Those of you who have been following our innovation series know that we’ve been bouncing around between today’s hot new innovations in radio broadcasting to the amazing inventions and experiments from the past that turned out to be highly successful.
Some of our innovations and the people behind them are familiar to you, but hopefully, there’s been a surprise or two along the way. I’m thinking that this week’s “Radio’s Most Innovative” honoree, WNIC’s Pillow Talk evening show starring Alan Almond, is one that many people don’t know about. And because it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, it is only appropriate to shine the innovation light on one of the most romantic, intimate radio shows of all time.
But Pillow Talk wasn’t just about love songs and candlelight. It is a great object lesson in risk-taking, boldness, trust, serendipity, teamwork, and what has always made radio a special medium: theater of the mind.
Because the origins of Pillow Talk date back to the late ‘70s, I gathered a group of the key WNIC cast members from that era to piece together the story.
The players are WNIC’s former GM (and owner) Ed Christian, who you know as the head of Saga Communications, Lorraine Golden and Mary Bennett, both of whom served as sales managers at this legendary Detroit station, former WNIC PD and morning star Jim Harper, and of course, Alan Almond himself – the team that helped make “Detroit’s Nicest Rock” a Motor City institution.
So between their collective memories, here’s the story of how a show in the so-called “fourth daypart” dominated Detroit radio for years, long before there was Delilah and John Tesh.
To get a feel for just how unique Alan’s Pillow Talk style was for an AC station – or any station for that matter – take a listen to the sampler on his website, www.alanalmond.com. Some of the music you’ll hear Alan play or refer to may sound dated by 2015 radio standards, but in real time, Pillow Talk featured current music. During the show’s long run, Alan kept it fresh, often breaking new music that fit the Pillow Talk vibe, as well as featuring album tracks that no one else way playing.
So what was Pillow Talk? It was a five-hour show at night that became a signature part of WNIC, and helped make the station unique. Alan himself came up with the idea for the show, talked then-programmer Paul Christy into giving it a shot. But besides the unique music that Almond chose and his amazing voice and ability to connect with his mostly-female audience, there was a very “special sauce” to the show – Alan became “The Mystery Man.” He was never seen or marketed. He became an enigma, a fantasy, and a legend as the market wondered who he was, what he looked like, and what he was about.
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So using the collective memory of our group, here’s a look back at Pillow Talk, one of the most amazing shows in Detroit radio – and perhaps industry-wide.
Working off his instincts, Alan notes that “I didn’t ask for permission,” and started slowing the music down very late in the show. When he finally went to Paul Christy to get his blessing…
Alan Almond: He looked at me, and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just making some creative decisions about what I think may improve the sound of the show. And he just shook his head no. I said, “Honestly, I think I’m onto something here.” And I’m thinking to myself, “He looks like he’s going to fire me.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, let me run with this, and if it doesn’t work, you won’t have any problems with me. I’ll resign.” So he looked back up at me, and he said, “Okay.” One minute on a hunch, and that was it.
You just keep going up the line until you find somebody to say “yes”…and I think that’s the key. It’s not whether you can; it’s about finding somebody to say “yes.”
Ed Christian: Alan started it with an hour late night. One hour didn’t cut it as it was like a snack…not enough to give you a fill especially at that hour…so we backed it up. Actually, the show was seasonal sensitive. We never really started the slowdown until the sun set. When the sun was up, he was upbeat, had a good laugh, and fit the format. When the sun was setting, he became every woman’s “fantasy.”
Alan Almond: We didn’t have a name for it, and at some point, we had a little on-air contest for a night or two. And some couple from New Jersey called up and suggested “Pillow Talk.” And I say, hey – it just rang true and we went ahead and used it.
Ed Christian: He did a very credible job with mixing the music…this was way before the age of computer music scheduling. We left the show alone, but (Jim) Harper and I were always tinkering with the station, looking for ways to enhance it.
