Interview with Drake-Chenault Music Director Kristi Rohlfing|
by Alex Cosper (10/6/14)
The radio consulting firm of Drake-Chenault changed the course of radio history in the 1960s, introducing what was called "Boss Radio" to AM top 40 station KHJ in Los Angeles. It became such a successful programming formula that they were able to spread it around the United States. It's the format that tightened the sound of radio. No longer did DJs give long talks between records. They began to give short comments over short intros of records as the playlist tightened to mostly the hottest hits, giving the station the sound of constantly playing what was hot. The format still mixed in oldies, but the main focus became the latest hits.
Over time the term "boss" dropped out of style but the basics of the format went on to shape the entire radio industry. Kristi Rohlfing was a music director for Drake-Chenault's flagship station, KYNO in Fresno, where the consultancy began. She was there from the late sixties through the late seventies. Here's our interview that we did online in early October 2014.
First let me know how you got the job working for Bill Drake and Gene Chenault as music director of KYNO in Fresno.
I started working at KYNO when I was 16. Started with a weekly newscast with teenybopper goings on around town. They kept giving me more jobs around the radio station for a few years until I became the music director. I occasionally did some things for KYNO FM. KYNO was Drake's flagship station. At the time, it was one of the country's test markets, akin to running it up the flagpole in Peoria. It had no major market influence. I think they still do a bit of product testing there. Drake hired me from there. I think it got sped up when he heard Howard at KYA was interested in hiring me.
How would you describe the Drake-Chenault format?
Although the descriptive was Top 40 radio, Drake's tight format was always Top 30, or Boss 30 for years. The Boss started with Beatlemania, I believe.
Just for the record, was Kristi Rohlfing the name you used in radio? Were you ever on the air?
No, was only on air for commercial voices. Or news bits as KYNO Kristi. Drake: "Proven that radio audiences do not accept 'chick' air personalities." Since I wasn't interested in sleeping with him, that's the way it was. One of the guys and I proposed a duet, and we play SmartAss & BadAss. Always have to this day. He nixed that idea in 78. I took off for headier things.
How much input did he let you have with the music and were there artists that you helped break?
Oh many. Everything was broken in Fresno. I fought for a lot of them and I remember some big battles. Elton John, for one. He thought it too classical. I was surprised he heard that nuance. John Denver. Helen Reddy. She had competition. I can't remember right now who it was, but a vast member from the Broadway ensemble. I remember we had a spat over "You've Got A Friend." I said "This should be Carole's first hit song. I think it's how James would want it." He asked me how I felt about "Proud Mary." I said I'd like to have CCR have the hit. I felt Ike's way overproduced for what the song was. I later found he'd had a feud with Phil Spector. That man was a disaster zone even in those days. I checked record sales, too. It wasn't just picking them out.
So how would you characterize Bill Drake's level of music knowledge and sense about what was going on in music at that time?
Fair to so-so. He needed help. Georgia boy made an effort. He understood our HitParade and Country formats more, I daresay. I questioned him about classical music once, and was so embarrassed by his response, I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. I think Gene Chenault was hipper. He thought Montovani was classical. 99% of the time he let me call it. But I was always ready to back them up when we had conflicts like that.
So how do you suppose he became such a champion of top 40 radio programming about the country? Was it the way he tightened the format? Was he even into the music and do you think he cared more about what the labels wanted or what the audience wanted?
Audience. To this day, what he did worked. Have you seen the ratings K-Earth and the sister station in SF pull in the 25-fifties demo? The playlist was updated twice since we rolled it out. It originally had 150+ subscribers, some with live on-air, some fully auto. Also, if you have something important to say, you have 6 seconds! That makes you clever.
Well, I know the numbers were big. Did he spend much time in Fresno or was his focus LA and the other stations he consulted around the country?
He'd just pop in. Unannounced. He liked mystery. KYNO was the baby, so he was there about every 3 weeks, Gene more often. Gene was from Fresno, I think.
Yet KHJ is what he is most remembered for by the industry. Did he talk much about that station and did he ever offer you an opportunity there?
No. I never got the impression that he stopped by there much, either. His in-town office was usually the Polo Lounge or if he had to, Martoni's. The first time he took me there, he introduced me around, and told Sal, the head bartender to make sure that everyone thinks I'm Sal's daughter-in-law from now on.
So in your mind was Fresno where you wanted to be or did you want to work in LA radio?
I was glad to get out of Frez, never did like it there much. Loved everyone at the station, but I got to find them all back on Facebook.
Did you feel you were running the music at KYNO or did it feel more like running Drake's format?
I felt like I had a lot or most of input. If a mistake were made, a "stiff," it showed in sales. Sometimes that would happen in something he'd ask us to play. Usually everything that gets played gets sales. Not always. He gave us "liberties" at KYNO, but I don't think we stretched them.
Did you schedule music song by song or did jocks get to schedule their own music?
When the guys had questions, they'd call me? I think our format was reasonable, really. I had a way of marking the records.
Well, I know at that time lots of stations used "color coding." They'd put colored dots on records based on the song category (hot, new, oldie, etc). Is that what you did?
If it had a red label it was AM drive restricted. Red label with black line, only after 3:00. Did he have any rules about certain records that could not be played back to back or was the overall music flow up to the jock? That was pre-computer days. I had all these 45s on pegs with numbers. I barely remember. I think I had a clipboard to cross of the number so the whole thing would be rotated, or a request located. It was up to the jock. But if a caller wanted a restricted song, they'd just tell them they can't play that for breakfast. Call after 3:00. It was easy to follow, really. The intros and outro times were marked, too, for segués.
Would you say jocks were hired strictly on their speaking skills or did musical knowledge play into it?
Appeal to an audience. In any town, PR is going to be part of a radio job anytime. Just not on the air a lot. An air check takes you in. People move the dial a lot. You lose them with too much talk.
Any fun station memories that instantly come to mind when you think of that period?
All of them. All we had was fun. Since it was about this time of year, I remember them tidying up for a big client coming in and Gene Chenault came back to my office to check. He wasn't worried about me. Not like I was going to have a big bong or roaches sitting around like the PD might. I did have this big awesome egg-shaped stereo chair. Also a big poster of Nixon on the wall. Gene moved closer to see the words. "Nixon! He was the One in '68. He'll be a Bigger One in '72!!" I guess he thought his client wouldn't notice, but his shoulders were bouncing up and down as he walked back down the hall.
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