Former musicradio77 WABC assistant program director Julian Breen says that Rick Sklar, the mastermind behind the success of the most listened to station in the history of American radio, succeeded, in part, because he had great patience in dealing with the corporate executives.
Julian worked alongside Rick from 1968 to 1971, becoming production director just weeks after the station had abolished some of the network shows that had been obstacles in maintaining a music listening audience. WABC would soon have 8 million listeners a week by far the most in the country.
The ABC radio network had just been divided into four demographic pieces with WABC being part of the American Contemporary Network, which offered concise newscasts at :55, some entertainment-related features and Howard Cosells Speaking of Sports commentaries.
The station no longer carried The Breakfast Club, which had interrupted its music programming weekdays from 10 to 11 a.m., and it had eliminated the news block that had run from 5:55 to 7:15 on weeknights.
Within six months we were at the top of the market, Julian recalled during an Apr. 1, 2005 phone interview with musicradio77.com.
Julian was working in production and doing newscasts at WCTC in New Brunswick, N.J., when WABC technician Richard Silverberg, who had been his roommate when they were attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, told him there was an opening for the production directors position at musicradio77 WABC.
He called Rick, had a job interview and was hired about a week later in January 1968.
Julian, who now does some consulting work for a small number of radio stations and analysis of Arbitron ratings, said that another reason for WABCs success was that Rick, who died in 1992, could negotiate and outlast the opposition.
When you dealt with Rick he almost always had another card that you couldnt see that he could use to win the game, he added.
He also went to great lengths to avoid any controversy within the company which might reflect badly on him, Julian said. And, he guarded his turf zealously.
He pretty much had a free hand with the music selection, he said of his friend and mentor. If the corporate people had questions, we had thorough documentation on why a song was on the air.
The recordkeeping of the data on the surveys was meticulous and they were kept for three years on the sales, the surveys and how the record progressed, he added.
Frank Kingston Smith, who was hired in the spring 1971 after Julian taped air checks of some of his shows in Philadelphia, has said Rick would take care of his guys.
If there was someone ranking on them, he would take their side, and people would complain about the darnedest things, he said in a 2004 phone interview with musicradio77.com.
He was a disc jockeys programmer, not a sales department programmer, he concluded.
Julian said that Rick, like most complex individuals, is not well described by sweeping generalizations.
He said he experienced encounters that both support and take exception with Franks comments.
Julian said one day legendary WABC afternoon personality Dan Ingram did a lengthy intro to a Stevie Wonder song in which he led Stevie, stumbling over obstacles he couldnt see, up to the microphone to sing.
By the end of Ingrams show that day, Sklar had calmed the waters and had Dans apology to the blind advocates written and ready for Dan to sign, he recalled. Case closed.
However, he said when Roby Yonge, who was an air personality at the station in 1968-1969, began announcing rumors about Paul McCartneys death on the air during his overnight show in October 1969, Rick threw him to the wolves replete with a security guard to escort him from the building.
Was the incident simply an excuse to get rid of Roby whose WABC career had cratered and who was said to be working out the remaining months of his contract in the overnight? Julian said. Or, was the lesson that a disc jockey faces heavy-duty consequences if he swamps the corporate switchboard and exposes the company to controversy over on-air statements about a recording artist, all of which would reflect badly on Rick?
Rick - who worked at WINS in the late 1950s and early 1960s during the payola scandal, which damaged the careers of the late Alan Freed, the father of rock & roll, and other air personalities - was noted for making sure that WABC air personalities didnt interact with record promoters and that air play was based on the sales of the record at the stores in the metro New York City area that were surveyed weekly.
Julian said that he agrees with Al Brady, who served as program director of WABC in 1979 and 1980, that no one will probably ever know whether the format, which at one time called for playing the # 1 song every 60 minutes, caused the low time spent listening numbers on the station because people tuned in to hear the top songs or they tuned out because the top song was being played again.
WABC didnt have many rules, but the ones that were there had to be followed, he said in response to a question on the high repetition of the top three songs on the musicradio77 survey.
If anything, I think the repetition was a positive, said Julian, who now lives in Pennington, N.J. At that time there was a lot of turnover in songs. The list turned over through periods of time and not that many number one songs stayed there for several weeks.
