By Aaron Reiss
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Said Zapoleon: "We wanted to know who likes what, who's playing them, which songs people were most passionate about and which stations got the credit. And that was it. If people gave radio stations no credit, we knew we had a place."
A pattern began to emerge from all the research. A particular type of music was strongly favored by a particular group of people. Specifically, women 25 to 39 years old were digging a variety of pop-rock hits. This would be Zapoleon's target audience. It was an extremely narrow one (a mere 14 years) for a company trying to recoup a multimillion-dollar investment. Nonetheless, Zapoleon felt he had found his listeners.
One last piece of research was needed before the station could dedicate itself to its burgeoning format: focus groups. At Zapoleon's request, Perikhal hired a research firm to pay 200 women about $30 or $40 each to sit through the hooks of 700 songs and offer up their comments. From that research, Zapoleon devised a master list of songs. It was made up of three solid-gold, honest-to-goodness tunes loved by women 25 to 39, around which the station's first rotation would be built. The songs? "Higher Love," by Steve Winwood; "Forever Young," by Rod Stewart; and "Jack & Diane," by John Cougar Mellencamp.
"If something tested well, but didn't fit, we wouldn't keep it," said Perikhal. "I remember [Led Zeppelin's] 'Stairway to Heaven' came in at No. 38. Out of 600! It tested well, but it just wasn't compatible.
"You know, you might like sushi, but you don't want it at an Italian restaurant."
Like many visionaries in their fields, Guy Zapoleon is geeky. He is a midsize guy with soft brown hair who has been known to show up to big meetings with shirttails, unbeknownst to him, hanging out. He's a guy with low blood sugar who would leave stray peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches lying around his old Toyota Supra. A guy whose constant companion is his portable transistor radio with an earplug that seems to be attached to his ear. A guy everyone calls Zapper.
Zapoleon was born in Nashville, Music City, in 1952, but didn't stay there long. His father, who owned a men's clothier business, relocated the family frequently. When Zapoleon was 13, he was living in Stamford, minutes from Manhattan, the Music City of pop music.
Station WABC-FM and DJ Bruce "Cousin Brucey" Morrow turned Zapoleon on to rock and roll. One listen to Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Zapoleon was on the hunt for a pocket transistor radio. He found a handheld brown and white model, which he says still works today. He listened to it everywhere he went. Even to bed.
In 1966, after his parents had separated and Zapoleon had lived in numerous cities (including Houston), he settled in with his father and three stepsisters in Los Angeles. There, he listened to KHJ/930 AM and watched all the young girls at Birmingham High School flock around George Voss, the hip kid who knew all the boppers' names and songs. "I was shy," remembered Zapoleon. "I had just come from Houston and had this Southern accent. There was this pressing need" to own and show off a radio.
Zapoleon soon forgot about girls and began dedicating himself to music. Not just by listening to the sounds, humming along and wondering why some tunes made him sad while others made him happy, but by actually analyzing which songs were successful and why. As he listened, Zapoleon kept track of the most popular tunes. After a while, he created his own chart on a legal pad, listing his personal favorites, and then matched his top tunes against KHJ's. If he correctly predicted a song's spot on KHJ's chart, he gave himself a star. If not, nothing. More often than not, his chart had more stars on it than blank spaces.
Zapoleon performed this ritual for years, and by the time he was 20 years old, he had mapped out KHJ's top 1,000 popular songs of all time. All on legal-pad paper. All in his handwriting. "It was a good way to learn," said Zapoleon. "A good way to check my instincts."
The formula for the top 1,000 was simple: Every time a song was No. 1 on KHJ's chart, it received 30 points. Every time it was No. 2, it got 29 points. And so on. The higher the total, the higher the overall rank. For Zapoleon, spending his time this way was merely a hobby. He never thought staying glued to his transistor all those Wednesday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. would mark the beginning of a career. After all, he figured his career was already laid out before him. "I would just follow my dad into the clothing business or be a doctor," he said.
But in 1972 Zapoleon's well-connected mother, who thought the music business would be little more than a summer hobby for her son, set up an interview for Zapoleon with Russ Shaw, who was an A&R man for Warner Bros. Records.
Between semesters at college, Zapoleon just wanted to work the docks at WB, unloading and loading crates of records. "I figured I could start there and work my way up," he said. When he asked Shaw for a position, after talking with him for more than an hour, he was told there were none. Discouraged, Zapoleon stood up to leave. But before he walked out of the office, he pulled out and set on Shaw's desk a yellow binder with a KHJ sticker on it. It was a neatly bound stack of Zapoleon's charts.