Interview with Radio Programmer Lee Arnold

by Alex Cosper

Conducted July 9, 2015 on Facebook

Ladies and gentlemen, with me today is Lee Arnold, who has programmed several legendary radio stations in the south, east and midwest. In Florida he grew up in Cocoa Beach and got to know famous astronauts before programming the south's first album rock station. At WORJ in Orlando he started the Southern Progressive Radio Network. In addition to programming late 60s freeform station WTAI in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he was a rock programming champ in Tampa, Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee. Lee, thanks for joining me from Milwaukee.

Lee: Hey Alex. A little nervous, but I've been looking forward to doing this with you.

Alex: Nervous? After kicking ass in so many places? Tell us about your very first job in radio.

Lee: My first "real" job in radio (where they paid me) was WTAI in Cocoa Beach, Florida (The Space Coast). It was the "first" Underground/Progressive Rock Station in the South. We were inventing the format as we went along. This is late 1967-early 1971.

Alex: Interesting that you were in Cocoa Beach, where the early astronauts hung out. Tell us how, as a kid, you just happened to meet John Glenn and other famous astronauts.

Lee: All of the original Mercury 7 Astronauts would congregate in Cocoa Beach before each Manned launch. In 1961 I was 14 years old. All the astronauts would stay at the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach - at the time, the nicest place to stay. Every summer my Mom would pay for a pool membership allowing us to use the motel pool each day. The Summer of 1961 all of the astronauts brought their wives and kids with them in preparation for Gus Grissom's sub-orbital flight on July 21st. That meant from late May until Late July, I spent everyday in the pool with the astronauts, their wives and their kids. At night there would be BBQs around the pool. That summer, my summer romance was John Glenn's daughter Lynn. We were both 14.

Alex: Now getting back to your radio career, explain how you were able to juggle your radio job at WTAI in Cocoa Beach with being a concert promoter at the same time.

Lee: Well, in 1967 I was a Hippie with a dream. I loved the music, the counter culture, the left wing politics, etc of those days. I opened an "electric" coffee house called "Thee Pink Wedge" and booked all the cool Florida bands of the day. That's how I got offered the job at "start up" WTAI-AM. I had a little "unpaid" radio experience, so I wasn't afraid to be on the air. The owners took a shot and made me PD. (They thought we were going to do Top 40 against the number 1 Top 40 station in town, WKKO, but I had other things in mind. Once WTAI came on the air and got going, being 20 years old and not thinking I had any limitations (and needing virtually no sleep), I decided to promote shows with the bands we were playing on the radio, since all the other concert promoters were still doing concerts only with "Top 40" bands.

Alex: I understand the Allman Brothers became your house band.

Lee: We were playing their first album and then their second, Idlewild South, on WTAI. They hadn't "BROKEN" natioally yet. I knew most of the players in the band from their days as local Florida bands (the 2 Allmans had a band called the Allman Joy). One day after my first show (Spirit) at the facility I rented an old roller skating rink named Thee Image North, Gregg and Dwayne stopped by and asked if I would let them set up their gear on the stage and practice there during the days between my concert events, as they wanted to get the feel for playing in venues that could hold 2-3000 people. In return for allowing them to do this for free, they agreed to be the opening act on all my shows. It was a perfect situation until Bill Graham offered to make them HIS house band at the newly opened Fillmore East.

Alex: Tell us how you programmed the first album rock station in the southwest, WTAI. Where did that inspiration to go all rock come from?

Lee: It was 1967. The ONLY music that me and all my friends were listening to were albums by Hendrix, the Airplane, the Dead, Cream, Canned Heat, the Mothers etc. Since so many of the folks in the area were transplants from California because of the Space Program AND Cocoa Beach was the Surfing Capitol of the East Coast, I knew that most folks between 15 and 24 were ready, willing and needed a station playing the music that they were listening to on their own stereos. As it turned out, I was right. In a market of 12 or 13 stations, we debuted #3 in the ratings 12+. We OWNED teens and 18-24 year olds, our target audience.

Alex: After WTAI you worked in top 40 radio at WKKO. What did you learn from that approach?

Lee: One day in early 1971, the absentee owner of WTAI actually heard the station for the FIRST time and FREAKED OUT at the music we were playing (obviously a conservative). He fired us all, even though we were ratings winners, and went Country. Soon thereafter the two most wonderful people in the world, Ted and Lillian Eiland, called me up and offered me a job at the station of my youth, WKKO, THE Top 40 station in town. They had recently bought the station after moving to Cocoa from Ohio. I did a "split" shift: Middays and 6 PM to sign off (Daytimer). On the shift at 6PM they let me play albums like I had done on WTAI.

