WRKO vs. WMEX
Mon May 19 01:32:23 EDT 2008
Many people have spoken about the WMEX vs. WRKO battle...and the year that
WMEX actually beat WRKO in the ratings.
I discovered this old article from Rolling Stone magazine reproduced (with
permission) on the big68.org website, that is probably a better source of
information than the hearsay, opinions and faulty memories that are counced
It was all over by January 20, 1972 when this article was published.
I was told once by a TV consultant...it's not enough just to be good...but
you have to be at the same time the other guy drops the ball.
It appears while WMEX was doing some great radio....WRKO had lost their way
and had dropped the ball.
Boston Tests New Music & Flunks Out
BOSTON - The Boston radio war is over.
It was only a five-month battle, but it was a great show while it lasted.
The war was started by John H. Garabedian. the program director of WMEX, a
bottom-of-the-heap Top 40 station. With the tactical abandon of an underdog.
John H. innovated right and left, doubled the station's ratings, and nearly
outflanked the forces of WRKO. But WRKO, firmly entrenched as Boston's No. 1
Top 40 station, adopted some of John H.'s changes, geared up for a major
offensive, and fought to stay on top.
Almost everyone enjoyed the radio war. The public liked it because the two
stations started playing better music and became sensitive to popular
tastes. Even the general manager of WRKO liked the radio war because "the
competition kept my boys from getting stale."
The radio war promised to go on forever, but a fluke of fate cut it off in
its prime. Maxwell Richmond, the 57-year-old owner and manager of WMEX, died
suddenly. A new manager arrived, swept away must of John H.'s changes, and
precipitously fired John H.
Now WMEX is somewhere on its way back to the cellar, but John H's
innovations live on in an ironic fashion; they. are being carried on by
WRKO. Not only has WRKO become a better station thanks to the radio war; it
has even passed on the improvements to the 11-station Drake chain, of which
it is a member. Furthermore, just as things were beginning to look
stalemated in Boston radio, a new challenge has appeared on the horizon in
the form of FM rock stations. On the strength of spectacular gains made by
FM stations in recent surveys, some observers are confidently predicting
that Top 40 AM will make its Last Stand well before the end of the decade.
Radio trends have always showed up early in Boston, and it has always been a
pretty decent town to be trapped in with a transistor. From 1958 to 1967,
when WMEX was the No. 1 pop station, you could listen to Arnie "Woo Woo"
Ginsburg, one of the legends of Pre-Sincere radio. "And Adventure Car Hop is
serving the Ginsburger on a record which you get to keep for your very own
if you say 'Woo Woo Ginsburg" with your order . . ." Arnie would barrel
through the jive copy in an endearingly adenoidal voice and then play yet
another great record. For nine years, no one could touch him in the ratings.
When Arnie left WMEX, he was succeeded by Dick Summer, a person so
ostentatiously sensitive that Rod McKuen would have looked callous beside
him. "Have you felt an orange today?" Dick would wonder out loud on his
show, which was called "The Loving Touch." As WMEX's program, director, Dick
instituted a format called the "Human Thing," which consisted mainly of
playing album cuts instead of singles. A good idea, but Dick played the
wrong album cuts. The Human Thing bombed miserably and Summer left WMEX in
Meanwhile, back in 1967, WRKO had changed management and joined the Drake
chain. A young program director named Mel Phillips came in and cleaned up
the sound of the station according to Drake ideals-a minimum of ads, a
minimum of DJ talk, a minimum of anything irritating (including wah-wah
guitar) and a maximum of sales-certified singles played in rapid succession.
The Drake sound proved to be the most successful sound of the late Sixties,
and nowhere more so than in Boston. Within three months, WRKO had walked
over WMEX and all other Top 40 competition, had grabbed a mammoth 25 percent
of the radio audience, and had settled in for a four-year term as the leader
in the field.
The next important phase of Boston pop radio history opened about a year ago
with the arrival of John H. Garabedian as a WMEX disk jockey. John H. is 30,
stands more than six feet tall, looks like a cross between Elvis Presley and
Boris Karloff, and speaks in a pleasing basso. After 13 years in radio,
which should have left him jaded about ten years ago, John's deep-socketed
eyes still light up with aficion when he talks about radio, which is all he
talks about. "Are you really interested in this?" he asks in surprised
tones, and then plunges on to tell you how good radio could be.
