By, Bob Shannon
January 13, 2006
On August 1, 1981, in Tulsa, one of his friends loaded up a VCR and recorded the first 24-hours of MTV. As unlikely as it may sound, Tulsa was one of MTV's earliest adopters. This was a fact that made Les Garland smile. See, Garland had worked in Tulsa, and knew the city's back story. If MTV worked there, Garland reasoned, it could work anywhere.
So, over the next few days and weeks, he watched the tapes, jotted down notes, and then got back in touch with Bob Pittman. The discussion between the two men had begun a year earlier when, over dinner in LA, Pittman had queried Garland (at the time head of west coast operations for Atlantic Records) about music videos. "How many did Atlantic produce? What did the label do with them? What determined if an act did a video or not?"
Several months later, in the spring of '81, Pittman and Garland broke bread again. "Bob told me the board of Warner-Amex had signed off on the idea and that he was moving forward with a 24-hour music video channel for cable." Before the check came, Pittman cut to the chase. Was Garland going to renew his contract with Atlantic or would he like to join the fledgling network? You know the answer.
Today, MTV is one of the world's most successful brands. Back in the day, however, many in mainstream media thought the idea would never fly. In fact, the advertising community offered little support. Why? Because in its first few years, you couldn't get MTV in LA, New York or Chicago. "Still," says Garland, "We weren't like anything on television: music 24-hours a day, amazing graphics, incredible contests and those great original VJs." Looking back, Garland agrees that MTV was revolutionary for its time, but adds, "We preferred to say it was evolutionary." He also says there came a time when they had to take the next big step to increase penetration.
Lois and the Gar-man
In 1956, ad agency Fletcher, Richards, Calkins & Holden, created a television commercial designed to create demand for a maple flavored breakfast cereal called Maypo. In the spot, a frustrated father tries to get his son to eat. Nope, says the kid. Not interested. Undeterred, the dad tries again. "Tell you what," he says, "I'll be an airplane, you be the hangar. Open the doors, here it comes (Whrrrrrrrr!) loaded with delicious (Whrrrrrrr!) maple-flavored (Whrrrrrrr!) Maypo!" Just as the spoon reaches the boy's mouth, the kid snaps it shut. Frustrated and without thinking, the father puts the spoonful of Maypo in his mouth. Immediately, his young son cries, "I want my MAYPO!"
By the early '80s, George Lois was a legend in advertising. During the early days of television, he'd spent six years at CBS. In 1959 he joined Doyle Dane Bernbach, the agency that gave birth to Big Idea Thinking -- what many called the beginning of modern advertising. The next year he went out on his own. "I always understood concept," Lois told The American Institute of Graphic Designers in 1998. "Everything I did was looking for the Big Idea." Indeed. He came up with Volkswagen's 1960's campaign Think Small; he put Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire drowning in a can of Campbell's soup; he came up with the name Lean Cuisine. "You have to think in words," Lois told the trade group. "Then you can make one plus one equal three."
It was crunch time, and MTV had a million dollars to spend on promotion. If that sounds a like a ton of money for back then, it wasn't. "We brainstormed giveaways," recalls Garland. "We thought about sending folks into our existing markets and handing out $100 bills." What Garland, Pittman, John Sykes, and everyone else at MTV knew was that the network had to build more brand awareness with their target audience of 12 to 25 year olds AND, perhaps even more importantly, get MTV on cable systems that served the nation's biggest cities.
The phone in Garland's office rang. George Lois was on the line and wanted a meeting, ASAP. Garland made some calls and, a few hours later, Lois walked in with nothing on paper, no design -- just some thoughts. "I'm going to do a commercial," Lois told the group. The MTV execs nodded. "Yep, what we want to do is advertise to the cable operators," they said. Lois, according to an interview conducted by M. Bruce Abbott of the University of Texas/Austin, replied, "Forget the cable operators, they turned you down." What he had in mind, he said, was to skip the middlemen -- the cable guys -- and go directly to the audience. Lois laid out the plan: he was going to take the MTV logo, add shocking, attention-getting visuals inside the logo and, at the end of the spot, have a voice-over saying, "If you don't get MTV where you live, pick up the phone, dial your local cable operator and say." He paused for effect. "And then I said I would get Mick Jagger or somebody like that to pick up the phone and say, 'I want my MTV.'"
