on the Make Believe Ballroom to offer refrigerators at a deep discount — but only if listeners came immediately to the store. One hundred and nine customers showed up right away. The sponsor was sold. By 1941, the Block show had a waiting list of advertisers.
Yet deejays remained second-class citizens in radio until the final battle against recorded music was waged in the form of a legal face-off between broadcasters and music publishers. The National Association of Broadcasters had created Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) in 1939 to break the monopoly held by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which required station owners to pay 2½ percent of their revenue for blanket permission to use music copyrighted by its members.When ASCAP sought to raise its fees, station owners decided to go their own way — both to save money and to open the airwaves to songwriters who weren't part of ASCAP. Suddenly, stations had access to all sorts of music barely represented in ASCAP's offerings — especially country and western and also rhythm and blues, then known as "race music."
In 1941 — the year Variety coined the term "disc jockey" — ASCAP's demand for a 70 percent boost in royalties resulted in a ten-month-long boycott of ASCAP music by virtually all of the nation's radio stations. Limited to the golden oldies in the public domain and the less mainstream numbers that dominated BMI's music library, stations and networks exposed listeners to all manner of new music, such as blues, bebop, and bluegrass (and way too much very old, very cheap stuff — musty Stephen Foster knockoffs from the nineteenth century). More important, radio stations established new relationships with small labels, record promoters, and record shop owners — the grassroots music industry that would eventually bring the new sounds of R&B, rock, and country to the nation's airwaves.
A year later, the American Federation of Musicians union demonstrated just how far performers would go to halt stations from playing records on the air: the union called a strike, ordering its members to refuse to make any recordings. The union was determined to avoid its nightmare scenario, in which radio would consist largely of deejays playing records, and musicians in radio orchestras and bands would be fired by the hundreds.
The union was right about radio's future and right about losing those jobs but completely missed the enormous impact that playing records on the air would have on the sales of tunes performed by its members. The battle finally ended in 1944 — after more than a year with hardly any records made in the United States — when record companies and other employers agreed to pay higher royalties and set up a benefits fund for musicians.
Labor peace opened the way for the deejay revolution that would be radio's response to the triumph of television. Stations played more and more records to fill time between network shows. In a few big cities, by the end of the 1940s, the deejays spinning those records were becoming big names — Dave Garroway, Mike Wallace, and Hugh Downs in Chicago, Bill Cullen in Pittsburgh, Arthur Godfrey in Washington, Soupy Sales in Cleveland. In the vacuum left by star performers who had forsaken radio for the home screen, these voices passed for celebrities.
TODD STORZ'S GOAL was to win. He wanted the profits, of course, and the ratings, but to get there, he first had to catch up with the nation's quickening pace. He was obsessed with radio and everything new, collecting every gadget that came on the market. He remained a ham operator, checking in with other early adopters across the land. He traveled the country to listen to unknown stations in hopes of gleaning a new idea or discovering a bright new personality.
A thin, energetic man with piercing brown eyes, close-cropped brown hair, and a luminous smile, Storz came off as something of a radio geek, but those who worked closely with him saw another side. His frequent travels to visit his stations were also a quest for extracurricular social engagements. "He was always running around," said Dale Moudy, a Storz protege who ran several stations around the country. "His wife once called my wife and me to their house in Fair Acres and told us, 'Todd's not a real husband.' He was a real cocksman."
Storz encouraged his managers to work hard and play hard. At a program directors meeting in Houston once, Storz managers were playing poker when the boss walked in with a rented gal on his arm. "He didn't come to play," Moudy said. "He needed cash, for the girl. I loaned him $40."
Storz had his managers tearing their hair out over his weakness for razzle-dazzle. He would hire itinerant carnival workers to swoop into a city and drop in on businesses that weren't advertising on his station, enticing potential sponsors with ridiculously cheap ad rates and a visit from a scantily clad female carnival performer. The carnies would then show up at the station and hand over half the cash they'd raised — the other half was their fee — leaving station sales managers to deal with the damage to their pricing schemes and to attempt to reinstate less dramatic relationships with local merchants.