It was perfect. Kinda schizo, but perfect. During my midday shift, I'd stand at that "stand up" console and do my impression of a TOP 40 jock. Then at 6:00 I'd be more laid back and do my Underground thing. The time spent there turned me into a "Broadcaster." Tight board, got my Production Room chops down and learned formatics. It basically changed my whole approach for the rest of my radio career. When I resigned in late 1972 to move to Orlando to program 100,000 watt WORJ, the Eilands and I cried at the parting. They were like my Mom and Dad.

Alex: What kind of waves did you make in Orlando programming WORJ from 1972 to 1976 in an era when FM was still considered underground?

Lee: We quite literally became the most successful Progressive Rock station in America. When Progressive Rock in other markets were pulling 2 shares or 3 shares at best, we had consistent ratings in the SEVEN Shares. I had an amazing staff, one that I inherited (Doug Van Allen) and the rest that I hired: Neal Mirsky, Steve Mack, Mike Lyons and me were the first air staff. Later added Bill McGathy (his first radio job) Paul Yeskel, Randy Molnar, Tom Webb, Chal Martina, and a bunch of other great part timers. We did weekly staff meetings/encounter sessions and stayed focused on my vision for what a Great Progressive Rock station should sound like and act like. IT WAS MAGIC!!!

Alex: Your work at WORJ obviously caught the attention of the radio industry when you started the first progressive radio network of its kind. Please tell us about that.

Lee: I always loved the idea of broadcasting the bands we played live in concert on the air. We started by convincing touring artists to come out to our control room in the middle of an orange grove and bring their guitar with them. We'd mic their guitar and their vocals and I'd mix them on a little 2 channel mixer live in the control room. We did Bob Seger, Megon McDonough, Country Joe McDonald, John McEuen and a bunch of others that way. Country Joe turned me on to the first Pignose Amp I'd ever seen that way.

Then I convinced our local Concert Promoter, Morrie Eisenman, to let me broadcast his concert at the Orlando Sports Stadium featuring Poco, live on the air. We also did shows live from local rock club, The Back Door, with the national acts they were bringing in like Brian Auger. We really had this Live Concert on the Radio thing down. THEN came the Southern Progressive Radio Network. I'll take a breath here and tell you about that.

There was a wonderful recording studio in town named BeeJay Studios. Owned by Eric Schabacker and engineered by Orlando TOP 40 LEGEND Bill Vermillion. He had recently left his MD job at WLOF Channel 95. I approached them about doing concerts in their studios for pristine broadcasts on WORJ. Luckily, they loved the idea, but the record companies didn't. They couldn't see the value of spending the money to bring artists/bands to Orlando.

They just didn't think it was a big enough market. So I approached the Program Directors of WGVL, Gainesville, WQSR, Tampa, WPDQ, Jacksonville and ZETA 4 in Miami and asked if they'd like to join this thing we invented called The Florida Progressive Radio Network (based in Orlando, of course). They all agreed AND then I went back to the record companies with something a little bigger to offer. The first artist was Capitol Records artist Kathi McDonald, then came Howdy Moon, Hudson-Ford Band (Strawbs) and Tim Weisberg. Booking the acts fell to my Promotion Director Paul Yeskel. MD Mike Lyons and myself. At this point other stations outside of Florida wanted to join in. First came Bill Hard at WQDR in Raleigh, then WRAS in Atlanta and then our most "southern" station 2JJ in Sydney, Australia. We rebranded as The Southern Progressive Radio Network and kicked off with Randy Newman. Leo Kottke, Emmy Lou Harris, Lonnie Liston Smith, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Gary Wright and the Michael Stanley Band followed.

We just gave copies of all those broadcasts from the masters (thank you Doug Laby and Bill Vermillion) to the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando where they just finished doing a special WORJ/BeeJay recording studio exhibit that was so successful that they're repeating an expanded version from August through October that will kick off with a WORJ Roundtable on August 20th. The fact that they view WORJ in this kind of "Historical Perspective" blows my mind, I might add. Very honored.

Alex: As your career unfolded, the story continued to be putting together powerhouse rock stations, like you did with 98ROCK in Tampa from 77-78. How were you able to make a big mark in such a big market in a short time?

