Bill Drake

1962 photo of Bill Drake

See the Wikipedia page about radio programmer Bill Drake (1937 – 2008.)

You might wonder why the adjective boss was selected in the context of naming the radio format on station KHJ in 1965 in Los Angeles. Isn’t the phrase Boss Radio strange and illogical? Yes! But it seems that being strange and illogical can work when it comes to branding.

I recall that the word boss was an adjective associated in my youth with young California guys who rode surfboards on the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. At a basic level, the word was a 1960s slang term used to denote the relative worth or value of something or someone.

One decade’s slang probably always will differ from another’s. Nobody would have imagined, for instance, that the word bad could morph into meaning good until Michael Jackson wrote and sang his famous 1987 hit song with a confusing title.

Even back in 1965, the choice of the apparently odd and not-so-logical word boss as an adjective to describe a radio station was unpopular. I met and interviewed people who worked at that radio station during the 1960s who did not approve of using that phrase. Rock and roll radio programmer Bill Drake (whose real name was Philip Yarbrough) was one of those people. He told me that radio promotion man Clancy Imislund (1927 – 2020) was the person who selected the word boss in the early 1960s for radio station KYA, San Francisco. The marketing phrase devised for KYA was The Boss of the Bay.

As the Elton John hit Crocodile Rock asks, “Do you remember when rock was young?” The year 1965 was that time. It was the first full year after The Beatles initially came to the United States, and the entire recorded music industry on both sides of the Atlantic was supercharged by a high-energy competition between British and American rock and roll music artists.

This made the mid-1960s a major turning point for rock and roll music, which during this particular time became big business for major record labels that wanted to cash in on the exploding audience interest. The new format on Boss Radio KHJ was launched within this social and economic context in Los Angeles, a nexus for the North American record labels.

Who would have noticed, for instance, if this rock and roll radio approach had been launched anywhere else but in the entertainment capital of the world? Common sense told me that it would be difficult to accomplish the same or similar kind of financial success of this rock and roll radio format had the format been rolled out on AM radio in any other market than Los Angeles. I posed this question to Bill Drake, asking whether he thought that there was something inherent in California that allowed for growth in the creative sense in radio programming as compared to other states.

Drake, who was from the state of Georgia, said, “I think that Boston and Detroit are pretty much like LA as far as operating a [rock and roll radio] station. I think it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference [had Boss Radio started in the east instead of in the west]. I’ll tell you this: I sure as hell would rather have been living here and going to New York from time to time than living in New York and going anywhere. I’m sure that if I’d lived in New York at the time, I’d probably have been on the road 300 days a year.”

What about the differences between radio programming in Los Angeles versus San Francisco? After the success of the Boss Radio format in Los Angeles on KHJ in 1965, the parent company (RKO) paid Drake and company to bring the same sound to San Francisco on KFRC. Prior to making a success of the Boss Radio format in Los Angeles, Drake had previously worked in San Francisco, so he had a high familiarity with all that was San Francisco radio in the 1960s.

One well known and uniquely San Francisco style or sound belonged to Tom Donahue (1928 – 1975) in the 1960s. Drake told me that he knew Donahue quite well. “We were doing two different things,” Drake said. “Donahue and I had worked together at KYA. When I was program director at KYA, he was a jock there, and a damn good one.” Drake explained to me that the trade magazines’ commentary in those days about Donahue’s “aesthetic appreciation” of music programming versus Drake’s “product oriented” approach was a mischaracterization. Drake said, “I don’t think that I could ever try to explain away what I did by saying I was doing it for art’s sake. That’s bullshit. I think that anybody in this business who says they are—I don’t care if they’re a liquor company or a radio station or whether they are an artist or [musical] group or anything–anyone who says they’re doing it for art’s sake is either lying or a failure, one of the two.”

Clearly, what Drake did for radio programming was not about art for art’s sake. Rather, the sum total of what Drake did for radio programming was always all about reaching Drake’s own extremely high professional standards. Drake’s business partner, Lester Eugene Chenault (1919 – 2010) whose surname was correctly pronounced as shuh NAULT, provided for me a unique inside view about how he evaluated his partner, the legendary radio programmer: “Drake is so much of a perfectionist that he is sometimes unhappy because perfection is not easily attained,” Chenault told me.

Who Deserves Credit for Boss Radio KHJ?

In 2007, one year before Bill Drake died, new discussions about who deserves credit for Boss Radio KHJ were instigated by Ron Jacobs in comments he made via Don Barrett’s LA Radio dot com. Drake clearly was angered. He responded by writing an extraordinarily rare, bylined commentary that started with an apology: “I’m truly sorry that after all these years this response became necessary. This mess puts a cloud over some otherwise very fond memories. I find this very unpleasant. And sad. Let’s not try to rewrite history. Let it be. My God! That was over 40 years ago.”

Why would Jacobs remain angry and hurt about his KHJ experiences over the span of decades? He quoted none other than Gene Chenault to me, who in 1965 speculated what the new team would accomplish starting at KHJ:

“Chenault’s point of view that night was that ‘Grant and Lee had been brought together on the same team.’ And of course, I’m going ‘Right on! Which one am I? ‘Grant or Lee?’ Drake’s rap to me that night was, ‘This is just the beginning. RKO’s got these other radio stations. After we do the job here in Los Angeles, Ron, well then, we’ll move on to other things. You’ll take the East Coast and I’ll take the West Coast.’ Or vice versa—I forget which coast I was supposed to get.” Jacobs got no coast at all. He eventually left the mainland to return to his native Hawaii, where he held on until his death to the anger that had first reached a boiling point when he was a young man in Hollywood.