"Todd had a very simplistic view of things — he led by instinct," said Steve Labunski, who worked for Storz in Kansas City and Minneapolis before going on to run NBC Radio in the 1970s. "He cared very little about sales, never went to sales meetings. He cared about programming. He listened constantly to tapes of his stations and others. He'd come to town a day early and not tell you, so he could listen and make sure you were doing everything right."
Identifying and repeating the top hits was only the first ingredient in the Storz formula. A showman at heart, he concocted a blend of stunts, promotions, and dependable program structure designed for the accelerating pace of American life. In a nation that was now on the road, speeding along to work and play, Todd Storz's Top 40 stations — by the mid-1950s, he had expanded to Kansas City, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Miami — gave Americans a little extra gas.
He wanted his deejays to display more energy, more personality. In the boss's teachings, a Storz jock had "to use his own talent. If he sings, let him sing. He is left completely free to talk as he feels best." Storz didn't want refined voices introducing music. Storz stations played the hits, but they also made it clear who was playing those hits. In the new world of Top 40, the deejay was the star, and to young men around the country, the prospect of spinning the dreams of a nation on the go was intoxicating. Most of Storz's staff was as young as or younger than he was; together, they scoffed at the old standards of radio — dramas, variety shows, advice for housewives, big-band remotes. To work for Storz was to be in the presence of a "god of radio," as Bill Armstrong put it.
Armstrong, who would go on to be elected a U.S. senator from Colorado, decided in 1948, at the age of eleven, that he wanted to be on the radio. His voice had not yet broken, a source of constant humiliation. But Bill went to his dad and asked for a job on the radio.
Sorry, the father said, no can do. But I can tell you how to find one. So Bill Armstrong found himself down at the office of KORN — "The Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt" — in Fremont, Nebraska, making himself useful. On Saturday afternoons, for no pay, he played records on the 3:30 music program. As a high school junior, he moved up to full-time duties during school vacations. The job was hardly glorious: mostly, Armstrong took metal transcription discs containing The Gloria DeHaven Show or the Red Seal RCA Victor Classics Library and played the music — classical one hour, country the next, then a bit of polka, then some sports headlines.
After high school, Armstrong set out to join the Storz revolution. "Every young disc jockey in America was trying to go work for Todd Storz," he said. Many of them could, because, as Armstrong said, "all the adults were leaving radio and going to TV." Armstrong, seventeen, interviewed with Storz himself and landed a job as an announcer at KOWH in Omaha. His first assignment was the sweet music show at 4:30 P.M. each day. There was nothing special about the music Armstrong selected, heavy on Montovani and other lush pops, and nothing particularly entertaining about what he said between tunes. But there was something distinctive about KOWH's emerging sound. Storz required his deejays to say the station's name frequently, not only at the top and bottom of the hour, as tradition dictated. He had them announce the time and temperature incessantly. He gave them one-liners to say, pronouncing KOWH "the world's greatest radio station." He told them to lighten up, be themselves — drop the stuffed-shirt voice with the elocution right out of the NBC Announcers' Guide. He commissioned singing station breaks (jingles). He added fanfares to introduce each element of every hour — the sports report, the weather, the news (broadcast at five minutes before the hour, just to be different, just to be first).
Everything was to sound planned and purposeful, even if it was just showbiz sparkle. "Top 40" sounded like the records were scientifically selected; in fact, forty was just the approximate number of songs a deejay could play in a three-hour shift. Market research barely existed, so KOWH managers invented ways to justify their Top 40 selections. Station salesmen cut barter deals with local music stores, trading one free advertising spot a week for lists of the top sellers at each store.
But there was more to producing successful radio than simply picking the most popular songs. Storz executives quickly learned that the fewer songs they played, the higher their ratings would soar. If they quietly cut their lists down to thirty or even twenty-five songs, the audience numbers responded immediately, always up.
IN NEW YORK, STORZ'S success was greeted with a big harrumph. Radio networks clung to the old model. "We refuse to operate like a jukebox," the ABC Affiliates Advisory Board declared in an advertisement in a trade magazine in 1956. A few months later, ABC network executive Robert Eastman announced that "there is no good reason why a network should ever play phonograph records." Instead, ABC served up live musical programs "for the on-the-go housewife who's busier than ever," starring Merv Griffin and Jim Backus as emcees for shows of light pops and big-band tunes.
The networks tried to plow ahead with their standard menu of variety, comedy, and drama shows. But Americans could get that fare on TV — with the bonus of actually seeing the performers. So gradually, the networks gave in. They returned to the evenings of dance bands that had filled the airwaves back in the 1930s — Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, and the Dorsey Brothers all had their own national shows once more. But this time, sponsors weren't buying. The networks tried giving top singers their own fifteen-minute shows; Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, legendary bandleader Paul Whiteman, and others would spin some of their own records and make a few remarks. The networks prayed that star appeal would draw listeners and sponsors. It didn't. CBS even tried to turn the stars of Amos 'n' Andy into deejays, recasting the longtime comedy show as The Amos 'n' Andy Music Hall in 1954. No go.
That year, television advertising sales surpassed radio's sales for the first time. It would never be close again.
In 1956, NBC Radio made a last-ditch attempt to revive its network by launching Bandstand, a weekday morning big-band show featuring the music of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Harry James, and the like. The host, Bert Parks, finished reading his script one morning at Studio 6A in NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters and reminisced with the sparse studio audience about his glory days as a radio announcer for huge national hit shows such as Camel Caravan and Stop the Music! Parks knew Bandstand was dying — it would be off the air less than a year after its debut. He asked the audience, "Did you ever get the feeling that the whole business is sliding into a lake?"
NOT THE WHOLE BUSINESS. Storz knew his stations would not be the only ones on the dial serving up hit music. So he installed equipment that made his stations sound louder. They played the clatter of a Teletype machine underneath their newscasts. They paid $10 for listener tips to breaking news stories. They took listener requests for songs (though the disc jockeys went right ahead and chose the music, announcing listener requests only as they happened to match deejay choices). They filled every corner of empty airtime with sound effects and jingles. Above all, Storz set his deejays loose on a candy-coated trail of contests and promotions unlike anything anyone had ever heard on the radio. Free money was always just around the corner.
In October 1951, Storz had cash hidden in secret locations around Omaha. KOWH broadcast clues leading to those locations, and listeners reacted with some of the largest traffic jams the city had ever experienced. Storz, touring the city to revel in what he had wrought, was pleased to be arrested on a charge of failing to stay in the line of traffic. The incident brought the station enormous publicity, and Storz developed an insatiable appetite for more.
In March 1952, deejay Jim O'Neill climbed a tree and began tossing cash to passersby, drawing a wild crowd and a squad of exasperated police. Over the next few years, in each new city where Storz acquired a station, his programmers kept listeners gleefully glued to their radios with an ever-changing roster of gimmicks. In Minneapolis, WDGY drew two hundred thousand people to search for two hidden checks for $105,000 each; no one found them. In New Orleans, the combination of free money and gravity — comedy's favorite physical force — resulted in a near-riot when a WTIX deejay started tossing dollar bills off the rooftop of a downtown building. After police hauled the deejay off to jail for paralyzing traffic, the station encouraged listeners to bail him out. A thousand listeners showed up at the jail. The station shot up from eleventh to first in New Orleans within a year after Storz bought it; ad billings were up 3,000 percent over the same period.
In Omaha, Storz launched what became a regular game on his stations, the Lucky House Number: the deejay would turn to a random page of the local phone directory, read out an address, and if the person at that address phoned the station within a minute, he'd win the jackpot, which increased by $10 each day it was not claimed. After Storz bought KXOK in St. Louis, deejay Richard Fatherley became the station's "Millionaire," cruising the city in a stretch limousine, handing out cash to random strangers.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1955, Ruth Meyer, then a young copywriter for Storz's WHB in Kansas City, was chosen to hide the final clue in the station's first big treasure hunt. She had already written the clues that had been broadcast for weeks leading up to the event, luring thousands of listeners to gather in Loose Park on this day. Now, her job was to plant the last piece of the puzzle, a number she had written in nail polish on the back of a turtle. "But there were so many people in the park searching for the clue that I couldn't plant it," she said. "My only job was to let the turtle go, but people were following me everywhere."
By the time Meyer managed to sneak away and put the turtle down, the traffic surrounding the park had grown so paralyzing that Kansas City's police chief threatened to ban station promotions. Storz declared the mess a huge success.