Lee: I had just left WGVL in Gainesville where I found my life long friend and best man at my wedding, John Duncan. Lee Abrams approached me about programming 98ROCK in Tampa. I jumped at the chance. New station that we could build from scratch and pit it against Progressive Rock format leader WQSR. It was my first time going head-to-head with a competing station in the same format. I loved the challenge. I brought John Duncan and Mike Lyons with me. WQSR was a fairly unformatted station and to some degree TOO HIP FOR THE ROOM.

They left a big hole for a fairly tight ROCK station to jump through. I sometimes like to believe that the STYX Album "Grand Illusion" was the key. My A & M promo guy told me WQSR didn't think that the record fit their format and weren't playing it. I put pretty much the whole STYX Album into an 8-10 plays a day rotation. This was the NUMBER ONE selling album in the Tampa Bay area. Of course, we also turned 98ROCK into a lean, mean, street fighting machine as well. When our First Ratings book came out, we were so far in First Place that WQSR dropped the format and moved on, leaving 98ROCK as THE Only Rock Station in town. STYX!!!!

Alex: You had even more success when you rocked up WAAF in Boston and beat WBCN in the ratings. What were some of the things you did to keep on winning wherever you went?

Lee: At WAAF, I was hired by the other great GM in my life, Steve Marx. Steve allowed me complete autonomy in the Programming and Marketing of WAAF. He never once interfered, but when I needed his support, it was always there, in spades. WAAF was unique in that it's tower was in the geographical center of New England. (One of FM inventor Major Armstrong's original sticks). Much like in Tampa, the Boston Stations were "absolutely" too hip for their own good. Out came the STYX Album from my briefcase.

Asking Paul my MD how often "we" were playing this album, he told NO ONE in the Boston area would play STYX (including WAAF). In it went again. We ROCKED while the other guys rocked a little in comparison. We brought artists like Keith Emerson, Robert Palmer, The Cars and others of that ilk to the station and had them be Guest DJs. They could play any of their favorite records and host their own "one off" shows. We became GIANT backers of The Cars, when their first album came out. They played to 20,000 fans at our Birthday Concert as the headliner. That album was also the reason I became sure I could do record Promotion for a record label. We got a 10.3 rating share. When I left there, John Sebastian hired most of my airstaff for his GIANT success story at WCOZ in Boston. He needed a staff that knew how to do "Kick Ass Rock" and found it with my air aces from WAAF.

Alex: After all that major market radio success you then entered the music biz. Tell us about your gig with RCA Records from 1979 to 1980.

Lee: While still at WAAF, I found that most of the Abrams' Superstar formatted stations weren't playing the CARS album when it came out. I knew how absolutely wonderful it was and the band had become friends. I took it on myself to contact almost every Superstars PD (80 or 90 of them) and "work" them passionately on playing this record. I remember calling the PD of WLLZ (Wheels) in Detroit and saying something like, "You're in Detroit, You're called WHEELS and you're not playing a band called The CARS?" Most all of them went ahead and started playing the record and my "head place" of I could do record promotion kicked in.

Soon thereafter, Josh Blardo offered me the opportunity to do national promotion at RCA Records. The time had come and I jumped. I got them to let me do my national Job from Atlanta were Lee Abrams was located. We had become pretty good buds after working together at 98ROCK and WAAF and he controlled the programming at the most successful Rock stations in America. We broke Triumph together and they became a staple of the Superstars format.

Alex: Then you went back into radio in 1981 and that brought you to the market where you are based now, Milwaukee. Tell us how you took WQFM from worst to first in the ratings.

Lee: I left RCA to Manage a wonderful band from Miami named Critical Mass. Got Lee Abrams to Produce it at Chris Squires' studio at his estate in England. (That's a story for another day). I invested a year of my life into that project. In the mean time I started doing Independent Album Promotion. Though I was really good at it, I REALLY started to miss the day to day job of Programmimg a Radio Station. I hadn't gotten it out of my system. (You never do).

I applied for the open job of PD of 93QFM in Milwaukee and got it. My pitch was, I'm a really good Programmer and my time spent in the record business actually helped make me an even better Program Director, as I had spent the last couple years jamming with the Best Program Directors in America and came away with lots of new ideas. They bought the pitch and hired me. That began another journey that I will never forget. WQFM had never beaten it's direct competitor, "Super Stars" formatted, WLPX. I set out to change that from day one. (Bathroom Break?) OK?

