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Detroit's Radio Desert

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"If you can't find radio excitement in Detroit, then you know that the goddamn business must be dead around the country."

So spoke Jerry Goodwin, a 14-year veteran of Detroit AM and FM radio, commenting on the vacuum left on the Motor City FM dial by recent events at CJOM, WABX and WWWW.

Detroit radio has always been known for a level of intensity and creativity not widely found in other FM radio markets. Even the "hit" stations in Detroit programmed more variety than their counterparts around the country, adding Motown R&B, bands like Mitch Ryder's, and other local heritage to their playlists.

Most notably , Detroit had WABX-FM, one of the longest-lasting freeform (as opposed to formatted) stations in the U.S., providing a cerebrally stimulating mix of listening not found hardly anywhere else in America.

But in the last several months, whatever spunk remained on Detroit radio has died out due to moves made by various station managements in their quest for commercial success.

To begin with, Century Broadcasting, which owns and operates ABX, instituted a gradually tightening playlist, ordering once self-directed air personnel to play records determined by the Program Director. The uniqueness which had given ABX its identity soon left the already faltering outlet, along with most of the staff, who were either fired or edged out.

Within the last two months or so, ABX has programmed a curious mixture of about 20 percent black hits and 80 percent of what the management calls "soft rock" -- lots of Elton John, John Denver, Three Dog Night, the Doobie Brothers, etc. A station which once sparked the imagination is now playing background music.

Next, possibly in response to ABX's demise, the management of WWWWFM began to restrict its playlist and format. W4, as it's known always had a format which guided the programmers. But until the last few weeks, that format allowed the jocks some initiative and made W4 more varied and interesting than its chief competitor, WRIF--which almost exclusively plays past and present hits. These days, with the exception of more brand new releases, W4 and RIF are sounding more and more the same.

Finally, two weeks ago Geoffrey Stirling, owner of CJOM-FM in Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit River, called a staff meeting at which management played a tape recording with Stirling's voice firing everyone in twenty pre-recorded seconds. CJOM, which was becoming the talk of the town since the demise of ABX, was gaining increased popularity due to programming a good deal of current black R&B, or "disco" music, as it is usually called. Such music is increasingly dominating the top of the commercial sales charts.

But Stirling apparently felt that the station wasn't making money fast enough with the disco approach, and so now CJOM is programming straight middle-of-the-road music, a la Barbara Streisand and Doris Day.


The sudden firing of whole air staffs and the wiping out of variety in favor of pre-programmed predictability are nothing new to the fiercely competitive radio business.

Detroit has had great radio on other stations in the past. Before becoming a hits-only FM version of CKLW, WRIF-FM was probably the most exciting radio station this town had ever heard, having collected some of the most experienced free-form programmers and given them total freedom to serve the radio public with all kinds of music and information. Before WRIF's conversion to what basically amounts to automation, WKNR-FM featured much of the same kind of unique programming.

The trend away from the community information and musical education aspects of the original "underground" radio stations of the middle to late sixties has been national in scope. The involved, personal kind of approach which characterized those stations has either been completely canned, or in a few cases largely modified, in response to the owner's zest for escalating ratings and their resultant profits. In some cases, as at RIF, creative programming was offed because it offended the cultural/political sensibilities of top-level management, who could exploit, but never identify with, the culture the radio station was supposed to serve.

"It's not done by ear anymore," explained Goodwin, who was recently fired from W4 in the midst of their last few format changes. "The audio media is in a video situation -- it's marketing researchers, accountants, ratings, numbers on a page. The commercial situation has become such a pigsty that artistic elements cannot enter into it any longer."

"The people who run radio want automatons they can replace, not imaginative programmers," explained Michael Benner, who just left W4 to move to California. "Oh, you don't like it here? We have twelve more just like you, ready to do exactly what we say."

"Bartley Walsh, the General Manager of W4," Goodwin added, "refuses to acknowledge that people on the air miglu know something about broadcasting. God forbid that they should, you see, because then you don't play a black dot or a red dot, or a number, or a category. They don't want that kind of action. They want fools who'll follow the rules."


WWWW-FM is owned by Starr Broadcasting, whose chairman is the noted reactionary columnist, William F. Buckley, a close pal of former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. In the last year or so W4 gained almost equal footing with WRIF in the quarterly radio ratings by becoming something of an alternative to RIF. W4 played more variety, more older music, more album cuts, less hits--although, until recently, it completely refrained from any rhythm and blues or any jazz whatsoever, despite the increasing popularity of these musics on the record sales charts.

