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K-State Today

October 30, 2014

Top 40 radio history, streaming to be discussed at today's Great Plains Radio History Symposium

Submitted by J. Steven Smethers

The Great Plains Radio History Symposium will be from 1-5 p.m. today in the Hemisphere Room of Hale Library. The panel discussions are free. The symposium will highlight a ratings war between two Kansas City Top 40 music giants and the new trend of re-creating the classic sounds of 1960s and 1970s radio via Internet streaming.

Most people today know of Kansas City's WHB as a sports-talk station, and those who hear the call letters KUDL will likely think of an FM station that played adult contemporary and rock music in Kansas City. While those positioning statements are familiar to Kansas City listeners today — although in 2011 KUDL gave up its euphonious call sign and became KMBZ-FM — both stations have a long history, and those call signs had great significance in the history of Top 40 radio.

WHB had the distinction of being the country's first full-time Top 40 music station, when the legendary Todd Storz of Omaha purchased the station and converted it to the new format in 1954. KUDL once had a presence on the AM dial at 1380 khz, and for several years it was an upstart competitor for WHB, which owned a large share of Kansas City radio listening. WHB was the home of Storz' patented personality-based, youth-oriented Top 40 format, and KUDL challenged the market leader with a streamlined, high-energy format known as "Boss Radio." The station carried the moniker "the Big 1380."

The two stations battled for several years. KUDL's owner, Starr Broadcasting, aggressively entered the competition and fought to overtake the powerful Storz Corp. in the ratings.

The relationship between the two stations will be highlighted in a panel discussion at this year's Great Plains Radio History Symposium, as a panel of former KUDL and WHB employees recalls the era when the two stations fought for Kansas City's youth market.

"Kansas City's Battleground: The World's Happiest Broadcasters vs. The Big 1380 Boss Jocks" will feature three broadcasters who have primary knowledge of the competition between the two stations and their distinct approaches to presenting the Top 40 music format. Mike D'Arcy was program director at KUDL when the station's Top 40 format was developed. Wally Thornton, known is his heyday as "J. Walter Beethoven," worked at WHB for two years before moving across town to KUDL. Ray Janz worked as sales manager at WHB and was familiar with both stations' efforts to lure advertisers in the height of the competition. All three radio professionals are now retired in the Kansas City area.

The symposium's second panel will focus on Internet broadcasting, and more specifically, former radio broadcasters who are using audio streaming to revive the sounds familiar to AM radio listeners of the 1960s. Three entrepreneurs will be featured guests and participate in the panel "Streaming Into the Future: Classic Top 40 On a New Platform."

Jay Wachs. Lawrence, a former radio programming and management consultant, operates a Net-only station, lawrencehits.com, which features the once-familiar sound of local radio: music, local news and community-oriented programming, and originates from his office in downtown Lawrence. Frank Chaffin, Topeka, a former Kansas broadcaster and advertising executive, operates wrenradio.net, which re-creates the sound of Top 40 radio, using the call letters of a once-powerful AM station, WREN, which operated from 1926 to 1987. The third panelist will be J.R. Russ, Philadelphia, a former radio programming and production consultant, who is using Net-only delivery to re-create the sound of Chicago's legendary "Voice of Labor," WCFL. His cyberstation, wcflchicago.com, features music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also includes hits from the '80s and '90s as Russ' vision of what WCFL might sound like if it was still broadcasting. WCFL left the Top 40 music business in 1976 when its licensee, the Chicago Federation of Labor, gave up its attempt to overtake the legendary and highly successful cross-town competitor, WLS.

The symposium is an annual presentation of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications and the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media.