When I got to WQFM, I found a terrific air staff in place. (Previous PD Brent Alberts had put together a great group.) The only thing they seemed to lack was the killer instinct. They had it in them, they just needed to bring it out. As a PD, I kind of had the philosophy then of, "You don't go to Work each day, you GO TO WAR". We became a team of STREET FIGHTERS. We never gave an inch. There was an amazing music scene in Milwaukee. 18 year old drinking state. There were 20 or so Rock Clubs in town booking local "original" music bands and all being successful. We took over the CLUBS, Stole the Concerts that weren't ours and covered EVERY event in town LIVE that drew over 1000 people. Our Marti never got a chance to cool down. My jocks were doing a minimum of 20 Paid personal appearances a week. It was like we were running for election. Pressing Flesh and Kissing Babies. My staff LIVED Rock and Devoted themselves to winning. In my first book there, we beat WLPX, the Next Book, we increased the lead and the next Book (With the help of Tim the Rock and Roll Animal living on the ledge of the WQFM Studios for 17 days, HIGH above the city to get the WHO to come to town), we put WLPX out of the Format and got ourselves an 8.5 share. The whole story of the WQFM victory is a book or a movie unto itself, so I'll stop there.

I forgot the absolute importance of John Sebastian and his amazing research based consultancy. He taught me research and because of that we played the best music in Milwaukee. Without him that may not have happened. Sorry.

Alex: Your history includes programming WLLZ in Detroit from 84 to 86 .. What are some memories of that rock station?

Lee: Ah, WLLZ. Dave Martin was VP of Programming at Doubleday Broadcasting. They owned WLLZ. He hired me with a mandate and a promise. The Mandate was "Just Win, Baby". The Promise was, Doubleday would give me all the resources that I required to win and that I worked for HIM not the GM. It was a dream after all the years in radio. Damn, I had a secretary. It didn't "soften' up my Destroy the Enemy philosophy but the resources given to me allowed me the time to better institute that philosophy.

I came to a station that had been totally demoralized and de-fanged by Dave Martin's predecessor, Bobby Hatrick. Under Hatrick, Jocks were only allowed to use their first name (how pretentious), the biggest record stars weren't allowed past the lobby for a quick photo under the logo and then out the door with you and NO PERSONALITY ALLOWED. All those things were changed immediately. I had a staff of killers that weren't allowed to win.

Doug Podell (The Doc of Rock) was my MD and the template for how I wanted all the joclks to attack the job at hand. I had a staff full of future PDs, they just didn't know it. Jonathan Blair Schultze, Bob Bauer, Jim Pemberton, Steven Clean, Joe Urbiel and then I added in Market veterans John O'Leary, Jerry Lubin, and my final hire Michael Michael Hooligan Halloran. Can't forget my genius Programming Imaging Director, Mark Thompson(Can you believe they let me do that?). Instituted John Sebastian Music Research and hit the streets. I arrived by Helicopter to a catered feast under a tent for a press conference with the Media, Promoters, Record Guys, ASdvertisers, Record store folk etc.

The Press Conference was directly across the street from our competitor. I was in full Battle gear. Dressed like a Green Beret. I declared WAR ON BAD RADIO. It made the "Front Page" of the newspaper. We had a plane flying circles around our competitor with a "SURRENDER" banner trailing behind it. That's how it all started in Detroit. It ended in much the same way. Staff of Street Fighting Winners unleashed and alllowed to win with the best music in town being played on the atr.

Alex: Since 1986 you have combined your experience in radio and records with your company Lee Arnold Marketing. Tell us about how you work with both radio stations and record labels.

Lee: My relations with Record Companies are great. They know I know how to talk with radio programmers. We have broken hundreds of artists together over the last 29 years. My relations at radio involve my true love for what they are doing. I understand their jobs and what it entails to win. I'm part unpaid consultant, part promoter. I pride myself on the fact that I view my job as one to help my radio friends WIN. I understand their needs to be able to do their job and in some cases how to keep their job. We're all in this together. WIN,WIN is the only way. I'm also excited about consulting some Ma Pa's on their programming. Love putting on that old Programmer's hat. My Baby is a station that I designed from the ground up that is a Time Warp of Progressive Rock from the "Golden Age". It's 540WXYG, The GOAT in Minnesota.

Alex: Lee, Thanks for sharing all this information about your radio and music career. Any closing thoughts?

Lee: Thank you for this opportunity Alex. If I left anyone out or remember things a little different from how others remember things, I'm sorry. Lots of late nights, loud music and partying with some of the most interesting people in the world, will do that to you. LOVE THIS BUSINESS!!!

Read more Playlist Research Interviews here

© Playlist Research. All rights reserved.