Jim Harper: All of the music was selected by Alan. Each song, including LP cuts, was chosen based on whether they fit the sound (he) was going for. There was no music clock, and none of the music was categorized. Alan would pull an hour’s worth of music at a time, and alter it based on requests and his feel for how the night was sounding.”
Mary Bennett: He had a knack for playing unexpected jewels of lesser-known tracks by artists we knew and loved…and then there was (Kool & the Gang’s) “Summer Madness” (the show’s theme song).
Alan Almond: My methodology was talking to the audience directly…I did my own research essentially. I asked people, we’d put a new song on, and I’d say, “What do you think of this?”
But you’ve got to remember this show is about love. So it was about not what we think but how we feel. And I was real in touch with what people felt. And if you can touch people, they’re with you for life. And I think that was the secret: touching people’s emotions.”
Jim Harper: Pillow Talk broke music, too. “Silver Spring” was a rare Fleetwood Mac cut from the ‘70s and almost an exclusive Pillow Talk song. It was probably the last music show where talent had control over the music and management wisely had a “hands off” policy.”
Ed Christian: We were using a staff photographer at that time but we could never get a good shoot for Alan…and then the idea occurred that the mystique was greater than the reality. He never appeared in public. Everything was in shadow. He was the man in the cape with the mask at Venetian balls…he was whomever you imagined him to be. He was the man inside the music…and he had “that voice” and knew how to use it.
Jim Harper: No one ever saw Alan. He was not required to be at any event or circulate photos of himself. This helped create such a mystery that for years, women would go by the station at night and beg to come in and meet him. When denied access, they would leave love notes with his producer or flowers on what they assumed to be his car.
Mary Bennett: At the agency level, the majority of media supervisors and buyers were female. It was rare discussion (of the station) that did not result in the following question: “So what does Alan Almond look like?” We knew it, and fostered the mystique. We never gave a straight answer, and (WNIC) TV commercials had Alan in shadows with his “Sanders Hot Fudge” voice talking about the music and his listeners… We (also) gave clients and listeners satin Pillow Talk pillowcases.
Lorraine Golden: (Pillow Talk) was an easy sell and kind of fun to perpetuate the myth of this romantic, sexy white Barry White-type. It seems to me that a lot of the buyers were curious themselves, but everyone understood why we needed to wrap this guy up in mystery.
Alan Almond: It may be one of the biggest factors in the success of the show. They were doing some promotional pictures…and they took these pictures, and here is one of me, and I look like a clown. I went into the station, and walked into Ed’s office, and I was angry. So I said I’m going to have to have final approval on any pictures or promotional stuff. I never heard a thing about it, and nobody every discussed it with me. All of a sudden the press got a hold of it, and wouldn’t you know that I backed into one of the greatest promotional vehicles in the history of the business, certainly in this town. Everybody wanted to know why I wouldn’t do pictures.
It was astounding. And it was word of mouth and it spread. And it turned into a frenzy. And then Ed started promoting it. We did TV commercials where I was shadowed, sitting on a bar stool.
This was dumb luck. We stumbled into this image. And suddenly, it took off.
Mary Bennett: While a lot of Detroit stations in that era had big morning personalities that created the station’s image and a halo effect in other dayparts, WNIC was crafted with “bookend” personalities – Jim Harper in the morning and Pillow Talk with Alan Almond at night.
Ed Christian: My premise on the show was always that if you had a hit at night you would have a bigger hit the next morning…which we had with Harper and ensemble. People then hit the sleep button on their radio and woke up to the same station in the morning…or if you were in your car….you didn't shut off the radio…you shut off the car…and the same station would be there the next morning.
Alan Almond: My job was to bring in that audience at night. And then we had a full staff, the morning show was doing great, (we had strong) middays, afternoons, and evenings. Now we’ve really got something because now somebody can turn on the radio in the morning, be entertained on the way to work, listen to it at work, drive home with a really talented guy and then go home, put on some food and have a little dinner, take a bath and then turn on Alan and relax and go to bed. And it worked. And we promoted it that way. We promoted Jim’s show; Jim promoted me; we cross-promoted to a tremendous extreme. And when we promoted – we had the advertising as well.
