The WRKO Story

Not all great radio stations emanated from such cities as Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.  WRKO, the flagship station of the RKO General radio chain, was the red-hot Top 40 radio station in Boston, Massachusetts.

WRKO came on the air as a Top 40 station at midnight, March 16, 1967, having switched from WNAC, which had been a talk station, but playing oldies to segue into the new WRKO.  It spent its beginning years as a Bill Drake-formatted station, as its co-owned stations including KHJ, KFRC, and CKLW.  But  WRKO was more personality-driven than most Drake operations.  With the perfect combination of more music and fabulous jocks, WRKO's ratings skyrocketed within only a few weeks!  In fact, WRKO was such a hot station, that at one time it even out-rated every other station in its own RKO General chain of Drake-formatted stations!

WRKO's format was that of a typical Top 40 station, complete with high-energy disk jockeys.  Although Bob Henabery, the station's original Program Director, claimed that the station was modeled after New York's WABC, I can tell you from having heard the station myself, WRKO sounded nothing at all like WABC, except perhaps for the reverb added to the microphones.  The original format was fairly "sloppy," replete some records ending with dead air as either the jock either scurried back to the microphone from wherever he was, or the person running the control board (the Union called them "Techs") not being quite on the ball.

Thankfully, all of that ended when Bill Drake came in to program the station in September. Regardless, the station was an immediate hit for a number of reasons, including its 50,000 watts of power versus its competitor, WMEX, that had just 5,000 Watts.  And for all its high-energy presentation, the jocks never spoke to the station's targeted audience — teenagers — as if they were mature, young adults.  It's hard to describe it, but WRKO offered a more mature approach than WMEX.  But certainly, neither the station's format nor its personalities resembled WABC.  Better yet, the station resembled itself.  That worked out best, because Boston is not New York;  Boston's culture is unique.

By 1968, WRKO was solidly number one in the Boston market (and arguably New England itself), who would later that year report to RKO General Radio consultant Bill Drake.  The music was hot and upbeat, perfectly in line with Drake's "forward-motion" philosophy of keeping the WRKO sound going non-stop, with a seemingly endless flow of good music, jocks who ran with the tight format, yet with their own distinct personalities, and of course, WRKO 20/20 News.  In August of this year, morning man Al Gates was to be replaced by KFRC/San Francisco's evening jock, Dale Dorman, who would remain a loyal employee with WRKO for more than ten years.

Consultant Bill Drake was brought in, in July of 1968, as evidenced by the first Million Dollar Weekend, that made its debut on Friday, July 19, 1968. Since his beginning influence at WRKO, Drake did all he could to avoid burnout by restricting music to no longer than 9 weeks on the Now 30 survey (plus one week as a Hit Bound).  However, monster hit Midnight Confessions, by the Grass Roots, could not be contained, and it was the first selection to show a "10" in the "Weeks on Now 30" column.

1968 was also the year of the instrumental, with Cliff Nobles & Company, Paul Mauriat, and Raymond LeFevre taking the lead.  What was then called "Middle Of the Road" music was as evident as it was in 1967, mainly resigned to the midday shifts.  One of the hottest MoR tunes was Fool On The Hill by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 . That song was classic MoR, yet became a hit on WRKO during all day-parts. Interestingly, many of us who didn't understand day-parting blamed WRKO midday Joel Cash for being so laid back!  Yet if Joel were given a hotter selection of music, he probably could have rocked and rolled like the best of them.

WRKO continued to run strong in 1969, the year bursting with exciting hit music and innovative station promotions. The 1969 surveys reflected that excitement, with bold colors, and photos of the Big 68's personalities in various settings. The surveys looked similar to the entire RKO General chain of stations, while their content varied per market.

The monumental 52-hour series, The History of Rock & Roll was first produced at KHJ /Los Angeles in 1969, narrated by Robert W. Morgan.  WRKO's version was narrated by Bobby Mitchell, all in mind-boggling "live" takes in real time.  That is, as the the entire show's music was recorded on tape, Mitchell (Frank Kingston Smith) was on hand for the actual narration.  The recording was done in several blocks of various times.

As FM stations became popular in the early 1970s, WRKO's FM (WROR) had its own Dill Drake-Gene Chenault "Hit Parade" oldies format.  WROR's ratings were no match for WRKO's.  In fact, the station was a money-loser.  While one might believe it would had made every bit of sense to move WRKO's successful format to its FM station, RKO General's corporate thinking was similar to that of most companies who had both an AM and FM station in the same market: "If we do that, we'll be competing against our own station!"  So the decision was made to leave things alone.

