Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bill Drake

Legendary radio programmer and executive Bill Drake passed away Saturday in Los Angeles at age 71. His name likely doesn't ring a bell, yet most of you are familiar with his accomplishments, as Drake is arguably more responsible than anybody for how your radio sounds today.

Drake was born Philip Yarbrough in 1937 and grew up in Georgia. Landing a job at WAKE in Atlanta in the late 50's, he took on the air name Bill Drake because the station wanted him to use a name that rhymed with the call letters. He moved to San Francisco to become program director of KYA in 1961, where his career as radio's most influential programmer took off.

According to legend, Top 40 radio came into being when Todd Storz, who at the time owned a station in Omaha with his father, noticed how the waitresses at a diner he frequented played the same songs on the jukebox over and over. In the early 60's Drake would refine this format by tightening playlists, limiting commercials, and reining in DJ chatter. Drake was also a pioneer in market demographic research. He took stations in San Francisco, Stockton, San Diego and Fresno to #1 in their markets. In Fresno, Drake met Gene Chenault, who became his business partner, forming the Drake-Chenault consulting firm that spread his programing ideas nationwide.

In 1965 Drake and Chenault were hired by Los Angeles' KHJ to turn that struggling station around. KHJ became their biggest success, becoming the #1 station in Southern California by the end of the year. Soon, the Drake-Chenault consulting firm was spreading their energetic "Boss Radio" format to stations throughout the country, and competitors were doing their best to copy Drake's ideas.

In the 70's Drake-Chenault spread their influence to the FM band. They also produced radio specials and created automated radio formats in a variety of music genres, eventually becoming responsible for programming on hundreds of radio stations. Drake and Chenault sold their company in 1982; by that time the damage had been done, and consultant-driven programming was choking the life out of American commercial radio. Drake retired to his mansion in Bel Air, where he would continue to occasionally work as a radio consultant up until his death.