In 1956, Storz had his men hide prize checks inside six books in the Omaha public library and announce the treasure hunt on the air. Thousands of listeners stormed the library and tore up ninety books in their mad search. Storz, thrilled to have to reimburse the library $565 for the damage, stuck by KOWH's story: the stunt had been staged "to encourage better patronage of the Omaha Public Library."
Storz knew his stations had to connect to a public that now had choices. When Omaha suffered what became known as its Flood of the Century in 1951, KOWH got FCC permission to stay on the air past its usual sundown sign-off and broadcast flood coverage around the clock, without commercials.
One year later, Storz found a way to both remind listeners of that public service and prove to advertisers that his audience would stay loyal to a station that merely played records. On the first anniversary of the flood, KOWH rebroadcast the emergency announcements from the previous year. Though the streets were dry and safe, the station's switchboard jammed with responses, hospitals called in off-duty nurses, offices around town reported workers leaving in droves, and dozens of men showed up at the station to volunteer their help.The station eventually explained that it had rerun the old news to "keep people awake to the ever-present danger of an emergency." Much of Omaha may have been momentarily perplexed or appalled, but advertisers got a vivid illustration that the whole city was listening to Top 40 KOWH.
Everywhere Storz went, the ratings were stratospheric. In Kansas City, WHB attracted 52 percent of the audience; three other stations split the rest. Competitors tried to portray Storz's listeners as youngsters who didn't buy advertisers' products: "If you want the whole family, it's KCMO radio," read one Kansas City competitor's ad in a trade journal. But Storz responded with ads quoting from ratings showing huge, dominant numbers for his station even during school hours. "When the youngsters are away, Kansas City radios stay with WHB," the Storz response read.
Determined to erase any doubts the competition might have instilled in the minds of advertisers, Storz launched a new stunt: deejays would announce a Secret Word of the Day, usually a person's name. End of stunt. The name would sweep the town and, so the theory went, potential sponsors would hear the name everywhere — at work, at Little League games, at bridge parties, at the service station. It worked so well, it became a staple of Storz stations around the country.
The FCC, perturbed by Storz's more disruptive stunts, accused the broadcaster of bribing listeners with giveaways.When Storz sought to buy WQAM in Miami in 1956, federal regulators said they were reluctant to grant a license to a man who would litter the airwaves with contests that constituted "a deterioration in the quality of service" to the public. Storz got the license only by promising to refrain from giveaways. No matter: three months after Storz took over, without a single contest but with a blizzard of promotional buzz, and with the unique Storz sound-a dose of electronic reverberation that made deejays sound like God Himself — WQAM soared to first place in the Miami ratings.
By 1956, the keys to Storz's success were no secret. Other companies sent emissaries to cities with Storz stations. "They'd come and stay in a hotel room and listen for days and write down what they heard and take it home," Dale Moudy recalled. Although Storz had standing orders to his managers to say nothing about his formula, the gospel of Top 40 spread nonetheless. "We all stole from Storz," said David Segal, who got out of the Army in 1944 and drove around the South and West, buying up small radio stations. "We were losing our ass after TV came in, but we all heard about Storz. I sent one of my boys to Omaha, gave him motel money and a radio and a tape machine. And he got down the records they were playing. We got those forty records and we played the #1 tune on the hour and the #2 on the half hour. People complained like crazy but we played the hell out of that rock and roll, and it worked."
In Miami, WFUN, emboldened by Storz's semi-voluntary ban on contests, took on the fast-rising WQAM by upping the ante on wild promotions, stunts, and ingenious programming tricks. Miamians woke one morning to hear this announcement: "WFUN offers for your swimming pool a very real, very much alive, authentic ocean shark, and she can be yours. In 25 words or less, write 'Why I Want a Shark for My Very Own Swimming Pool Pet.' Send your entry to Shark, in care of your fun station,WFUN Miami Beach."Whereupon followed a jingle, more a rap than a song: "A shark you'll win from FUN, to grace your pool, a streamlined fin."
The competition was so intense that Rick Shaw, a Miami radio legend who was one of WQAM's top deejays, recalls two of his station's jocks spending a night in jail after they were caught rifling through the trash cans outside the WFUN studios, searching for memos about new promotions the upstart station might be planning.
Bud Connell, WFUN's manager, was determined to make his station the talk of the beach. One day, Connell walked in on deejay Bill Dean and — in front of a live microphone — said in his gravest tone, "Bill, you shouldn't have said that."
