Remembering Bill Drake
Philip T. Yarbrough died on November 29, 2008 at age 71. When he worked as a DJ at Atlanta’s WAKE, he chose the air-name Bill Drake since it rhymed with the station’s call letters. From 1965 until 2006, he was a prominent radio programming consultant. As the 60s decade came to a close, his Drake formats dominated the airwaves and became the model for much of what radio has today become.
Those of us hard-core Keenerfans like to blame Bill Drake for WKNR’s demise.
It wasn’t his fault.
From the start Keener had one and a half hands tied behind its back. Part of our ongoing attraction is the romance associated with how a small owner group took a deficient signal in a marketplace filled with cutthroat competition to the top of the zigarut. It’s still a case study on how success is possible in any environment. It was also only a matter of time before someone would clone enough of the Keener vibe to mount a serious challenge.
Bill Drake was in the right place at the right time to help shape CKLW into a top-40 powerhouse that put modified pieces of the Keener formatics onto a 50,000 watt platform. It was a formula that was born as “Boss Radio” on KHJ in Los Angeles. In modified form, it made The Big 8 the dominant rock radio flame thrower in the Midwest until the combination of FM and Canadian Content restrictions drove the station into anachronism.
Drake built on the brilliance of Todd Storz, Gordon MacLendon and hundreds of other practitioners, who studied the science of our radio listening habits and created a product to fit. He realized that there were few real personalities on the air, and even the best of them didn’t always have something to say. So he worked to distill the essence of what worked for an increasingly mobile, attention deficient generation. He further tightened the rules of the game to create a reliable product that sounded the same whenever you tuned in.
Some will say that the Drake format strangled the concept of “intelligent flexibility” that quickly evolved Mike Joseph’s initial guidelines for the new Keener brand into a home run that forever changed the landscape of Detroit radio. That it was the precursor to the homogenization that threatens radio’s very existence as new generations turn to their IPods.
Others believe that it was inevitable that someone would take an objective look at the subjective nature of the art. Like any business, broadcasting is a stimulus / response thing. Identifying the common threads that attract and retain the largest market share of listener-customers made perfect sense. “Do this and you’ll be more profitable,” has long been the mantra that attracts proprietor attention. With the rise of FM and an ever more crowded field of competitors, looking for the secret sauce became a matter of survival.
Whatever your opinion about the efficacy of Bill Drake’s formula, there’s no argument that, in its time, the concept worked. We could all sing the two second Johnny Mann jingle hooks. The “much more music” slogan was backed up by as many as 14 records each hour. Jock talk was simplified and focused on drilling the brand into our brains. And everyone recognized that Bill’s voice, intoning “And now ladies and gentlemen…” was the set-up for a well tested tune that every one of us knew by heart.
Those fundamentals still work. Colleen and I were on a scenic rail trip in the Colorado mountains this fall. At a stop along the way we picked up a crew of young zip-liners came aboard, still charged with the adrenalin rush of their ride across the top of the tree line. “Good times,” shouted one. “.. and great oldies,” reflexively answered a chorus of others. I admit to subconsciously thinking those same words, associating them with the Cool FM brand.
Scalable, low risk, high margin radio that attracts listeners and gets results for advertisers. Bill Drake helped to sharpen its execution. And we still hear its descendants wherever modulated carriers exist.