Native Philadelphian Dan Lerner began his broadcasting career in 1961 as an account executive at radio station WADK in Newport, RI. In 1963, Dan and his brother purchased WLLH AM and FM in Lowell MA where he helped create a new music format that eventually became known as "Adult Contemporary," one of the most popular radio formats in the country.
In 1974, Dan applied for the recently revoked license of WXUR, 100.3 FM in Media, PA which served the Philadelphia market. The FCC eventually chose Dan as most qualified to receive the license over three other applicants.
Under Dan's leadership, the station went through two popular and successful incarnations. The first one was as Kiss 100, playing a contemporary mix of soft rock and love songs. Kiss 100 was especially popular with women. In 1993 the station was renamed Y100 and evolved into an alternative rock format attracting a large dedicated following of teens and twenty somethings.
With virtually every major-market station owned by a large radio group or conglomerate, Dan was the sole owner of 100.3, so he was able to run his station like "a small entrepreneurial business." In 2000 Dan told his staff that if the station had two consecutive sales months of $1 million, he'd fly everyone to Cancun for the weekend. When the goal was met, Dan fulfilled his promise and the entire staff from receptionists to on air hosts to salespeople made the trip. In 2001, Dan sold Y100 to Radio One.
The Philadelphia Radio Archives caught up with Dan recently at his office in Narberth, PA to learn about his long career in radio.
At WSSH you had helped create a format that eventually became known as "adult contemporary." What was your goal in developing that format?
We had been doing beautiful music for about 15 years and what we discovered was that when beautiful music began it was a 25- 49 demo. Well, over 15 years those folks were now 40 - 65 basically, so they had moved out of the primary demo that advertisers were looking for. And that particular instrumental format, as popular as it was back in the 60s and 70s, had no appeal to younger listeners, so no younger listeners came in to replace the ones that were going out. The whole demo just shifted 15 years older. So we decided to experiment with a format that would appeal to 25 - 49 year olds again.
We took some of the elements of beautiful music which was very little talk, very low key announcers and presentation, with no talking basically for 12 - 15 minutes, just like beautiful music was. Beautiful music was basically 15 minutes of music with 4 breaks per hour. That had never been done with non-instrumental music. With all-vocal music there was talk. Every record was introduced, there was personality between songs, and there was no such thing as a block of vocal music, only instrumental.
We brought in a consultant named George Burns (not the comedian) who was very savvy when it came to programming radio stations. He had been a top 40 guy, and he helped us develop the concept of basically playing soft music in 15 minute blocks, 100 percent vocals, which was the mirror image of beautiful music. That is what eventually became known as adult contemporary over time. It served the same function to the listener as the beautiful music format did: it was easy to listen to at work, it was acceptable to a larger age group of listeners that wouldn't tolerate entirely instrumental music, but would not tolerate all rock and roll music either. It turned out to be the perfect compromise, and it became a significant development.
At what point did you realize that FM would become dominant over AM? Was there any particular event that foreshadowed that for you?
Initially, it was the mid 1960s. I'll tell you an interesting story. My brother Arnold and I bought WLLH AM and FM in Lowell and Lawrence Massachusetts. WLLH was unique in that it operated transmitters in two different cities on the same frequency, which wasn't allowed anymore. They had banned that years earlier but we were grandfathered. So when we bought it, the station had two 1,000 watt transmitters, one in Lowell and one in Lawrence. These are towns that are about 25 miles north of Boston, and they had their own little market called the Merrimac Valley. It was a separate market from Boston, but it was part of the Boston metropolitan area, and it was a nice little market.
When we bought the station, we basically bought the AM station, and with the AM station came this big monster of a transmitter in the back room - it was like glowing and burning huge amounts of electricity. It was a 50,000 watt FM transmitter. It took us at least a year or two before it finally hit us that here we have these two 1,000 watt stations that cover the Merrimac Valley and in the back we have this 50,000 watt transmitter that covered the entire Boston Market. I don't know if we were slow or it was just so new that no one grasped it yet, but we finally grasped it.
We decided we have to separate programming, because we were simulcasting local programming to all of New England. The signal reached five of the six states in New England - it was a huge signal, and still is to this day. And they were listening up in New Hampshire or wherever to local news from Lowell Massachusetts. It was about two years and we decided this is going to be its own thing and we separated it. I spent about a year researching what we should put on it and I ended up buying a service, an automated system from a company out in Washington State called IGM. Basically we played these huge, long tapes of beautiful music, all instrumental music. And we sold basic advertising, but since it was automated there were only so many spots you could put on. About every 15 minutes the tape would stop and we would insert one commercial.
Because it was automated, it had to be like one announcement a day, two announcements a day or three announcements a day. So for the very first rate card we charged for one announcement a day, for 30 days, minimum of a month, for $60. $2 per commercial. We didn't know if anyone would buy it, but we figured OK, you're going to have to commit for a month at a time.
We had an advertiser in Andover Massachusetts who was one of the first ones to come on and it was called the Andover Inn. It was managed by a fellow named Jerry Donahue, who was Irish, and had this charming Irish accent. We decided, "Jerry, you should really record your own commercials because we think it would sound good." Well, after the first week on the air we got a call from Jerry. People were calling him from like 50, 60 miles away making a reservation to come for dinner. It was our first indication of just how powerful the FM coverage was. Even though at that time, maybe only 10% of the public could receive an FM signal. FM receivers in the car was still an option, or an add-on. It wasn't until later that it became standard. So that was the first inkling.
When I knew that it was just a matter of time was in the early 1970s, between 1972 and 1974, when I was running WIFI. The big dog in town was Famous 56 (AM), WFIL. WIFI was the upstart rock station on FM. Well at that time I think that the distribution of listening was about 70% AM, 30% FM. But people are now buying cars with FM radios built-in, it was no longer an option or an add-on. It was very clear that it was a superior service and it was only a matter of time before those numbers would flip-flop. And sure enough, today, it's probably 80/20 the other way, if that.
