Monday, January 27, 2014

Radio's battle for the Beatles

I find the whole "radio race for the Beatles" in the 1960's to be very interesting.   This article written by Peter Kanze has some interesting bits of information about WAMC and WMCA in New York and the Beatles.    This was published in issue #48 (from 1989) of Good Day Sunshine Magazine.

1964 Revisited:  Radio’s Battle for the Beatles
By Peter Kanze
When the Beatles first hit American shores in 1964, radio personalities scrambled to befriend them and scoop other stations.   WIN’s (New York City) Murray the K and his exploits are well known but here’s a taste of the mania that occurred at the other top New York rock stations.  Rick Sklar of WABC-AM radio (Sklar was WABC’s Program Director from 1962 through 1976, and is largely responsible for the tightly formatted, professional contemporary radio that is the standard for today.  He’s currently Vice President of ABC Radio in charge of programming), and Joe Bogart of the now all-talk WMCA-AM radio in New York city recently remembered how their stations covered the first wave of Beatlemania.

In its heyday, before the disco barrage of ’78, WABC was the leading radio station in the New York City area, and had been so for some 16 years.  Its signal reaches the entire eastern half of the United States on a good night, and virtually every AM listener in that half of the country (and a good number of listeners in many other parts of the world) has picked up its signal at least once.

Conversely, WMCA was, and is only a 5000 watt local station with a coverage area of approximately 75 miles.  During the 1960s, the WMCA “Good Guys” placed more emphasis on new music programming and on-air listeners’ empathy than WABC, but usually came up only #2 in the ratings.  Because of this, and such factors as the advent of FM rock radio, WMCA finally switched to an all talk format in September 1970.
Joe Bogart, Music Director of WMCA in the ‘60’s remembers how they became the first station to play “I wanna Hold your Hand” as an American release.  “We played the Beatles records in 1963, before Capitol had signed them.  We gave them a chance; but they didn’t do anything, so off the playlist they went.  But as time went on, we couldn't help but be impressed by their popularity in England. So when Capitol told us that they had signed them for the United States, we told them that we were willing to take a chance on a record, and to bring it up when it was ready.”

Ken Luttman was the local Capitol promotion man at the tie.  He brought up the new Beatles single, “I wanna hold your hand,” on the morning of Thursday, December 26, 1963.  Jack Spector played it on the air for the first time around 12:30 that afternoon.  It just took off from there.

“WABC never took a chance on anything, they just played the records after we made hits out of them, “ Bogart continued, “I always considered ‘top 40’ as a creation of management and frightened people.  WMCA wanted to play the best music – the sounds that really belonged on the air.”

Rick Sklar remembers that “WABC never deviated from its standard policy with and artist, including the Beatles.   In order to get played on the station, the artist had to be established first.  Once they made it, fine, but we weren't going be the station to take a chance.  “WABeatlesC” went on the first American Beatles releases, but only because of their track record in England.  I don’t think that it was very significant that WMCA played “I wanna hold your hand” before we did.  As far as we were concerned, the Beatles weren't known yet.  Once the Beatles were known, though, we always tried to have the exclusive. “
The “exclusive” or “scoop” (a record that has been obtained first by one radio station in a given area and no other) was all-important in those days, and still is to some extent with superstar performers.  In the case of the Beatles, it was meant to convey the impression that one radio station had a closer relationship to the group than the other.  Hence, newer music, better gossip, etc.

Skylar continued, “There was a tremendous fight for exclusives.  We would try to wait until Friday night, and then we’d have the exclusive record over the weekend because all the offices were shut down.  The telegrams and injunctions might fly, but the damage to the competition was already done.”
Bogart achieved a still legendary status of being able to “scoop records”.  He recalls, “We made a hobby of it.  Our slogan in those days was ‘First on your Dial’ (referring to WMCA’s 570 kHz AM dial position), and we tried to make it mean something.

“We basically used connections to get scoops.  There were super-secret arrangements which to this day I still don’t think I should talk about.  I remember waiting at the airport at 7 a.m. one very chilly morning for a cargo plane with the tapes of one of the first Beatles albums to arrive.  We got it back to the station, and Ed Baer aired it cut by cut, just as we finished dubbing it off the tapes.”

There was also an equally big rivalry between the stations as to who would do a remote broadcast or who would emcee a concert.  Says Bogart, “I was supposed to go to England to make a deal with Brian Epstein to bring the Beatles to Madison Square Garden.  Instead Epstein came over here.  He felt that the Garden was much too big a place, and chose Carnegie Hall instead.  The Beatles played two shows at Carnegie Hall.  We hosted one show, and Murray the K of WINS hosted the other.

“When the Beatles played Shea Stadium the following year, we were not allowed to do a live broadcast.  So, we did the next best thing.  We stationed Ed Baer in a broadcast booth to do color.  As the Beatles started a song, we’d switch back to the studio and play a record of the song they were performing live.  As the song ended, we’d switch back to Ed and broadcast the applause and hysteria.”

