My unrealized dream was to be a rock ‘n roll disc jockey. The fantasy began when I was about 10 and my uncle, Specs Howard of the Martin and Howard morning show on WKYC in Cleveland, took me to work with him. Specs and his partner Harry Martin were ranked No. 1 in Cleveland, then among the most influential radio markets in the country.
I got to witness one of the top 60s rock jocks in the home of rock ‘n roll. How cool is that? (My uncle was working solo that day.)
Like many adolescents who grew up in the 60s, I spent evenings with my ear to a transistor radio, listening to the great radio stations whose powerful 50,000-watt signals permeated the airwaves on the eastern seaboard and much of the Midwest. These stations included WABC in New York, WKBW in Buffalo, WLS and WCFL in Chicago, CKLW in Windsor, Canada, WOWO in Ft. Wayne, WBZ in Boston, and WRVA in Richmond. The latter two stations didn’t play rock, but I was fascinated that I could pull in their signals. I wondered why the announcers on WRVA didn’t speak with southern accents.
Radio in the 60s was fun, and rock DJs were major celebrities in their home markets. They wielded considerable power, and for a period that power was abused with some DJs accepting bribes for playing records, a practice known as Payola. The best rock stations were tightly formatted, with DJs only being allowed to say the station call letters, the time, the weather, the song you just heard, and the song you were about to hear. High energy jingles accented the fast pace.
Among the great radio stations of the 60s was CHUM in my native Toronto. Although the city in those days was so provincial it was known as “Toronto the Good,” CHUM was bold, loud, and in your face. It featured zany and irreverent DJs like Jungle Jay Nelson, Bob McAdorey, and Brian Skinner, all of whom had their own inimitable style and humor. I was always a fan of Humble Hal Weaver, who only worked weekends, which made me wonder what he did the rest of the time (even as a kid I curious about this kind of stuff.) When someone who came of age growing up in Toronto in the 60s thinks of CHUM, these jingles instantly play in their head.
One of my few rebellious acts growing up was hiding my transistor radio under my pillow and staying up till midnight so I could hear Bob Laine, the overnight guy, do his legendary sign-on: “Good morning world, this is Bobbo.” A deep and distant voice would reply: “Good Morning Bobbo, this is World.” (The bit seemed funny at the time.) CHUM was always running contests that would never fly today, like offering $1000 to listeners who answered “I listen to CHUM” when DJs called people at random. That so many people collected the prize money underscored the deep connection CHUM had with its listeners.
Thursday afternoons were always my favorite because that’s when CHUM Charts were delivered to local variety stores featuring Toronto’s Top 50 songs. The song that surged the most in the rankings was known as the “CHUMDINGER.” One could also request songs by calling, “The Hit Pickers Hot Line.” I loved going to the annual Canadian National Exhibition because CHUM broadcasted live from the fairgrounds.
The two greatest rock stations of all time were KHJ in Los Angeles and CKLW, a station located in Windsor, Canada, but was dominant in Detroit and Toledo and had a sizeable audience in Cleveland. Both stations were programmed by a legendary broadcaster named Bill Drake and reflected the culture and personality of their respective cities. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” KHJ has a supporting role, as the station can be heard throughout the movie, featuring DJs Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele. NPR’s “All Things Considered” did a segment on CKLW’s outsized influence.
KHJ was known as BOSS radio and had a more relaxed sound. A signature requirement of Bill Drake programming was that DJs had to have stentorian voices and easy to remember names like Charlie Tuna, Gary Mack, Roger Christian, and Sam Riddle. A great tribute to the station put together by another person who also dreamed about becoming a DJ can be found here.
CKLW was more intense, where the “Big 8” DJs would bellow CKLW, saying the “L” with considerably more pronouncement. Among the more famous CKLW DJs were Brother Bill Gable, Tom Shannon, and Johnny Williams (not to be confused with the Johnny Williams of KHJ). CKLW was legendary for its dramatic 20/20 newscasts, which one must hear to believe, and depending on your standards, appreciate. CKLW’s dramatic influence on the music industry was such that record label executives would make pilgrimages to Windsor to meet with music director Rosalie Tremblay, who hailed from rural Ontario but played a major role popularizing Motown recording artists.
Feeling nostalgic on July 4th weekend, I decided to listen to airchecks of some of the great DJs and look up what happened to them. Sadly, virtually all of them are broadcasting on a frequency I’m not ready to hear just yet.
Most of CHUM’s legendary DJs have passed, including Jungle Jay, Bob McAdorey, and Bob Laine. Brian Skinner was last heard from living in Seattle, but he has since disappeared from public view. Humble Hal? He died from cancer at 28. I was sorry to learn that Mark Dailey, a former CHUM and CKLW newsman who graciously arranged for me to visit the Big 8 studios and witness a CKLW 20/20 newscast, died from cancer at 57. Dick Smyth, who pioneered the CKLW newscasts and later moved to CHUM, died in March.
At KHJ, the entire lineup of original “Boss” jocks is gone, as is Bill Drake, who pioneered what came to be known as the Drake-Chenault format, where stations across the U.S. and Canada aped the BOSS radio format, but never with the same precision or success. (Gene Chenault was Drake’s longtime business partner.) CKLW jocks Brother Bill Gable, Johnny Williams, and Tom Shannon have also died.
Reading up on the great jocks of yesteryear I noticed that many of them died young, often within a few years of losing their radio gigs. Radio was a brutal business, where DJs lived and died by their ratings. Fame was often fleeting: CKLW’s Brother Bill Gable, who graciously met with me when he moved to Toronto and responded to my emails over the years, finished his career at a low rated Toronto station playing vintage hits from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Gable died four years after he retired in 2014. He was only 69.
What I also never appreciated until this past weekend was most of the 60s jocks were nerds, albeit ones with deep voices. I imagine if they lived in the current era, they’d be coders and looking to connect the world in more nefarious ways.
Fortunately, two of the greatest DJs from the 60s are still with us. One is Charlie Van Dyke, the only DJ who can boast having worked at both KHJ and CKLW. Charlie went on to do voiceovers for hundreds of commercials and radio station IDs, leveraging the greatest radio voice of all time. Charlie publishes a blog reminiscing about his career in radio, and I was delighted to learn he shared my assessment that CHUM radio was among the greatest stations of all time.
My uncle Specs Howard, who I call Uncle Jerry because Jerry Liebman is his real name, also outlived his radio contemporaries, likely because he had the good sense to retire as a DJ in his mid-forties after moving to Detroit but failing to garner the dominant ratings he and his partner enjoyed in Cleveland.
The golden rule of DJs was to never unpack your bags because your stay invariably would be short lived. Uncle Jerry didn’t want to subject his family to the vagabond lifestyle, so he launched the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in suburban Detroit, which thrived until the pandemic hit. The Detroit Free Press recently published a profile of the school and its influence on the broadcasting industry both in Michigan and across the country. Uncle Jerry a few months ago celebrated his 95th birthday. He has 13 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
Teenagers today would consider it antediluvian listening to music on a tinny transistor radio and relying on others for their choice of music. But unlike social media, 60s radio DJs made people feel good, even when listening to them more than a half century later.