Keener’s Secret Sauce

By Steve Schram & Scott Westerman

There has been a lot of discussion on the blogs lately about what made 60s Top 40 radio rock. The buzz around the on-air reunions at WLS, WQXI, et al, attests to the continuing connection listeners have with the radio stations they grew up with. That’s something that’s clearly not the case today. Our kids’ generation listens to music on their IPods and work through their adolescent adventures on Facebook and Instant Messenger. And, aside from the morning shifts, there is a distinct absence of power talent in other radio day-parts.

Being on the fringe of the biz, we at get back-channeled on some of the memos that are coming out of the programming departments at the few companies that control our broadcast media. They are thoughtful, methodical, and take into account the latest research methodology. But something seems to be missing. Reading them prompted us to ask our Keener mentors, “what things contributed to the WKNR success formula on the air?”

Bob Green was there when the station struggled as WKMH. He was there at the height of the Keener phenomenon and witnessed the changes that lead to it’s ultimate demise. He was a major contributor to WKNR’s success. Here’s his take:

“Taking into account the differences in the way we were 40 years ago and the faith I had in the professionalism of the on air staff, there are still a few universal truths that apply to good programming.

“It still comes down to putting content into: a. The Product, and b. The Presentation… The journey and the destination or whatever metaphor works for you. I always referred to the elements and their balance. All the elements, music, Jock talk, telephone bits, jingles, commercials, promos, contests/promotions, news…they were all programmed. That was all outlined and constantly referred to at jock meetings and was usually both understood and practiced.

“Only thing I recall having to point out to guys who got lazy, was not to play the same jingle 2 or 3 times in a row (as they left the cart in the machine) or to play a jingle that was inappropriate for the moment.

“The music rotation was fairly simple at Keener, with 31 songs- 3 lps and a Key song (and an oldie or 2 depending on when we made a few changes in the clock). The placement of “heavy” top 13s out of the news and at the top of the hour were never something that had to be brought just happened.

“At the time, it was verboten to play 2 females in a row, or 2 instrumentals in a row, (those were the times). There were a few occasions where a jock determined that the Key Song was a stiff and didn’t play it. (I think I can count myself in there in 1964).

“My criteria for determining music play back then was ‘P.O.P’. Popularity (in terms of chart position and requests), Orientation (the demographic most served by a song) and Pace. We kind of undulated in that last area, with 2 slow songs in a row being avoided. Daypart pacing considerations were basically the obvious difference between 7-Midnight and all other dayparts.

“My main concern was always with the presentation. There were the creative elements of presentation, unique to each personality. And there were fundamental technical aspects like obviously sloppy segues, sloppy levels (beyond what the uni-level could handle) and, God forbid, dead air were absolutely not acceptable. But more importantly, it was all about flow. Flow that, if executed correctly, happened flawlessly without the listener being aware of it. For example, there was only ONE perfect moment to start talking out of a record; Not before the fade begins (or if a cold ending, the last remnants of the note or echo) and not after the fade has fully established. And of course backsell was plat du jour in 1966.

“Its interesting how some programmers today distill things down to the year. Having a different perspective on decades these days than in the 40s – 80s, I recall that years by themselves didn’t define a particular decade. Music reflects cultural changes and it’s the events, not the years that determine the start and end of an era. Giselle Mackensie & Patti Page reflected the polite adult (if not Stepford Wives) presentation, sans Glenn Miller, of the late 40s. The 50s didn’t REALLY become “the 50s” until Bill Haley & The Comets. The Sixties didn’t REALLY begin until the Death of John F. Kennedy…and so on. (Of course there are timeless anomalies like Tony Bennett – Allright Tone!) I can’t say I’m really aware of 1989 being apart from 1990, but then I may not have been paying attention.

“In ALL areas of the content and its presentation, we always addressed the ‘perception’ card. The same elements differently ordered or concentrated on could easily alter the way the station was perceived. We did talk about CONNECTION, although the C word was not yet in vogue. But the concept certainly was. And the idea of ‘being UP’, the mantra of most top 40s back then, was something I altered and felt strongly about. I said..’Be APPROPRIATE’.

“If it’s funny- laugh; if it’s exciting- get excited; if it’s sad or thoughtful- be warm. That part of how we were perceived made us both real and human. Sure, we stressed making people feel good, enjoying what we were doing and letting it be obvious, but doing a PSA for Cancer and treating it like a pile of frivolous fun was pretty silly . (I heard it often elsewhere).

