‘‘ T H E  P L A T T E R  C H A T T E R  T H A T  M A T T E R S ’’

The Birth of Top 40 Radio...

The term "Top 40" for a radio format first appeared in 1960.

At his radio station KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska. Todd Storz invented the format by using what he saw from the repetition of plays on the jukebox to develop his platform.

The format was commercially successful, and Storz and his father Robert, under the name of the Storz Broadcasting Company, subsequently acquired other stations to use the new Top 40.

The Top 40 became a survey of the popularity of 45 rpm singles and their airplay on the radio. Some nationally syndicated radio shows featured a countdown of the 40 highest ranked songs on a particular music or entertainment publication.

Although such publications often listed more than 40 charted hits, such as the Billboard Hot 100, time constraints allowed for the airing of only 40 songs, hence, the term "top 40" gradually became part of the vernacular associated with popular music. And it remains in play today.

   A N D  R E C E N T L Y  A D D E D:

Wolfman Jack

Famous for his gravelly voice, Wolfman Jack credited it for his success, saying, "It's kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I've got that nice raspy sound."

Robert Weston Smith was born in Brooklyn on January 21, 1938, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of the Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. They lived on 12th Street and 4th Avenue in the Park Slope section. His parents divorced while he was a child. To help keep him out of trouble, his father bought him a large Trans-Oceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, including "Jocko" Henderson of Philadelphia, New York's "Dr. Jive" (Tommy Smalls), the "Moon Dog" from Cleveland, Alan Freed, and Nashville's "John R." Richbourg, who later became his mentor.

Early days in a studio.
After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. Graduating in 1960, he began working as "Daddy Jules" at WYOU in Newport News, Virginia. When the station format changed to "beautiful music", Smith became known as "Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste".

In 1962, he moved to country music station KCIJ/1050 in Shreveport, Louisiana, as the station manager and morning disc jockey, "Big Smith with the Records". He married Lucy "Lou" Lamb in 1961, and they had two children.
Disc jockey Alan Freed had played a role in the transformation of black rhythm and blues into rock and roll music, and originally called himself the "Moon Dog" after New York City street musician Moondog. Freed both adopted this name and used a recorded howl to give his early broadcasts a unique character. Smith's adaptation of the Moondog theme was to call himself Wolfman Jack and add his own sound effects. The character was based on the manner and style of bluesman Howlin' Wolf.

It was in Shreveport, LA at KCIJ radio that he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. According to author Philip A. Lieberman, Smith's "Wolfman" persona "derived from Smith's love of horror films and his shenanigans as a 'wolfman' with his two young nephews. The 'Jack' was added as a part of the 'hipster' lingo of the 1950s, as in 'Take a page from my book, Jack,' or the more popular, 'Hit the road, Jack.'"

In 1963, Smith took his act to the border when the Inter-American Radio Advertising's Ramon Bosquez hired him and sent him to the studio and transmitter site of XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, a station whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States. In an interview with writer Tom Miller, Smith described the reach of the XERF signal: "We had the most powerful signal in North America. Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower. A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station."

Most of the border stations broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, meaning that their signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union.

It was at XERF that Smith developed his signature style (with phrases like "Who's this on the Wolfman telephone?") and widespread fame. The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50 percent of the profit from anything sold by mail order.

The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks. There was even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one's sex drive. "Some zing for your ling nuts," the Wolfman would say.

That sales pitch was typical of Wolfman Jack's growling, exuberant on-air style. In the spirit of his character name, he would punctuate his banter with howls, while urging his listeners to "get naked" or "lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs". Part of the persona was his nocturnal anonymity; listeners from coast to coast had no idea how to recognize the face behind the voice that said things like "Wolfman plays the best records in the business, and then he eats 'em!"

This recording is from Wolfman’s second year at XERB, sometime in 1967. [ LISTEN ]

XERB was the original call sign for the border blaster station in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which was branded as The Mighty 1090 in Hollywood, California. The station boasted "50,000 watts of Boss Soul Power".

That station continues to broadcast today with the call sign XEPRS-AM. XERB also had an office in the rear of a small strip mall on Third Avenue in Chula Vista, California.

Interior of the Mexican studio, XERB from which Wolfman's pre-recorded shows were broadcast 1966-72.

December 3, 1966 | April 1967 | October 17, 1967 | Summer 1968 | Mid-1969 | September 1969 | April 12, 1970 (1) | April 12, 1970 (2) | March 15, 1971 | March 30, 1971

Wolfman's Last Night on Soul Express XEPRS: April 14, 1972: Part 1 | Part 2
It was not unlike the small broadcast studio depicted in the film American Graffiti (which was filmed at KRE in Berkeley). It was located only ten minutes from the Tijuana–San Diego border crossing.

It was rumored that the Wolfman actually broadcast from this location during the early-to-mid-1960s.

Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to run station KUXL. Even though Smith was managing a Minneapolis radio station, he was still broadcasting as Wolfman Jack on XERF via taped shows that he sent to the station. Missing the excitement, however, he returned to border radio to run XERB, and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in the Los Angeles area in January 1966.

The Wolfman recorded his shows in Los Angeles and shipped his tapes across the border into Mexico, where they would then be beamed across the U.S. It was during his time broadcasting on XERB that Smith met Don Kelley, who became his personal manager and business partner for more than 20 years.

It was Kelley who saw the potential for Wolfman Jack to become more than a radio personality. Kelley started to work on a strategy to transform Smith from a cult figure to a mainstream entertainer in film, recordings, and television.

He promoted Smith to the major media and formed enduring relationships with key journalists.

It's August of 1973 and the Wolfman is working his first night at WNBC 66 in New York City.