This same infectious enthusiasm came across on John's 3-to-7 PM radio show.
While his fellow DJs at WMEX seldom rose above the ninth or tenth position
in the ratings, John H. was almost invariably in the No. Two spot, or tied
for No. One. John slowly began to. rationalize his own success into a
system, and after every show he would hound Mac Richmond, the station
manager, with his theories. Finally Mac decided to let John H. try his hand
as program director.
Early last summer, not long after his promotion, I dropped in on John H. in
I the tiny, glassed-in studio where he could always be found. As usual he
looked as if he had slept at the station; he had forgotten to shave. But his
jaunty announcer's voice was strong as ever. "Hiya," he said, "You've got to
listen to this!" And he slipped a cartridge into the cart machine. He jumped
up and thrust out his arms as the speakers exploded with the theme from Thus
Spake Zarathustra, and he made a long, solemn face as he parodied his own
taped voice saying: "Changes! And you are listening to The New Music!"
"The New Music!" John H. exclaimed. "We got that phrase from a 250-watt
station in Buffalo, New York. It's just what we need to change our image!"
The hour ID that John had played sounded to me like just another
in-one-ear-out-the-other radio hype, but I didn't realize that for John H.
the New Music was not a gimmick but a mission.
"AM radio," he said earnestly, "substitutes the taste of the program
directors of America for the tastes of the people. I'll get more listeners
and better ratings if what I do is tuned into what people want. Nobody's got
the balls to add new records. Everyone plays the 45s listed in the trades.
But singles sales reflect only the tastes of singles buyers and I don't know
of anybody over the age of 14 who buys a 45 record.
"People want to hear albums, the quality music. But you can't just play
anything off the Top Ten albums. You have to pick the right cut. And I may
think one cut is great, but you may think it stinks, so we have to get a
consensus somehow. And that's where the request lines come in.
At John's urging, WMEX installed round-the-clock phone lines and hired three
operators, who took 6000 requests a week. At a weekly programming meeting
the chief operator-a young, husky- voiced albino lady-would try to tell John
what kind of person tended to call up for each song. "We draw up our play
list 80 percent according to requests," said John H. "Our list isn't a sales
list. it's a popularity list; we play what people want to hear and we make
hits. Most Stations wait for a reaction to come in from the record stores,
but who can wait for all that crap? You wait for three weeks to see if a
record's going to happen or not, and if it doesn't happen you've been
playing a bomb for far too long."
Because the request lines gave John H. instant feedback, he could play
hunches and then quickly pull a single off the air if it turned out to be a
stiff. "One of the things we want to do," says John H., "is to establish
that we're first with the hits and we make the hits." Early in the summer,
John H. was weekending in New Hampshire when he heard a Lee Michaels B side,
"You Know What I Mean," on a Montreal FM station. Getting into his Ford van
he drove straight to the station and programmed the song. Within a week it
became No. Ten in requests; within a month it was a national hit.
After that, John was hooked. He needed to see the request lines go berserk
the same way a one-armed-bandit addict needs to see the three little lemons
plop into place. When John got the Rod Stewart album, he broke a song called
"Maggie May" that no one else was playing. It became number one in a week
and a Mercury executive flew in from Chicago. "He said they wanted to make
'Losing You' the single but I told him, 'No! No! Maggie May! Maggie May!'"
John recalled, screaming and waving his hands.
So Mercury went with "Maggie May." That was the first time John H. forced a
record company to release a particular album cut as a single. In the course
of the summer, the request lines lit up for three more album cuts that John
H. introduced to AM radio: the McCartneys' "Uncle Albert," J. Geil's
"Looking for a Love," and Jonathan Edward's "Sunshine." All three became hit
Suddenly, for the first time in years, WMEX and WRKO were airing very
different playlists. Suddenly, AM radio showed signs of life and people
ceased to take the music for granted-there was a real choice on the dial.
WRKO didn't respond immediately to John H.'s New Music. WRKO had removed its
request lines at the beginning of the summer and besides, the station had
always determined its playlist 80 percent by record store reports. John H.
liked to say that Mel Phillips was nothing more than a traffic cop executing
Bill Drake's orders. While this was not true, the fact remained that WRKO
could not play fast and loose with its playlist, as John H. could.