“If I’d had my druthers (or my memory at the time) I’d have approached the idea that “formats” should be there to serve the air people, not the other way around. Boundaries and definition of a format should not be constraints. At Keener the boundaries were agreed upon common sense principals we really chose to live by, and we always found room within those boundaries to be creative. Even with the boundaries, there was always latitude to make Intelligent decisions that, under the stranglehold of programmers who make the air personality serve the format, aren’t possible. The listener is the loser.”

Bob Green’s exceptional talent was not anomaly during Keener’s glory days. People were always at the core of the WKNR programming philosophy. Keener hired pros who understood the vibe and intrinsically knew the definition of “appropriate”. That definition often changed on the fly and the announcers were empowered to re-write it.

Gary Stevens says, “We threw out a lot of what Mike Joseph (the original Keener programming consultant) recommended almost immediately.. it was a group effort.” Jim Sanders and Bill Bonds totally re-wrote the format the day of the Kennedy assassination and WKNR became a talk station. The late Mort Crowley said that his morning show was in a constant state of reinvention as Keener battled the competition daily, “like tigers fighting over red meat”. J. Michael Wilson’s Rodney the Rodent character was totally of his own creation, becoming part of the brand as he moved from nights to mornings and ultimately to CHUM in Toronto. Paul Cannon’s sixth sense for hit records lead him to edit a 20 minute album track to 3:05 and In-a-gadda-da-vida became a national top ten single smash. Scott Regen’s show was a study in continuous innovation. The Testifiers, The Burger Club, Stevie Wonder singing along in the Keener control room with the premiere of “Fingertips”, and Scott’s total awareness of what was happening on other Detroit stations co-opted the competition’s notions almost before they happened. And the Paul McCartney death rumors might never have found international traction without Russ Gibb’s snap decision to turn his Sunday program into an exploration of the supposed clues. Russ remembers that the FM PD called during the show to ask what was causing all the commotion with the only advice being, “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

The radio experience at the height of WKNR’s popularity was a sonic roller coaster, a Bob-Lo Island thrill ride that seemed to be constantly evolving daily with new twists and turns. The announcers conducted a symphony, where the formatic elements brought you up or down to the appropriate mood of the music, or in the case of the Kennedy coverage, the tone of the news story. It was a subtle yet visceral experience that anyone who ever listened to Joel Sebastian’s top of the hour PAMS CLYDE ID jingle won’t ever forget. The anticipation built from the moment you heard the tympani and by the time the singers cried “Motor City Music” you were ready for the hottest up-tempo record on the WKNR Music Guide.

The branding message we used to see on every Keener logo, “The Station that KNOWS Detroit”, was another important dimension. While Keener contributed to the Beatles’ international success, it was also the launching pad for Tim Tam, The Underdogs, ? and the Mysterians, Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger and an entire record label (Motown) that transformed the R&B niche into a mainstream hit machine. Could something like that happen in a Market today? Like Honey Baked Ham, Silvercup Bread and Stroh’s Beer, Keener was customized specifically for Motor City tastes and the market responded with a loyalty that still resonates four decades after the “Spooktacular” heralded the station’s debut. In a world where we often distill a product to the point that it loses all flavor, the secret sauce that made Keener great was a distinctly local recipe.

Some of today’s programmers might argue that the considerable fragmentation of media choices in the Internet age makes it impossible to create an entity that can grab the audience shares Keener generated at it’s height. Those same programmers who take the time to reflect on the impact that Keener made may also come to understand and admire the creativity generated by the its staff and the reciprocating passion of its young listeners that has lasted for decades. It is an amazing accomplishment that was genuine and truly unique in retrospect. Today, whether it be broadcast radio, satellite or even web streams, the absence of an intensely local focus and true collaborative culture that celebrates innovation, within the broad confines of the brand, makes it unlikely that we’ll ever see anything remotely close to the Keener magic ever again.

Steve Schram is Director of Michigan Public Media and served as Market Broadcast Vice President with management responsibility for WNIC, Keener’s successor. Scott Westerman is Area Vice President for Comcast’s Southwestern cable properties and a former radio program director. They were Michigan State University college roomates and long time radio co-workers, founding in 2002.