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KROY Story: When Creativity Ruled the Airwaves

Alex Cosper interviews Johnny Hyde June 6, 2012

Believe it or not, at one time creativity was a requirement among top stations during radio’s heyday. These days creativity is shunned by corporate radio executives, who pride themselves on tight predictable playlists in between as many commercials as possible, keeping personality to a minimum. 

Back when radio was much more popular than it is now, creativity was also the key to popularity. It was, in fact, why people listened. They used to call it  "theater of the mind" and it brought the community together. Then came national consultants, who used limited research to trim playlists and eventually laid off as many talented personalities as possible, turning the once powerful medium of radio into a bland automated jukebox that hardly anyone talks about anymore. Now the handful of corporations that control most of commercial radio wonder what they need to do to get out of debt and compete with emerging technology. 

Throughout the history of Sacramento radio, stations have come and gone since the early 1920s. KROY, which launched in the 1930s, was by far Sacramento’s most popular radio station in the 1960s and 1970s, achieving the highest ratings any station has ever seen in town. KROY was heard at 1240 on the AM dial and played top 40 music, which at the time was enjoyed by all ages, not just narrow demographics. The magic of the station was that the air personalities were inventive storytellers, not just liner card readers. Jocks also had musical input, although final playlist decisions were made by the Program Director at the station, not a consultant or VP who lived in another state.

Understanding what KROY was all about when it was the number one station in town from 1968 to 1974 perhaps has little relevance to today’s frustrated radio execs, whose main concern seems to be how many commercials they can get on the air, not how to attract listeners with creative personalities or inspiring music. The point of this article is actually not to make fun of how far downhill the radio industry has fallen the past decade due to the failure of corporate consolidation, but  to assert that creativity does matter. The spirit of creativity, which could improve radio, is more likely to improve the next frontier of pop culture, which is independent internet radio.

The man who led KROY to its incredible popularity was Johnny Hyde, who I interviewed last week in an eight-part video series for SacTV.com called "KROY Story." From this series, you can learn a lot about the history of radio starting with early rock and roll up through today. You can also learn the inside story of what made KROY grow from an underdog to a powerhouse in a short time. This knowledge might be completely ignored by today’s radio bosses likely to say "that was over 40 years ago," but it could be valuable information to more tech-savvy multi-media web developers who want to know how to grow an audience from scratch. Johnny shares many of those "secrets."

It was important for me to interview Mr. Hyde for many other reasons. For one thing, the KROY Story adds to my growing project at  Playlist Research about the history of radio, not just in Sacramento, but across the nation. KROY was so successful, it was known by top radio industry pros around the country during its reign. Johnny Hyde was friends with some of the most influential people in the business including San Francisco freeform radio pioneer Tom Donahue and Los Angeles radio programming legend Chuck Blore. Hyde also worked under General Manager Dwight Case, who went on to become President of RKO, the chain full of legendary radio stations such as KHJ in Los Angeles and KFRC in San Francisco. 

Johnny Hyde was not an ordinary radio Program Director. He believed in making radio fun and didn’t want to copy other stations. He combined the freeform approach to theather of the mind and hits mixed in with surprises. The reason Dwight Case hired Johnny Hyde from competing station 1470 KXOA  was because of something called "The Gear Hour." It was a weeknight show in which Johnny played the up and coming songs from the British Invasion, which KROY had not taken seriously. The show was so popular it had higher ratings than all other stations in Sacramento combined for the evening time slot. KROY had been riding the surf trend at the time, but Case recognized what was going on. When Johnny came to KROY he brought "The Gear Hour" with him and also took the morning slot. The audience followed.

Johnny’s original crew at KROY consisted of talented people who were allowed to be as creative on the air as possible. He taught them to talk to listeners as individuals, creating a special bond with the audience. Those jocks included Bob Sherwood, Wonder Rabbit (Martin Ashley), Chuck Roy and a series of night jocks that included T. Michael Jordan, Dr. Tom Becker and Gene Lane. Other names that came through KROY included Dave Williams, Terry Nelson and the legendary Rick Carroll, who is regarded as the initial catalyst of modern rock radio, which he pioneered at KROQ in Los Angeles.   

Johnny Hyde, as the video series reveals, was a fan of progressive music. He despised bubble gum records but knew he had to mix them in anyway when the requests were strong. He wanted to program more like freeform rocker KZAP, but disciplined himself to balance the station between commerce and art. KROY won the ratings battle because of it. That thinking worked for me in the 90s as well when I programmed KWOD. Corporate radio of the past decade, however, has clung to the painful mantra that radio is strictly about commerce, not art. It’s too bad they can’t see the power of the truth that research will never tell them. Then again, as Johnny hints in his  final segment of the KROY Story video series, radio legends of the past will be heard from again. It might not be on terrestrial radio, but stay turned for more exciting developments that new technology will soon bring us. 

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