During the summer, John H. also showed a partiality to tabloid-like 45s.
These included "Je T'Aime" (a pair of orchestrated orgasms) and "What the
World Needs Now is Love" (a Grand Guignol sound collage of the three
assassinations). Both songs became huge local hits after John played them,
but WRKO refused to touch them. Instead, WRKO had the grace to play Marvin
Gaye's "Inner City" and Aretha's "Rock Steady." John H. religiously avoided
both songs because Boston is notoriously hostile to R&B.
But, questions of quality aside, what people responded to was the fact that
these two stations were vying for popular favor by offering different
playlists. John H. made many minor changes in WMEX's format and its
advertising, but what mattered was the New Music. The first time that John
realized the potency of the New Music was when Rod Stewart broke into
"Maggie May" at a concert on 'Boston Common. "The whole place jumped up,
just blew up," John H. recalls. "I almost fainted when I saw that. 'Cause
they knew the song, and they didn't know it from WBCN [a progressive FM
station], they didn't know it from WRKO, they knew it from WMEX. We had no
measure before that. That was the first measure of how much we were reaching
Still, nobody knew quite how seriously to take John H. until the results of
the July-August American. Research Bureau survey sanctioned his success. The
ARB survey, which is based on three-day diaries kept by thousands of
pollees, is the most detailed and respected in the business. Earlier ARB
surveys had revealed that WRKO had an average of 70,000 listeners per
quarter hour while WMEX had 30,000. Now, WRKO had only 64.000 while WMEX had
shot up to 51,000.
"For all intents and purposes, we tied in total audience in the summer ARB,"
says John. "And we beat them in teens. And that's incredible, because WRKO
has a signal that covers four times the area of the WMEX signal." (Both
stations have 50,000-watt transmitters, but WMEX has to switch to 5000 watts
at night; it is also located at the right side of the dial, where the
frequencies are less powerful). "That means that in some sections we were
getting 90 percent of the audience and in other areas they weren't even
getting any competition from us."
According to Perry Ury, the dapper, mustachioed, affable general manager of
WRKO, John H. exaggerated WMEX's handicap. "Let's say with our signal we got
them maybe two to one," he says, "and that's being very generous. John is a
smart radio man but don't get talked into thinking he's a white knight. OK,
in the summer ARB, they equaled our teens. They matched us teen for teen and
came out a hundred ahead of us. But we beat them two and a half to one in
adults. We beat them in women and children. But the teens was the whole
furor-as the story got told by John H. to his friends in the music business
it got better and better and better each time."
The week the ARB came out, WRKO made some sudden changes. They started
playing four or five of the hits John H. had broken. They re-installed their
Were they forced to start playing more album cuts?
"We took one look at what was happening and you betcha we were forced on
it," says Ury. "But it would have had to happen soon anyway. Singles are
going like that in Boston. In some parts of the country singles are still
gangbusters but in this city they're dead, don't ask me why. John got us
with wider, broader album presentation and his selection of cuts. John would
love to think that the ARB hook came out and everyone ran though these halls
screaming and waving the book. Didn't happen. Went into Mel Phillips, our
program director and said, 'Hey-there's a little softness here in our late
teens and young males.' He said, 'You're right, Garabedian's on the right
track.' That was it."
Mel Phillips, who is as quiet and methodical as John H. is flamboyant, says
that he would have "made changes even if there were no WMEX." But it seems
more than coincidental that the changes should follow so closely on the
heels of the ARB results. In fact, WRKO's system is a modification of John
H.'s-a streamlined one. WRKO had been playing a few Top Ten album cuts
before, but now it started breaking cuts like "Family Affair" and "American
Pie," forcing WMEX to play them. Mel began to take chances on Bonnie Raitt
and Boz Scaggs cuts that the station would never have played a few months
before. The station currently has 65 songs on the playlist, and 30 are album
cuts; an extraordinary figure for an AM station. In November, Bill Drake
himself made his first appearance in two years to inspect the situation;
within a few weeks, other members of the Drake chain were playing lots of
The beginning of the end of the radio war came with the death of Mac
Richmond, late in November. Mac, who owned both WMEX and WPGC in Washington,
was the soul of enlightened management, the man who gave John H. the green
light for all the changes. right ,down to the waterbed contest John dreamed
up. "Mac was getting into it." says John U. "He was the hippest guy you ever
saw-a Sagittarius, so he was a nut, you know. He was old enough to be my
father, hut as we got to know each other, he became more like a brother."
