A New Media Newsletter - Vol 2. #37 - 9/17/2004
Commentary - News - Top 20 Albums - Top 20 TV Shows - And More
Commentary and One Man's Opinion
" Great radio stations have great soul inside and out and if that "soul" doesn’t exist inside the radio station amongst the people creating it, then it is doomed. " - Les Garland
A TALK WITH LES GARLAND
This week, DISC&DAT presents the first of a two-part interview with a true industry legend, Les Garland. Les began his career as a radio and television personality, and went on to become one of the most influential radio programmers of the 70's working with people like Bill Drake and Paul Drew. He exerted even more influence in the 80's as co-founder/originator of both MTV: Music Television and VH-1. As MTV Network's senior executive vice president, Garland served as executive producer of the first six “MTV Video Music Award Shows” and the historic Live Aid Concert in 1985. Instrumental in the development of the famed “I Want My MTV” campaign, Garland also developed the weekly, “Basement Tapes” show featuring unsigned artists competing for a major recording contract. He launched “MTV Spring Break, which remains a staple of the channel today and created the first “Making Of” and “MTV World Premiere” music videos. Garland accepted multiple achievement awards during the MTV years, including Cable Ace Awards and Billboard Magazine’s Innovator of the Year.
He was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s, “Music Industry Heavy 100” and was an integral catalyst in the merging of radio's freeform FM sound with contemporary music formats, leading to consecutive Radio Station of the Year and Programmer of the Year awards at RKO Radio's KFRC San Francisco. While atKFRC Garland won a Clio Award for an eerie promo that has became folklore in the business. Dubbed, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” noisy offices and stores became silent when the late voiceover artistPaul Frees declared that 610 on the dial could be used as a channel for communication with extraterrestrials. During the prime years of contemporary music radio Garland programmed WRKO/Boston, K-100/Los Angeles and CKLW/Detroit, the Motor City’s legendary Big 8, which could be heard in 38 U.S. states. His is also the DJ voice-over in the Jefferson Starship number-one song “We Built This City on Rock N’ Roll.”
On the heels of his distinguished career in radio, Garland was hand-picked by Doug Morris and Ahmet Ertegun to head up West Coast operations for Atlantic Records.
I had the great pleasure of promoting Les on many of the records I worked when I was National Promotion Manager at Capitol. He was one of the best program directors I ever met and he made me and others on the "record side" better promotion people by communicating his passion for great radio and great music openly. He would pick up the phone and scream about new music to both radio and record people and his willingness to talk to those of us who were equally passionate about the industry was unrelenting.
The next big chapter in Les' life will unfold this year as he launches the new music network for TV, THE TUBE. More about that in next week's issue...this week, Les talks about the "glory days" and how he made the switch from radio to records to MTV.
Q. How did Top-40 radio legends Bill Drake and Paul Drew find you? Where were you at the time?
LG: I was a youngster in the late 60’s when I got one of those calls from ‘The Real Jon Steele’ who was programming KELI in Tulsa. At the time, KELI was competing head on against the ‘Drake station’ KAKC that was programmed by Lee Baylee.
In very short time, I was doing afternoons. I did a weekly 'American Bandstand' kind of music show on KOTV - Channel 6, and I DJ’d a night or two a week in a local discotheque... you know the hustle. By the way, ‘The Real Jon Steele’ came from KRLA in Los Angeles and was known there as ‘The Real Don Steele’s brother.' ‘The Real Jon’ left KELI and I was given a shot to program it. This was ’69 or ’70 and I had this kooky idea to do a bit more ‘hip’ sounding format on the AM dial…a mix of what were cool Top-40 hits along with album tracks... not what later became known as AOR (Album Oriented radio), but a hybrid of Top-40 40 and AOR with a Top 40 presentation.
KELI started stirring things up in the Tulsa market…remember, we were up against a ‘Drake station’ and it was a damn good one...one I was in awe of actually. What I didn’t know is that this guy called Bill Drake (who’s music\radio image was somewhere at the time between that of Elvis and God!) had noticed me during that little radio battle in T-Town.