W4's success can be traced largely to its air staff, most of whom are veterans of free-form situations in Detroit, and who were allowed to participate in W4's music selection.

"The staff at W4 felt there had to be a happy medium between the esoterica of ABX and the punk-out commercialism of RIF," explained Jerry Goodwin. "A happy medium where talented people could come together with a commercial consciousness, so they could continue to live off their art without forsaking it."

While W4 at its peak could certainly not be described as a radio oasis, it did offer better listening than RIF, and it did capture the rating numbers, which influence advertisers.

"We figured that if we made the station successful by playing hits, but also variety," explained Benner sorrowfully, "then we could broaden out and become a truly progressive station, start playing funky jazz like Chick Corea, R&B, more history, etc. But as soon as we got them their ratings and they were making money, that's when the restrictions carne down."

The first changes came about soon after ABX went middle-of-the-road (MOR).

"I couldn't figure it out," Benner continued. "Since ABX went MOR, you would think W4 would immediately loosen up, broaden out, and fill the void left by the X, adding on the audience that station was serving in the past. But instead, management felt that W4 had peaked. and in order for the station to continue to grow in the ratings. they had to get more commercial - play more hit singles, restrict the DJ's freedom, etc."


Paul Christy, W4's Program Director of the last few months, has a background almost exclusively in AM Top 40. Christy told The SUN that recent changes at W4 had been planned long before ABX's demise.

"The problem with our format was that the jocks weren't getting into in-depth research as far as the public was concerned," Christy told us. The jocks were just going by the seat of their pants. The staff can't program the music - half of them aren 't interested enough-or else they just don't have the knowledge."

"What we've done here," he continued, "is more clearly defined and structured the categories of music so they are played in a more orderly fashion. It's our responsibility to the public. Before, we changed records from one category to another; it was too loose, so I've been taking more direct command. Now there's a more prescribed order and frequency to the categories."

Christy attempts to minimize the changes. But from our conversations with Benner, Goodwin and another source close to W4, THE SUN has learned of the following moves at W4:

First off, the staff was prohibited from mentioning the names of albums, and could only give the artist and the name of the tune. Second, hit singles were rotated more frequently than before, when the jocks could program four or five album cuts more often than the hit.

Then one day a directive carne down from Christy ordering an end to all record back-announcing except for the name of the last record in a set, then the call letters and commercials. Four days later that directive was rescinded, due largely to outrage on the part of the staff. Recently, a reliable source near W4 says another directive has come down ordering back-announcing of new tunes only.

But probably the most significant musical move Christy has made to date is squashing, for most practical purposes, the "Regular Oldies" category. The RO's, as they're called, are tunes older than a year or so which were never super hits, but popular all the same - anything from Creedence to Santana. As Goodwin explained, they formed "the essence of the radio station -- all the tunes that made ABX popular, that gave FM radio its reputation for being more than a 45 rpm factory."

"The Regular Oldies are being eliminated by frequency of airplay," explained our source. "Pretty soon I'm afraid they're going to be eliminated altogether. W4 will sound just like RIF, they'll just play more new releases. History will be out."

Christy denies that any records are being physically removed from W4's library to deny programmers access to them - records, he says, have just been "recategorized." But our source claims records have been played "which, because the station manager didn't like them, were removed from the library" within the last month.

Another fairly recent change at W4 is known as "cross-programming." Basically, it means that when RIF has a commercial playing, W4 has music, and vice-versa. This proceeds from the belief that all radio listeners are button-pushers, and will not stay with one station due to its quality or intelligent appeal. It's the same sort of attitude toward the listeners which leads Christy to forbid announcers from saying the name of the record on the air -- the audience, supposedly, will consider it a drag and tune out. The same sort of contempt results in W4 having no news staff of its own whatsoever.

Christy insists he banned back-announcing of records only because programmers were "abusing" their freedom to talk and going into overkill on detail. But certainly Christy 's complete ban is nothing short of extreme.

Ironically, Christy carne to W4 after the former Program Director, Paul Sullivan, were fired for being quoted in Creem Magazine, the now-defunct Fifth Estate and The SUN as saying his programmers "were just like workers on the factory line, turning a bolt at Chrysler."


