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Detroit Radio History
by Alex Cosper

see also American Radio History


Detroit has been the birthplace of many emerging musical styles that have gone international, from Motown to r&b-flavored rock to punk. Being the hub of the automobile industry makes it another interesting place in radio industry, in the sense that radio became mobile when it began being installed in cars, which started in Detroit.

Some of the earliest call letters in the market dating back to the early twenties included the Detroit Police Department's KOP, The Free Press' WCX and the Detroit News' WWJ. Stations moved around the dial the first two decades. With the FCC's reallocation of frequencies in the early forties, AM dial stability began to appear with WJR (760), WWJ (950), WXYZ (1270) and WJBK (1480).

Television became a big reason radio completely changed in the fifties and sixties. Instead of being outlets for national network feeds, AM stations began to develop their own identities, serving the local market, first with block programming in the early fifties. Then with the popularity of rock and roll music beginning in the mid-fifties and the successful mass marketing of transistor radios in the late fifties, radio became very appealing to the teen market.

Stations began to adopt dedication to complete formats in the late fifties and early sixties. Middle of the Road stations served adults while top 40 stations served the younger audience. Formats divided further and expanded with experimentation on FM in the late sixties and early seventies. Once technology had improved to the point where FM radio could be picked up while moving in an automobile in the late seventies, the commercial formats migrated to FM.

A popular AM station heard in Detroit in the seventies was CKLW, which was actually based in Windsor, Canada. In certain areas it was drowned out by rocker WABX. In the eighties FM stations had captured the hearts of music listeners while AM stations that still did well, do so because they did some form of talk radio. An exception was adult contemporary station WJR (760) on AM, scoring the market crown frequently, sometimes even hitting double digits in the Arbitron ratings.

WJR was owned by Cap Cities/ABC, one of the biggest and most successful radio giants at the time. Federal's WWJ (950) was a top five station, delivering news, sometimes outperforming its sister FM WJOI (97.1), which played beautiful/easy listening music. Another successful AM station was WXYT (1270), owned by Fritz. Most other AM stations had fallen to the bottom of the ratings by the end of the decade.

Another station that did well in the late eighties was Booth America's WJLZB (97.9), one of the most successful urban contemporary stations in the country. It was frequently the market's runner-up to WJR, making it the leading station playing a lot of current music. Top 40 stations did not perform as well in the ratings, but then again it was a three way race for awhile between Metropolis' WDFX (99.5), Dorton's WKQI (95.5) and Cap Cities/ABC's WHYT (96.3).

Rock stations historically have done well in Detroit although the competition between Legacy's WLLZ (98.7) and Great American's WRIF (101.1) kept both stations more in the middle of the ratings. Classic rock was heard on Greater Media's WCSX (94.7), another station caught in the middle.

In the early nineties WJR emerged as the consistent number one station in the market. By 1993, with the exception of classic rocker WCSX, the rock stations had fallen to the bottom of the market. Even a new player in the market, US Radio's WDZR (102.7) hung just as low in the ratings as a rock station as its earlier incarnation playing oldies. The only thing new on the rock scene during that period was Chum's alternative rocker CIMX (88.9), which came in from Windsor, Canada.

One big surprise in the early nineties was the success of country combo WWWW (1130 AM and 106.7 FM), owned by Shamrock. The FM had done country since the eighties under Shamrock, and was considered a strong player for years, but generally outside the top five. The combo became a number one contender in the summer 1992 Arbitron, then hit number one in the fall. It stayed on top for the next year, but in the winter of 1993, the ratings fell back down to earth, partly due to new competition from Alliance Broadcasting's WYCD (99.5).

WJLB remained strong as the music leader in the early nineties, while the top 40 stations began to reassess their strategies. WHYT proved to be the lone survivor from the three way battle. WDFX went country, becoming WYCD while WKQI flipped to adult contemporary. But with the steady success of CIMX and alternative rock's success around the country, WHYT went alternative from 1994 to 1997. By the mid-nineties WJLB, under the ownership of Evergreen Media, became the number one station (12+) in the market.

WRIF made a big comeback in the mid-nineties, shifting from album rock to alternative rock. The alternative format did well nationally from 1991-1996 before entering a long period of spotty results. Once the trend had peaked, WRIF shifted back to rock and continued to do well in the late nineties, partly due to hanging on to artists who crossed the alternative and rock formats. WPLT (Planet, 96.3) replaced WHTY's alternative format one day in July 1997, offering a more adult and melodic version to alternative.

Following the Telecom Act of 1996, big corporate owners began to have a dramatic impact on the radio industry. Clear Channel and Infinity were the results of a series of mergers that made them the two biggest players in radio. In Detroit, Clear Channel owns five stations in the mid-2000s: urban giants WJLB and WMXD, along with mainstream top 40 WKQI, adult contemporary WNIC and AM sports station WDFN.

Infinity owns AM news bellwether WWJ, oldies WOMC, Smooth Jazz WVMV, country WYCD, talk WKRK and sports WXYT-AM. Greater Media owns rocker WRIF, classic rocker WCSX and adult contemporary WMGC. The leading stations at the midpoint of the 2000s are WJR (owned by ABC Radio), WWJ, WJLB, WKQI and WMXD.










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