By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
I liked Bill Lee right away when I first heard him. It was on a composite aircheck of KFRC San Francisco from fall 1980, and he was doing an elaborate rhyming front-sell of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” I pulled it out and listened again to get the wording right, but I can do the part about “headed straight down the commode/with a load of sins/that wins/an all-expense paid trip to hell” almost from memory.
But that whole composite made an impression on me. I also remember PM driver Mark McKay playing Rod Stewart’s “Passion” and declaring, “This one is so sexy, you’d better leave the room. I think your radio wants to be alone.” More than 35 years later, I told another prominent radio person about that break, but he had it memorized too. In general, everybody on early ‘80s KFRC did the sort of stylized writing that made you understand clearly that the jock had put some thought into what was going to be said. It just so happened that many of Lee’s bits rhymed.
This was the Big 610 that, elsewhere on that aircheck, paid all the tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge for listeners. (Uusally, there were three promotions simultaneously.) Another sign of the strength of the radio station under PD Gerry Cagle: I used to play industry friends an aircheck of Rob Conrad on KFRC in fall ‘83. People heard the timechecks and assumed that “four o’clock” meant “… in the afternoon.” That’s how great the station sounded, even in overnights.
The first conversation I had about Bill Lee as a social media star was over a year ago. It was with an industry colleague, a person of significant achievement himself, who became an unabashed fan when Lee was mentioned. The second was in a conference room, when a discussion of air staff somehow led somebody to stream Lee’s posted breaks, bringing the meeting to a halt for a few minutes while everybody watched and admired. Then a few weeks ago, a non-industry friend asked me about Bill Lee, because he’d somehow come across Lee’s posted Instagram breaks.
At this writing, Australia-based programmer and consultant Craig Bruce is in the process of interviewing Lee for a forthcoming edition of his podcast, Radio Game Changers. Bruce told me, “He’s got a huge following in the Australian radio industry,” which doesn’t usually look to America these days. “I just love that a guy who’s 60 years of age is doing his best work ever; when you watch him, you can feel the energy and joy that he still gets from doing it.”
Bill Lee was obviously special in 1980. The term outlier wasn’t commonly used as it is now, but anybody on KFRC was an outlier, because KFRC was (in a good way) a last bastion of ‘70s high-energy Top 40. Many perfectly able jocks who could have done that sort of radio were working for stations that had over-reacted to AOR and tamped down their energy level. Shortly thereafter, Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” airstaffs would start screaming again, but mostly with very regimented content (even then, a few distinctive acts emerged, notably Terry Young and Pete Michaels).
But if Broadway Bill Lee was an outlier then, he has become almost an entire category unto himself now. I asked Facebook friends if anybody could suggest current CHR jocks with a similar stylized high-energy act and got less than a dozen names, more of them in Classic Hits than CHR. (I’m looking forward to checking out WERO New Bern’s Austin Moore, WFLC Miami’s Mike Kruz, and 92.9 Perth Australia’s Tim Lee.) Not surprisingly, I heard from other readers acidly characterizing today’s CHR as “full of dumb phones and using social media to promote nothing.”
Even when I’m feeling more charitable than that, I regard the presentation of today’s CHR as relatively affectless. Just as it was for many in 1980, high-energy personality seems again to be a corny relic for many programmers. I’ve heard more of it over the last 15 years on Spanish-language and Urban radio. And yet, it’s drawing a crowd now. And my non-industry friend seemed to enjoy Lee’s breaks for reasons that were neither nostalgia nor camp. As we consider what radio can mean to people going forward, take note that Lee didn’t “reinvent” his act, just its platform.
WCBS-FM is always one of my buttons, but I made a point of checking Lee out on Friday, August 25. In the 90 minutes or so I listened, his rhyming bits were often more subtle than the opuses that go viral — a rhyme or two here and there in the course of a weather forecast or a crossplug for the morning show. But there were also a handful of topical bits over intros, including one about the new Taylor Swift single; he played with the front-sell or back-sells (e.g., coming out of Prince’s “Kiss” with “plant one right here”). There was a phone bit or two, and he always laughed generously at the caller, except for the one who was trying to imitate him by rhyming (where he sounded mock-dubious).
Not all of what Bill Lee did would have justified a posting on social media; that’s why you hear the exceptional breaks there. The other breaks were just effortlessly good — what you would expect a veteran to do with all the tools in his kit. He didn’t talk up the ramp of commercials ‘70s style, but he did get into them before you even noticed the station was stopping down. And it was all PPM-era- compliant. So there’s no excuse for other jocks not to use their intros wisely.