In 1970, "Now Radio" WRKO was renamed "The Big 68," (a la The Big 8/CKLW, its 50,000-Watt sister station in Windsor, Ontario on 800 AM) reflecting a change in the lingo of the day, and an emphasis of the station's powerful 50,000-watt  — albeit directional signal, favoring the northeast, especially after sunset. Adding to the reason for that new moniker was cross-town rival WMEX, now boasting its new daytime 50,000-watt signal (was reduced to 5,000 watts after sunset).  WMEX's signal on 1510 kHz, however, was even more directional than WRKO's, favoring the northeast. In the new "Big" tradition, WRKO's music surveys became the Big 30, as did its Hit Bounds, which became Big Hitbounds.

Top 40 music of 1970 retained the basic up-tempo of the previous years, although the WRKO play list began to encompass a few entries from artists who had previously relied mainly on album sales.  So-called "underground," "Alternative," or "AOR" music was alive and well at Boston's WBCN (FM), and the AOR movement was picking up nationwide. Album sales were catching up with the sales figures of 45 rpm singles. Both Framingham-Boston's WVBF, at 105.7 and to an extent, WMEX, were doing an AOR/Top 40 hybrid style, which influenced WRKO as well, as WMEX was threatening WRKO's number 1 rating position.  This was all a precursor into the AOR days of WRKO, which would begin late in 1971.

Some time in 1973, Bill Drake was fired as National Program Director from the entire RKO General chain, one if the reasons given was his alleged over-attention to other Drake-Chenault enterprises.  (Some say the chain simply chose not to renew his contract when it came up for renewal in 1973; others that RKO General no longer needed Drake's expertise.) While we may never know the real reason, consider that with Drake out if the way, this move afforded RKO General to modify the format of each station as the company saw fit without challenge.  Paul Drew replaced Drake, and was given the title of Vice President of Programming for RKO General.

By 1971, album sales were increasingly becoming dominant over the sales of single 45 rpm records. "AOR" Radio stations were becoming popular, and WRKO felt it needed to begin to shed its "teenybopper" image in order to meet the latest trends.  Adding to the pressure to change was WMEX Program Director John H. Garabedian's decidedly successful inroads with his "New Music" format.  So in late 1971, in order to attempt to head off the competition of FMs, WRKO began to play more album cuts and modified its jocks' delivery: less hype, more mellow, as if to imitate the now-successful AOR station in Boston, WBCN.  WVBF wasn't so mellow, but it featured album cuts within its Top 40 mix of music, all with a unique Top 40 jock presentation, jingles and all.  It was at that time that WRKO added a short list of top-selling albums to its "WRKO Thirty" surveys.

As did many AM Top 40 stations of the day, WRKO moved toward a more album-oriented format.  And with June 3's WRKO music survey, the station debuted a listing of 10 of "Boston's Favorite Albums." While there were a few weeks where this listing wasn't published, they became standard beginning with October 30's survey, reflecting the station's commitment to more album play, if not an album image.

In Mid-November, WRKO's format was tweaked a bit, the main tweak eliminating a jingle between each and every record.  While there were still plenty of the same Johnny Mann jingles, one or more jingle-free segues were done each hour.  Alternately, after a weather forecast, music would begin without a jingle, the jock talking over the intro. Obviously, this has  the flavor of a modified "AOR" format.

WRKO Program Director Mel Phillips was sent to program RKO General's New York City outlet, WOR-FM, and In February of 1972, Program Director Scotty Brink arrived from KJR / Seattle. He solidified the station's "album" format which began in December of 1971. The amount of jingles was reduced to only two or three cuts, and modified from "68/WRKO" to "68/RKO."  WRKO became a very boring station, with many album cuts and AOR-type segues.  Liners included: "Boston's Album Station," "The Boston Rocker," and "Tasty Rock 'N Roll."  Promotional ads placed in various places such as subway, bus and trolley stations and kiosks would show the "tasty" slogan along with a photo of a tempting, overflowing sandwich, and "The Boston Rocker" would show a WRKO jock sitting in a HUGE WRKO rocking chair.  And for the first time in its history, WRKO's famous singing station identifications that had immediately grabbed our attention and made WRKO sound so loud and proud, were replaced by live, somewhat-subdued IDs given by the jocks during their shifts.

