The Long-Lasting Impact of CKLW on the Whole Radio Industry
by Steve Hunter

One of the most important and unique facts about CKLW: for a long, relatively uninterrupted time in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Big 8 was not only #1 in the ratings in Detroit, but also #1 or, occasionally, just below #1, in Cleveland and Toledo and Akron/Canton. This was practically unheard-of at the time, even in the days of powerhouse AM rockers, and drew a LOT of attention to CKLW from other programmers, bringing even more renown to Bill Drake.

CKLW'S success in integrating (literally!) a huge audience of white and black Detroiters behind one station also drew a lot of envious attention, and that, in particular, lingers glowingly in the memories of many of those of us who worked at the Big 8.

That wide audience appeal turned up as a benefit in some unexpected places and times; example: it may have saved my life! One night in late 1970, a friend and I were leaving a converted east Detroit movie theater where I'd just emceed Eric Burdon in concert; leaving the theater very late, and walking, alone, across a very dark, very wide, and quite deserted parking lot just off Gratiot, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of young ghetto guys with knives who wanted our money and maybe more (they hinted at giving the knockout blonde I was with some attentions she definitely didn't want!). When they found out that I was the evening jock at the Big 8, some of the gang said, yeah, they listened to me sometimes, and began a more-or-less desultory argument with the leader over whether they should just let me go! I started (believe it or not), taking "requests" for songs to play the next night, trying to at least delay things. After watching the members of his gang talking with me in an increasingly friendly way for a couple of minutes, the leader apparently decided he didn't like what he was seeing, and told 'em to cut the chat and get on with the robbery. The knife-points came out and were pushing on my chest, again, and one of the teens was reaching in my right-front pocket to grab the several hundred dollars in cash I was carrying, when, by the sheerest chance, ANOTHER completely unrelated robbery at a bar just around the corner erupted in gunfire as the owner and the gang robbing him opened fire on each other! The kids holding us at knife-point suddenly panicked at the sound of the gunshots and, moments later, a chorus of police sirens, and they ran off--the one reaching in my pocket even tried to climb in the back of my car to hide! I pulled him out, climbed in and locked the doors, and the girl and I just looked at each other in stunned amazement for a few seconds, and then we drove away, unharmed and with not a penny lost. Interesting footnote: I played their requested songs the next night at 8 pm, as promised during the few "friendly" moments--I should add that, for fairly obvious reasons, they had given me only their song requests, not their names--and I've always wondered how many of the gang and their friends were listening that next night. I'll betcha there were quite a few! (Hey, anything for a ratings point...!)

That "CKLW clout" also had a lot of professional benefits for jocks (or ex-jocks) at the Big 8, helping us for the remainder of our broadcast careers. My personal example might help illustrate the point:

It was that "accidental" status as the number one jock in Cleveland (even though I was actually in Detroit, at CKLW) that got me a peach of a job. I jumped directly from evenings at The Big 8 to the prestigious afternoon drive shift and assistant-program-director job in Cleveland at the nationally-known and very creative and competitive WIXY/1260, mainly on the strength of my being already a "known name" in the Cleveland ratings. The day I joined the WIXY staff, mayor Carl Stokes officially proclaimed it "Steve Hunter Day" in Cleveland; they arranged a big parade through downtown (it coincided with the arrival of a circus, so that part was easy!), and I rode through the streets of Cleveland atop an elephant surrounded by marching bands and cheering fans! Amazing! I should add that the co-owner and General Manager of WIXY, Norm Wain, was one of the great promotional geniuses of radio, and a major local political contributor, so having him around didn't hurt things any in making a spectacular station-to-station transition.

It was a temporary drop down for me in broadcast-market size, but a strategic move up in future career prospects. I immediately leaped to the top of the ratings heap in Cleveland, eclipsing even CKLW, and stayed at WIXY 'til the station was sold several months later to, of all people, the Harlem Globetrotters organization; at that point, I had an opportunity to return to Detroit to do afternoon drive at a "new" competitor to the Big 8 in Detroit, WCAR-AM. Good sound, growing ratings, big mistake! We gave the Big 8 a good run for its money for a short time, but CKLW's money was a LOT more than the locally-based WCAR owner could throw into the pot to sustain contests and promotions, and he eventually gave up on "Top 40," canned the program director and most of the high-dollar on-air staff, including me (ironically enough, just days before a new ratings book showed WCAR's ratings leaping forward, and just as we started to cause some sleepless nights at CKLW). Ah, the vicissitudes of fate and radio managers (how we love 'em!--grin).

I launched a small radio consultantcy based on my CKLW reputation (those who knew me at CK will get a big smile out of the irony of that!), which then led to a programming job with Kent Burkhart and Associates and the PD-ship at his successful oldies/rock station in Boston, and lots more fun and frolic over the following years. In fact, even two years ago, when I decided to return briefly to radio to anchor the news on the leading AM news-talker in the South, the Program Director turned out to have spent a few years as he started in the radio business listening to--guess who?--me, on CKLW. Blush! Very little of the credit for this goes to me, by the way; the Big 8 "made" a lot of jocks who simply had the wits to take advantage of the opportunity!

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