Thursday, December 9, 2010

Western Skies

Early in radio's history, music publishers demanded royalties for any records played on the air. In order to avoid this fee, live performances were preferred over recorded music. The Dept. of Commerce regulated the fledgling radio industry and they favored live music over recorded music. Top artists of the day also played along, routinely denying permission for their records to be played on the air. The old American idiom of "Why give away for free, what you can get paid for" applied.  However after 1940 that would start to change, that year a federal court ruled that once a record was sold, artists had no further claim to control how or where it was played. Radio stations now had the freedom to program and play music as they saw fit.  Slowly the bias against recorded music was overcome, after all it did eliminate the need to keep musicians on the payroll.  I don't know if the idea or concept of ranking music was an American invention.  We do love our polls, lists and ratings so it was only natural that eventually someone would program a radio station around this premise.
In the early 1950's Todd Storz (The Storz family owned several Midwest stations) and his program director were sitting in an Omaha tavern, so the story goes, when they started to notice how often customers kept playing the same songs on the jukebox.  Storz,  armed himself with music sales charts, compared them to jukebox sales figures, then he started programming the Storz stations.  What Todd Storz invented was Top 40 radio, the format would eventually sweep across the nation.  In 1958, Storz purchased Oklahoma City station KOMA and transformed it into a Top 40 giant.   KOMA  had a tremendous reach with its directional antenna array and 50,000 watt transmitter.   Ironically, while KOMA reached beyond the Rockies to the Pacific ocean, in Oklahoma City they played second fiddle to crosstown rivals WKY.  For many small rural towns across the western United States, KOMA was the only Top 40 station available.  KOMA covered New Mexico like a blanket from Raton to Deming, from Gallup to Tucumcari, and of course Albuquerque.  KOMA's signal was so strong at night that Duke City  station owners quickly learned to avoid the 1520 frequency on the am dial, fearing their signal would be canceled out after sundown.  KOMA's Top-40 era would officially end in 1980 with a format change to country.   However, KOMA's grip on the western night time airwaves had already been broken by the mid 1970's.
Leased by American investors, XEROK-80 a Mexican station located in Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso,Tx) was blasting 150,000 watts using  three Continental 50,000 watt transmitters in series, non directional, clear channel.  Started up in 1972 (formerly XELO) XEROK was live at first,  with local radio legend Steve Crosno working the afternoon spot. Using a format called "Rock of the World" XEROK took its first shaky steps, however this version of the station was short lived. The top 40 format was dropped and replaced by syndicated and pre-recorded programs.  A year later Jim White was hired as program director, Kent Burkhardt joined as a consultant and the task of turning this  150,000 watt blow torch into a super station began.  Life at the West Pole (the dj's nickname for El Paso) was slow and easy, the cost of living was low and the sin city of Juarez was just a short walk away.  Since XEROK-80 was a Mexican station, it was required by Mexican law to broadcast at least 50% of its programming in Spanish, unless... it was pre-recorded.  All shows were pre-taped in El Paso and carried across the border by couriers to the studio where Mexican engineers cued up the tapes, sometimes in the right order or at the right time, there was no news, no time checks and no weather. The players were in place but the chemistry was wrong, what XEROK lacked Jim White couldn't muster from his troops.
Early in 1974 a notice published in Radio & Record offered up a clue that something was up "John Long formerly PD at WROR-Boston is the new PD of XEROK -El Paso  No word on what happened to Jim White,  Long says that he's excited,  and that it's going to be a m-therf---er."  The first thing Long implemented was strict rules about when shows should be taped.  He reasoned that the morning show (6-10 am) should start taping at 6 am and finish at 10 am.  Before then the dj's had a habit of stretching out their recording shifts, often recording the morning show late in the day.  Long also demanded that as one dj signed off, the next dj would join him in the studio for a few minutes.  By doing this it tied the shows together and gave the impression that everything was done live.  John Long's hard work would pay off with XEROK-80 "The Sun City Streaker"  pulling a 21.4 total share and a 48.9 in teens. Unheard of numbers in any market, making  XEROK-80 the highest rated top 40 in the United States.  The euphoria was short lived, given the volatile relationship between management and staff, friction soon ensued.  Within a year John Long was gone, XEROK-80 continued to be a force, but much like KOMA its biggest competition was local.  KINT the El Paso Top 40 stalwart withstood the initial onslaught from XEROK-80 and regained its accustomed spot atop the ratings book.  The combination of  radio vet Jim Taber and the irrepressible Jhani Kaye was too much to overcome.  In 1977 XEROK-80 tried to shake things up by going live, the on-air staff would commute into Mexico everyday to broadcast from the studio.  By 1980 both KOMA and XEROK-80 had seen better days, both stayed on the air, but with radically different formats.  While KOMA switched to country, XEROK-80 reverted to Mexican management and was reborn as Radio Canon, a Spanish music station that literally  blasted across the southwest (dedications were accompanied by a cannon blast)  Today, XEROK is still broadcasting in Spanish, but at a greatly reduced 5,000 watts, an attempt was made to fire it back up to the 150,000 watts of its glory days, but the overburdened grid couldn't muster enough juice.
Originally the Mexican border stations were a response to the U.S. and Canada monopolizing clear channel radio frequencies at the expense of Mexican stations.  The Mexican govt. started granting licenses to U.S. operators along the border in the early 1930's, these X- stations could range in power from 50,000 watts to 500,000 watts.  The border blasters gave us the legends of Dr. Brinkley and his goat glands, mail order baby chicks and of course Wolfman Jack.  In 1986 an agreement between Mexico, The U.S. and Canada, to share clear channel frequencies effectively ended the era of the megawatt stations in North America.  In our lifetime we will witness the death of terrestrial radio.  This format of communication and entertainment that we once knew simply as "radio" has been supplanted. Did video kill the radio stars?, nope, it was a combination of mobile phones capable of storing and playing music combined with internet services  that allow users to download directly to those phones.  The  phenomena of creating your own soundtrack as you go about your daily routine started with the advent of the Sony Walkman.  What we have today is far advanced from that bulky battery and tape devouring behemoth.  Every person is now a program director and who knows your taste in music better than you?  Before the purveyors of satellite radio start rejoicing over the demise of their  earth bound competitors, I'll remind them that they are the next dinosaur that will soon be extinct.  The satellite format has never really caught on and you don't really have that much more control over what you listen to. Both forms of radio broadcasting have only themselves to blame for their impending expiration.  Boneheaded format changes, limited play lists, and greed, have driven listeners to seek out a more personalized listening experience.

"Do you remember
back in nineteen sixty-six?
Country, Jesus, hillbilly, blues,
that's where I learned my licks.
Oh, from coast to coast and line to line
in every county there,
I'm talkin' 'bout that outlaw X
it's cuttin' through the air."
(Heard it On the X- ZZ Top)