The man with the golden ear
Kal Rudman grosses over a million dollars a year for getting goosebumps. He has been called the Prophet of Pop, the Round Mound of Sound, the Wild Child of the Radio Dial, the Man with the Golden Ears.
When he hears a new tune destined to become a "Monster" or a "Go-rilla," chills start running up his spine. His feet move, his fingers snap, and if he feels the song is going to be really big, he does a jig, and his skin goes prickly.
And when Kal Rudman gets goosebumps, the shivers are felt throughout the billion-dollar-a-year pop music industry. From his headquarters in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Mr. Rudman publishes "The Friday Morning Quarterback," a radio programming tipsheet described by many radio sources as "the bible of the business." When he likes a record, it goes on FMQB's hit-predicting red front page. As a result, it gets added to the playlists of hundreds of radio stations around the country. And he claims the chances are nine out of ten it will go straight to the top of the sales charts.
In person, Mr. Rudman proves to be a round-faced man with sandy hair who seems too cherubic to be a prophet. He wanders into the hotel restaurant like a high school science teacher looking for his lab coat. But when he sits down and starts to talk, the excitement is contagious. Buffeted by his rich disc jockey voice, one can easily become a believer.
"I'm trying to give you a sense of the rush, the excitement, the drama of this industry." He probes the air with a fork for emphasis. "It's far more exciting than films, which are slow, and TV, which is tightly controlled. It's a business full of free spirits and characters from Damon Runyon." The fork moves faster, responding to his inner fervor: "And you must understand that every morning at the crack of dawn a raging battle -- a war -- begins between and among radio stations, between and among record companies, between record companies and radio stations. The morning disc jockeys come on at 5:30 or 6:00, each of them clamoring for a more and more fragmented audience. Here it is: it's live, it's immediate, it's production, it's sound!"
Mr. Rudman's eyes stare into the distance at the picture his words have drawn. In his mind, he is out there with the rank and file disc jockeys, a three-star general in their battle for the listener's ear. A Philadelphia native and former special education teacher, he started in the radio business by working nights at local stations, spinning records for an audience of insomniacs. He became known as "Big Beat" Mr. Rudman, the man who could talk his way out of a bank vault with nonstop chatter. On his show, hits were not just hits -- they were "Go-rillas,", "M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S," or "stone-solid."
His colorful vocabulary moved to the printed page in the early '60s, when he began writing record columns in trade publications. Since 1969, Mr. Rudman has published his own weekly airplay and audience response reports from hundreds of pop music radio stations around the country. Mixed with a heavy dose of personal opinion, and leavened with bits of show-biz gossip and job openings, the result is "Friday Morning Quarterback." The stapled sheaf of papers covered with close-spaced figures is a sort of racing form radio stations use to decide what new songs they will put on the air, and record promoters utilize to plan publicity for their latest releases.
"I'm the only one in the history of the world who's ever done what I'm doing." He pauses, backing off for a running start at his next sentence. "Probably, with all due respect and all due modesty, I don't think anybody is ever going to come along to do what I do, and that's mind boggling to me."
Mr. Rudman does not look like a man who boggles easily. Strictly speaking, though, he does have competitors. Foremost is "The Gavin Report," an older and more staid publication. But in a world where hits are a way of life, FMQB is the fastest growing and most comprehensive tipsheet. Over 4,000 radio stations pay $250 a year for the publication. With $80,000 in full page ads each issue, Mr. Rudman is presiding over a highly profitable business.
"My shortcut is that I have no shortcuts. I'm a bricklayer that lays one brick at a time. Specifically, either I or my associate, Ray Milase, speak with every program director that calls each week, 50 weeks a year. And I listen to every record that comes in, sometimes over 200 a week."
Mr. Rudman clutches the edge of the dining table, eyes wide. "I listen to the lyric content, the arrangement, the vocal performance -- overall feel, the flow of the music. Sometimes I react with a cold intellectual analysis." He leans back and tries to make the next phrase sound matter-of-fact. "Sometimes I get goosebumps."
Many radio program directors have faith in Mr. Rudman's goosebumps. These men are the nervous shadows lurking behind the confident patter of an on-air disc jockey. Their job is to shape the station's weekly playlist of 20 to 60 records, which the deejays spin in a pre-arranged sequence designed to hook the audience for 15-minute segments. Most of them would like to take an occasional risk and put an unusual or untried record on the air, but they are terrified that five notes of an unknown song will cause much of their audience to switch stations in search of a familiar hit. Like baseball managers, program directors get the ax when their station does poorly, so the fear of risk usually wins. By reading FMQB, they find out what songs are being requested by listeners at other stations around the country, and how often those songs are being played. And added to those statistics is the evaluation of Mr. Rudman's sensitive ears.
Mr. Rudman says his magazine is an invaluable tool in helping radio stations attract specifically targeted listeners. "It's not only a matter of picking hits for radio stations. In a technical sense, within our industry, the word hit is infinitely more complex. I have to pick demographic hits, because the radio dial is totally fragmented now, as well as the audience. I have to pick hits that will deliver males 35-54, pick hits for females 18-24, 25-35. I have to supply a demographic-slash-psychographic breakdown."
Mr. Rudman's fork is waving madly by now. He speaks so fast that he starts to interview himself. "How can a guy that's going to be 50 know what a kid 18 years old wants? That's the flexibility of my mind. I know the sociology, the socioeconomics. It's like anything else you learn."
He glows with sincerity, confident his golden ears can detect songs appealing to 14-year-old girls. And several program directors say their results bear out his claim of a 90-percent batting average.
But people will not buy what they do not hear on the radio. Since Mr. Rudman has such a close relationship with radio programmers ("my family," he calls them), it seems his picks could be self-fulfilling prophecies.
Mr. Rudman's voice slows. It is obviously a charge he has answered before. "A lot of records that don't have it get a lot of play and fail. You can't force-feed the public. You can't do it with a movie, you can't do it with a book, you can't do it with anything."
In the past, Mr. Rudman has also freely admitted to taking money, "consulting fees," from record companies. In return, he claims, he tells them what records they should promote. Shifting his golden throat into high gear, he explains why he believes these fees do not affect his tipsheet's credibility.
"All influence in the music business comes from credibility with the radio industry. I have enough money so I can be my own man. Enough scenerios have developed where [radio programmers] know I would die before I would sell them out. They are my friends."
He looks deeply into his water glass, slowing the conversation as if he were playing a ballad. Like the pop music he loves, Kal Rudman grabs your attention quickly, holds it with blunt energy, and rushes off before you can get beneath the surface. His mind seems to work in three-minute bursts, with time for traffic reports and weather in between.
Suddenly his eyes pop, and he grabs a copy of FMQB, staring as if it were something earth-shattering, something he has never seen before. He looks awestruck. "I think what we have discovered here, and I'm being totally sincere , is Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth."
In a way, he is right. Mr. Rudman's world caters to the whims of the young, dangling musical baubles before their ears to tease dollars out of their pockets. The faces may change, but their age remains the same.
He even talks with the bubbling faith of youth. "This business is only a fraction of what it's going to be in the '80s. With cable TV and satellites you're going to see greater and greater specialization of programs. And greater and greater competition." Mr. Rudman straightens up, collar awry, a funky Peter Pan. "Time doesn't ever pass," he says. "I'm never going to grow old."