Rock and Roll History’s Birthday
Fifty years ago this weekend, the station that helped change radio forever presented a special that changed music history forever. It was February 21, 1969 at 12 noon — the beginning of Washington’s Birthday holiday weekend — that KHJ (930 AM) presented The History of Rock and Roll, a 48-hour “rocumentary” that chronicled the events leading up to and through the evolution of popular music into Rock and Roll.
Technically it wasn’t the first program to broach the subject. That distinction perhaps best belongs to KRLA’s (now KRDC, 1110 AM) production, Pop Chronicles of the 1950s and 1960s, which launched on February 9th of the same year, just two weeks prior to History. But Pop Chronicles (advertised as “created by KRLA and presented by Sears Southern California stores”) ran one hour per week for 52 weeks. History, by comparison, completed its entire 48-hour run in three days.
The idea for the HORR, as it is called by its fans, seems to have evolved from a marketing presentation put out by KHJ a while prior. Ellen Pelissero had been tasked with creating a marketing tool that would help advertising agency people to better understand the KHJ format. As explained by Pelissero herself in the book Inside Boss Radio (Jacobs),
“The problem (was that advertising) time buyers just didn’t understand rock music, much less KHJ’s top-40 format. The solution, I figured, explain it to them: a short film, a sort of mini-history of music, its audience’s burgeoning economic power, and how adept KHJ was at capturing the imaginations advertising’s Holy Grail — the 18-34 demographic.”
It worked, and the film went on to be a training tool for all of the RKO top-40 stations nationwide.
A few months later, according to then KHJ programmer Ron Jacobs, “(Consultant Bill) Drake and I were sitting at Nickodell’s (Restaurant), and he says ‘Ron … I have an idea. We should do a history of Rock and Roll.’ ‘What’s that, Bill?’ ‘Oh, you know, the history of Rock and Roll.’ And that was his contribution.”
Jacobs assembled a team to put together the program. LA Times pop music writer Pete Johnson would write the material, legendary KHJ production and engineering guru Bill Mouzis would engineer it, then-morning man Robert W. Morgan would voice it, and Pelissero would be production coordinator, “aka gopher,” she explained, “providing research, setting up, conducting, recording and editing interviews.
“The only catch,” Pelissero explained was that according to Jacobs, they only had seven weeks to complete the project because KRLA was about to go on the air with Pop Chronicles … “if we could lay out 48 hours of continuous radio, we could bring them to their proverbial knees.”
As an aside, this demonstrates the difference between radio in the days before a few companies owned all the stations: KHJ was by far the most popular music station in the country, and they still wanted to work their butts off to beat a competitor. But I digress.
It may seem trivial now, but putting together a show of this scope was a huge, unprecedented undertaking. There was no internet, of course, nor was anything like this done before. There just was not easily accessible research to be found … indeed there was little research on the subject at all – it had to be done in house, by the team themselves and some assistants and contributors.
In just seven weeks. After regular station duties on and off the air were done. During a cold, rainy Los Angeles winter with numerous electrical outages and a manual typewriter.
“Ron set Pete and I up in a little office on the second floor of a storefront a couple doors down Melrose Avenue from RKO’s KHJ facility,” wrote Pelissero. “We worked mostly at night. I arranged the interviews Pete needed while he sat in the back room hunched over a manual Royal typewriter batting out a script.
“Pete and I were both working at first 15, then 20 hours per day. We quit going home altogether…we quit eating. Too tired. There were moments approaching delirium from last of sleep.”
By 10 a.m. on February 21st, just two hours prior to the programs scheduled launch, the production was finally done. “I went home, took a shower, changed my clothes, and by 11:30 a.m. was sitting on my living room floor between my radio speakers,” wrote Pelissero. She heard the first 15-minute segment, then fell asleep for two days. And never heard the entire 48-hour production that she helped create.
The program was not perfect. It included errors and omissions, misjudgments, and more, most of which were fixed in a full rewrite done by Gary Theroux for Draske/Chenault in 1978. But those who heard it often consider it the best of all versions in spite of the problems. Perhaps because it was the original and so many people put their souls into its creation.
There were actually two versions of the original. The very first, voiced by Morgan, and another voiced by Humble Harve Miller, that ran on Labor Day weekend of 1969 on KHJ and was also syndicated across the country. Miller did the second one because Morgan had left the station in a contract dispute. In 1970 the show was expanded to 52 hours and voiced by various DJs — localized to whatever station decided to run it — using an expanded version of the original script. This was the last time the program would air on KHJ.
• The original 48 hour production ran 40 hours without commercials or news … which means even a production of this type didn’t break KHJ’s commercial load rule – it works out to just 10 minutes per hour for news and advertisements.
• This original airing was the first time since the Boss Radio top-40 format debuted in 1965 that KHJ broke format.
• Ratings at the time showed that HORR earned ratings almost three times that earned by the second-place station at the time: a 25.4 share in Hooper Ratings compared to 8.7. Morgan once told me that you could hear the program wherever he went in town, almost as if it were being broadcast over the city-wide public address system.
• According to the demo tape used to market the early syndicated version, “the initial cost of the program exceeded $75,000 and expended over 12,000 man-hours of research, writing and production.” That’s $6.25 per hour in 1969; $42.87 per hour today. Considering the scope and the talent used, this was dirt cheap.
• While KHJ gave away the tapes of the full 48-hour recording and a “tape player to play them on,” no version was ever legally sold. Even stations that ran the syndicated program were required to send them back to RKO or Drake/Chanault. You can, however, find recording of bootlegs around the internet. ReelRadio.com has them as well, and that may be a huge selling piece for them once they revamp, relaunch, and accept new members.