"I'm sorry, sir," the deejay replied hesitantly, warming to the stunt as Connell stormed out of the studio. Within seconds, the calls came pouring in: "What'd you say, Bill?"
The phones wouldn't stop blinking. Finally, Connell came back on the air and told the deejay, "Bill, I have to take you off the air." The next day's Miami papers headlined the story: "Deejay Canned on Air." Which gave WFUN the opportunity to put the question to a vote of the listeners.When the public overwhelmingly demanded Bill Dean's return, the station launched a "Where's Bill?" promotion, a massive manhunt propelled by the offer of $1,000 to the lucky listener who brought him in. Dean got a brief vacation out of the deal and the station got yet more buzz.
Connell, who was barely out of his teens when Storz first hired him in Omaha, had learned well at the foot of the master. Connell once bought twenty-five thousand plastic Easter eggs and had them stuffed with candy, money, and clues directing the recipient to listen to the station for more clues. Then he sent staffers out in a convertible to deposit the eggs on front lawns all over the city.
"Everything was promotion and personality," Connell said. "The music was secondary." But of course listeners thought they were tuning in for the music, and Connell had his tricks there too.He had engineers wrap a small amount of Scotch tape around the spindles of the station's turntables, which made the 45 rpm discs spin just a bit faster, about 461 2 rpm. "So our music sounded a little brighter, and when people heard the same music onWQAM, it sounded draggy,"Connell said.
Within fifty-seven days of Connell's arrival, WFUN took the #1 rating away from Storz's WQAM. Not long after that, Connell got a telegram from Storz: "OK, I give up." Storz offered his prot g a job running programming at his largest station, KXOK in St. Louis. Connell was twenty-five. He took the job. In Miami, the Storz station came roaring back, and the rivals battled on through the Top 40 era.
In most cities in the early years of Top 40, only one station in a market tried the new format. And in the South, if Storz had no station in a city, it was a fair bet that Top 40's other major pioneer, Gordon McLendon, would be there. McLendon, like Storz, was the son of a local business magnate with a knack for judging popular taste. In McLendon's case, Dad owned a booming chain of movie theaters in Texas. Like Storz, McLendon came out of school and the military with one great passion — radio. McLendon and his father bought a small station in Palestine, Texas, in 1947 and soon parlayed that into a license to build a new station in Dallas. That tiny, daytime-only station, KLIF, had no network affiliation, so McLendon had to fill time without the programming staples listeners had come to expect.
A showman with a love for the novel, McLendon had a parrot trained to say "KLIF" (the bird was locked in a room in which a recording of the call letters was played fifteen thousand times), and listeners were treated to the spectacle of KLIF The Parrot going live with the station ID — and the constantly hyped possibility that he might break into "a rash of Portuguese cuss words." Like Storz, McLendon would try anything — at various points, he experimented with the nation's first all-news station and even a short-lived all-advertising outlet.
But McLendon also added substance to his lineup. After Major League Baseball barred stations near minor-league cities from broadcasting major-league games, McLendon subverted the ban by launching a network that distributed re-created baseball games to stations all over the South. McLendon himself, known as the Old Scotchman, would handle the "play-by-play." He mixed sound effects of crowd noise and cracking bats with liberal expansions upon the skimpy game updates he received via Teletype from fans he paid to sit in out-oftown stadiums. Les Vaughn, who handled the effects for KLIF's baseball re-creations, said McLendon could cover almost ad infinitum for any lapse in the Teletype accounts of the game: "When the ticker tape fouled up, he would fill it in with a fight in the stands or a dog on the field. Once he had somebody fouling off 58 pitches. That would give him time to fix the tape." McLendon's re-creations lasted only a few years before baseball put him out of business, but in the interim, he had built up a network of four hundred stations and identified radio's desperate craving for showmanship.
It wasn't until 1954 that McLendon adopted Storz's approach and dropped varied programming for a total concentration on hit music. McLendon, who by then had acquired several stations, concluded that there were "only two things that radio could do either as well as or better than television: music and news." His news would sell the station to its community — he had his managers collect the names of hundreds of local leaders of business, government, and community groups, then ordered them to work those names into newscasts as frequently as possible.
