Lowry Mays Monetized Radio. WDRC Made Radio Sing.

At a certain point it becomes reassuring to have friends who are older than you are, which makes it satisfying for me to have a friend who on December 10 will turn 100: radio station WDRC in Hartford.

WDRC-AM (1360) was my top-40 radio station while I was growing up, and I suspect my experience differed only in call letters, dial position and DJs from that of kids who grew up in Fairbanks, Baton Rouge, Detroit, San Diego or Hibbing, Minnesota.

Listening to WDRC opened a new world for me, because it was one of the first times I felt personally connected to what was happening outside my family, friends and school. We had a TV set and I liked TV, but TV shows came from a faraway place, like a book written 50 years ago. Radio felt like it was right there in the room. Ron Landry, Jerry Bishop and Jim Raynor were talking to me, playing music for me. WDRC held contests where I could place a call and hear the voice on the radio answer the phone.

Ron Landry, the first and not last morning host I remember on the radio.

Every weekday afternoon around 4, WDRC invited listeners to call in and vote for the №1 song of the day. For several weeks in the summer of 1961, my pal Charles and I would call in every day to vote for Del Shannon’s “Hats Off To Larry” over Neil Scott’s “Bobby.”

(Fun fact: Neil Scott had one minor regional hit with “Bobby.” After he reverted to his birth name of Neil Bogart a few years later, he founded Casablanca Records, signed KISS and became a king of disco.)

My point with WDRC is that radio — which in Hartford also included WDRC’s top-40 rival WPOP (1410 AM) — seemed to live in the same place I did. My friend Mark and I could take a bus into Hartford and hang out in a radio studio, a cluttered wonderland with racks of 45s and LPs. The DJs spun records on turntables, showing us how they moved the needle into the first groove, then backed it up so the record would start on cue.

Long John Wade interviews George Harrison, member of a popular 1960s rock group.

We’d talk to Long John Wade about our vintage R&B 45s and he invited us to sit in for an hour one Sunday night. With no radio voice or radio skill, I felt part of it.

I never lost that feeling, of which I was reminded last week when I read the New York Times obituary for Lowry Mays, who founded and ran the radio Godzilla that became Clear Channel and is now iHeart.

For those who don’t follow radio ownership, Clear Channel at one point owned something like 10% of all the stations in America. As one might expect, Clear Channel practiced extensive “synergy” among these stations, that is, it whittled everything down to as small and efficient a workforce as possible.

Radio stations for decades were modest but reliable profit centers, since they don’t cost a lot to run. While Lowry Mays had no background or real interest in radio, he was a smart businessman and brilliant marketer who saw the numbers and figured that with synergy and streamlining, he could make an army of stations even more profitable. That didn’t completely work out as planned for the company, since his acquisition costs left Clear Channel with a backbreaking load of debt, but it worked just fine for Lowry Mays, who came away with more money than he and all subsequent Mays generations could hope to spend.

As the Times obituary explained it, Mays saw every aspect of life as a competition, with a winner and a loser. What mattered was to win and in radio, he won big.

Toward this end, Lowry Mays didn’t see radio exactly as I had seen it several decades earlier. “We’re not in the business of providing news and information,” the Times obituary quoted him telling Fortune in 2003. “We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”

Lest I sound naïve here, Mays in a strict sense is correct. Commercial radio is a business and there’s nothing wrong with making a profit.

I do pause over the implication that Mays saw me, the radio listener, only as a mark.

That’s different from how radio always felt to me, and I would further suggest many of Mr. Mays’s radio stations — not all — no longer felt like they were broadcasting from down the street. More of the shows were syndicated from somewhere else. Five-minute contests to win a 45 rpm record were replaced by month-long national promotions. The phones were answered by a robot telling the caller to choose from “the following menu of options.” Music reflected national charts, not the unique flavor and taste of Hartford, or Wichita. More DJs, where there still were DJs, were reading canned “liners” instead of talking to me.

It’s also true that commercial radio today operates in a much more complex and challenging world, where listeners have a thousand places to find the music, news or talk they used to get almost exclusively from radio. I’d only suggest that sounding like your friend down the street might not be the worst way for radio to compete in that new world.

