CHAPTER 1: FROM WGRC TO
July 7, 1958 was a Monday.
In Madison, Indiana they were
getting the town ready to appear in the movies. The cast and crew for "Some
Came Running" – including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine –
would soon spend several weeks filming there.
At Cape Canaveral, the Air Force
was preparing for the first intercontinental flight of a U.S. ballistic
weapon. The launch would be Wednesday and the passenger in the nose cone would
be a mouse.
Players from baseball's American
and National leagues were gathering in Baltimore for the 25th annual All-Star
Game. Casey Stengel and Fred Haney were the respective coaches – players
included Warren Spahn, Nellie Fox, Stan Musial and Harvey Kuenn.
Although it would be exposed as
a fraud in about a year, the NBC-TV quiz show "Twenty-One" and its winners
were still making headlines. That evening Elfrida von Nardoff ended a 21-week
reign as champion on the show, winning $220,500.
In Louisville, that morning's
edition of The Courier-Journal included ads for Hit Parade cigarettes, the
Royal Bank, Fizzies soft-drink tablets and the Edsel. Elvis Presley's "King
Creole" was showing at the Kentucky Theatre, Andy Griffith's "No Time for
Sergeants" was at the Mary Anderson, and "Secrets of a Nature Club" was at
Savoy Burlesk Theatre.
On the radio that morning, if
you tuned to 790 on the AM dial, you would hear the novelty song "Purple
People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor."
Anytime that morning.
You'd hear the same thing on 790
that afternoon. And evening. And after midnight.
For 24 hours straight,
Louisville heard "Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor" on 790 AM.
And when it was done, a new
radio station was born.
It was WAKY, Louisville's first
station to play all "Top 40" music – songs that made your feet move and your
Top 40 radio was radio based on
the rock 'n' roll charts, radio with fast-talking deejays, radio with goofy
commercials, radio with songs meant to be played with the volume cranked up
and the windows rolled down as you cruised Fourth Street or the curb-service
area of Frisch's or Ranch House.
To put this cataclysmic change
in perspective, consider the radio landscape at the time. The medium was
largely live music programs, often performed by staff musicians. WHAS radio
was still featuring local talent, including daily shows with Randy Atcher and
Tiny Thomale. CBS radio network shows that had been running for years were
still on the schedule as well, including "Amos 'n' Andy," "Ma Perkins," "The
Second Mrs. Burton" and "Mary Noble, Backstage Wife."
WAVE radio was still carrying
NBC radio network shows like "People Are Funny," "One Man's Family" and "Woman
in My House." WINN offered middle-of-the-road music – Sinatra, Patti Page, Jo
Stafford, Mantovani. WLOU was part religion, part rhythm and blues with deejay
Cliff Butler, shows like "Gospel Train" and "Hive of Jive," and a signoff at
sundown. WKLO featured a bit of rock and roll, some country music and deejays
Wilson Hatcher and Paul Cowley.
But until that day, no
Louisville station exclusively presented the hottest radio-programming format
in the country, the platters that mattered, the stacks of hot wax, the rock
It was so hot because Top 40
radio wasn't only about music. It was also about being young. Being a
teenager, specifically – a Brylcreemed, bouffanted, Clearasiled high schooler
with time on your hands, the opposite sex on your mind and cash in your
More affluent than the teenagers
of a generation before, the middle-class adolescents of the 1950s were raised
by parents who'd lived through a depression and a World War and were now
enjoying a period of peace and prosperity. That their children would never
know poverty was a huge source of pride for them. And in 1960, the baby-boom
kids – ones born from 1947 on – began turning into teenagers. They were the
first wave in a 17-year-long demographic bulge of teens, moving through
American society like a rabbit swallowed by a python.
This well-fed, well-scrubbed
economic force had money on hand from a job, from the folks, or both. It was a
river of revenue, and Elvis Presley was the first phenomenon to successfully
tap into it. Teenagers bought Presley records, souvenirs, lipstick, record
players, hair tonic, anything endorsed by the King. They turned his debut
film, "Love Me Tender," into one of 1956's biggest hits and gave record
ratings to "The Ed Sullivan Show" when it featured Presley. They gave the same
warm welcome to Elvis' contemporaries – Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill
Haley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry – and to the more clean-cut idols who
followed, such as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Paul Anka. They were watching
Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" each afternoon and Boone and Nelson on their
weekly TV shows.
Rock 'n' roll represented youth,
fun, freedom, possibilities. It was a reaction to the saccharine ballads and
smarmy instrumentals so popular in the earlier 1950s – to teenagers, Frankie
Laine singing "I Believe" was no match for Little Richard shouting "A-whomp-bomp-a-loo-bomp
a womp-bam-boom" in the intro to "Tutti Frutti."