McLendon studied each Storz innovation and had his men rev it up. Whenever a McLendon station switched to the Top 40 format, a deejay would stage an on-air takeover, barricading himself in the studio and playing the same record over and over for hours. At WNOE in New Orleans, Bill Stewart played Joe Houston's 1953 hit, "Shtiggy Boom," 1,349 times straight over two and a half days, drawing an FCC inquiry and visits from both the police and the song's composer. The stunt always generated powerful word of mouth and, if managers were lucky, a police response.
When KLIF hired a new deejay and dubbed him Johnny Rabbit (McLendon created the radio tradition of economizing by keeping the same deejay names even as he hired new announcers; that way, he didn't have to pay to have new jingles recorded), the owner planted overturned autos along highways outside of Dallas. Painted on the bottom of each vehicle was the message "I just flipped for Johnny Rabbit." McLendon's finest giveaway was a contest in which listeners competed to win a mountain. McLendon operatives had found and purchased a tall hill on three acres in southeastern Texas, where land was cheap; one lucky listener won title to the land. McLendon fancied himself the P.T. Barnum of radio. Like Storz, he believed in branding his station's call letters onto the consciousness of a community. So he hired planes to seed clouds during droughts, bought mobile broadcast units so his newsmen could cover events from the scene, and set his deejays loose on their cities to host record hops, appear in golf tournaments, race donkeys for charity, or stage concerts at firehouses and parks.
When the Shrine Circus came to Houston, managers at McLendon's KILT asked morning deejay Joel Spivak if he'd be willing to fly with the trapeze artist. "You've got to be crazy," replied Spivak, noting that he had a young child and a wife to support.
"We'll insure your life with Lloyd's of London for $1 million," the manager offered.
Spivak caved. He went on the air and started dropping remarks about how the circus was coming to town and any bozo could do the trapeze act. Harold "Tuffy" Genders, one of the Flying Wards, then called in and challenged Spivak to join him at the top of the tent. Fifteen thousand fans packed the arena to watch their favorite deejay face death, or at least total humiliation. Spivak, dressed in tights decorated with green sequins, daydreaming about his wife collecting a cool million, was nervous enough even before the clowns drew him aside and asked if he was quite sure he wanted to do this. Finally, the clowns chased the deejay up the rope ladder, Spivak reached the top, and somewhere in the depths of his mortal fear, he heard Genders shouting instructions at him: "Yell 'Drop,' let go, arch your back, and fall to the net."
He grabbed on to the trapeze and swung out over the silent crowd. "I tried with all my strength to let go, and I did not," Spivak said. On the second swing, he somehow willed himself to loosen his grip and sailed through the air — "it was maybe the most exhilarating feeling in my life." He bounced safely onto the net below as the crowd cheered, and walked off the floor to his waiting boss, who promptly informed Spivak that Lloyd's had refused the station's application for an insurance policy.
BY THE MID-1950S, Top 40 stations in many cities were the soundtrack of a mobile life — heard at the drive-in, in the breezeway of the new Park 'n' Shop strip malls, in the high school parking lot, on the counter at the insurance agency, in nearly every kitchen on the block. Storz's stations and their imitators routinely pulled in 50 percent to 70 percent shares of the audience. But Storz faced a growing suspicion that despite the huge numbers his stations scored, his audience consisted largely of teenagers, because who else could stand the banging beat and primal howls that were popping up on Top 40 radio?
Storz's agnostic approach to the type of music his stations played — just the hits, ma'am — meant that increasingly playlists reflected the thump and grind, the adolescent energy of "race music" and its offspring, a new sound from a white kid in Memphis. Parents sensed a visceral connection between the black leather jackets and dark attitudes their kids were donning and the music they heard on the radio. In many cities, stations resisted climbing onto the Top 40 bandwagon for fear of alienating adult listeners with the new tunes that had the kids hopped up and hopping.
Storz always packaged his programming as something for the entire family. He wanted his stations to stay out of politics, out of anything divisive. He just played hits and entertained people, he'd say. Like generations of popular culture executives to come, Storz argued that radio had no obligation to promote better taste. "We follow the trend; we do not try to lead it," he said. "The hit tune is the common meeting ground."