There was a wide range of music because it was before record companies learned how to niche markets, the former WABC assistant program director said. Songs had to cross a lot of boundaries at that time to become a success.
He said the music meetings held each week largely revolved around the sales of the records over the previous week.
In some respects the music meetings were fun, Julian recalled. But some of them were preordained. We had the results from the survey. However it gave us a chance to become familiar with the music for the weeks ahead.
Over WABCs 22 years as a music station such air personalities as Scott Muni, Cousin Brucie, Bob-a-loo and George Michael complained that the music format was too restrictive.
In the early 1970s, WABC reduced its Tuesday night survey from 20 to 14 songs, although there also were some hot prospects and recent solid gold that also received moderate air play.
After 14, its not as much a science, Julian said regarding his support of the shorter survey. In New York, 14 turned out to be a good cutoff number. After that, the statistics become less convincing.
The people who typically are critical of the short play lists are the disc jockeys who have to listen to the same song three or four times during a show, he said. It colors their judgment.
He noted that Tom Donahue almost single-handily invented progressive radio at KMPX in San Francisco during the late 1960s, in small part, because he was frustrated by the repetition of songs on top 40 radio which he had worked in at KYA in the Bay Area.
Julian left WABC in the summer 1971 to become the program director at KYA.
Julian agrees with other WABC personnel who through the years have said that Rick was a master promoter.
However, Julian said that there were very few contests because the phone company prohibited us from dong a lot because the volume of calls was interfering with their lines. You didnt have the cut-offs that you have today.
There were times where we would include a phone number in a PSA [public service announcement] and the organization would become so swamped with calls that they would ask us to take it off the air, he said regarding WABCs impact.
He said that in contrast to todays radio market where companies have their names connected with concerts and promotions, Duracell was probably the only advertiser that had a tie-in with a contest during his tenure at musicradio77.
He noted that the double prize give-away in 1968 featured an armored car, often carrying Roby Yonge, who was then the early afternoon air personality, to someones home that was listed in a local telephone directory or that had sent a post card to WABC with their address. If the person knew the prize that day they would receive two of them.
Julian also said that Rick sought perfection.
He wanted to get things right and would take the time to do so, he said. Sometimes it would take several days to do a promo. Quality control was a Rick Sklar word.
Julian said that Rick didnt trust people right away. It took about a year for me to get to the point where I could just do some production piece without much or any input from him.
Yes and no, he said when asked if Rick Sklar was well-liked at WABC.
He often was either your best pal or very secretive, Julian recalled. The door could be open or closed, although most of the time it was open.
He said its a shame that ABC never incorporated his talents into other parts of the network, regarding the impact that Rick might have had in the growing company that was becoming a giant in both radio and television.
Julian, who has long had a strong reputation for his production of promos and commercials, said he arrived at WABC during an era when ad agency producer Tony Schwartz and the Beatles were changing the sound of radio spots.
The overwhelming influence at the time was the Beatles, who would even have tracks run backwards, he said. In some instances with the commercials I did tremendous overdubbing where there were five or six generations.
Julian noted that Schwartz produced the Pepsi spot that had the sounds of a bottle opening.
Repetition tells you what is important, he said. If the key word is music, you should use it more than once.
I started to get into that, he added. There was more repeating of words and overlapping of words.
Regarding personnel decisions, Julian said that Rick made a smart move in hiring Harry Harrison, then the midday personality at rival WMCA, to succeed Herb Oscar Anderson from 6 to 10 a.m. when Herb left in September 1968.
Rick always believed that known names work better, Julian said of Harrys popularity at WMCA, where he had been since 1959. Harry was a good enough technician that he grasped the format from day one.
My recollection is that the ratings went up after Harry took over, Julian said. I think Herb had been depressing the ratings.
Herb was a real pain to deal with, he said of the longtime morning personality who later worked at other stations in New York City. He taped his Saturday show, and would start the taping Friday at 9 a.m. and would go between studios so that he could finish the last hour of his live show and start taping the first hour of Saturdays show.
You needed to have a director and a technician to operate everything, he added. And you had to tape two sets of possible weather forecasts on carts to insert into the show depending on how the next day turned out.
Julian said he always has been impressed with how Harry interacts with people.