Jacobs was bluntly honest with me in 1975 when he told me: “I never felt myself as part of Drake-Chenault. I mean, I always feel I’m working for the people whose name appears on the paycheck. Drake-Chenault was, because of FCC requirements, at least technically not in the line management of the station. They were literally consultants. As they expanded, I had to pretty much restrain my emotions about their success on Xeroxing what myself and others had done at KHJ.”

A palpable anger and bitterness on the part of Ron Jacobs towards the team at Drake-Chenault for copying, adapting, and repurposing apparently did not fade with the passage of time. Jacobs articulated his intense feelings to me in 1975—six years after he left KHJ—in unmistakably clear language: “I wasn’t spending a lot of time getting off on the fact that Drake-Chenault consultancy had elevated the RKO station in Boston from nothing to everything—except for whatever satisfaction you can get in knowing someone has taken your stuff and doing it at another station…It was important to me that the people that mattered knew and the people, more importantly, that I personally respected intellectually and hung out with knew… From then it got to be downhill. I was probably sublimating my bitterness about it and it resulted in my eventually splitting from there.”

Even though he consistently displayed a clear respect in public statements regarding Bill Drake, the passage of time did not diminish the feelings Jacobs had towards how badly he felt the Drake-Chenault team had treated him during the 1960s. “If you were writing about McDonald’s,” Jacobs explained, “no matter what PR Ray Krock put out in his lifetime, you must remember that the whole deal was a creature of the McDonald’s brothers’ imagination. Krock cloned it, beyond, I’m sure, his wildest dreams. In this analogy, think of Drake and me as the brothers and Chenault as Krock. Is that metaphor subtle enough?”

In contrast, Drake remembered the start of the collaboration with Jacobs minus anger or drama. He told me that getting the contract to program the RKO Radio chain starting with KHJ was the beginning of the attainment of a goal that he and Gene Chenault had long held. They wanted to program several stations simultaneously as the core of the business strategy. The reality is that their coming to Los Angeles to KHJ and creating Boss Radio was never intended as an exclusive LA deal: “The reason I wanted to get into that in the first place was that I wanted to do a multiple-station thing. At the time we were doing Stockton, Fresno—those were the first two—and San Diego, there were three. Then with the advent of the L.A. thing, I had to drop Stockton, and there were still three. Just trying to put it together, whether it was a station like KFRC [San Francisco] or whether it had been someplace else didn’t much matter to us.”

In the September 2004 K-Earth 101 interview broadcast in Los Angeles, Drake commented that the development of the radio format for Los Angeles happened as he and others wrote down “…a few things on some bar napkins…” at various venues that served alcoholic drinks.

For his part, Drake was focused on the national expansion that was made possible by the work of the talented team at KHJ. “KFRC was approximately a year after KHJ, some time I’d say around the summer of ‘66. I think that CKLW [Windsor, Ontario, Canada] and WRKO [Boston, Massachusetts] and WOR-FM [New York City] at the time, then WHBQ [Memphis, Tennessee] was six months to a year after that, I think. I forget the time. I don’t really know, but it was KHJ and then KFRC and then a little later the others.” Drake further explained that he entrusted the programming management of KHJ to Jacobs because he believed in Ron Jacobs.

But there was more to the decision than that. Drake admitted that he, himself “being program director at KHJ was never the intent.” When KFRC also succeeded in attracting a large audience as KHJ had done, Drake noted that some critics labeled the Drake-Chenault programming as purely a California phenomenon: “They said at the time after Los Angeles and San Francisco, ‘Well, that’s West Coast Radio.’ You never know, so at that point we’d been approached by a guy from KAKC in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was good money and also it was a very interesting thing for us because I figured, ‘All right, if this is supposedly ‘West Coast Radio,’ Tulsa is the middle of the Bible belt and home of Oral Roberts and all that stuff.’ So, we went into Tulsa and did it, and the same thing happened. We had actually tested [the format] there in the middle of Oklahoma before we did Detroit, Boston, New York, and all that.”

During the late 1970s after the attempt at KIQQ to make an industry comeback by successfully programming a Los Angeles radio station proved not possible for them, the Drake-Chenault team and the company bearing their hyphenated surnames shifted focus entirely to the business of radio programming via syndicated services delivered on tape as detailed elsewhere in this book. In 1983, after 21 years as a business partner with Chenault, Drake sold his interest in their company. Shortly thereafter, the company was bought by Wagontrain Enterprises and was relocated from Canoga Park, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico. As satellite-delivered radio programming emerged in the 1980s, the former Drake-Chenault organization and intellectual properties were bought by Jones Intercable.

Boss Radio Links:

Boss Radio Forever (main page)
Archives of Boss Radio Forever
College Radio KCPR
Gallery of Photographs
Hollywood Rock and Roll Radio
KHJ Music
KHJ Timeline
My Work in the Radio Industry
Studying Radio
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