I spent a couple of years there till one day I got another one of those calls from Mike Joseph. Mike introduced himself as the man who put WABC on the map in New York City with a great Top-40 format. He told me he was starting a rock station in Milwaukee on the FM dial. Mike was a secretive dude…his formats were secret usually 'till one hour before launch and his research was his and his only…it was his markets…his jocks…his PD’s…like I said, he was a secretive kind of guy. I liked him and the money was good so I took the gig even though I had no clue what I would be doing at this station that was simply described as being ‘rock.' Other than that, all I knew is that I was guaranteed a daytime jock gig not to exceed three hours. We didn’t even know the call letters!
Weeks later when we put this station on the air it was called WZUU-FM ( ' The Zoo' or ' Zoo-FM' or something like that). Mike wanted to jam an early cume to the station so he signed it on with us playing 17 records…I’m not kidding…17 records…no oldies…no recurrents…17 records! I mean how many times can you play The Hollies "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress" in a three hour show!!??
Anyhow, this just wasn’t for me. I think my hair was too long for what this was all about anyway. I began sniffing around for where I might go next and I remember burning dubs of an air-check of one of my shows, folding them in brown paper bags and mailing them off to some big time radio stations in search a new gig. About a week later I get yet another one of those calls from Sean Conrad (now known as Ron Copeland) who was programming the flagship Bill Drake station in Fresno, KYNO. Drake was at his peak then, he had all the RKO stations and there was no such thing as a ‘hit’ without Drake's stations…the clout he possessed was enormous and the radio stations were all brilliant.
Paul Drew was one of Drake’s guys. There was Bill Watson…Bernie Torres…and each of the PD’s were the best in the game. Fresno was the scene of one of the greatest radio battles in the history of Top 40. It took place in the 60’s and it was Bill Drake at KYNO and Ron Jacobs at KMAK ("K-make") with Robert W. Morgan in the mornings…it was legendary.
The funny thing is that Sean Conrad asked me my astrological sign. When I told him I was a Virgo, he said you got the gig! So I moved to Fresno to do mid-days and promos. Sean left to go to ABC a year or so later and I got the PD gig. Here I was under the watchful eye of "The King" of pop radio! Many of the programming elements that ended up on KHJ, KFRC, WRKO and the other RKO stations were first ‘tested’ at KYNO. The ratings went through the roof. Drake and I worked very well together and this led to a good friendship. Drake and his business partner, Gene Chenault, broke off from RKO and it wasn’t long before Gene and Drake bought an FM in Los Angeles. That station was K-100 and the first PD was Bill Watson. K-100 had been on the air for less than a year when Drake invited me to come down to Los Angeles from Fresno for the weekend to listen to the station. We spent hours talking radio, listening to K-100, listening to the other stations in the market, and air checks from around the country. I loved picking this guy's brain!
Truthfully, It was a healthy diet of radio and partying…but why not? Drake was the king of the world and it was an awesome time. Drake gave a shout to me from the top of the stairs in his Beverly Hills mansion…I was hangin’ in the downstairs living room...he was in a robe and towel and had just gotten out of the shower. He invited me to into his bathroom…a large one…put some shaving cream on his face and said " Have a seat." I looked around wondering where the hell to sit and I took the only "chair" available, the toilet.
That "meeting" ended with Drake telling me he wanted me to program K-100 in Los Angeles. I’d never been so flattered. I accepted the job on the spot, of course! This was my first shot at the big, big time. Swear to God, I was given the nod while sitting on the throne!! K-100 had Robert W. Morgan doing the morning show and 'The Real Don Steele' in afternoons. Eric Chase was one of the on-air personalities. I thought K-100 was the best sounding radio station in southern California and here I was, this small town country boy, ready to do my thang’ in the largest market in America! I was ready to rock.
Q. How was it working with Drake and Drew, who at that time were the two biggest names in Top-40 radio? What did you learn from them?
