KAL RUDMAN, having just ripped a single out of its envelope with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old, plops it down on the turntable. Pretty soon, the insistent back beat of the Temptations' "Aiming at Your Heart" has Rudman stomping his feet, whooping, snapping his fingers, pointing his fist triumphantly in the air, Rocky-style. Rudman leans over, pulling on end; he pulls back his sleeve to show the goose bumps. At 51, Kal Rudman's "with-it"-ness is awkward and ungraceful, John Travolta trapped in a Burgess Meredith body.
But there's gold in those goose bumps: When Kal Rudman says something is going to be a hit, not only is he usually right (93 percent of the time), but radio programmers acorss the country quickly fall into line with the predictions Rudman makes in his weekly tip sheet, The Friday Morning Quarterback. Many people blame consultants like Rudman for the increasingly conservative trend in radio programming, but he is more a symptom than a scapegoat.
Rudman, a rambunctious combination of E.F. Hutton and Jimmy the Greek, has been publishing FMQB since 1968. It is read by 25,000 in the radio and record industry. Subscribers pay $250 a year for what is at best an ugly product: photo-copied and stapled, multicolored sheets of legal-size paper, devoid of graphics and filled with closely spaced typewriting. FMQB's quarter of a million weekly words -- interspersed by frequent full-page industry ads that sell for $2,000 a pop -- are required reading for much of the multibillion-dollar music industry, which regards it as a bible and Rudman as the Prophet of Pop. FMQB and its sister publication, the Album Report, compile detailed statistics of records' progress in hundreds of key stations across the country. The tip sheets, which Rudman describes as "image and informational tools for radio programmers, a focused picture of where it's at," consist of station summaries, market analyses, audience requests, job openings and switches, patches of gossip and, most importantly, the front Rudman Red pages listing which singles are about to break. RMQB is a racing form for radio stations, with the winners already picked by the Top of the Touts.
There were close to 4,000 singles released in 1980. "In any week, there are three, four, maybe five new records that end up getting any kind of serious play around the country," says Rudman. "It's the big horn of plenty with the little trickle coming out of the other end" -- 250 hit singles out of 4,000! No wonder Rudman's ability to pick them out of the haystack of new releases has earned him the sobriquet of Man with the Golden Ears.
It's indicative of the state of radio that one man can become so influential, in essence helping to make or break a record with a few carefully chosen words. FMQB is not the only tip sheet (other include the Gavin Report, Radio and Records, Walrus), but it is certainly the most influential (and successful, netting Rudman a seven-figure profit margin). There are also the format consultants, like Abrahms-Burhkhart and Drake-Chennault, to help radio stations reach their optimum audience.
"Radio is not there to sell records," Rudman insists with the assuredness of someone who's been chosen by Forbes magazine as 1980 Man of the Year in the Leisure Industry. "You have to understand what business radio stations are in -- advertising. They do very expensive research -- focus groups, intersect approach, call-out research, all kinds -- to ascertain how the music is being perceived, recognized and remembered by their specific demographics. They want to know: Should they put a record on, when to put it on, when to start cutting back the play, when to put it in recurrent, when to take it off the air altogther, when to put it back on. It's highly scientific, it's precise. You have to research to know."
Radio is a game of numbers: The rating books show those numbers and woe to the program director whose audience starts decreasing. Hit records boost a station's audience ratings, which in turn help determine the station's salability in terms of advertising; and since airplay is the single greatest factor in album sales, the music and record business has basically become the business of hit records. And although albums have become the prime currency in the record business, singles (usually tracks off an album) rule the airwaves.
In the battle for audience share, nothing breeds imitation like success elsewhere, which is why FMQB is scoured for what's working elsewhere around the country. Program directors find out what's being played and what's being requested at other staions around the country, how often certain songs are being played; they learn to rely on Rudman's statistical formula for a song's hit potential, to the extent that FMBQ becomes a life preserver, particularly to stations lacking strong program directors of their own.
Most stations that play music have a basic play list varying from 20 to 60 cuts, sequentially arranged to hook listeners. Living in deadly fear of a turn of the dial, p.d.'s tend to play it safe and there is great safety in the numbers reported by Rudman: If a record's been added in 70 major markets, there must be something right with it. And though competent programmers trust their own ears and use the tip sheets to supplement or reinforce their own choices, the sheets have a startling power across the country. There's nothing more reassuring than seeing a flow of station call letters trailing behind a new single. And for the record companies and artists, a hig single can translate into millions of dollars in sales and performing fees. The money involved is simply astronomical; record sales alone last year surpassed the $4 billion mark.
