What can a Top 40 radio station from the 60s teach us about audience engagement?
In 2014, Steve Schram and I got the invitation of a lifetime. The 50th birthday party for our favorite radio station at the Red Eye Grille in Manhattan. We both grew up in the Detroit area during the time that WKNR was in its brief prime. It’s a Cinderella story of an operation with a deficient signal that, for a time, was the most popular station in one of the nation’s biggest markets.
Many of the WKNR Keymen lived there and those who didn’t came from every other corner of the country to celebrate lifelong friendships and remember Camelot.
That’s what the Keener era was to most of them. It was the best team they ever worked with, creating a product that was so powerful that it overwhelmed Detroit radio even with a pencil thin signal that was one of the market’s weakest.
WKNR was a giant killer. It frustrated its deep pocketed competitors and wrote a chapter in broadcasting history that is still talked about a 56 years after Keener launched on Halloween night in 1963.
It was definitely a risk. The former WKMH gave no indication that it would ever be anything except an also-ran.
But this time would be different.
Talent, Budget and Promotion
Frank Maruca, the magic man behind the curtain who was responsible for programing the station, had taken out a $175,000 loan to help get the station’s new brand off the ground. He hired a consultant to map out the fundamentals. Everyone in radio does that as insurance. But Frank’s genius was in attracting talent, trusting them to understand the vibe and allowing them to make it their own.
“Fred Knorr (the original owner of WKMH) was the visionary,” Robin Seymour told us. “One day he came to me and said, ‘Here are a bunch of records. Go play them.’ That was the sum total of the direction I got. I had the opportunity to create my brand from scratch.” He also understood incentives, giving Robin a piece of the action whenever he went on productive client visit with the sales team. “Even if the client couldn’t relate to what we were playing, their kids related to me. And that often made all the difference.”
Understanding both Theory and Practice
Frank Maruca also hired men who understood the method behind the music. “I had been a program director,” remembers Jerry Goodwin. “Most of us knew the theory and understood the practice. So we knew what to do and how to do it. Management let us be ourselves and the audience loved it.”
“Frank let us bend the consultant’s rules,” long time Keener personality and program director Bob Green says. “We sometimes changed things on the fly based on what the audience was telling us. Having that ‘intelligent flexibility’ was a huge advantage.”
The WKNR team faced their first big challenge less than a month after Keener launched. It happened on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was killed. Frank Maruca remembered the uncomfortable feeling when WKNR did a 180 that day. “Here I had invested all of this money promoting and programming a music station, and we were suddenly all news. None of us knew what would ultimately happen. The world was trying to make sense of the insensible. We understood that our listeners wanted information that day. And it was our job to provide it.”
That same ability to quickly switch gears happened 38 years later, when Steve Schram, an early WKNR devotee and then general manager of a cluster of Detroit stations that included the former Keener facilities, decided to link all the stations in the cluster to WKNR’s successor, WNIC, on September 11th, 2001.
“We were playing a song about flying when I saw the story broke,” Steve recalls. “I ran into the control room where Jim Harper was doing the morning show and said, ‘cut that one off.. right now’. At the time, one of the highjacked aircraft appeared to be heading toward Detroit and our studios were in Dearborn, where a vibrant Arab community had flourished. We had no idea whether or not we might be one of the targets. I ended up having each station in the cluster link to WNIC and sent everybody home. There were just three of us who stayed on the air in that former Keener building. We reported the story as it unfolded and and talked, live, with listeners who had relatives in New York. Just as WKNR had done during the Kennedy Assassination, we became an all news station that day.”
Hire the Best -Trust them to Execute
Like me, Steve had grown up listening to Keener. Just like the original Keymen, he trusted his instincts. Under Steve’s direction, WNIC became the number one station in the market, setting a record for generating revenue that stands to this day.
Meanwhile, back in 1963, the Kennedy story receded. Music returned to 1310 kc and within 90 days, WKNR had rocketed from last to first in the highly competitive Detroit Market. Robin Seymour painted the radio landscape of the day. “You had WJBK and WXYZ playing popular music with long established personalities. You had this 50,000 watt clear channel station, WJR, with it’s 26 state coverage area. WJLB was pioneering R&B. There were a dozen other contenders all fighting for the same ears. Keener was able to cut through all of that clutter and establish a relationship with Detroit that built a loyal, involved audience.”
What was the Keener difference?