For this new format, there were many staff changes as well: Jerry Morgan (9 PM to midnight) was immediately replaced by Chip Hobart.  Shortly thereafter, Charlie Fox would replace afternoon-driver Johnny Williams.  Tony Mann replaced Tom Kennedy doing the 6 to 9 PM slot, and Jim Elliott replaced all-nighter J. J. Jordan in late 1972.  WRKO veterans Dale Dorman, Joel Cash, Gary Martin and J. J. Jordan were the only remaining jocks from 1971.

With this format, WRKO was attempting to compete with the likes of WBCN/104.1, then Boston's popular AOR station.  It was also enduring a battle with crosstown-rival WMEX's Program Director John H. Garabedian, who counter-programmed WRKO by offering "new music" that WRKO might not normally play, or would add to its playlist only after WMEX premiered the music. During this new format, the WRKO jocks attempted to sound slick and hip.   But the format failed, costing WRKO a good amount of listeners, a good deal of whom were never recovered when the station moved to a hot Top 40 format (and mostly new jocks) in late 1973.  The station never recovered the top ratings it had enjoyed through 1970.

By 1972, WRKO's album-oriented format was complete, sporting new jocks like Tony Mann and Charlie Fox, Chip Hobart, Mark Jackson and Jim Elliott, who would fit the format's new "hip" delivery.  This under Program Director Scotty Brink.

By mid-1973, Gerry Peterson had taken over WRKO and tried to salvage its downed ratings by reshaping it into a high-energy rocker.  Out the door were the older, subdued WRKO jingles, to be replaced by one TM Shotgun jingle, "68RKO!"  Jack O'Brien, Harry Nelson, Johnny Dark, and Mike Addams replaced the jocks who were initially hired for the so-called AOR format — including WRKO Pioneer-Veteran Joel Cash whose laid-back style was most likely not enough for the new hyper format.  The audio compression was increased for the loudest-possible sound, and the jocks were all but shouting..... except of course Dale Dorman who remained — well — Dale.

Back was more "bubblegum music," and although the station's music surveys still boasted 30 album cuts the station, implying that the station supposedly played them, WRKO really never did — except for an occasional "album version" of a current Top 40 hit, that might be 30 seconds to a few minutes longer.  These cuts were mainly relegated to the all-night shows where the commercial load was less.

In the autumn of 1973, consultant Paul Drew was promoted to Vice President of RKO Radio. He recommended WAVZ/New Haven, CT Program Director John Long to program WROR.   At that time, a company could owm just two stations per market. In what is today considered a suicidal decision, RKO General decided to sell off its FM stations in the markets where they had combos in order to get into more markets. They sold WHBQ-FM in Memphis, and KFRC-FM in San Francisco. They tried to sell WROR,  but the sale was hindered when a minority group filed a petition to deny the sale to Cecil Heftel.  Heftel and RKO General agreed to withdraw the offer.  Paul Drew indeed wanted John Long to come to Boston and "make it a winner." But "the tire people," as RKO General's management was known sarcastically, was apparently too conservative a group to budge.

By mid-1973, WRKO's album-type format had proven to be a mistake. Scotty Brink,  "AOR" Program Director, was replaced by KFRC/San Francisco's Gerry Peterson.  WRKO "re-birthed" itself by spending a weekend of playing oldies, and when the weekend was over, there was a new high-energy on-air staff in place, complete with TM Shotgun jingles, and a return to a straight Top 40 format, even while the WRKO music surveys still listed albums as well as the top singles.

In 1974, WRKO continued its high-energy Top 40 format under Program Director Gerry Peterson.  Finally in 1975, the jocks were allowed to calm down to an uptempo, albeit more relaxed level.

In 1975, WRKO's on-air delivery returned to a more "mature" approach, with less hype; more one-to-one communication.  At the same time, the national Top 40 music charts were reflecting more-mellow music selections, hallmarks of the mid 1970s, until disco music began to make a showing in 1976.  WRKO's sound was a straight blend of the day's typical Top 40 station; while the emphasis was not on disco music, the hottest disco hits were added to the standard, mellow Top 40 offerings.