Why it worked
Jim Harper: The key, of course, was being FIRST and having great talent to create that beautiful combination of foreground talent and specific music for the mood of the show. Simply put, it was a sexy-voiced, romantic male, talking to women as if he was their most understanding, attentive boyfriend or lover. It was the most intimate one-on-one connection on the air.
Alan Almond: I talked to that one person… I was talking directly to that one woman driving home from work, the one girl lying in bed at night… I was talking to one person and I kept it there.
I could say it was my charming personality and my distinctive voice, and my ability to pick hits and stuff like that. But the reality is, it was the fans. They told me what they wanted to hear. And I think that was the key, because I listened to the audience. I listened to the people that called. I worked the phones like a crazy person. Every time that phone rang, I picked it up and talked to them. I didn’t just, blow them off. I was always nice to everybody. And I always had that “25 Theory.” If I’m nice to one person, they’re going to tell 25 of their friends what a nice guy I am and that he played a song for us. And I still get mail, I still run into people from time to time “You played a song for me one night, and oh, my God, my mother went nuts.” You reap what you sow. So the fans are number one.
Alan Almond: The real key to the success of Pillow Talk at the very genesis…was Ed Christian, period. Ed allowed me the final say in all decisions. Everybody made suggestions, everybody had ideas, but I always had the final say in everything. He allowed me the opportunity to succeed. Ed was a friend, he was my boss, he was my big brother, he was a mentor. A trusted associate. And anybody that knows him knows that he was the smartest damn broadcaster anybody had ever seen.
Ed would come in in the evening and sit in the studio and talk to me for long, long periods of time, not just about radio, but about everything. Ed picked everyone’s brain. And for some reason you’d want to tell him everything you knew about what you were doing, because anybody that’s successful at anything wants to explain what they do and how they do it. And by the time he was done, he knew everything about that show.
Jim Harper: Ed Christian is your man on this story. Although the concept and execution was Alan Almond’s, Ed is the one man who molded and marketed the show and most importantly, helped create an atmosphere which allowed Alan to become a huge celebrity in a way that was very personal. And it defied science.
Mary Bennett: I started at WNIC when I was 20 years-old and the station was still “Beautiful Music” – 101 Strings Orchestra Express. Ed Christian would soon assemble a station and stable of on-air talent that was a like a dream come true. As a salesperson first, then later sales manager – WNIC was a slice of heaven to market and sell.
Night time radio
Alan Almond: You get out of a time slot what you put into it, and if you’re not going to put anything into it and you’re not going to touch the audience, they’re not going to tune you in.
Jim Harper: (Pillow Talk revenue) was 500% bigger than what radio is getting now (from nights). And as a “bookend” to the morning show, it was impossible to compete against in sales.
Ed Christian: Each year, there are fewer and fewer people who remember and understand the greatness of radio…Our assets go home every night. We have no bricks and mortar to speak of. We modulate air for a living…and in many cases believe that a base level of programming is “good enough”…not what we can do to make it better or even best. One size does not fit all and we wonder why our industry is stale bread.
Thanks to the entire team from WNIC’s heyday for “reuniting” to tell the Pillow Talk story, and especially Alan Almond who blazed a trail in Detroit nighttime radio – a true innovator.
INNOVATION QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Simply put, whenever a person gets a new idea, a kind of romance begins.”
Mitchell Ditkoff, author & creator of the blog, “The Heart of Innovation”
More of Radio's Most Innovative
- Radio’s Most Innovative: Kurt Hanson
- Radio’s Most Innovative: All Christmas Music
- Radio’s Most SKINnovative: Jim McBride
- Radio’s Most Innovative: Radioplayer
- Radio's Most Innovative: Mediabase/Rich Meyer
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
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Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.
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