Ron Chapman on the State of Radio and Why He'll Never Make a Comeback

On April 13 in Las Vegas, Ron Chapman will be inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters' Radio Hall of Fame -- a momentous occasion that comes exactly one month after the Citadel Broadcasting Corporation pulled the plug on Platinum 96.7 and replaced it with an FM simulcast of WBAP-AM. Chapman came out of retirement back in June 2008 to work for Platinum and continued to "drop in," as it he puts it, till its farewell at the end of last week. As he says, he saw it coming.

Earlier today, I called Chapman to talk good news, bad news and all the stuff in between during a legendary career spanning his days at KLIF, KVIL and the old Sump'N Else show. In the end, Chapman and I wound up talking for nearly an hour -- I hadn't spent that much time with the local broadcasting legend since he came to the old Observer offices downtown in '94, to see what had become of the former KLIF studios. And so, after the jump, you'll find an unexpurgated version of our chat, which touched on everything from his Hall of Fame induction to the state and fate of terrestrial radio to what really happened to those old Sump'N Else shows.

But before we jump, he wants to make this much crystal-clear: "I have no interest in making a comeback. Not at all." That out of the way ...

So, I said it a couple of months ago, but mazel tov on the NAB Hall of Fame induction.

That came out of left field. A total surprise and very nice. I'll take it. They first called and said, "We've decided we want to induct you into our hall of fame. It's in Vegas, and we don't know the date yet." I said, "Don't worry, I'll be there." And once it got announced I got phone calls from people all over the broadcast industry, so it's a big deal.

There's a hall of fame in Chicago I think Paul Harvey's wife started, and it's a radio broadcast hall of fame thing, and I've been nominated four times to that and never won. The reason was I would be nominated with Dick Clark. Well, good luck! And one time it was Bob Uecker, and you just knew you're not going to win this, and I think once I was up against Rick Dees. So it's usually the guys in New York and Los Angeles, and for someone in the flyover to get chosen is nice. And this is a different one. They don't do a competition. They just say, "This is the man we're choosing this year."

Yet, ironically, the induction comes one month after Platinum turns into WBAP.

I saw it coming. It's been coming. You know what they said about Jay Leno when he did prime-time. For the network it was successful. It really was. It saved them production money, and they made money on the show. However it was killing the affiliates, so in the end it didn't really work. In a way Platinum has some of the same symptoms. It always made money from month one. Not a lot of it, but it has made money.

In the meantime, corporate went through a prepackaged bankruptcy filing in January, and although the same people are in position, there are new influences and new directions. The bankers are looking at the books: "Yeah, we made money but not enough." So that was the death knell.

There are some other dynamics that play into it. The dynamic is if you have an AM talker, a successful AM talker, you are almost never going to get younger demographics to listen because they don't even know there is an AM dial. However, if you take an AM talker and put it on FM, just by scanning some younger demographics will notice the station and pick up on it. That's the plan. It's been decided it's more beneficial to take a shot at increasing WBAP than to keep Platinum going. OK. I can live with that. My life goes on. I was not paid. I was doing it as a favor, so it doesn't affect me. It affects Larry Dixon and Gail Lightfoot, but not me personally. I can understand that kind of thinking.

And, by the way, in some markets when an AM signal is put onto an FM frequency, the cumulative number sometimes increases by 20 to 40 percent. I doubt that will happen here, because 96.7's signal is not omnipresent. It's ... select. [Chapman laughs. For a long time.] But if you took what WBAP does already and increase it by 10 percent, that's a home run.

You can't imagine how many people have e-mailed me and left comments about how ridiculous this is, how could they replace you and Gail and ...

I was dropping in, but i wasn't doing a show. Those days of doing a show are over. I have no interest in making a comeback. Not at all. And, also, I think what I used to do is over. It's a different world. Just to think about it, in the mornings [at KVIL] we used to concentrate on the time, the temperature, the weather, the news, the stock market. And all that stuff is coming out of our iPhiones. Those days are gone. And so you'd better create a dfferent model from what I used to do, and if I did come back I'd have to do that, and that's not me.

Has anyone ever talked to you about moving to satellite radio?

No. And I'm very good friends with Mel Karmazin, but no, no one's said, "You should be doing that. That's your next move." I don't think I'd be interested. I don't think I want that regimented a schedule anymore. Let me say this. Yes, I'd enjoy it for about three weeks.

Every time I write about terrestrial radio doings, people always chime in: Broadcast radio's dead, long live satellite radio. Yet it has its own problems, and damned if I've ever listened to satellite radio and said, "Wow, that's revolutionary." It's just more of the same from which to choose. Far as I'm concerned, if radio stations in this town were bright, they'd make them about the personalities -- even the music stations. It'd be you and Redbeard and George Gimarc and all the other familiar voices playing, respectively, oldies, classic rock and new wave.

There is a phrase someone told me years ago I rejected out of hand at first but came to realize was absolutely true: The public does not know what it likes. It only likes what it knows. People like you and George Gimarc and perhaps me are a minority. The average radio listener doesn't want to hear new music. They want to hear what they know. Ninety percent of new listening is done by scanning. They hear a song they like, they stop scanning and they've found their new favorite radio station. New music doesn't get that done. Familiar music does. Where does new music get heard? Automobile commercials? The new KERA station?

There's a generation of radio people who grew up on formatics. I grew up ... Listen, I am now 74 years old, and so I grew up on the cusp of Vaudeville. I wasn't around when Vaudeville was around, but I came in at the tail end -- the Depression and so forth. I listened to Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly and Fred Allen -- people doing comedy, entertainers. That was my genre. I sprang out of trying to be a performer, as opposed to being a formula. There's a difference.

If you grew up into a world in which radio is formulaic, which it became, that's your set of standards. Mine was different. I was always on the quest of doing something new and dramatic and different and surprising -- giving away a car every day for a year, doing a trip around the world, the kind of thing that made people talk. That's now too much talk on the radio. We used to do contests that lasted 12 weeks. Now, people want it now, or it's "Get our of my face." A six-week contest isn't viable. Nobody pays attention, certainly not the younger demographic. So where does that leave us?

Terrestrial radio is struggling, and the demographics are getting older. But is satellite the answer? I don't see it making quantum leaps. It's had some setbacks. Part of its growth was everyone getting that free first taste when they bought a new car. Then people stopped buying new cars. And when the economy's down, pay radio's one of the first things you stop paying for. It comes from your iPod or online. So it's certainly a different world.

Someone told me just the other day ... {He laughs.] I was at a funeral, and he told me about his iPhone and Pandora. And this is an older guy fascinated by the fact iPhones did this. He was telling me about the changes in radio. If you've got a guy in his late 60s excited about Pandora, it's a different world. As for me, I'm happily retired.

And, now, a hall of famer.

They give you a list of people honored: Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack and Rick Dees and Casey Kasen. And you go, 'OK, OK, OK, OK.' And then you go back to Walter Cronkite. I'm gonna be on the same list? OK, that's pretty impressive. Their list of previous inductees is very awe-inspiring. I'm highly honored. That, or they ran out of names. I think it's the latter.

By the way, last time I wrote about you I asked about the Sump'N Else show archives, and someone said they'd been destroyed.

I saw that! A Sump'N Else archive never existed! It was on from '65 till early '68, and during that time videotape was just beginning to exist. And it was on huge reels. The tape was two inches wide and cost $2,000 a roll, and so nobody archived anything. On the Sump'N Else show they recorded something today and recorded over it tomorrow. Nothing was saved. It was a live show. It never existed longer than 24 hours. It's a shame in a way, but it was the nature of the times.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky