When I was in college, the big Top 40 station most people listened to at my school was D93 from Dubuque. After I started working there part-time, I learned something about the place that surprised me: Because the station was entirely automated with no live announcers, not even in the morning, its personality was largely an extension of its program director’s personality. It had all of his strengths and weaknesses in the same approximate proportions. I’d never known a station like that before, and it seemed a little odd.
By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I’d come in with the station’s new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of ’84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station’s program director.
What to call the new station caused some brief consternation. WKAI-FM was at 100.1, and originally, the sales manager and I wanted to call it 100-K-FM. However, the operations manager vetoed the idea on the grounds that we had only 3,000 watts of power, and 100-K-FM made it sound like we had 100,000. The objection made sense to him (although not to me), and thus we ended up with our second choice, K100–in the end, a better one.
I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. (Once I came back from vacation to find he had cleaned my desk. I couldn’t find a damn thing for weeks.) He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his hometown as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism–and that I was the kid with the spray paint.
For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn’t, because I thought it cluttered the station’s sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, “What about blind people?”
We never really understood one another.
(When I had arrived at the stations a few months before, I was astounded to learn how he had modified the time-announce to announce both time and temperature. In one studio there was a stack of tape cartridges on which he had recorded various temperatures, one degree each, from 20 below to 102 above. Whenever we noticed that the temperature had changed, we were to put the correct cartridge in the temperature slot so it could play on the air. It sounded clunky and I sneered at it, but years later I realized how damned ingenious it was.)
Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn’t really shop around–we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music–lighter during the day, on the assumption that we’d be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) In the early morning hours of format-change day–September 1, 1984–in the wee hours of the morning after the station signed off, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we’d mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and (probably, although I don’t remember for certain) the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station’s computer wiz. We polished off most of a case of beer there in the middle of the night, watching the reels of tape turn, eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon.
I had recorded a series of promos showcasing the strongest current cuts in our new Top 40 library (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Ghostbusters,” “When Doves Cry,” Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite,” and so on) to play during our final morning with the old format. Each one said, “seven hours to K100,” “six hours to K100,” and so on. Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format–“Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording in our sound-effects library of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of “Candida.” I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin’. While “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that “Rock and Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with “10-9-8” by Face to Face–not exactly one of the strong current hits I’d been plugging–and another Huey Lewis tune, “If This Is It.” Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn’t occur to us then.) After that it was “Sexy Girl” by Glenn Frey, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with “low 12.9 percent financing available.” Then it was “When Doves Cry,” and that’s where my tape of the changeover ends.
The biggest problem we had the first day was that we had to carry a University of Illinois football game on the station that night. Illinois games usually ran on our AM station, but because it was a night game we had to move it to the FM. I pitched an unholy fit about this when I first heard about it in August, but there was nothing I could do. So we ran it–but from that day on, whenever we had a sports broadcast, we promised the audience they’d get an uninterrupted hour of music just as soon as it was over. We called it “Rockback.”
Over the next two years, lo and behold, the station would become an extension of my personality. I was the primary voice; I did almost all of the remotes; when we added a live morning show, I hosted it. I tweaked the music mix to fit my perception of the market’s taste; our promos were filtered through my sense of what was funny or cool. And I am guessing some of my part-time help marveled at how odd it was that a radio station could take on its program director’s personality.
Right before Christmas 1986, I announced I was leaving K100 for a larger market. My last show was on December 23. When we returned to Macomb after spending Christmas with the in-laws, I was surprised to find that the management had spent the holiday period erasing as many vestiges of my personality as possible. Same music, utterly different formatics. Christ, I thought, let the body get cold, at least. I thought I’d left on good terms, and I’d worked hard to make sure things would go smoothly after I left. The lesson, of course, is that no one is indispensable. I wasn’t ready for how much it hurt to learn it.
If you go to K100’s website today, you’ll see that the station dates its existence from the summer of 1966. Well, that’s when WKAI-FM went on the air, but its identity as K100 was born 20 years ago this week. And it was my baby.