In 1978, under new Program Director Harry Nelson (who had returned from KFRC after being one of WRKO's high-energy jocks from 1973 to 1976), the station took a more "Adult Contemporary" approach, turning down the general tempo of its music and presentation.  Mistakenly believing long-time, exceptionally-popular morning man Dale Dorman would always be identified as a Top 40 jock, Dale was terminated.  He went on to Framingham-Boston's Top 40 WVBF/105.7, and shortly thereafter to Medford-Boston's "Kiss 108" (WXKS 107.9).

I believe that particular decision marked the beginning of the end for WRKO.WRKO continued this lower-energy format into 1979, as it was slowly but surely nudged into an Adult Contemporary music station.   Near the end of 1979, WRKO changed the format of its surveys, which included an updating of the WRKO logo.  In February, WRKO made a decided switch to a more Adult-Contemporary format, with the addition of  meteorologist Jordan Rich, three newsmen (Ed Walsh, Roger Allan and Bill Rossi), and Ned Martin doing sports on the Charlie VanDyke & Company morning-drive show.

From March 5, 1979 to the end of WRKO in 1981, Charlie Van Dyke was brought in from KLIF in Dallas to see what magic, if any, he could perform in keeping WRKO alive.  Charlie was known as a turnaround specialist.  Knowing his AM station had lost most of its younger audience to FMs, he made the decision to turn WRKO into an Adult Contemporary station, emphasizing more of a "personality" presentation.  Special programming was added in the evening, as well as a talk show.  In September of 1980, WHDH's Norm Nathan (probably the most laid-back air personality in Boston) to be the station's "Morning Magazine" jock.  The show was heavy on personality, heavy on features, and light on music.   Norm stayed on until May 25th of that year.  WRKO's air talent began to come and go very quickly, as the station tried to hold any ground it could.

By 1981,FM Radio had firmly become "the" medium for music, and the Top 40 music format itself was fading, to be replaced by a variety of splinter formats.  So it came as no surprise that 1981 was the year WRKO was on its last gasp as a music station.  In fact, WRKO had, since 1980, been a more Adult-Contemporary station, aimed squarely at older adults (versus teenagers and younger adults, the station's previously-targeted audience), having also added talk-show blocks in the evenings and on weekends,  As such, the music industry paid the once-mighty and influential station little if any attention. Thus, was there even a reason to continue publishing its once-famous music surveys?

Whether WRKO continued to publish and distribute its weekly music surveys at this point is a mystery to us. We have just one copy, and it is simply typed on a station letterhead. (If you can correct me, please do so.)  What a sad note to end on after more than a decade of such notoriety the station had, and so much joy it gave its listeners at least until 1978, at which time WRKO was, for all intents and purposes, over as a Top 40 station.

Charlie Van Dyke was summoned to a high-level RKO General meeting in New York, where he revealed that the station ad little choice than to move to a News-Talk format.  The executives agreed, and asked Charlie what the call letters of the "new" station should be.  Charlie replied that WRKO was by now a heritage station, and that the call letters should remain the same.  Yes, Charlie Van Dyke saved WRKO — at least its name!

Ironically, to make the transition from music to talk, former WMEX Good Guy Mel Miller became interim Program Director.  And the deed was done.

The day the music died on WRKO was September 27, 1981, when the station became Talkradio 68. Today, WRKO is very successful as a talk station.  But there was nothing — nothing at all — like WRKO, when it was New England's highest-rated Top-40 station.  In fact, at one time it even out-rated every other sister station in its RKO General chain — including the great KHJnd CKLW.

Just as the termination of Babe Ruth caused "Curse of Babe Ruth" in Red Sox baseball, when WRKO terminated its own Babe, Dale Dorman, the station became and remained a perennial loser when he left.

The Day The Music Died

While we certainly lament its passing, we have wonderful, warm memories of all the great disk jockeys who passed through WRKO's hallways and airwaves, and acknowledge the great contribution that the station made to the Radio industry.
Justin Clark was WRKO's last jock on the air. And on September 27, 1981, at 6 PM, after playing Don McLean's famous American Pie,  his final words were, "Thank you, New England!"

Newsman Scott Brook then began his 6 PM newscast, which was followed by an unexciting  talk show by an attorney named Steve Wiseman.

WRKO/Boston

Born: March 16, 1967 at midnight, Eastern Time.

Died: September 27, 1981 at 6 PM, Eastern Time.

Your attention please!  If you worked at WNAC or WRKO between 1938 and 1981 in any capacity, please contact me by e-mail.