In contrast to Mr. Mays, who defined winning in radio as making stacks of money by selling products to consumers, WDRC was founded by a guy who was enchanted by radio itself, Franklin M. Doolittle.

Franklin M. Doolittle, left.

Doolittle built his first audio transmitter in 1906, when he was 13 and radio as we know it didn’t exist. He served as a radio officer in the Naval Reserve during World War I and after the war he started his own amateur radio station from his home in New Haven.

He was fascinated by the possibilities for radio, and in 1921 he started broadcasting weekly concerts from that home station. In November 1921 he broadcast the Yale-Princeton football game by relaying telephone accounts of the play-by-play from a New Haven Register reporter at the game. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but this was likely the first at least semi-live radio broadcast of a football game.

Within a year the federal Commerce Department, which regulated radio, decided it had to stop the chaos amateur stations were creating on broadcast frequencies. It banned entertainment programming on amateur stations, requiring those stations to apply for a license.

Doolittle formed the Doolittle Radio Company, operating out of New Haven, and on Dec. 2, 1922, it was assigned a license as WPAJ. Eight days later, it went on the air, the sixth radio station in Connecticut (and today, the last of those originals on the air).

Still fascinated by the technology, Doolittle in 1924 secured a patent for stereo broadcasting, then called “binaural.” That concept sounds way ahead of its time, which it was. To broadcast in “stereo,” WDRC had to acquire a second frequency, broadcasting one half of the signal on one frequency and the other half on another. The listener had to have two radios, positioned opposite each other, one tuned to the first frequency and the other to the second.

The experiment was, uh, short-lived.

In 1925, the call letters were changed to WDRC and in 1939 Doolittle launched the first FM station in Connecticut — though it would be 30 years before the station offered anything on FM other than a simulcast of the AM.

In 1930 WDRC became a CBS affiliate, carrying CBS entertainment, sports, concerts and the like in addition to its local programming. Doolittle finally got his stereo wish in 1952, when much-improved technology enabled WDRC to simulcast New York’s WQXR.

My time with WDRC began just after Franklin Doolittle retired in 1959 and sold the station to Buckley Broadcasting, which more prominently ran WOR in New York. Soon WDRC switched to top-40, which was a bit of a gamble, but paid off for both the station and the listeners. WDRC and WPOP spent the 1960s in a spirited completion that enlivened radio for all us lucky teenagers. They poked each other. They schemed to get an “exclusive” on a new Beatles record. WDRC poached hosts like Ken Griffin and Joey Reynolds from WPOP.

Sure, we listeners complained to each other about the barrage of ads endemic to all top-40 stations. We complained about the tight playlists. We kept listening.

Bertha Porter, second from right. Program Director Charlie Parker, second from left.

I didn’t know, and thus didn’t appreciate, that WDRC’s music director Bertha Porter was a female pioneer and an industry legend, known for both her sharp ears and her openness to records that didn’t sound like the last hit. WDRC could play the Edsels’s “Rama Lama Ding Dong” followed by Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

For musical breadth, I was getting top-40 at its purest and best.

Decades and distance having changed things, I haven’t been in touch with WDRC for a long while. Like most AMs, it got squeezed out of the music game many years ago and switched to conservative talk. When it acquired an FM translator in 2019, it spent a few weeks identifying itself as “Trump 103.3.”

To me, WDRC remains the top-40 station of my youth, roughly from “Quarter to Three” through the Beatles, Motown and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When I hear Jan Bradley singing “Mama Didn’t Lie,” I’m hearing it on WDRC as I do my homework.

If management of that WDRC saw their radio station purely as a vehicle to sell me products, I missed the memo. To my naïve young ears, through the Realistic transistor radio that I even smuggled into school with a hollowed-out book, WDRC delivered way more than a sales pitch.

WDRC suvey, August 20, 1963. A good snapshot of American top-40 music on the eve of the Beatles’s arrival, and you can’t miss the fact there’s some really good stuff here. Note also the variety.

--

--

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”