In December, 1997, the original visionary of KYUU, Walter Sabo sent me a nice accounting of the very beginning of the station, along with several other FM's in NBC's chain of O&O's. Here, for the first time, in his own word, is Walter Sabo's account of how KYUU came to be in the first place.
"1978 was the first year that AM and FM listening levels were at parity. The
first time as many people listened to FM as listened to AM. FM was still
viewed as a secondary medium by most of its owners. The big talent, bucks
and seasoned management was working on the AM band. Most FM programming was either hard rock, experimental rock or jazz and beautiful music. There was nothing in the middle. Nothing for 25-34 year olds.
Fred Silverman hired me to run the NBC owned FM stations on October 3, 1978. I signed a three year no-cut contract. It was shortly after my 26th birthday. The stations were WYNY New York, KYUU, WKQX Chicago and WKYS Washington. It would have been fun to walk into the job, hire staffs and come up with groovy programming ideas. That didn't happen. First we needed chairs. All of the stations were operating from the dark corners of their sister AM facility. In fact when a person got off the elevator at these facilities the signage read:
The AM was considered to be actual radio.
Technically they all had ancient automation, horrendous RCA or Yamaha control boards, left over cart machines from the AMs. Their staffs consisted of a few jocks. All other functions were handled by the AM people. There was no real billing. The paper billing was just bonus spots from the AMs. ALL of the transmitters were older than I was. The worse one by far was WYNY in New York. One fact will sum the situation up: The station had one control board. Production was done during records on the audition channel. We had one reel to reel; it was propped on a cardboard box in the hallway. Yes, that was in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It was a dump.
On paper the stations lost 2 million dollars collectively and had lost money for 40 years. But in order to make them successful, they needed massive infusions of cash which would mean much larger losses the first year or two. No one wins popularity contests in a publicly held company if they want to lose more money. But that's what had to be done. Plus, I wanted the money spent on a new format, one that did not exist.
I believe in a couple of programming basics: Big personalities, creative
madmen in the PD chair, news departments, jingles, hits, fun promotions.
You know---radio. The opportunity in 1978 was for an FM product that
appealed to 25-34 year olds with a full staff or on-air pros. Disco was
big. But not for that age group. At the time Barbra Streisand, Kenny
Rogers, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond were all producing hits. But they were
all ballads. The idea was to take those current ballads and mix them with
older up tempo hits that were acceptable to adults---songs by the Beatles, Beach boys, Motown. Only a few stations were flirting with it, notably KGW AM Portland and WHDH AM Boston.
Putting it on FM, producing it like a top 40 for adults was my idea. That's all the credit I'll take. The success of KYUU was the result of the people who worked there. Getting them there was really hard. NBC was not the cool place to work---a reputation it earned after years of neglecting its radio division and compounded with insane corporate policies and union agreements designed for television.
Prior to taking this job, I was head of the ABC FM network. There I had to visit dozens of radio stations to recruit them to be affiliates. When you visit a lot of stations, it becomes clear quickly which are well run and which aren't. I met John Hayes at WGRQ in Buffalo and then he moved to Seattle. His stations were jewels, obvious to anyone. He was a man of integrity, vision and humor. I liked John and trusted him. Trust was particularly key since we were trying something new. New ideas are not embraced by big companies or the radio industry. Where is the Marconi award for 'Best New Format'? No one was too interested in seeing those FM's succeed.
It took time to convince John to take the job. And even more time to recruit Mike Phillips from KGW, Terry Danner, Tom Parker from KFRC and the rest of the team. Remember, the format was new, the medium was new, the company was not shiny.
Internally everything was a fight because everything was expensive. To go live 24 hours a day, the NABET agreement called for 9-12 fulltime hires. That's almost 1 million dollars per station in costs our competitors didn't have--money that they could use for promotion. Jocks couldn't touch a thing. Real estate was booming and prices were soaring, so finding new space and securing leases was a fulltime job--a job made ridiculous by the NBC corporate staff which consisted of people who's assignment it was to review those leases and put as many roadblocks in our way as possible. I laugh at people who think running stations at a company like NBC meant we had a lot of help! We had no help.
At the station level, the GM's did a great job of building morale and insulating the staffs from the corporate bureaucracy. Our focus was and is unique: Programming comes first. A good salesman is one with a good product. The money went into air talent and the support staff to help them sound good. Two of the GM's I hired had never spent a day in a sales department. The others had to prove their empathy with the programming process. Mike Phillips did a brilliant job of taking KYUU to a 4.4 share in his first book---and the station was number 1 adults 18-49 for two years in a row---beating KFRC. Mike was then promoted to head of programming for all the NBC FM stations.
As a result of their unbelievable efforts, KYUU turned a profit in 9
months. WYNY became the highest billing FM station in America after just 3
years. WKYS generated the highest profit margin of any business owned by
RCA and WKQX was number 1 women 18-34. Two new formats were born and
matured. WKYS remains the leading urban station in the US. And the model for Adult Contemporary was established by the NBC FM programmers---Al Brady Law, Dan Griffin, Pete Salant, Sandy Beach, Mike Phillips, Bill Stedman, and Lorna Ozmon.
All of this happened because of a TV genius---Fred Silverman. Fred actually cancelled some pilots and gave our division the money because he believed in good radio and in our great team. He remains a friend to this day. Few know how much he did to advance the history of radio.
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