Sklar adds, “You never heard any music at the concerts anyway.  There was too much screaming.  It was 45 minutes of sheer ecstasy and madness.  Whenever they were in town we at WABC would do anything and everything to make them a part of the station.  When they stayed at the Warwick hotel, we put in equipment that ran from the WABC station just across the street so that we could use our microphones without having to trail all that equipment around.  We could just go to their rooms, do the broadcast and come back.
I remember in 1964 we hit the Warwick hotel two day’s early making friends with the detectives and staff.  It’s funny how far a bottle of Scotch would go in those days!  By the time the Beatles got there, they knew who we were and it was safe to go in.  We didn't get stopped; we just went right through the line.  That way, we sometimes got in when others couldn't.

“There were many memorable situations.  Once, some girl (in the crowd) ripped off Ringo’s St. Christopher medal and we broadcast appeals for it.  Ringo was all broke up about it and said he couldn't perform without it.  Evidently he’d worn it around his neck since he was a kid.  We broadcast the appeals and, sure enough, the girl came to the radio station.  But by this time it was so dramatic that we took the girl, called her home and asked if we could put her up for the night.  WE shut her up in the hotel and continued the appeals all night, even though we already had the girl and the medal.  In the morning the medal was returned to Ringo.  He could play again and it was an emotional moment for all. 

I also remember the time that we persuaded Paul McCartney to come down to our room where we had the equipment to do a lengthier interview.  The security in the place was maddening because the Beatles were afraid to appear in public.  So he and I tip-toed out to the elevator – in those days the elevators were manned by operators.  Sure enough, the first elevator that came was going down when we needed to go up.  The elevator stopped and opened up:  inside was a middle aged businessman and his daughter who had evidently persuaded her father to let her stay overnight.  The only people who were allowed in the hotel were paying guests, and she was evidently hoping to see the Beatles.  The elevator stopped, and I told the operator that, while I knew this elevator was going down, this was an emergency, and we had to go up one floor in a hurry.  Could she just turn around and take us up that one flight?  The operator was in the process of giving us a big explanation as to why she couldn't when the girl (who was looking down at the floor) looked up and realized she was only two inches from Paul McCartney.  She screamed, “It’s him!   It’s him!”  As she screamed, the elevator operator (who didn't know who we were) slammed the door right in our faces.  As the elevator dropped we could hear the poor girl screaming “Let him in!  Let him in!”  All the way down.

An even more famous occurrence was the time would “Cousin” Bruce Morrow and Scott Muni were interviewing the Beatles in their hotel suite.  At the spur of the moment, they stuck their microphone out of the window.  Dan Ingram, the DJ on the air at the time, told the crowd (most of whom were evidently carrying radios tuned to WABC) to sing along with the jingles.  Sure enough, on cue, about 10,000 kids suddenly started singing along with “Your world looks great on 77 WABC.”  They repeated the process with three different jingle cuts and then Ingram played a Beatle record as a “reward.”

Both stations used the Beatles tie-in as a way of promoting the station.  Beatle drawings were a favorite.  “One contest involved drawing a Beatle wig on a celebrity,” recalls Bogart, “Some of the entries were really fabulous and inventive.  We had entries such as someone took a Lincoln penny, mounted it on velvet, and painted a Beatle haircut with enamel; other entries included portraits of such diverse people as Pope Pius and Adalai Stevenson with Beatle haircuts.  We had something like 85,000 entries.”
WABC’s contest involved a Beatle “look alike” promotion.  The winner was a dead-ringer for Ringo Starr – a girl! 

“The Beatles were very easy to work with,” says Sklar.  “We ran a contest, ‘Win a Date with the Beatles.’  The only way we were able to do this was because ABC had a tie-in with the Cerebral Palsy charity.  We set up a benefit concert at the New York Paramount and to help sell tickets we offered this contest.  The winner got to go to the concert and had dinner; then he/she got to go backstage and meet the Beatles at a small reception.  Because we did this with a charity tie in, we were able to get the group to work with us. “
Other prizes in similar contests ranged from a trip to England to money, records, concert tickets and even WMCA “Good Guys” sweatshirts.  One early contest involved the giveaway of a special 45 rpm picture cover for “I wanna hold your hand,” featuring the Beatles on side one, and pictures of the WMCA disc jockeys on the other.  A lock of Ringo’s hair accompanied by a picture of WMCA DJ Joe Obrien snipping it off was another such prize.

According to Sklar, “It was sensational, that kind of radio.  It had excitement that you don’t see today.  We had a 25% share of the audience – that’s 6,000,000 listeners to a single Saturday night “Cousin Brucie” Morrow show.  When you talk to program directors today, they just don’t understand.  Soon after the Beatles, FM came along and fragmented the audience.  It exploded the whole thing and everybody got a piece.  That’s why you don’t see that kind of radio programming anymore.
“Could it happen again?  At some point in time an artist could gain catch on via radio.  In turn, the group would help radio to re-establish itself as a key medium.  Go back and consider Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the others.  It’s a logical progression.  These phenomena tend to repeat themselves because the public wants them to.”


  1. The second picture from the top looks like the beatles meet the ny giants!

  2. Holy smokes, Sara......fascinating stuff! I too am very interested in the radio wars.....and these are NY stations and personalities that I know! Thanks for posting this one, I'm really psyched to delve into it when I get home tonight!

    (and thanks to Charles Rosenay and Good Day Sunshine for doing the article in the first place! Happy to see it's getting a second life here on MTBFR!!)