There are not that many people like Harry in the major markets, Julian said. He was a very likable person who wasnt self-absorbed by his celebrity.
He said he has never completely understood why [Roby] was hired. He had a great voice but he didnt have a great deal of interpretive ability.
There were times when I had to have him say five lines separately and then have a technician splice them together rather than having him be able to read the commercial continuously in one take, he added. He didnt get a lot of respect around the station.
Julian said Dan Ingram got, by far, the largest volume of production work.
He had tremendous technical skills, he said There were spots with four or five drops and he had to hit them according to the music, and he would do it in one take.
Dan had an amazing ability to listen and talk at the same time, Julian added. He also had tremendous range, which is why we used him on so much production.
He said that on the air what impressed him most about Dan, who worked at WABC for almost 21 years, was that: he bought a quick mind that allowed him to ad-lib very effectively.
Julian said that during his tenure, Brucie was the most recognized of the All-American air personalities.
That is not common for a night personality, he said. Usually it is the morning drive guy, because he has the largest audience.
We rarely used Brucie for production, he said. When we did use him it was mostly things that fit what he could do well. He didnt have the range, because he was always Brucie.
Julian said that Brucies best shows were when someone behind the scenes was doing a lot of the work.
Bobby Ryan arranged the show well for him and kept everything on time, he said of the former WABC technician, who later was elected to the state Senate in Nevada.
Bruce was often disorganized, Julian added. He was on the phone a lot. We tried to get Bobby on a lot of Brucies shifts, because we knew he had the skills to make Brucie better.
He said Ron Lundy, who was at WABC for almost 17 years, was a great guy who had enthusiasm and presence in his delivery.
He was someone who felt that he was the luckiest person the world to be working at WABC, added Julian, who produced the audio segment of a simulated Ron Lundy show that was used in the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy.
He said that late night air personality Chuck Leonard had a smiling, smooth delivery and did offer some funny ad-libs.
However, I thought he had a lot more talent than he showed on the air, Julian said. Chuck had a very good mind. He often was a whole lot funnier and creative off the air.
Julian recalled that in the fall 1968 when White Room, by Cream was being added to the survey, Chuck heard the song at a music meeting and after the first lyric said, In my white room, Chuck, the first African-American air personality at a major market Top 40 station, replied: I dont like that.
Then when the next line was: with black curtains, Julian recalled that Chuck said, Now I like that song.
He said that today there hardly are any personality rock stations similar to the top 40 stations that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
I dont think you find many personalities that interact with the music on their shows, Julian said of todays disc jockeys. You get the impression that they feel that the music gets in the way.
If you play a song it would exclude more people than a schtick that you have planned, he added regarding much of the current programming.
On a separate topic, he said that the XM and Sirius satellite networks will have a lot of impact. Terrestrial radio is used to sucking on high commercial loads that are much higher than what people were used to years ago on FM or even on WABC years ago.
How do you replace that revenue? he said. Its like trying to get someone off of crack.
Right now its like the old AM and FM battle of years ago, Julian added. The issues are satellite stations with fewer commercials or no commercials. Thats a hard one to fight against. I know about a dozen people that have either Sirius or XM and I think all of them use it as their primary form of radio. For them it virtually has replaced terrestrial radio, except for traffic reports.
I think that XM and Sirius are doing the right thing by going after big audience lures such as Major League Baseball, the National Football League and Howard Stern, he said regarding the satellite networks marketing strategies.
Julian, who has done consulting analysis of the Aribtron ratings for several years, said he believes that by and large they do reflect the popularity of the stations.
The only people who usually attack the numbers are the ones who are trailing in the ratings, he added.
Some years after leaving WABC, Julian was largely responsible for developing two radio formats.
First, he established Back Seat Music at WPEN in Philadelphia in 1975, a format that focused on rock music from 1955 until late 1963.
It wasnt terribly successful, Julian said. I think it was two or three years too late to float off the music being played on the music stations on AM.
He also developed the Magic format that was launched at WMGK-FM in Philadelphia. The song rotation included several tunes from such artists as James Taylor, Carly Simon and Carole King.
It was beautiful music for people who dont feel old, Julian said.
He has looks back with pride and fondness on his tenure at musicradio77.
My years at WABC were the most intensely creative of my career, Julian said.
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