The Science of Success
First, there was the science. The 31 record playlist pioneered by Gordon McLendon and Todd Storz put the listeners’ favorite music front and center. Commercials were specially created to be as entertaining as the music. The team turned to PAMS of Dallas for jingles. The number one jingle house in the world was a key contributor to the Keener sound throughout the station’s history. And the Key Men didn’t take themselves too seriously. Imaging often poked fun at the very entertainers who were behind the microphone.
In addition to the music, WKNR had a bulldog news department that broadcast at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. Contact News launched the careers of future Detroit broadcast stars, Bill Bonds, Erik Smith, Frank Beckmann and others.
“I remember riding with News Director Phil Nye in the Keener news car at the height of the Detroit riots,” newsman John Meagher told us. “We weren’t sure if the sign on the side of the vehicle would make us a target or serve as a shield. But we were determined to get the story and to disseminate it as accurately and as quickly as possible.”
Jim Brooker left a promising 20–20 news gig at CKLW for Keener. “They thought I was crazy to do it,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best decision I made during my journalistic career.”
The Artistry of Engagement
Beyond the science, there was the Art.
The common theme echoed by every attendee at Keener’s 50th Birthday celebration was, “Be yourself.”
Frank Maruca hired pros; instinctive broadcasters who could read an audience like a book and knew how to make personal connections.
“Our listeners could relate to Keener because we were real people,” Bob Green said.
“We talked about real things that were happening in our real lives,” adds Jerry Goodwin. “Gary Stevens would complain if his doctor cancelled his appointment. I went ballistic after a cop stopped me and tried to sell me raffle tickets. That resonated with people. And we kept on doing it.”
“Keener definitely impacted my career, ” said long time New York radio personality Jim Kerr, who’s first major market gig was as Robin Stone on WKNR. “When I got to New York City, I realized that there was no way I could be as up beat as Harry Harrison or as funny as Don Imus, so I just talked about the adventures of a 21 year old kid who was trying to learn his way around New York. And it worked. The WKNR guys taught me that it was ok to be who I was.”
“WKNR’s energy was with me at every turn of my career,” notes Pat St. John. “I remember playing records at a high school sock hop and thinking, ‘Maybe I can be like these guys’.” Pat was on the Keener airwaves soon thereafter. “I learned everything I know from Bob Green, Dick Purtan and the other Keener greats.” Pat became a legendary presence at WPLJ during its prime and is still heard on the air in New York, 40 years later.
Engage beyond your primary medium – Face to Face still rules
Facetime with the audience was also key. “I had a horrible problem getting up for my morning show,” remembers the late Frank “Swingin” Sweeney. “Between my music director duties and personal appearances, many nights I got less than three hours of sleep. But I knew that there was power in being with our listeners in person.”
Rapport with the artists was another ingredient in the Keener recipe. Scott Regen became almost synonymous with the Motown magic. “We had all the Motown talent on our shows,” he says. “They were as excited about being on WKNR as we were having them there.” Berry Gordy Jr. the father of Motown Records recognized the special connection that Scott had with his artists, hiring Regen to host a series of live concerts at Detroit’s Roostertail Supper Club.
Challenge Paradigms – Adjust on the Fly
Scott didn’t have the sonorous pipes that most people associated with a radio personality. But that didn’t matter. His show was brimming with energy. And he was always listening to the competition to see how he could stay a step ahead. “WXYZ hired a big name talent from out of town and put him on the air in my time slot. One night, the kid who was answering my phones told me that my competition had ad-libbed the term, ‘groove yard’. Within in 10 minutes, we had created a whole bit around the term. People thought that we had invented it.”
That happened with the famous “Burger Club” too. “One day a kid called with a request and said, ‘thanks, burger’ when I agreed to play it. I discovered that ‘burger’ was an emerging term being used in the high schools, so I began appending the word to listener names. In time we had over 20,000 members of ‘The Burger Club’”.
“A lot of these ideas just happened,” Bob Green explains. “We would come up with something and run with it. Keener had the ability engage the listener to such an extent that I was inundated with pizzas one night when I mentioned that I was hungry.”
The advertisers were the biggest beneficiaries of WKNR’s power. When Keener jocks told you to patronize a business, the listeners did. That translated into sold-out spot schedules, WKNR talent being hired to create nationally distributed commercials, and the creative leeway to tell a sponsor’s story as only a Keener DJ could.