Within days, Garland was on a plane to Paris where, he says, with the help of his assistant, Joan Myers (who'd once worked with The Stones), he connected with Jagger, who agreed to do the cameo. Once the spot was produced, they bought limited time on the national networks ("We did the lead in to the Tonight Show," says Garland) and largely concentrated on the local cable systems, where one could buy a spot for a buck or two. The payoff was instantaneous.
"An advertising guy in NY went home one night and found his kids and their friends gathered around the TV set," Garland explains. They weren't watching a show, they were watching a channel. The ad exec watched and, bingo, understood. The next morning he was on the phone with money to advertise. Meanwhile, avid and motivated viewers responded to the call for action and bombarded their local cable companies. You know what they said, don't you?
Within two weeks of the campaign's launch, MTV's world had changed. Within six months, "I Want My MTV" was on the cover of Time.
Reefer Madness and the Art of Stunting
In the beginning, says Garland, MTV was all about the music. Videos, videos and more videos. But, occasionally, just to add a little spice, the channel went off format to do what Garland called "stunts." He laughs, remembering his decision to air Reefer Madness every Sunday night for 13 weeks in a row. When the smoke cleared, ratings data proved that the quintessential anti-pot movie had touched a nerve with MTV's audience. "We ran it -- the very same movie -- for each of those weeks," says Garland. "But, every Monday morning we'd start with a bunch of new promos that ran all week long and, to my delight, the audience kept getting larger and larger."
As the buzz continued, Garland and a team of close to 150 of the brightest TV and music people in America continued to pull off more stunts. "Spring Break," "The Basement Tapes," "Live Aid," the New Year's Eve Events, the world premier of Prince's "Purple Rain," and KISS taking off their makeup are all just a few of the moments that live on in MTV history.
(For the record, MTV was all over Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" within moments of its release, contrary to stories that suggest otherwise. "I called Pittman, who was on the west coast that Thursday and said, "Have you seen this Michael Jackson video? Amazing." Within 24 hours "Billie Jean" was electrifying Music Television viewers all over the United States.)
Garland says his run at MTV, from 1981 to 1988, was "wicked fun." Though some memories are blurred, he still speaks proudly of the vision. "During those years we didn't leave the music format very often," he explains, "and when we did our 'stunts,' our concept was to simply allow the event to happen and to capture it on MTV. Like a sporting event ... Let the game happen. Don't contrive it!"
As a result of his contributions and innovations at MTV during the eighties, Garland was named one of the "Music Industry's Heavy 100" by Rolling Stone and Billboard called him "The Innovator of The Year."
Not bad for a long-haired kid from Springfield, MO who aspired to do something in the music business.
· Les Garland (Part Two)
January 20, 2006
MTV, where Les Garland landed in 1981, wasn't radio with pictures, it was television with music. Southern Methodist University, his destination in 1965, wasn't a shabby place to get an education, but Dallas also offered a school of rock, an institute of higher learning called KLIF. For Garland, who was only 18, the choice between the two was no contest. "I wasn't going to Dallas to get into radio," he explains. "I was going to get into college." But, as the saying goes, life is what happens while you're busy making plans.
Jimmy Rabbit, KLIF's night time renegade superstar, hadn't planned to shatter his leg and wasn't happy when he couldn't stand without crutches, get in and out of a chair without help, or run his own board. But for Garland, Rabbit's misfortune was the break he'd been looking for. "I became one of those little radio groupies," he says. Before long, he was an SMU no show, a regular at KLIF helping Rabbit, a student at Elkins Institute (to earn his third class radio telephone license with a broadcast endorsement) and a steadfast proponent of rock and roll, a position he'd first adopted even before his voice changed.
But, as a young teen in Springfield, MO, Garland's real career ambition was something he hasn't talked about much. "Back then," he says, "all I wanted to do was replace Johnny Carson. That was the job I cherished." He wanted to perform. He saw himself acting and, perhaps, doing stand up. He had stars in his eyes. Meanwhile, his ears rang with music. "Southern Missouri, where I grew up, had quite a little music scene and I'd gotten my feet wet hanging out with a band that was known as Granny's Bath Water." Garland chuckles as he tells the story. "Later they changed their name to The Ozark Mountain Daredevils."
By the time he was 13 he'd discovered radio. "I'd skip around the dial at night and pick up WLS, KAAY or WABC, and I could visualize a really cool jock sitting on a stool in a dimly lit room with little spotlights on him, and he'd introduce a band like The Fuzzy Snakes (he chuckles again) and they'd actually come out and perform. Really!"