Mac was replaced by Bob Howard, who bad served for years as the manager of
WPGC. Except for his red- white-and-blue herringbone tweed jacket, his
wine-red pants, his white vinyl belt and his muttonchop sideburns, Bob
Howard looks exactly like Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. Like the
Captain of the Bounty, Howard runs a tight ship. He does not allow food or
beverages- including coffee, the lifeblood of disk jockeys-on the station
premises. Howard threatened to fire one DJ whom he caught eating a cookie in
Within a couple of weeks, he started issuing memos about programming as well
as food. First the news was to be spiced up so that "Communists," for
instance, would read "Commie Reds." Next, all the request lines were to be
removed. Finally, all disk jockeys were to say 'WMEX, No. One" before every
John H. was naturally bowled over by these announcements. "He didn't even
know what the phone lines were for," John H. said later. "And the No. One
thing would have killed everything we'd built up!" John H. tried to protest
the changes, but Howard sent him a memo saying that there would be no
discussion and cut his pay by $50. "Do not show this to anyone or you will
regret it," the memo concluded. When John H. refused to institute the "WMEX,
No. One" policy, Howard called him at seven in the morning and fired him.
"I considered Mr. Garabedian insubordinate," Howard says leaning forward in
a swivel chair and weighing his words like a Supreme Court justice. "We
differed on many policies and concepts." On ratings, for instance.
"Frankly," says Howard, "1 never did believe in ratings. They're certainly
nothing to run your station by. And to be candid, I've never heard WRKO. I
don't even know where they are on the dial. Nor do I intend to listen to
them. I'm not interested in so- called counter-programming"
As for request lines, Howard says that he has no faith in them because in
Washington he found "that the same people called up again and again." (John
H. claims that by keeping chronological records of calls and watching out
for clusters, where one fan and all his friends and relatives phone in for
the same song, he avoided just such "padding" of the charts).
But how could Howard let his announcers say "WMEX, No. One" when the station
was still clearly behind WRKO and a couple of talk stations in the ratings?
"This has no reference to the ratings," says Howard with some impatience.
"We feel that WMEX tries to serve the public interest, convenience and
necessity through the No. One presentation of news, public affairs, public
service, information, discussion and entertainment. We feel we're No. One
in compassion in dealing with public affairs organizations and charitable
groups. And that's why we say WMEX is No. One."
That Howard has never listened to the competition, and therefore has no way
of measuring how much compassion they have, does not seem to bother him. Nor
does the fact that several stations have notified the Federal Trade
Commission. "Good, fine!" he says. "We've gone through this thing in
Washington and you just check and see if we're still saying 'WPGC, No. One'
Thus, with a few brief memos, has Howard handed victory to the other side
and turned the situation topsy-turvey. WRKO, once the backward station, has
taken John H.'s changes, improved them with its own professionalism, and
come out way ahead. WMEX has reverted to a chaotic sounding format and an
uninspired playlist while Howard tries to condition the city into thinking
his station is No. One,
Meanwhile, FM rock has been sneaking up on both stations. The latest ARB has
provided the astounding statistic that 29 percent of the Boston audience
listens constantly to FM. A full 70 percent of 18-to-24 year old males
listen to FM from seven to 12 every night. With these nighttime teens, WBCN
is the No. One station, followed by WROR, an automated, Drake-programmed FM
rock station. WMEX and WRKO come in a poor fourth and fifth.
Five years ago in Boston there were nine radio stations. Today there are 25.
The trend is toward specialialization, and rock is drifting toward the FM
dial. "Anyone who's into music is going to want to hear it on FM, where it
sounds decent," says John H. He predicts that within ten years, AM radio
will consist entirely of talk shows, supported by an adult or even geriatric
These days John H. is considering several offers of consulting jobs, but he
itches to get his hands on a Boston FM station. "At WMEX," he says, we
proved a lot of concepts but we had to make compromises because those (word
deleted by Webmaster) little 12-year-olds control a lot of transistors. But
if you could put the New Music on FM, you'd cream the competition."
More information about the Boston-Radio-Interest