No, by 1958 rock 'n' roll was
here to stay, and the money was following along behind. No one understood this
better than Gordon McLendon, co-owner of radio station KLIF in Dallas. By the
mid-1950s, deejays like Alan Freed at WINS in New York were making a name for
themselves playing rock 'n' roll, but by then McLendon had already built an
entire station around it.
By 1954, KLIF was the
highest-rated metropolitan radio station in the country. It got that way
through a structured format of the latest music, urgent-sounding newscasts and
what one trade journal called "razzle-dazzle promotion." Like Elvis' manager
Colonel Tom Parker, McLendon was part genius, part flim-flam man. (He was also
a ham actor – in the late 1950s he produced two low-budget horror movies, "The
Killer Shrews" and "The Giant Gila Monster," and had a starring role in the
The KLIF logo was a cartoon
parrot because a real parrot had been trained to say the station's call
letters on the air. To boost interest in KLIF news coverage, McLendon placed
ads in Dallas newspapers that "apologized" for the raw language accidentally
included in the station's live coverage of breaking news events. In late 1956,
the "Great KLIF Treasure Hunt" sent listeners scrambling all over Dallas to
find a $50,000 check inside a buried bottle. In the KLIF "Money Drop
Giveaway," dollar bills were tied to balloons and thrown out the window of a
Dallas hotel to waiting teens below. A KLIF school spirit contest in which
students signed petitions disrupted so many classrooms that the promotion was
dropped. Listeners were asked to identify KLIF "Mystery" voices, students,
locations and telephone numbers. One promotion gave away a live baby – pig. In
a 1959 contest, tickets to the moon were prizes, redeemable on March 15, 1987.
(Some winners actually showed up at the station that day, though the era of
McLendon's ownership had long passed.)
In between the contests – one
running seamlessly into another, so that those crazies at KLIF always seemed
to be up to something – there were incessant musical identifications with the
call letters sung and shouted.
Clearly, this profit machine
fueled by goofy stunts, the clatter of the latest platter and the faint,
only-slightly-better-than-the-lottery possibility of winning cash just for
listening was a template that would work on other stations in other cities. So
McLendon began gathering them – in Milwaukee, San Antonio, Atlanta and
At 790 on the AM dial, WGRC was
an unassuming little station, the home of Gabriel Heatter's national news and
such nightly programs as "Back to the Bible" and "The Voice of China." Randy
Atcher had a show on the station in the late 1940s and so did
singer-songwriter Jimmie Osborne. It was at sixth place in a seven-station
McLendon set his sights on WGRC,
and offered so much money for the station that the owners didn't think twice.
He began running spots on WGRC
telling folks that on July 7, Louisville would go "wacky." He brought in
deejays from other McLendon stations in Texas and Louisiana – people like Jack
Sanders, Ricky Ware and Al Dunaway – who sounded like carnival barkers on
espresso. He ran an "apology" ad in the local papers for the station's
rough-sounding live news. A WAKY "robot" began appearing around town.
In July 1958, the station had
five percent of the listening audience.
By August 1958, it had forty.
For the next quarter-century,
WAKY would survive The Cowsills, The Crewcuts, The Crandells and Crushed
Velvet. It would survive the arrest (and dismissal) of a couple of deejays on
morals charges. Another would end up as Louisville's long-time U.S.
Congressman and have a major expressway named for him. The station would be
referred to as Seven-Nine-Oh, The Big 79, Super 79, Fun Luvin' WAKY, and The
Station You Grew Up With. It would lose deejays and gain deejays – sometimes
the same deejays, who left for larger markets and came back to where the
living was easier.
It was a different station in a
different town in a different time. And the story of its success – as well as
that of its closest competitor, WKLO – mirrors the rise of Top 40 radio in the
1950s and 60s, and the fall of AM radio in the 1970s, brought about by the
rise of FM stations like WLRS.
The story of Louisville radio of
that time also includes WHAS and WAVE. One evolved and changed with its
audience, and cemented its reputation for news coverage when a tornado hit
Louisville on April 3, 1974. The other didn't, but deserves mention for its
distinctive personalities and style.
Three of those four stations are
gone – only the frequencies remain. Gone also are WINN and WKYW. Today the FM
band is where you find the new music, the silly stunts, the fast talkers. The
deejays can say a lot more on the air, but it sounds like less. Local
ownership has gone the way of the dodo bird, and formats and deejays change
like the seasons. Some stations play Much More Muzak, begging to be your
innocuous office choice with bland ballads and plastic personalities. Others
get in your face, exuding testosterone from your speakers, further inundating
a world that's already drowning in it.
One thing's for sure – just as
there are no more Edsels or Fizzies, there's no Top 40 radio as it was known
during its glory days.
So there's nothing else to do
but look back.
© David Inman. All rights