Legendary Programming Exec Bill Tanner Dies

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MIAMI — He was part of the legendary team that made Y-100 one of America’s most successful FM Top 40 stations in the 1970s. Later, he would propel Power 96 to the top of the ratings as a Latino-focused dance-fueled alternative to his former station.


In the 1990s, he would pivot by becoming one of the nation’s most respected Hispanic radio programming executives. But, he also had his challenges, with negative press nearly costing him his job some 30 years ago and a botched format change at WASH-FM in Washington, D.C., a career low point.

Today, the radio industry is coming together to mourn Bill Tanner, the EVP/Programming at Birmingham, Ala.-based SummitMedia.


RBR+TVBR OBSERVATION: Editor-in-Chief Adam R Jacobson grew up listening to “Tanner in the Morning.” He later spent decades interviewing Tanner for R&R and Hispanic Market Weekly, maintaining a close professional relationship across three decades. He shares his thoughts below.


Tanner’s son, Scott, confirmed his father’s passing at the age of 76 in an early Thursday (1/28) conversation with Robert W. Walker, the famed Miami air personality who worked at WHYI-FM “Y-100” in the 1970s under Tanner.

Walker spoke with RBR+TVBR on Thursday, but was not prepared to offer any comments regarding Tanner’s passing. Neither was SummitMedia, which said it was still drafting a statement set for release later in the day.

Tanner began his career in the early 1970s as the Program Director and morning host of WJDX-AM 620 in Jackson, Miss. There, he honed his craft, and gained notice for blending recurrents and oldies with current hits at a time when Top 40 was waning.

Then 30 years of age, Tanner’s success attracted the attention of Cecil Heftel, who had recently purchased WHYI and sought a PD. Tanner relocated to Hollywood — Florida, that is, and through what he in a summer 1976 composite aircheck referred to as “predictable unpredictability,” took Y-100 to the top in an era where FM Top 40 stations were rarely a success.

The initial success of Y-100 under Tanner led Heftel to relocate him to Pittsburgh, where its Top 40 “13Q” needed a programmer. For 10 months in 1975, he’d often fly to Miami for special Saturday Tanner in the Morning broadcasts. Eventually, the longterm viability of an FM in South Florida with coverage from Key Largo to West Palm Beach won out over an AM in the Steel City. Tanner went back to Miami for full-time duties at Y-100.

miami's Y-100 in fall 1976
A photo featured in the Dec. 17, 1976 edition of Radio & Records.

In Miami, Y-100 found itself in a FM Top 40 war in the 1970s, with Tanner competing against WMJX-FM “96X.” At the time, it was programmed by Joel Denver, today the owner of AllAccess Music Group.

Both Y-100 and 96X were big successes. What set the stations apart? Personality, with Tanner in the Morning setting the stage for a day of music and friendly interaction from hosts such as Cramer Haas, who died of a heart attack in January 1990; Robert W. Walker; Kid Curry; and the late Don Cox.

Denver noted, “While we were fierce competitors, we developed a great friendship over the years. Tanner was a brilliant radio programmer. His creativity was ground-breaking and he will be missed by many, including me.”

By 1979, 96X had flirted with all-Disco music and would soon find itself faced with an infamous license revocation. Y-100 was a Metroplex-owned station, as Heftel had sold it a few years earlier. Under Metroplex, Tanner was promoted to VP/Programming.

Fast-forward to February 1, 1983. Having just fended off a serious challenge from Guy Gannett-owned WINZ-FM “I-95,” which became Y-100’s chief competitor following the demise of 96X, Tanner accepted a position with Metromedia to serve as PD of WASH-FM 97.1 in Washington.

It was not a successful move. Despite initial assurances that WASH’s long-running Adult Contemporary format would remain in place, Tanner — months after his arrival — changed the station to an early version of Rhythmic Top 40, taking on WAVA-FM and WRQX “Q107” in an era that pre-dated WPGC-FM’s successful run as a Rhythmic Top 40 in D.C.

The move was panned by local media including The Washington Post. “I feel considerably healthier and wiser,” Tanner told Jeffrey Yorke, who covered radio for the Post before enjoying a lengthy career as R&R’s Washington Bureau Chief.

In 1985, Tanner returned from Washington to Miami to sign on WHQT, “Hot 105,” the first station in the market to fully adopt a Rhythmic Top 40 approach. His tenure would last one year, as 1986 saw Greg Reed team with Beasley Broadcast Group in the purchase of a resurrected “96X.” Under Tanner, WPOW was born, with “Power 96” a highly unique rhythmic Top 40 full of “Power Mix” sessions from resident DJ Phil Jones and lots of freestyle dance music targeting young Latinos and multicultural South Florida.

Power 96 was a smash hit. And, by 1990, it forced Y-100 to shift to a softer, pre-Hot Adult Contemporary presentation under the guidance of Steve Perun.

Bill Tanner, hosting the Power 96 morning show from its former Miami Gardens, Fla., studios, in January 1990.
Bill Tanner, hosting the Power 96 morning show from its former Miami Gardens, Fla., studios, in fall 1990.