Rudman's suite of offices in Cherry Hill, N.J., is a beehive of activity. As deadline approaches on Thursday, up to 40 part-time workers come in to field phone calls from stations across the country, and to calculate, collate and update the flow of information. Rudman himself is a workaholic, spending up to 50 hours a week talking to program directors across the country (see sidebar), suggesting and drawing information in symbiotic fashion. There's a huge mock-up of a phone over his door and the various offices are cluttered with stacks of singles and albums. The only records that stand alone are the dozens of gold variants that adorn the walls next to pictures of Rudman with famous musicians and industry powers.
On any given afternoon, Rudman takes scores of phone calls, from ambitious deejays at little stations trying to get better record company service by reporting to his sheet ("Hey, that's where you are now! A lot of under-agae girls have been asking about you!") to big-time program directors seeking his advice. Producers and promoters call or visit, trying to sell Rudman on their product. Kal Rudman is careful, though not as cautious as most of the stations who follow his missives. "I listen for everything -- which format, which type of station will it fit, will it groove, will it march, will it walk, will it compute. It's elusive, a complex equation with a lot of X factors I have no control over. So many people miss by an inch. It can be a game of inches. Some terrible things are lost."
Rudman's power -- and everyone in the business admits that he is a significant factor -- has sometimes been attacked. There are accusations that FMQB's picks are self-fulfilling prophecies because of the weight they carry. There have been charges of conflict of interest because Rudman used to charge consulting fees to record companies (he says he has since stopped that practice). There is still discomfort at the money record companies pump into tip-sheet advertising -- $30,000 to $60,000 a week -- since much of the advertising is built around the reaction reported in the sheet itself. "I serve at the discretion and pleasure of the program and music directors of contemporary music stations in North America," Rudman says with uncharacteristic humility. "Once they add a record [at my suggestion], their --- is on the hook."
"You can't give a stiff to the program director. It ain't okay! There's no eraser on the tip of your tongue. You can't say, 'Whoops, I'm sorry,' when you just buried their station. You're Manilow they're going to play it, rotate it seven times a day, seven days a week and if you hurt them . . . this is where careers go into oblivion. Elton John hurt enough programmers with bad records that even he heard 'Screw ya, get the hell out of here.'"
Rudman is obviously concerned with credibility. He points to his years as a high school teacher, pre-med student, and a student at Philadelphia's Central High School, the second-oldest in the country, sitting for four years "next to Eugene Rothberg, who's now vice president and treasurer of the World Bank." The bottom line, he insists, is "if you don't meet the needs of upper management, you're a memory."
More tied to his present work are the years a fat Rudman worked as a deejay (known variously as Big Beat, the Round Mound of Sound, the Wild Child of the Radio Dial -- he's since slimmed down considerably). He was also the R&B editor at Billboard and spent 10 years with the Gavin Report. FMQB is still filled with chatter-platter transposed to the printed page: Sure-fire hits are "Go-rillas" and "Monsters" guaranteed for "megatonnage" in his Kal-Q-lations.
Equally calculated is Rudman's rise to visibility. He's a frequent guest on television with his old friend Merv Griffin, as well on "Today" (three shows scheduled in August - 3, 17, 21), "Tomorrow," "20/20" and local shows. Rudman does a weekly appearance on WMMR in Philly and even serves as a color consultant for wrestling shows on cable television. But mostly he listens, up to 200 singles a week ("like a doctor listening through a stethoscope"). Rudman insists most program directors can't or won't do that amount of listening, which leaves the field of advice firmly planted in his bailiwick.
Every day, Rudman sorts through the mail, tearing open the envelopes as if he's on his first mailing list. He looks the labels over the telltale credits -- titles, artists, producers, songwriters. His round face breaks into a smile when he recognizes . . . something. The day the Temptations single came in, Rudman took it from office to office, plopping it down on a variety of turntables, turning it up loud, playing it for visitors, posturing on the beat, snapping his fingers, smiling that goose-bump smile. Somewhere in America, a promotion man's prayers were being answered. "Top 3," Rudman mumbled to an associate. "Top 3" from Kal Rudman means money in the bank nine out of 10 times.
And what's in the future? Rudman picks safe superstars of the future in Kin Carnes, Juice Newton, Pat Benetar ("they sure are picking the right tunes for her"). He notes the demographic unheaval that has moved the median age to 30 (and soon to the 33), hearing the sound of radio in the '80s moving to "Adult Contemporary and the AC version of Album Rock," which means an older, softer sound. "Adult minds will want to hear an adult voice singing about adult things." This comes from a man who never learned to read music or play an instrument."The radio is my instrument," Rudman has said. "And if you've got the answers Friday morning for Saturday's game, then all things shall be yours."