December 2, 2008
Bill Drake, 71, Dies; Created a Winning Radio Style
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Bill Drake, who transformed radio programming with a syndicated format that
delivered more music, fewer commercials and high-energy “Boss Jocks” —
D.J.’s big on personality but economical with words — died Saturday in Los
Angeles. He was 71. The cause was lung cancer, said Carole Scott, his companion.
In the 1960s, Mr. Drake, an up-and-coming disc jockey and programmer from
south Georgia, revolutionized radio when he and his partner, Lester Eugene
Chenault (pronounced Sha-NAULT), decided that radio stations could make a lot
more money and reach more listeners if they cut back on D.J. chatter,
accelerated the pace of their programs and gave audiences more of what they
presumably tuned in to hear: hit songs. He and Mr. Chenault introduced a formula, eventually sold as a syndicated
package with prerecorded music, that would revamp — and homogenize — radio
stations across the United States.
Under the slogan “Much More Music,” KHJ in Los Angeles, an early client,
began playing 14 records each hour, far more than the competition. Commercials
were limited to 13 minutes and 40 seconds each hour, a third less than the
competition had. Station-identification jingles (usually performed a cappella
by the Johnny Mann Singers) were cut to one and a half seconds. A new breed of
disc jockeys, billed as Boss Jocks, were drilled to keep their patter to a
minimum, and to standardize it.
The results were startling. KGB in San Diego went from last to first in its
market in 90 days. KHJ, with Boss Jocks like the Real Don
Steele and Robert W.
Morgan at the microphone, leapt from 12th place to first in 1965. In New York,
critics howled when Mr. Drake and Mr. Chenault forced out the legendary D.J.
Murray the K from WOR-FM, but the station doubled its audience.
In its heyday in the early 1970s, the two men’s consulting firm,
Drake-Chenault Enterprises, served about 350 client stations with makeover
advice and totally automated packages in six different formats.
“He took Top 40 radio and turned it into a machine,” said Marc Fisher, the
author of “Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped
a Generation” (Random House, 2007).
“He pared it down to the essentials and made it a vehicle for selling
advertising rather than an entertainment form, something you tuned in to for
music, the news, the time and the weather, all in a slickly designed
format,” Mr. Fisher said. “It is common to think of radio that way now,
but in the 1960s it was revolutionary.”
The standardized formats influenced other AM and eventually FM stations
nationwide to lose not just their individualized D.J. stars but also to some
degree their independent voices. The comedian George Carlin joked about Boss
Radio as early as 1972 on the album “FM & AM”:
“Hi gang. Scott Lame here. The Boss jock with the Boss sound from the Boss
list of the Boss 30 that my Boss told me to play.”
The Boss D.J.’s drew their own followings, however, and younger fans who
grew up with them attend reunions to meet their favorites.
Philip Taylor Yarbrough grew up in Donalsonville, Ga., and began working at a
local radio station as a teenager. While attending South Georgia
College in Statesboro, he worked the 9 p.m.-to-midnight shift at WWNS, where
his sign-off theme was Hugo Winterhalter’s version of “Canadian Sunset.”
“If you were a freshman girl and were off campus somewhere and heard that,
you knew you were in deep trouble unless you could get back to the college
before the song was over,” said Ramona Palmer, whom he married in 1959 after
taking a job at WAKE radio in Atlanta and changing his name to rhyme with the
station’s call letters. The couple divorced in 1966. Two later marriages
also ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter, Kristie Philbin of Delray
At WAKE, where he began as a D.J. and rose to become program director, Mr.
Drake began tinkering with the programming so successfully that the
station’s parent company sent him to California to work some magic on its
San Francisco station. In 1962 he was hired by Mr. Chenault, the owner of KYNO in Fresno, who also
had innovative ideas about packaging radio. Together they created Drake-Chenault
Enterprises, rescued KGB in San Diego, their first client, then
struck gold with KHJ.
“We cleaned up AM radio,” Mr. Drake told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.
“We put everything in its place. It was radio that was designed for the
listener. Before us, disc jockeys would just ramble on incessantly.”
No longer did D.J.’s introduce songs, or spin yarns about teenage romance,
or project a quirky personality, in the style of Wolfman Jack. “His insight
was realizing that you could turn these D.J.’s into household names even if
they didn’t really do anything on the air,” Mr. Fisher said.
Songs got the Drake-Chenault treatment, too. Regardless of the stature of the
artist, two minutes was just about the limit, which meant that even Beatles
hits were trimmed to fit. The Top 40 list was shrunk to the Top 30. Another
Drake-Chenault innovation was to program the news at odd times, like 20
minutes after the hour, so that their stations would be playing music, and
enticing listeners, when others were broadcasting the news.
By cutting down on commercials, the stations were able to sell advertising at
higher rates. “Everybody else was choking the goose laying the golden egg,
jamming in as many commercials as they could,” he told www.radioandrecords.com
last year. “When our slots were sold, that was it.” Mr. Drake gained a reputation as a ruthless, detail-minded operator. Special
phone lines in his Bel Air home allowed him to monitor his client stations by
punching in a code and listening. If he did not like what he heard, things
could become unpleasant.
“When that phone rings, you know it’s death time, man,” a battle-scarred
D.J. told Time magazine in 1968.
Mr. Drake sold his interest in Drake-Chenault Enterprises in 1983, and the
company dissolved in the mid-1980s. In recent years, Mr. Drake developed
“Top 40 Time Clock,” a syndicated cavalcade of more than 1,800 hits aimed
at the baby boom generation.
“It has a great hook,” Mr. Drake wrote in a Web site promotion. “You
can’t wait to hear what comes up next. It’s the History of Top 40 Radio
without the narration.”
In other words, no D.J. chatter. As Mr. Drake told www.radioandrecords.com,
“I always said if you’re going to say nothing anyway, say it in as few
words as possible.”
2008 The New York Times Company