With dance music powering WPOW, Tanner’s music selections gained the attention of Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. For Pitts, Power 96’s music was hardly worthy and he publicly derided Tanner.

Tanner struck back on the airwaves, calling out Pitts as he defended WPOW’s strong ratings as a sign that the music was what the local listeners desired.

 

A PERSONAL SETBACK, AND COMEBACK

On Nov. 11, 1991, Tanner nearly lost it all.

As reported by the Sun-Sentinel, Tanner was forced to resign from Power 96 after being charged with possession of LSD, marijuana, cocaine and child pornography. He was also accused of being part of a homosexual pedophile ring along with longtime colleague G. Michael McKay.

Archived coverage of the story remains on the Sun-Sentinel website.

Tanner pled not guilty.

Eight months later, in October 1992, a Broward County, Fla., circuit judge threw out the evidence in the case against Tanner, ruling that the search warrant used to raid Tanner’s home was defective. This cratered the case against Tanner, bringing it to an end. “I’m glad it’s over. If it hadn’t been for my friends in broadcasting standing by me, I wouldn’t have made it,” Tanner said at the time.

Tanner would resurface not at Y-100 or at Power 96, but at a Miami operation that revolutionized Spanish-language FM programming in the market.

Teaming with Walker and Russ Oasis, Tanner was brought on to guide an FM with a tiny signal at 95.7 MHz. That was the original WXDJ-FM. 

By 1995, Tanner was no longer in Miami. That was because Heftel had lured him back to the company — this time to lead its KTNQ-AM & KLVE-FM in Los Angeles as VP/Programming. In January 1995, he brought then 22-year-old WXDJ Program Director Pio Ferro to L.A., as OM/PD. It helped launch Ferro’s career; today he is SVP/Content and Operations for tastemaker Hip-Hop station WQHT “Hot 97” in New York and Urban WBLS-FM.

Under Tanner and Ferro, “Radio Amor” KLVE soared to the top of the Arbitron ratings.

“Tanner and I started working together at WXDJ,” Pio tells RBR+TVBR. “And, Tanner was not supposed to go to L.A. Heftel sent me to L.A. because I had a non-compete in Miami, so he was sent there. And, he was like a father to me, and I really wanted to get out to see him before I got this news. I’m at a loss for words and it is a tough day for Scott and for his grandkids. But, it is amazing to see how many people have reached out.”

On February 5 1997, another career highlight would be met, as Tanner and Maria Elena Nava teamed in relaunching KSCA-FM 101.9 in Los Angeles as a regional Mexican powerhouse.

The year 1997 also saw Tanner team up with longtime peer and confidant Carl Parmer in the purchase of two Birmingham radio stations. It would prove to be the foundation for what is today SummitMedia, which also owns and operates radio stations in Greenville-Spartanburg, Honolulu, Knoxville, Louisville, Omaha, Richmond, and the smaller markets of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Springfield, Mo.; and Wichita.

In a 2011 interview with AllAccess Music Group, it was noted that Tanner became more animated when he mentioned “the time he got fired.”

That was at Hot 105, where management didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction Tanner was taking it.

In hindsight, was that beneficial to Tanner in terms of igniting his competitive fire once he landed across the street at Power 96?

“You always have to learn from your mistakes,” Tanner said. “There are bruises we all take when we get fired — and it can be awful. I don’t like being fired and I don’t know anyone who does. But when it does happen, you need to objectively analyze what you did well, what you didn’t do well, and how your actions were perceived … or misperceived. Let’s face it, some stations you work for will have people in charge who are just plain crazy, but by and large, people are rational. You can learn something from all of your relationships as long as you remember the best times and get rid of the rest.”


RBR+TVBR OBSERVATION: By Adam R Jacobson

The first time I heard Tanner in the Morning was at the age of nine, when Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” was an inescapable Christmas 1981 Top 40 smash across the Sunshine State. Y-100 was in a war with I-95, which had a huge billboard campaign on …Interstate 95. Y-100 was unlike any station I’d heard, as I only knew WLS-AM, audible at night from the Upstate New York where I grew up. It played the hits, but it was very personality-focused, like a Full Service station or an AC with better music. Eight years later, my family relocated to South Florida. By then, Tanner in the Morning was the anchor of Power 96. Again, it was very much unlike what I knew to be great radio: Hot 97 in New York. With Jerry Clifton-fueled formatics, it was low-key yet Powerful. And, it was all fueled by Tanner.

In late 1995, I joined Radio & Records. Hispanic radio was still in its formative stages, and I was the default Spanish-language news reporter and editor. I connected for the first time with Tanner, and we’d have numerous passionate conversations about Miami radio, Hispanic radio, and the trends of the times.

By late 2006, I had taken my talents to South Beach, joining Hispanic Market Weekly. While Tanner was no longer a fixture in Miami radio, his legacy lived on. 

Today, that remains true across the radio dial. From Y-100 to Hot 105, from Power 106 to El Zol, Miami owes a debt of gratitude to Tanner. Yes, he had his well-publicized personal issues. But, he left this world a proud father and grandfather, and left behind legions of individuals who will always remember his wit, his professionalism and his desire to win.

Rest in Peace, William B. Tanner.