LG: Like I said earlier, Drake was the biggest thing in radio back then. He was my mentor. He was quite a charismatic radio man and he made the Top 40 format ‘simple.' Drake was a genius and so was Paul Drew. The RKO radio stations were the best programmed radio stations on earth. Understand that Paul was doing radio 24/7. He was very busy watching over the RKO stations when he and Drake worked together. Drake would send Paul off to a market to fix a station or launch one. The RKO stations had huge ratings and sold millions of records for artists and music companies, who at the time, delivered the best music ever…it was magical. I had a falling out with Gene Chenault, not Drake, which led to my leaving K-100 very early in the game. That was the most disappointing career development I’d ever experienced. I escaped it all and went to the mountains to rethink my future for a few months. Fortunately, Drew asked me to join him, which I did. Those were the best stations I ever heard or programmed. Paul had become RKO’s Vice President of Programming and was now the new 'King of Pop radio' in America.
What did I learn from Drake and Drew? It’s almost impossible to answer that question. This was my radio ‘post graduate’ work. Radio was an incredible media technology that gave birth to an art-form in programming and it stormed it’s way through the youth culture. I’ve always felt that a little luck, good timing, and some talent can go a long, long way in entertainment. Radio itself was art and Drake and Drew were holding paint brushes. I learned how to put the paint to the canvas. Every element of a Drake station had a ‘why’ attached to it. The contests were bigger, the personalities were bigger, the image was bigger, the brand was bigger, and the sound was bigger. Great radio stations have great soul inside and out and if that "soul" doesn’t exist inside the radio station amongst the people creating it, then it is doomed. The best radio stations were the ones where the art of programming was applied to the science and technology of what great radio was capable of, and those stations were a direct reflection of the program director’s personality.
Q. You programmed some of the best Top-40 radio stations ever: CKLW, WRKO, KFRC...do you have a particular story about each station that sticks in your memory?
LG: I have wonderful memories of all those legendary call letters. Those were the biggest and best radio stations of the time known around the world. I always was aware I was one of the lucky ones to have programmed a few of the most legendary radio stations in the history of pop radio. What I remember foremost are the people. At CKLW, for example, Rosalie Trombley, Herb McCord, Byron MacGregor, Bill Gable. That radio station had some very talented people. We were a “family." CKLW was a monster...50,000 watts on clear channel 800 that hit 38 states in America at night! We tried to do a deal with the Mexican government, the FCC, and the CRTC in Canada. It was a wild one. We tried to simulcast CKLW with a 50,000 watt station in Mexico also on 800…the two signals would have covered all of north America! We came close, but that didn’t happen. The History Channel in Canada just aired a 90-minute history of CKLW. It’s very well-produced and totally captures that time in history. I hope it gets picked up for the U.S.
'The Big 8,' as it was called, was once owned by RKO but it had to be given up for Canadian ownership while it continued to be a 'Drake station' and then later on, Drew. After those terrific years there, I got another one of those calls from Drew. He asked me to go to Boston to turn around the ratings at WRKO. After all these experiences on the parameters of RKO Radio, I was now going to a real RKO station and I thought that was a good thing. However, I recall balking at the first offer. I told Drew my personal plan was to one day leave Detroit, head south to Chicago, and then take a right to San Francisco! I had my eyes on KFRC since I’d first heard it in the early 70’s. I left CKLW to go WRKO in Boston somewhere around ‘75.
One of the first big things I did at WRKO was staging what we called the ' Spring Fever Festival ' (a concert on the Boston esplanade). This required me getting approval permits from the city's fathers and mothers, all the way to the Mayor’s office. During a meeting at city hall, I told them that I expected no more than 20,000 people would show up. Again, my timing turned out to be spot-on. It was the most perfect spring day you’ve ever seen...we had a killer line-up, and, bam, 175,000 to 200,000 people showed up…it was unbelievable! We screwed up the Red Sox game that day. The clean-up aftermath cost us $100,000. But this event was amazing. Paul Drew came in for the show and to this day, he tells me it was one of the greatest radio events ever. He loves to tell the story about me being less-than-honest with the mayor when he requested that we turn down the music. Sure!