Advertisers realized that the Keener announcers were trusted personalities. We listen to the recommendations of those we trust. At Keener, the trust was earned by delivering on the promise. If you heard about it on WKNR, you could count on it being accurate. That extended to the advertisers. Keener was selective in who got on the air. What was being sold had to deliver on the promise, too.
Reinvent as Things Change
In time, Keener succumbed to a combination of its own success and the emergence of CKLW as a Top 40 Powerhouse. RKO cloned some WKNR’s formula, the same formula pioneered by Storz and McLendon. CK’s stronger signals, coupled with the emergence of FM as a preferred radio platform hamstrung WKNR’s ability to succeed. But even as Keener struggled, it was still blazing trails.
“I remember Paul Cannon telling me that he had to let me go,” said Jerry Goodwin. “I had all of these LP records that the promoters had been giving us and pitched leadership on letting me play longer cuts on our FM. We assembled an amazing team that included Dan Carslile, John Small and Russ Gibb, the guy everybody associates with bringing the Paul McCartney death rumor about the radar.”
Jerry ended up taking that act to WABX, a leading FM station that helped define what we now call “Classic Rock”, becoming the morning man and amplifying the careers of mid-day Air Ace Dave Dixon, Jim Dulzo, Larry Monroe and others.
All things pass – Be prepared with a Plan B
In the end, the Keener Originals moved on and Camelot faded into history. By the time John McCrae uttered the call letters for the last time, Keener was a shadow of its former self. AM radio was on its way to becoming an anachronism and the seeds of today’s media consumption culture were firmly planted across the broadcast landscape.
The 50th Anniversary celebration in New York had to come to an end, too. It was an evening of friendship and fellowship that none of us who were there will ever forget.
The winning formula? Throw all of the above into a blender and mix
People who didn’t grow up in Detroit during the 60s often ask why so many who did still make such a fuss over a 5,000 watt AM station that couldn’t even cover the entire market. In the eight decade history of the American broadcasting, Keener story was almost a footnote. It was over too soon and those who were there quickly scattered to the four winds; itinerant artists plying their trade wherever someone would pay for the paint.
Well, you had to be there.
You had to be there to understand how Dick Purtan could grab laughs without using any of George Carlin’s seven words.
You had to be there to feel the connection that Scott Regen made with the rock stars who were regular visitors to his program.
You had to be there to experience the creative artistry that happened whenever Bob Green went into the production room, to hear Mort Crowley jam the phone exchange for the first time in Michigan Bells History, to keep dialing until you could testify on the air “what your love had done for you” over the instrumental bridge of the Parliaments classic Motown hit, to understand how Gary Steven’s character, a Wollyburger, could stop conversations in mid sentence, to watch Paul Cannon wade through hundreds of thousands of entries in Keeners Principal of the Year contest.
You had to be there to see the dollars roll in every time Jerry Goodwin and the Keymen solicited donations for Danny Thomas’ ALSAC organization, the people who built St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
You had to be there to witness hundreds of kids going wild when a Keener DJ appeared at their high school or emceed the first Detroit appearance by The Beatles.
And you had to be there to feel what it was like to hear rock and roll being born out of rhythm and blues, country western and the British skiffle sound, watching Detroit garage bands get their shot on the radio. If they could be stars, maybe you could, too.
Others may have done it later, but in Detroit, WKNR was the first station to effectively engage the audience every hour of the day.
They did it without the shock shlock that has become commonplace today. They did it with the intelligent flexibility that made it possible to instantly react to the competition, even if it meant breaking an occasional format rule. They did it by taking a chance on music made in Michigan. And they did it consistently until the weight of Keener’s success smothered the golden goose, opening the door for a Canadian station to lead the pack.
Keener’s unique relationship with her audience set the standard that hundreds of others stations emulated. And her talent became mentors for generations of radio wannabes who put a razor blades to Mylar in the hope of landing that major market shot.
Awhile back I asked Keener13.com visitors to name one station that comes close to being as innovative, as fun, as consistently excellent as WKNR was in her prime. Over ten thousand pondered that question… and the silence was deafening.
If we are lucky, we are occasionally blessed with moments when the stars align, our lives seem to be under momentary control and we experience an instant of sheer joy.
Those of us that came of age during WKNR’s prime probably felt a few of those moments when the radio was on, and an unlikely little station in Dearborn was working its magic.
And for that, we are eternally grateful.