The man who revolutionized AM radio

Bill Drake is dead and the New York Times left off an important sentence to his lengthy obituary today. “He was preceded in death by the industry he revolutionized.”

Drake, 71, teamed with Gene Chenault to form a radio consulting firm that programmed — and rescued — some of the biggest AM radio stations in America. Those of us who grew up in the business spinning 45s on a turntable had a connection to Drake every time the boss would open the studio door and shout, “just shut up and play the music.”

The Times obit put that a little nicer:


In the 1960s, Mr. Drake, an up-and-coming disc jockey and programmer from south Georgia, revolutionized radio when he and his partner, Lester Eugene Chenault (pronounced Sha-NAULT), decided that radio stations could make a lot more money and reach more listeners if they cut back on D.J. chatter, accelerated the pace of their programs and gave audiences more of what they presumably tuned in to hear: hit songs.

He and Mr. Chenault introduced a formula, eventually sold as a syndicated package with prerecorded music, that would revamp — and homogenize — radio stations across the United States.

Under the Drake-Chenault formula, jocks on radio would stop conversing about things in their community — be it a sock-hop or a high school game — and provide more insight, like “more hits more often,” more often.

Drake’s movement led to the consultant-heavy influence on radio. Eventually it led to the end of disc jockeys altogether in many radio stations, replaced by automation and large reel-to-reel tapes instead, all bearing the Drake-Chenault logo. Machines couldn’t rebel the way disc jockeys could.

Funeral services are incomplete. But a fitting tribute would be a words-free service. Just play the music.

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