The next day, there was a huge front page picture in the Sunday Globe shot from a helicopter with those call letters jumping off the newspaper. We used that photo on the cover of the next SRDS (Standard Rate & Data Services) book. It was the best publicity the station could have ever gotten even though the city officials went ballistic. Those city fathers and mothers wanted to railroad me out of town! They were seriously pissed. Try to imagine how much I really cared. Getting ratings was war in those days. WRKO was another great station. Jack Hobbs was our GM, Dale Dorman was doing mornings. I met Harry Nelson there. I stayed just long enough to turn the station around when another one of those calls came.
This time from Pat Norman who was a VP at RKO and GM of KFRC in San Francisco. Michael Spears, who had been programming KFRC for several years was moved down to KHJ in Los Angeles and that opened up one of the most coveted PD jobs in the world in the greatest city in the world. Paul (Drew) didn’t want me to go to KFRC. I recall him cautioning me. He reminded me I had never "lost" and that KFRC was already number one in the market with " nowhere to go but down. " Respectfully, I submitted to Paul that KFRC was actually number three in the market. Yes, it was the number one music station, but the number three station next to KCBS and KGO, who were both doing News-Talk. I told Paul that the challenge for me would be to take KFRC to number one in San Francisco and I believed I could do that.
KFRC was the pinnacle of my radio career. Dave Sholin was my music director and, once again, the timing was perfect. Dr. Don Rose did mornings. Pat Norman was the coolest GM I’d ever worked with. Like at all RKO stations, programming ruled! It was there I won a Clio for a kooky promo piece that I’d written and produced during the height of “Close Encounters." Dreams continued to come true there in San Francisco. We got on a ride that went something like this: 5.5…6.2…6.7…7.0…7.2…7.8…and we peaked at 8.2 to become the number one radio station in the market. That was pretty thrilling. We were one of the first stations to use direct-mail to connect with our audience in a massive spring book promotion that rocked us to the top of the pile.
Big things were happening for us during the reign of KFRC. Like "The KFRC Long Run" through Golden Gate Park with The Eagles..."The KFRC SuperStar SuperWalk" benefiting the March of Dimes in a one-day, 13-stop, campaign with Robin Williams...this was at the peak of 'Mork & Mindy'...it was amazing. I recall my dear friend Bill Thompson (who was the manager of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship) and I escorted Robin to the 13 different locales in the San Francisco area by way of jet helicopter...what a fantastic day! We would bring Robin to the stage to speak to the audience at each of the locations. In each place, his routine was completely different and it was the funniest and most original off-the-top and over-the-top comedy I'd ever seen. To watch him work was pure art.
Oh, and how could I talk about KFRC without mentioning Skylab! I’m sure we don’t have time for the whole story, but I ended up owning the largest piece of Skylab that came crashing back to earth out in western Australia. This was a huge event at the time and it captured all media that summer. We actually ‘smuggled’ this 3000 pound piece of metal from 'down under' to San Francisco where we held a press conference upon it’s arrival to SFO. I sold pieces at $1000 dollars an inch to radio stations that did contests giving away a “Chunk of space Junk”! Belushi even did a skit on 'Saturday Night Live' about it...Skylab had fallen from space to Les Garland’s backyard in Mill Valley. We 'toured' the piece, and opened to large crowds at the Chicago Museum of Arts & Science. This whole thing was hilarious. That big chunk is still on display at the space center in Alabama. Once again though, I pissed off the authorities. I named my company that owned the remnants of Skylab “North American Skylab Association” and created a logo that looked a lot like the “NASA” logo.
Dave Sholin has some of the best pop ears ever in the business and I was fortunate to have him as my MD at the station. That's why I've asked him to help me with The Tube Music Network. As many people in the industry know and remember, he was also the last person to interview John Lennon the day he was assassinated. Dave also went down to L.A. to become the national music director for RKO. As a parting gift, I gave him a leather shirt made for Elvis and worn in one of his films. Who would know that the world was about to lose one of Rock's first icons?!
Q. You broke a whole lot of records when you programmed those stations. Did it surprise you how many secondary stations would wait on records you heard as hits on that first listen?