Garland says he believed in the theatre of the mind that radio delivered, and he started getting the bug. So, by the time he got to Dallas, he had two goals in mind: show business and the music business. "And the magnet that kept sucking me towards the music biz was radio," says Garland.
Have License, Will Travel
With a freshly-printed FCC certificate, Les Garland departed Big D, bound for a little town in Missouri called Aurora. With a population of approximately 5000, Aurora was your typical, normal, run-of-the-mill, all-American, one-horse-town with a radio station, KSWM, where Garland could do everything. He took transmitter readings, read the news, hit the streets and sold, and did air work that included obits, pet patrol and playing the music he so loved. It was the middle sixties -- a simpler time in media that will never exist again -- and Garland had a game plan. Next he returned to his hometown, Springfield, and landed a gig at KICK, the station he'd listened to growing up. But, after a quick spin there, he decided the station didn't rock quite enough and crossed the street to play real night time rock and roll on 5000 watt KWTO.
That's where he was, sitting on a stool in a dimly-lit room, when he got the call that invited him to move up to KELI/Tulsa.
KELI was at 1430 and its only direct Top 40 competition was 970/KAKC, one of the few stations outside the RKO chain that Bill Drake consulted. KAKC was considered by many to be a training camp for aspiring boss jocks with the sights set on moving up to Memphis, San Francisco, or, maybe --- cross your fingers -- the big Kahuna, KHJ/Los Angeles. Across town, at KELI, Garland started plying his trade and stretching his muscles. He did his show, free lance voice work, and even dabbled in TV with a Saturday afternoon show called Dance Party. He was still a performer at heart, but remembers that about this time he began to think about the art of programming (or, as he put it, "learning how to manage the creative process"). He spent hour upon hour trying to absorb KAKC's formatics and he jumped into the music, even more than he had before, and began formulating his ideas on how science and art might work together. He knew that one day he'd become a Program Director.
But first, he had to go to Milwaukee with Mike Joseph.
High Rotations and Lofty Goals
By the time Joseph and Garland connected, Mike Joseph was already a legend based on his work with, among other stations, WABC/New York. Though it was still years before he would introduce his Hot Hits format, Joseph was already working in the laboratory.
The station in Milwaukee was WZUU and it was to be the market's first FM rocker. Garland, who came in as a jock and Asst. PD, says that Joseph ran dry runs of the station for three months. He also reveals, however, that when they finally launched, what they did bore no resemblance to what they'd be practicing. "I knew Mike wanted to build the cume up as fast as we could and I understood, but, my God, we signed on with a playlist of 17, maybe, 19 records. No oldies, no recurrents. I mean, how many times can you play Long Cool Woman in a three hour shift!?!"
To put it bluntly, it wasn't a match made in heaven. "It just wasn't me," says Garland, and thinking back on it today, he even suggests that his hair was too long for the format (you'd have to have been there).
For the first time in his career, Garland sent out airchecks. When a call came in from KYNO/Fresno -- the station where Bill Drake and Gene Chenault had first joined forces to compete against Ron Jacobs and Robert W. Morgan -- Garland was floored. "I was incredibly excited and moved to Fresno to do mid-days. Within a year I was named PD."
Under Garland's leadership, the Drake-consulted station vaulted into double digits and, as a result of this success, Garland was invited (maybe sworn into a very exclusive club is closer) to visit Bill Drake's hideaway in Beverly Hills. "Drake was like Elvis, man," says Garland, "and when he mentored me I hung on to his every word. He was, after all, the most important man in pop radio." Back in Fresno, KYNO experimented with ideas that often ended up on the other Drake stations: KHJ, KFRC, WHBQ, WRKO, et al. It was, to say the least, an eye-opening time for Garland. Within a year, Drake would offer him the programming job at K-100 in Los Angeles. "I thought K-100 sounded better than any other in Southern California", Garland told me, "and I was ready to rock!"
The staff included Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele, Eric Chase, and other LA legends. It was his second programming gig and everything about it suggested that this one was going to be the match made in heaven he missed in Milwaukee. It was LA, and Garland's star was ascending. He settled in at K-100 and rolled up his sleeves. Across the street, KHJ fought back, having never forgiven Drake and his team for leaving. It was the early 70's, and Garland, still in his twenties, was programming a radio station that put everything he did under a microscope.
Eight months later he quit.