But Storz could not silence the cultural backlash from worried parents. And his attempt at enforcing a corporate neutrality about the content of his programming threatened his bottom line: the new music that arrived on Storz's stations after 1957 led some advertisers to believe that only teenagers could be listening, and advertisers had no interest in talking to twerpy teens.
"A babysitting society has taken over the musical programming of hundreds of American radio stations," an outraged ad executive, Ernest Hodges, wrote in a trade journal. "Rock and roll as an art form is of no interest to our agency. We are not concerned in a corporate sense with the problems of a group of juveniles who require constant noise as a background to nearly every waking moment."
Even within the Storz empire, some doubted the new music.
"Many of the old-line guys didn't want to run into all the static we got from playing rock 'n' roll," said Storz executive Steve Labunski. "And it was hard, because you had to dominate the market for it to work. If you had 60 percent of listeners, you had lots of adults in there. But if you had 15 percent of the audience, those were just kids and you were in trouble." Luckily for Storz's philosophy, "if you played the music often enough in the household, the parents would hear it and get curious and then you'd have them. The key was frequent repetition of the music."
Some of Storz's competitors, such as Gerald Bartell's Milwaukee-based group of stations, tried to hold the line against rock and roll. "We speak out against the flagrant invalidity of the pulpy, sensational approach," Bartell said in 1958. His stations would cater instead to housewives, young couples, and baseball fans with "happy musical entertainment . . . , pleasant reminiscences, games for family fun, interesting revelations, and a constant, never-ending joining of hearts and spirits."
It didn't fly. Bartell came to see that Top 40 worked only if it reflected whatever was popular, with no regard to highfalutin ideas about quality. Bartell credited Storz, "a man who really understood beer and beer packaging," with seeing that what mattered was the ingredients. Only the most popular ingredients would win over the largest audience.
But much as he maintained a brave front in public, Storz was shaken by the backlash. At one point, he became so frustrated by advertiser skepticism that he had his stations send doctored airchecks — the tapes that gave potential sponsors a taste of the station's sound — to New York ad agencies, deleting some teen tunes and splicing in Sinatra and other more adult numbers. "All of a sudden, the music was a little sweeter," Labunski said. "It was part of a never-ending struggle to get big-name accounts."
McLendon tried a different approach. In 1955, he ordered all of his stations to offer advertisers actual numbers of listeners, broken down by age and sex. The survey methods of the time made McLendon's numbers suspect — the ratings services, Hooper, Pulse, Nielsen, and Arbitron, dealt in total audience figures and would not start breaking down their samples by demographic characteristics until the 1960s. But McLendon had opened the door to the demographics revolution that would soon sweep through radio and then much of American industry.
Madison Avenue was not alone in its wariness toward Top 40 and the concept of a format aimed at only a slice of the potential audience. Storz's notion of a station that pumped out the same brand of programming around the clock was also an assault on the federally approved notion of what a station should be. Federal regulations required stations to dedicate specified percentages of their airtime to public affairs, educational, religious, and agricultural programs. Storz and McLendon squeezed a few such programs into hours when no one was awake — 4 A.M. on Sundays was (and remains) station owners' preferred time for public affairs and religious programming.
But McLendon took on the regulators, denouncing the FCC's demand that stations serve the "broadest possible community need." No, he said, such a requirement "defies all laws of the free marketplace and, in doing so, throttles radio. . . . The only public interest is what interests the public." Slowly but surely, the FCC backed off. In 1960, when Chicago's WLS went Top 40, the station dramatized its break with the past by staging the smashing of a ceramic bull's phallus, a symbol of the farm reports that would no longer be aired.
Parental discomfort with radio's new sound would not vanish so easily. The rock revolution is often recalled as an overnight pivot in the popular culture, but it was an anguished struggle that played out over a decade. Top 40 radio was designed to reflect what had been widely accepted, not to showcase anything avant-garde. But across the country, a revolution was brewing, racial lines were starting to buckle, and a huge new generation of young people was beginning to flex its demographic muscles. Todd Storz had pumped pop music into the vacuum TV had created on the radio; now that music was morphing into something beyond Storz's control, something that would change the nation. The beat and howls and rebellion that Storz sold on his stations was an answer to what Jack Kerouac ached for in On the Road as he walked through a black part of town, "wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."