LG: It was an amazing time. KFRC was a powerful and trusted major market radio station that had been recognized with multiple awards for its excellence and I received the accolades that came along with all that. When we added a record, it was sure to pick up more than 150 stations the next week! ( I remember playing a lot of your records, Steve, when you were at Capitol! ) Sholin and I shared a great passion for music and we still do to this day. We loved stepping out and we believed we had an edge with our audience because we were first to add a lot of the great music heard on KFRC. I remember one time Dave was in England and I was in Australia and we both came back raving about a great record we'd each found. It was the same record, of course! "Pop Muzik" by M...that's just one of them, there were so many like that. One of the things I loved most about radio was that it was live in real time. I could hear a new record in my office at 3:05 p.m and have it on the air at 3:10 p.m. knowing hundreds of thousands of people would hear it for the first time. You can't say that's not cool!
To steal a line from Steve Martin, these were “wild and crazy” times in the music industry! That wasn’t a bad thing…these were fun times…’fun’ and ‘work’ were synonymous and most everyone that I knew got into the business for the same simple reason…we all loved music, the artistry of making music, and the business of tastefully exposing the music! There was this circus atmosphere and it was a Barnum & Bailey type showbiz culture loaded with extremely colorful people who functioned in all aspects of the industry: talented label promotion people on the national, regional, and local front, the Presidents, the A&R people, managers, the artists, the publishers, the radio people, even the lawyers! (laughs) I observed it's 'people' that make an industry. I believe that's probably the most important ingredient that has brought me such enjoyment in this business for 30 years! I love the people.
Q. You made the jump from radio to records in 1979 when Doug Morris and Ahmet Ertegun hired you to head up West Coast operations for Atlantic Records...how did it feel to be sitting "on the other side of the desk" and dealing with radio?
LG: Doug has been a dear friend since I was at CKLW and he was with Big Tree Records. He and I had dinner one night in San Francisco somewhere around 1979 when the conversation led to what I might be interested in doing if I wasn’t programming radio stations. Understand now I’d had a good run in big time radio from Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, San Francisco and had passed on offers in New York and with network radio. RKO paid top money. No job offer came at me that even came close to what I was doing at KFRC. I’d already been thinking that KRFC might just be my last stop in programming, but I was unsure of what it was I wanted to do next. At the time I felt leaving radio on top of the game was the right move. The surprise of all time came when Doug offered me the Atlantic job. One of my true joys in this business was getting to know Ahmet Ertegun during those days and of course, Doug, too.
I learned the move I’d made was that of switching from ‘buyer’ to ‘seller.' That’s not a bad thing, but I didn’t figure that out until I got into the Atlantic job. I really enjoyed the business from the "other side of the desk." I was involved in promotion, marketing, A & R, sales, and PR, so it was a real learning period for me. Atlantic was quite a label then with Genesis, Phil Collins, Led Zeppelin, The Spinners, The Blues Brothers, AC/DC, and on and on. I will always be grateful to Doug Morris for giving me the shot to depart one side of this industry to go to the other side in a top level position. That experience was very, very important in adding to the skill-sets I’d been developing since I entered management during my radio career.
Dealing with radio was a pain in the ass!
Q. What are some of things you're proud of during your years at Atlantic?
LG: Not being fired! [Interviewer's note: By all means that was a major accomplishment for anybody at a label back then! ]
Q. In 1980 Bob Pittman launched the biggest call letters ever, MTV. Soon after that you became a part of MTV (and later VH-1) and played a big part in shaping the channel(s)...how did you get hired by Pittman?
LG: Actually, MTV was launched on August 1, 1981. Bob and I had been friendly acquaintances since the early 70's when he was at WRIT in Milwaukee and I was "across the street" at the "Zoo station."
In late 1980 Bob and I had dinner in Los Angeles. I was with Atlantic at the time, which of course was a Warner company. Bob had left WNBC in New York to joined the Warner-Amex satellite entertainment companies (this was a joint venture of Warner & American Express). During that dinner, Bob was curious about music videos: how many did Atlantic produce? What did we do with them? What determined if an act did a video or not? Then we hit on the real point of the conversation when Bob asked me if I thought music videos on television 24-hours a day would work? Would people watch? My mouth dropped and without giving it a moment's thought I said "Yes." Looking back on it, it seems rather obvious doesn’t it?