In its heyday of free-form programming, WABX promoted itself as "the radio station of your wildest dreams." It was. Starting in late 1967, ABX became Detroit's first alternative radio station -- playing what was then the new music not heard on AM, and supplying an emerging new community with the informational viewpoint it was starved for.

"ABX started the new radio ideal in Detroit," commented Michael Benner. "The ideal that the airwaves could be something more than just people screaming at you, telling you the time and temperature, playing no more than 25 records in total. Where people in radio used their real names and worked toward personal interaction with the listener."

Benner related one incident which characterizes what A3X did for Detroit in its prime. A young woman called up Jerry Lubin, formerly of ABX and now with W4, upset over how radio had changed. She told Lubin that if it wasn't for ABX, "I might have been a cheerleader."

ABX was completely free-form and totally outrageous. Therein lay its success in the early days.

But as time wore on, the station grew tired. And the stakes grew higher. By 1970 other stations had begun playing much of the same music, the audience potential had expanded enormously, and radio aimed at youth had become extremely competitive. ABX had to play the ratings game and compete for commercials with RIF, and then W4, in order to survive and to please Century Broadcasting.

But while ABX may have had to change somewhat to hold its own, it most certainly did not have to die altogether.

Former disc jockies at ABX and Century Broadcasting Vice-President and ABX director John Detz agreed that a major problem was a jack of common purpose or identity among the staff in the last two years of the station's life.

Staff meetings frequently disintegrated into personal shouting matches. The staff could not agree on any consistency at ABX. The freedom to program was taken to extreme by some programmers, who overplayed their favorite music without considering the station's economic need to retain a large audience without abandoning relevance. Tuning in ABX became a big surprise - what would it sound like now? Radio stations need variety, but they also need an identity to.hold a large audience. They can achieve this with free-form programming, or with a limited format, if the staff works closely together--as at WBCN in Boston, where a limited format is collectively determined.

Nevertheless, a good portion of the blame for the demise of WABX must fall squarely on John Detz's shoulders.

"People didn't know what was happening, there were rumours instead. Detz never provided enough facts or information, he never worked positively with the staff on the station's direction," explained former ABX jock Jack Broderick. "He preferred to deal with the staff individually. On the other hand, he also took a lot of abuse."

A frequent complaint we heard was that Detz was not a programmer, he was a business manager. The one time he did hire a Program Director John Petrie, who knew the ropes and was sensitive to alternative radio, Detz refused to give Petrie autonomy in hiring staff, so Petrie eventually left.

Another frequent complaint is that Detz was away from the station a good deal of the time, managing another station owned by Century, KWST in Los Angeles.

White he was guilty of neglect, Detz was on the other hand guilty of interference, according to the programmers we talked to.

"John wanted to be 'respectable.' He would pull posters off the control room walls if he found them objectionable," explained a former ABX staff member. "He would pull records out of the library, but the jocks would just replace them. He would put pressure on us not to play jazz or R&B."


As staff members Ieft under pressure or of their own accord due to the internat strife, Detz brought in out-of-towners unfamiliar with Detroit's radio tradition. ABX's ratings began failing worse than before, and with them went advertising money.

Rather than go to staffers and try to work something out with their participation, Detz handed down a format. It was a limited one at first, making sure jocks played more current music. Before it came down, Detz fired some of those who he feit would pose the greatest opposition to the format.

"Detz never came to us and levelled, never said things weren't working out, let's put our heads together and come up with a group approach to a limited format," explained Jack Broderick, who now works at WJZZ. "We could have been talked to, but no one ever did."

After the limited format was introduced, things kept getting tighter and tighter. Eventually, last April, ABX went soft-Tock and middle-of-the-road.

"We still haven't decided exactly what the station will become," John Detz told The SUN last week. "What you've been hearing is a station in transition."

Detz stated that he though ABX had reeled too far in the MOR direction, and that programming of Glen Campbell and Tony Orlando with Dawn was "a mistake."

While uncertain as the future, Detz did let on that "you're going to hear more black music on ABX in the period to come, more R&B and some jazz as it fits in."

With black music dominating the charts, with R&B and modern jazz/rock gaining in popularity, such a move could prove to be a wise one. Ironically, according to our sources, Detz used to pressure jocks not to play black tunes.

Detz attributes ABX's failure to its inconsistency and variety. "Here was ABX touching all bases, and in reality we weren't touching anybody." He also maintains that with so many other FM rock stations on the dial, if the audience didn't want to hear one type of music on WABX, they would just jump to another station.

