Gene Chenault dies at 90; helped invent ‘Boss Radio’ format in 1960s


Gene Chenault, one half of a pioneering team that helped to revolutionize rock radio programming in the 1960s with the “Boss Radio” format, first at KHJ in Los Angeles and then coast to coast, has died. He was 90.

Chenault died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma Tuesday at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, said his wife, Susan.

In the 1960s, Chenault partnered with Bill Drake to launch a phenomenally successful radio format that turned poorly performing stations into ratings winners and made household names of radio personalities such as Robert W. Morgan and “the Real” Don Steele.

Drake was the driving creative force, introducing a formula of less talk, fewer commercials and more music, which became known as the “Drake style.”

Chenault was a mentor to the younger Drake, with the business acumen and management experience needed to propel the formula to success at a time when the radio marketplace was changing and FM radio was assuming more prominence, said Carl Goldman, who worked for Chenault at KIQQ-FM (100.3), which was known as K-100.

“They were there at the right time,” Goldman said. “They both recognized that radio was going through a transition. They already had experience and a vision of where radio needed to head, knew what was needed to get there and had the ability to execute it.”

The game-changing success of KHJ Boss Radio was noted in a 1968 Time magazine story. The RKO-owned station rose from 12th-ranked locally to No. 1 within six months after its format change in 1965. Stations in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston and New York soon followed.

The duo then formed Drake-Chenault Enterprises, a national radio consulting service that syndicated radio packages such as “Hit Parade” and “Solid Gold,” as well as jingles performed by the Johnny Mann Singers to 350 radio stations.

Lester Eugene Chenault was born June 12, 1919, in Eldorado, Okla. He moved with his family to California at a young age and already had developed an interest in radio before being drafted into the Army during World War II.

While in the service, he met Carl Goldman’s father, Leo, and they began a lifelong friendship that included starting Fresno radio station KYNO in 1947.

It was at the Fresno station that Chenault hired Drake, a brash young program director.

In 1969, Drake-Chenault Enterprises produced a syndicated 48-hour radio special, “The History of Rock and Roll,” which has since been rewritten and updated.

Chenault retired in the mid-1980s. Drake died in 2008.

“He had a great sense of humor and was gifted with an understanding of the business side of radio,” said Goldman, who with his wife owns a radio station in Santa Clarita. “He was friendly and outgoing, but he was surrounded by personalities, people who were very outgoing and vivacious. Gene was private and quiet.”

In addition to his wife, Chenault is survived by a son, Mark of San Jose; a daughter, Carol Moore of Tarzana; two grandsons; and three great-granddaughters. His first marriage ended in divorce.

Services will be private.