Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Drake-Chenault formula

Drake in Drake-Chenault is Bill Drake, the Chenault is Gene Chenault. The irony of my hatred for their version of radio is that it's alive and well today. they brought the gift of repetition and automation to Top-40. There was probably as much automation in FM radio in the 1970s as there are today. Sure the hardware was rudimentary, but it worked.

At the time the FCC had passed a new regulation prohibiting owners of AM and FM stations from simulcasting programming. This was intended to force media owners into running original content on their shiny new FM stations. The result was somewhat the opposite. With FM still fresh out of the shrink wrap it's ad revenues were still quite low. So station owners turned to automation and syndication to keep costs down. This played right into Drake-Chenault.

Drake was the VP of programming at RKO. Gene Chenault owned KYNO in Fresno. In the beginning they started to market production music on tape under the company name barton Industries. In 1967 they began pitching a Top-40 countdown style program called Hitparade which launched on KHJ. They began consulting shortly thereafter. But RKO was watching their own ratings slide. They put the heat on Drake-Chenault with the general impression that their new hobby automating FMs was hurting their business arrangement for RKOs network of AMs. Drake could no longer multitask.

Drake and Chenault left and formed American Independent Radio to market pre-recorded programs.For them consulting was to apply the Drake-Chenault formula. Their Top-40 formula was made of most of the things we take for granted in radio. It was the original more-rock-less-talk arrangement. Programs were broken into hours, hours in to quarter hours, bumpers, liners, jingles, branding, short repetitive playlists... and it worked. It produced ratings. As much as I despise it, it's still the standard for CHR Formats today. More here.
But taking the autonomy away from the DJ was received poorly, at least by DJs. Sometimes their arrival at a station went badly: Staff walkouts, vandalism, and theft. KMPX for example experienced all three. Drake-Chenault was the polar opposite of the free-format mania some stations had been running with. Their GM Bert Kleinman bragged in 1975:
"Current estimates indicate that over 20 percent of all stations in the United States are automated. In 1974 alone, it is estimated that 500 AM and FM stations have switched from manual to automated operation. At thiis rate over half the radio stations in the country could be automated by 1980."
In 1979 Billboard called them "the fastest growing syndicator around." Stations using the Drake-Chenault formula were calling it Top 40 or Hot 100 might have been spinning as few as 30 singles. There's no slow fade out on this story. Their partnership dissolved and they sold the company. It dissolved in the mid 1980s. But aside from that anti-climactic exit they succeeded in every way possible. Their formula has had total industry dominance since the late 1970s.