Of course, if variety isa turn-off i t 's hard to understand ABX programming black music with soft white rock. It's even harder to understand, given the current fusing of rock, R&B, and aZ2 imo an increasingly popular "new music." Audiences maybe more open to variety and "crossover" than ever before.

Detz maintains that free-form progressive radio cannot work in Detroit any longer, especially economically. Others maintain it could work given a more coordinated and broad-based approach, that people still want to be stimulated by their radios, not merely related to as consumers; that, more than ever before, it is how possible to intelligently program musical variety in a manner that would be commercially successful. The disc jockey talent exists in Detroit to do it right now. The question is, will creative radio ever get another chance?


One thing everyone agrees upon is that ratings run radio and determine advertising-and are a farce.

"A free form station will never get the ratings it deserves," explained John Detz. "The people it reaches won't fill out a diary of what they listened to every hour of the day. I wouldn't."

In ABX's case, one possible factor in low ratings was also the weakness of the station's audio signal.

"ABX was the kind of station," a former staff recalled, "where the ratings said you didn't have an audience, but then if you said on the air that there was a celebration or something, 45,000 people would show up the next day."

"Everybody m the business knows that ratings are a ruse, a fraud," explained Jerry Goodwin. "You know that 1200 unrepresentatively sampled people, in terms of ABX's audience, out of a city of 4 million, cannot be accurate. But programmers say we've got to go by them because everybody else does."

"Thirteen-year-olds fill out the ratings books so they can get paid a dollar for it," added Mike Benner. "The stations are programming to 13-year-olds but they don't realize it."


"I feel there is a case for challenging Detroit stations now on the basis of their misuse of the public trust," commented one still-active jock. "When white disc jockeys are told, and I wish they had put it in writing, that you can't play two black songs together, then the stations should be challenged for their bias and insensitivity to the public."

Although their market in Detroit is largely black, the basically white-run FM rock stations have shut out black R&B and jazz throughout the last few years as "inappropriate" for their audience. Black programmers are virtually non-existent. Never mind that white rock and roll, including the Beatles, grew out of the black experience.

It's typical of the lack of understanding on the part of sometimes racist station ownership and management, who simply do not share the culture of their listeners. Management is almost invariably behind the audience in musical tastes.

In the last few months, stations like W4 and ABX and even WRII have been forced to program some black hits because they've become number one records -- like the Isley Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire. The success of jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, who were until recently relatively obscure in a mass sense, also attests to the rising popularity of black music, hitting the Billboard Top 10.

The Isley Brothers' new record, which most certainly is selling in droves to white as well as black people, had to sell 100,000 copies a week before W4 would program it. It's like James Brown once said: "I'm a millionaire. I sell millions of records. But they never play them on the radio."

One thing about all these radio changes: you can be sure you won't find out about them listening to the radio. Station managements are extremely reluctant to inform their audiences why things change. Air staffers are fired specifically to keep them from going on the air to explain the situation.

All we can hope for is that somewhere in the desert that is Detroit Radio, someone will wise up to the potential and bring some spiritual nourishment to the radio dial once again. They could even make money on it at the same time. Given the commercial forces which currently reign, it could be a long time coming. But Detroit is ready, and has been for some time. The city is steeped in the tradition of creative radio.

"The audio media is in a video situation- it's marketing researchers, accountants, ratings, numbers on a page. The commercial situation has become such a pigsty that artistic elements cannot enter into it any longer."

"WABX started the new radio ideal in Detroit. . . where people in radio used their real names and worked toward personal interaction with the listener."

A GROWING BREED - THE FRUSTRATED DISC JOCKEY. Jerry Goodwin (top left) is a 14-year veteran of stations including WKNR-AM, WABX, CJOM, WNRZ, WIOT and WWWW. Jerry was fired in August by W4's management for mocking a commercial on the air and allegedly violating the station's playlist. He denies the latter, but is fed up with commercial radio ... Michael Benner (top right) left W4 two weeks ago and thinks he may stay out of radio altogether. Benner was once fired by WRIF in its pre-automation days for "unresponsiveness to authority"after airing anti-war newscasts... Jack Broderick (bottom) was fired from WABX just before the station handed down a format. ABX is now mixing "soft-rock" with occasional black hits. Broderick can be heard on WJZZ in Detroit on weekends.