In 1971, you left WFIL-TV as a very successful sales person. What qualities do you think are essential for success in ad sales and has that changed much over the last 40 years?
There was a big difference between selling radio advertising and selling television advertising. Selling radio advertising was a much more creative enterprise than television. In radio, you are really a consultant to businesses. It was more than just selling time. You consulted on their marketing approach, the copywriting, the creation and producing of commercials directly for the advertiser, the merchant. Much more creative and much more fun.
Selling television was not very interesting. It was basically selling numbers. You had to be better at math than at English when you were selling television. You were selling it to advertising agencies; you very rarely dealt directly with the advertiser who was actually paying for the advertising. Ad agencies were notorious for wanting to buy based on ratings rather than on creative input. That way they protected themselves in case the ad campaign failed. They could turn to the client and say "We bought all the top rated shows. We don't know why it didn't work." So it wasn't nearly as satisfying. Four years was interesting but I pretty much decided that wasn't for me and I wanted to get back to being involved on a day-to-day basis in running my own show rather than working for somebody else.
Image: Dan Lerner with a collection of personalized license plates that span the Kiss 100 and Y100 years.
In 1981 you were selected as best qualified by the FCC to obtain the license for 100.3 FM. What do you think that means? What was the FCC looking for to determine something like that?
They were looking for, first of all, experience in the industry. I happen to have a master's degree from Penn, in communications. I had the educational and experiential background to make a success out of the frequency. Another major factor in the decision making process of the FCC was concentration of media control, which back then was a big deal. Today it's meaningless. Today there's very few companies that have all of the control. But back then, there were limitations on the number of stations, I think it was still the 7-7-7 rule, seven each of AM, FM and TV.
The theory was that the public was better served if there were more voices by more different people, and I think that is still true. And I think we're the poorer today for the lack of different voices. But back then it was FCC policy, and that was a major factor in the decision. One of the other applicants was the wife of the chairman of the board of Comcast, and that was considered, and that was held against that applicant. My application also had minority ownership. I had a minority owner which was also considered desirable, and was desirable, and still is today. There was very little minority ownership representation back then, and that has changed for the better. I would say that those were the three major factors in the decision.
There were three other applicants in 1973 and it was amazing that there were only three because a couple of years later it probably would have been hundreds. Back then it was still early in the game. I'll bet that the opportunity just wasn't recognized by people. So there were only three, and this was the last major frequency in a major market that went through the hearing process, and that took seven years, 1974 - 1981. What surprised me was how long it took. It took twice as long as we all had thought it would.
What did you think of the revocation of Dr. Carl McIntire's license over the Fairness Doctrine? Do you think it was a smokescreen for something else?
It certainly was an interesting case. This revolved around the Fairness Doctrine, which doesn't exist any more. Here is what happened: There was the Fairness Doctrine in effect at the time, which meant that if you presented controversial material, you had to give other people the opportunity to present opposing views. You didn't have to put them on, but you had to give them the opportunity. They may not have wanted to go on. And the Fairness Doctrine itself was a controversial doctrine that has since been repealed. Some people wish it were still around, because you have so much extremism on the radio today without the Fairness Doctrine that could not have existed in the old days. But that's a different subject.
They put on some very extreme programming and they didn't offer the opportunity to counter it. And when complaints were filed at the FCC by people who were prevented from presenting their point of view on the air, the FCC went to the licensee and said "how come you're not letting people on?" And I don't remember the specific information that was provided by the licensee, but they misrepresented to the FCC the facts in a sworn document. When the FCC denied their renewal application, and when they went to court, it was not over the Fairness Doctrine, but over misrepresentation to the FCC.
Did you ever happen to meet Rev Carl McIntire or did he ever contact you?
No, I never met him. I only saw him once in the airport.
He never said "I love what you're doing with the station?"
He never let me know one way or the other. I think he probably had other things on his mind.
Did you ever listen to the station when he was running it?
I don't think I ever did listen to it.
How did you obtain listeners when you started Kiss 100 on a frequency that had been vacant for almost 10 years?
I felt it was important to put the station on the map by going on to television immediately, even when the revenue of the station wouldn't warrant it. So we went on [the air] November 8, 1982, and we were on television that January, or at the latest that spring. Of course the spring is an important time to advertise on television. Our ratings just took off immediately. I had heard second or third hand that a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania did a lesson on Kiss 100, on how to effectively market a new product. I never found out who it was. I would attribute that to the immediate awareness we created of a new product by heavy television advertising. And it was expensive, but hey, the big time. Within a year we were a significant ratings factor among a lot of women, particularly 25 - 54. And within 3 or 4 years, we were number one in the market, from zero.
Do you think the consolidation of media ownership has been good or bad for radio, and would you get involved in radio today?
In a word: bad, and no. That's two words. Consolidation has not been good for radio. It's a less creative medium, it's a less satisfying medium for the listener, and as a result, they're going elsewhere. And the business is suffering. From 1960 to 2000 there was only one down year in radio advertising revenue. Between 2000 and 2010, I think virtually every year has been down. It was a $20 billion dollar industry in 2000, it's about a $15 billion industry today. Where from 1961 when we first started, for the next 39 years from 1961 it went from a $600 million industry to a $20 billion industry, so it was a classic growth medium. One of the fastest growing other than maybe computers, for that period. And when the consolidation came in, the proof was in the pudding, it's not as good a business, it's not as good a product. I had a lot of fun, I made a lot of money, and I loved every minute I was in it and I have no interest or desire to go back.