This page last updated Monday, August 19, 2013


Don Keyes Q & A Page
Don Keyes was one of the top men in Gordon McLendon's organization and one of the people responsible for the launch of WAKY in 1958. He answered these questions in March of 2005.

Note: Don passed away on January 23, 2006 in Dallas, Texas due to complications from emphysema.

Hear our March 18, 2005 phone interview with Don Keyes
13:06 - 4609 KB
It's different than the Q & A below.)

Don Keyes

Q: What exactly was your title with McLendon and how long did you hold it?

A: My title with the McLendon Corporation was National Program Director. I had been station PD at KTSA and at KILT and had done afternoon drive on the air. Later, I got the title of Vice President, Programming and later, Assistant to the President. But the actual working title was National PD. I was NPD from the Fall of 1957 to December of 1966 when I went out on my own buying a station in Canton, Ohio and in 1980, in Tallahassee, Florida.

Q: What part did you have in WAKY's launch?

A:  I am the guy who put WAKY on the air back in 1958 if memory serves me. I hired all the air personnel, including Jack Sanders and had the jingles cut, promos recorded in Dallas, etc.

Q: How much control did you have over WAKY and how much control did the local PDs have?

My control over the station PDs was quite simple. We at the home office laid out the basic format to be followed and the PD was expected to follow it. I would make secret trips to our markets to monitor the stations and would then meet with the PD to show him what I had found. Actually, the General Manager was the ultimate boss at the station level but we had worked together for a long time and had mutual respect. The managers usually welcomed my visits because none of them were programmers and frankly, didn't have time to thoroughly monitor the station what with sales calls, etc.

Q: Why did Gordon McLendon think Louisville was a good market to acquire a station?

A: Gordon chose Louisville because it was a major market and the facility was for sale at the right price, For years, we always tried to buy mid-dial or low on the dial to get the best coverage possible. WAKY, with 5 KW at 790 was a super facility.

 Don Keyes on the air at KLIF in Dallas in the mid '50s

Q: Did you think WKLO, who had already switched to Top 40, posed a threat?

A: No, we weren't concerned about WKLO. Believe it or not, when we took over WGRC in 1958 the big competition in town was WINN whose programming consisted of 15 minute segments of various pop artists. It was unbelievably bad and in we come with the usual flying circus. In two months, we had a 60% share of audience, the biggest success story McLendon ever had.

Q: Tell us about the song that was played continuously when WAKY launched its format. We've heard different things about the exact title and how many days the song was played before shifting into regular programming.

A: The song WGRC played (not WAKY) for not one but three days was "The Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley. WGRC (named for George Rogers Clark) were the call letters when we bought the station. During the marathon record play, WGRC was barely mentioned. The idea was to get people talking about what was going on at 790 kHz and get them to tune in and see. Then, on the morning of the fourth day we broke with the new format and proceeded to kick some serious butt!

Q: Why did McLendon sell the station...and how did you feel about that?

A: I think he wanted the money to buy an even larger market, which, as I recall, turned out to be Buffalo or Chicago. How did I feel about it? No feelings. It was a business decision. Emotions and business don't mix.

On March 22, 2005, former WKLO air personality and newsman Allen Bryan listened to our interview with Don Keyes and wrote:

I listened to this today, and would like to put some things in perspective.

When WAKY hit Louisville (if it was in 1958 as your info indicates) this was before I got there. I was just one year out of high school and living in Oklahoma, but I can bridge the knowledge gap a little because I worked with people who were at WKLO in '58.

Keyes was absolutely correct in saying that the Louisville market was ripe for the picking. Virtually ALL of the stations were still stuck in the late '40s/early '50s mode of block programming and network programming. I suspect that in the ratings, if there were any, the audience was pretty fragmented. WHAS was heavily dominated by the Bingham family that owned the newspaper, and their programming even years later was still stuck in the '40s.

What I can recall hearing about WKLO was that they followed the common practice of block programming, generally 15 minute segments, appealing to all kinds of listeners. Many of these 15-minute blocks were live music being performed in the studio. I know this type of radio well because my Dad was a program director in the '40s and '50s and I actually worked for him part time at KTOK in Oklahoma City. This was still a time when there were several radio networks that carried soap operas, prime time shows like Jack Benny, and network news. This was a carryover from the days before there was TV, which basically arrived in most markets in about 1949.

I don't know exactly when WKLO decided to compete with WAKY, but it was probably in the latter part of 1959 when Barney Groven was hired as PD. I came in May of '60, and Jim Fletcher had already been there since about December of '59. Some of the staff, like Bob Henry, were carryovers from the old days of WKLO.

Also sometime in the late '50s they moved from the Henry Clay Hotel which was at 3rd and Chestnut (the building is still there although it has been empty for years) to the Commonwealth Building at 4th and Broadway on the 20th floor. The Commonwealth Building is no longer there; it was torn down about 20 years ago and a new building was constructed at the site.

There is no question that WAKY totally blew everyone else away from the time they went on the air until late '60 or '61 when WKLO started making inroads, but they were still dominant from 3 p.m. -12 midnight because of their heavy emphasis on the kids and a much better signal after sundown.