A few months later Bob and I had dinner again and he told me he intended to go forward with the idea of music videos on cable-TV, 24-hours a day. The board of Warner-Amex and the Warner Board supported the idea of launching the channel. Folklore has it that Doug Morris' vote was critical and he voted yes.
And so MTV launched in August of '81 not with a huge amount of fanfare. Tulsa happened to be one of the test markets. I asked a friend there from my days at KELI to send me 24 hour tapes of MTV so I could see what’s up with this thing. I would drop notes to Pittman giving him my input. Same on the phone. Bob came out to LA for dinner in October or November of '81 and the conversation was ALL MTV. He asked me if I planned to renew my contract and to stay in my position with Atlantic. Before dessert he offered me the top position at MTV as Vice President of programming. I said yes on-the-spot and we were off and running...and running hard!
We weren’t so into programs in the beginning. Those letters stood for " Music Television " and for the most part, that’s what MTV was back then. We ran a light commercial load and lots of music videos. We had those great original 'VJs'. We had incredible contests. We were something so new and it was a totally differentiated "product" from anything else on television. We had amazing graphics, music 24 hours a day! We hear the word ‘revolution’ used a lot today, but MTV was truly ‘revolutionary’ even though we preferred to say it was‘evolutionary.'
A lot of people thought we were out of our minds. Music videos on television 24 hours a day? That will never work! They were wrong. No one could have ever predicted the impact felt around the world in music, fashion, advertising, film…my god, when I think about it, I’m reminded of the great ride I had enjoyed from radio, then through the label side, and now to television with music ...again, timing…an incredible idea perfectly executed at the perfect time …bingo!
We didn’t look at the early departures from music as ‘shows.' We looked at those moments more like ‘stunts’…the New Years Eve Events…Cyndi Lauper, Captain Lou and the WWF…the 'One Night Stand'…'Basement Tapes'…'Spring Break'…the Video Music Awards…world premier videos…exclusive videos…'Reefer Madness' 13 weeks in a row…Kiss taking off their make up…the making-of videos…Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'…Prince live in Wyoming for the premier of 'Purple Rain Live’…Asia from Asia live…'Live Aid'…the US festival…these were all ‘stunts’, special events. Our concept was to allow the event to happen and to simply capture it for MTV. Like a sporting event. Let the game happen. Don’t contrive it!
Now that I think about it, I guess what MTV does today is the same. ‘Stunts.' The best in the business. But, between 1981 and 1988 we didn’t leave the music format too often....music was always our primary focus.
There were so many incredible moments during the MTV years. God, highlights would include the orchestration of the "I want my MTV" campaign featuring the hugest artists of the time starting off with Mick Jagger...the enjoyment of working with every major and up and coming artists of the 80's was very fulfilling...Rod Stewart, Prince, The Stones, David Bowie, Tina Turner, ZZ Top, the Aerosmith comeback with Run DMC, Dire Straits MTV song, of course...The Police, The Who, Michael Jackson, Madonna...all that was going on while we were breaking artists like Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Stray Cats, Inxs, U2... even that whacky moment when I did the DJ voice-over in the Starship song "We Built This City" which not only went to Number one, but this year was somehow picked as the worst song of all time. I told Bill Thompson it could have been worse. It could have been the second worst song of all time! Developing the awards show hosted by Dan Akroyd and Bette Midler was wicked fun...my being on the team that did the international roll-out from Europe to Asia...being one of the key channel 'spokes- people' which was done mostly by Pittman, me, and John Sykes...doing the MTV IPO...expanding into the launch of VH-1...it was non-stop for seven years which happened to be the longest period I'd ever spent doing any one thing. That speaks to how awesome this period was for me and how personally gratifying all that was for me. I recall one day Pittman and I were walking down the street in Manhattan...out of nowhere we broke into Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." It might sound corny, but we knew that if we could make it there, we could make it anywhere. We looked at each other and shook hands knowing we had done that.