The ABCs Of Art Roberts
(This article appeared in the March 15, 2002 issue of Radio & Records, written by Bob Shannon.)
By Bob Shannon

   Last June I spent several hours interviewing Art Roberts. He never mentioned he'd had a stroke, so when he had another one several weeks ago, like many, I was surprised. When Roberts died March 6, radio lost a pathfinder. This is his story.

   Even with a degree, he didn't think his prospects were great. Not back then, in the sweltering summer of 1953. Air conditioners were so scarce that breathing was like swallowing hot cotton candy, and he wasn't warming up to the idea that he'd have to drive a truck for a living.
   I'm writing about Elvis Presley but could just as easily be describing Art Roberts, since, except for the city and couple of other small differences, in 1953 their situations were identical. Eighteen- year- old Elvis, fresh out of high school, got behind the wheel for Crown Electric in Memphis, while Roberts, who'd just graduated from Southeastern College in Hammond, LA, accepted a job offer from Jackson Brewing Company, a beer distributor in New Orleans - which didn't float his father's boat.
   "You went to college for four years, and you're going to drive a truck?" his father asked, sarcastically.
   Stop the tape. Hit rewind.


   Roberts grew up in New York City, but unlike other New Yorkers I've written about, the city didn't get into his blood, and once he left, he wasn't drawn back like a moth to a flame. Radio was no attraction either. In fact, he had no favorite announcer and didn't particularly like the pop music of the day. "I listened to jazz," he says, "and loved country music."
   Roberts got his first taste of radio in college. "We had a job board," he says, "and there was a note that read 'Part-time announcer needed.'" When no one else applied, the job at WIHL/Hammond was his. In that hot summer of 1953, he graduated and decided to pursue a radio career.
   "I sent out tapes but didn't get one call-back," he recalls. "Nothing." Discouraged, he got ready to truck to New Orleans, but he wasn't jazzed about it.
   "Then I got a call from Atlanta," Roberts explains. No, not Atlanta, GA - Atlanta, TX, a speck on the map about an inch south of Texarkana.
   "Half the money, but it sounded better than driving a truck," Roberts says.
   His decision made, he headed to Texas. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead to KLIF/Dallas, WKBW/Buffalo and, then, back to the midwest and 10 years at "The Big 89," WLS/Chicago.


   Atlanta, TX was a one-horse town.
   Roberts reported to work, and the PD sat him down and said, "I want you to try to sound like you're from around these parts." Eager to please, Roberts slowed his New York pace to a crawling drawl.
   "On day this guy walked into the studio," Roberts recalls.
   "You know," the stranger said, "We like the music you're playing, but you're tryin' awful hard to sound like you're from around here, and ...." The stranger paused. "Look, everybody knows you're not."
   In other words, that dog won't hunt. "It really taught me a lesson about being myself," Roberts says. It was a lesson that would serve him well.
   In 1954, Roberts headed for KPBB/Tyler, TX. The station was a mishmash, and, like today, everything was about sales. Roberts recalls the manager's mantra: "If two squirrels want to mate on the air, we'll broadcast it you get a sponsor."
   Tyler was a stone's throw from Dallas and KLIF, 1954 was the dawn of the rock age, and Roberts was developing a taste for gospel and R&B. It paid off when he got a call from Gordon McLendon.
   "KLIF still had a rather loose format," says Roberts. So loose, in fact, that he'd walk into the studio at night with a box of blues records and play whatever he pleased. "I always considered KLIF my master's degree in radio. McLendon was a flat-out genius, a master of illusion."


   By 1956, Elvis Presley had left truck driving behind, and Roberts, like most of McLendon jocks, was getting offers to program. Station owners, he says, knew that McLendon had a formula, and they wanted it.
   The road led to Shreveport, LA.
   "The first thing I did there was throw a parade for Elvis." says Roberts. No, Elvis wasn't there; it was just a parade for him. "What amazed me is how many people believed they saw him," Roberts chuckles.
   Three months later he was off to Dayton to play R&B at night and pick up some extra cash doing record hops, but the owner objected to the hops. "He would introduce himself as 'Ronald B. Woodyard, President,'" Roberts says. "I used to think his last name was 'President.'"
   In short order, the job in Dayton was over, and Roberts went to Akron. It was there that he met soon- to- be legend Dick Biondi and developed the contacts that would take him to Buffalo and, ultimately, in October of 1960, Chicago.


   WLS/Chicago was, and still is, owned by ABC. In April of 1960, the format flipped to rock 'n' roll. "Mort Crowley was doing mornings, Jim Dunbar followed him, Gene Taylor did afternoons, and from 9 to midnight it was Dick Biondi," explains Roberts.
   In the beginning Roberts did middays. "My direction was simple," he says. Simple and, by today's standards, unheard of. "By the time you got to Chicago, they figured you should know what you were doing." Roberts made up his own contests, and played the music he wanted in the order and rotations he wanted. "That's what made us sound different," he says. "There were no two of us on WLS who sounded alike."
   When Biondi left the station - "In '62 or '63," recalls Roberts - management moved Roberts to nights. "The first night I told the kids I was going to do a different show every night," he says.
   Fifty-thousand watts. Two-thirds of the nation. Roberts did nights at WLS for five years, until 1968. "I listened on the sky wave in Pennsylvania," says former WAS PD and currently Infinity Sr. VP/Programming (and this year's R&R Group Executive of the Year) John Gehron. "The things Art and WLS did shaped my radio philosophies. Art captured the pulse of Chicago."
   "I did tons of hops and appearances," says Roberts. He was everywhere and seemingly connected to everything. "Art crammed a ton of stuff into his program and never sounded cluttered," recalls XM Sr. VP/Content & Programming Lee Abrams, who, as a kids, was a fan. "He defined big-city personality radio."


   In 1970, after 10 years, Roberts left WLS and headed to KNBR/San Francisco. But he missed Chicago and when WCFL made him an offer he couldn't refuse he returned to the Windy City to do mornings and be PD. "but it was the wrong time, the wrong place," he says. "You can never beat yourself."
   During the '70s, '80s and '90s Roberts programmed and managed stations in suburban Chicago, Shreveport, Dallas and San Antonio - to name a few. He consulted radio like only he could and even started a trade magazine, The Music Programmer's Guide. "We did the first research column," he says.
   "Art's show was a theater of the mind masterpiece," says Abrams. "He'll be long remembered, appreciated and loved by the industry and by the millions of Americans he blew away with years of truly amazing radio."

(this article appeared in the print edition of Radio & Records)

Information in this article and the 
Art Roberts interview are copywrite
200s by Radio & Records. 
The complete interview is in the 
March 15, 2002 issue of R & R.
This article originally appeared in 
June 29,2001 issue of R & R