Wolfman arrived in New York in 1973 to do the night show on 66 WNBC, competing with Cousin Bruce Morrow at WABC.

That lasted about 10 months until Morrow was lured away from WABC.. to do the WNBC night show! And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1971, the Mexican government decided that its overwhelmingly Roman Catholic citizens should not be subjected to proselytizing and banned the Pentecostal preachers from the radio, taking away 80 percent of XERB's revenue. Smith then moved to station KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. However, Smith capitalized on his fame by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, becoming one of the first rock and roll syndicated programs (as the tapes began to age, they were eventually also marketed to oldies stations). He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970 to 1986. At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries. He was heard as far off as the Wild Coast, Transkei, on a station based there, Capital Radio 604.

In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, The Wolfman was paid handsomely to join WNBC in New York in August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, and the station did a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers stating that the Wolfman would propel their ratings over those of their main competitor, WABC, which had "Cousin Brucie" (Bruce Morrow). The ads proclaimed, "Cousin Brucie's Days Are Numbered", and thousands of small tombstone-shaped paperweights were distributed that said, "Cousin Brucie is going to be buried by Wolfman Jack"., After less than a year, WNBC hired Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack went back to California to concentrate on his syndicated radio show.

One of the teens touched by Wolfman's radio programs was budding film maker George Lucas, who remembered the Wolfman when he wrote a simple screenplay, a tale of four friends in a small northern California town - graduates of the Class of '62 - preparing to go their separate ways.

The Wolfman's appearance in American Graffiti made him an international star.
The film was "American Graffiti" (1973), which earned four Academy Award nominations and $55 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful films of the year.

The movie also, once and for all, lifted the veil of mystery behind Bob Smith's character, and Wolfman Jack was about to make a transition from a cult figure to a full-fledged media megastar. Over the next few years Wolfman entered the media mainstream, yet never losing his appeal as a spokesman for rock 'n' roll.

The Wolfman made guest appearances on numerous stations over the years in addition to his regular radio and TV gigs. In the mid-'70s, the Wolf travelled north of the border to host the Sunday night Canadian Graffiti Show on CHUM and other CHUM Group stations. February 22, 1976 [ LISTEN ] (57:35)

During an eight-and-a-half-year run as host of NBC-TV's "The Midnight Special," and through his more than 80 television appearances on other networks and in syndication, plus more than 2,800 personal appearances around the world, Wolfman is part of rock history.

Wolfman Jack died on July 1, 1995, of a heart attack in Belvedere, North Carolina. He was 56.

The Wolfman in one of his last filmed interviews during the 1990s.
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...and In Rode the Disc Jockeys

“DJs” have had a key role in shaping radio listener's musical tastes since the 1950s. They reflected national and local musical trends, exposed audiences to new music, and in some cases produced records and managed artists. Many DJs became celebrities, actively engaged and influential in the national music scene.

DJs came into being as a result of changes in the radio industry after the advent of television in the 1950s. In the earlier years of radio broadcasting, programming featured mainly live entertainment such as dramas, comedy acts, and studio orchestras and singers. When television came into widespread use, the audience for this type of programming largely abandoned radio for the new medium. In response, radio stations began offering a new type of entertainment by having their announcers play records on the air.

Thus was born the “disc jockey” or “DJ.”

The Summer of 1967

AM radio still reigns supreme. But the songs are suddenly longer, and edgier. No way of getting around the fact that The Doors’ Light My Fire is a huge hit; so huge in fact, that Elektra records made a special cut-down version to fit the two-minute Top-40 formula, but a lot of stations played the long version anyway. FM is just starting to get noticed – with more stations dropping the automated elevator music in favor of eclectic mixtures of Rock, Jazz and Folk – they can play entire sides of albums, and people like that. Besides, everyone who owns a Volkswagen or Volvo has a Blaupunkt FM radio installed in their cars.

Summer 1967 was definitely different. The Love-ins are a Sunday event every week at the Griffith Park Merry-go-round; the Bongo Kings hold court and the free peanut-butter-honey and Wonderbread sandwiches are everywhere, even though the sandwiches are mostly bread and a hint of the other stuff – Friday and Saturday night concerts at the Shrine Expo Hall, where there are no seats, $2.50 to get in and three bands, usually on rotation from The Fillmore up north – grab an orange from the 50 gallon drums dotting the auditorium and breathe in clouds of Acapulco Gold, wafting everywhere – and get stoned by just walking around. Or there was the Sunset Strip, and what was left of Pandora’s Box before the bulldozers came in August. But The Whiskey A go-go was open, and so was Dave Hull‘s Hulballoo further east on Sunset and the club scene was still thriving.

In short, that was Summer 1967 – despite the much-publicized Summer Of Love, it really wasn’t so much. Century City was just getting over being the site of billyclubs and teargas; where demonstrators against the Vietnam War clashed with police outside the Century Plaza hotel, during a visit by President Johnson. Protests to the Vietnam War were getting more frequent and more vocal, and even though there was a lot of love in the air, there was also a lot of uncertainty over the future.

And maybe the music reflected that – it was becoming more sophisticated and complex and somehow less innocent. But we still had B. Mitchel Reed – and for at least the next several months, it was three powerhouse Radio Stations, blasting out new and interesting music – and music was the most important thing.

Here’s a 45 minute extract featuring KFWB, along with KHJ’s Humble Harve and The Real Don Steele, along with ads for upcoming shows and a few eery slices of history. A sample from a period of time and a glimpse into an average day around July 1967. [ LISTEN ] (46:38)

Unfortunately the daily news in 1967 was far from average. More was going on than most care to remember. Here's how October 7th rolled as reported over ABC Radio’s News Around The World. [ LISTEN ] (15:04)