A Brief History of PAMS and the Radio Station Jingle
Radio jingles: they’re those short, catchy songs that tell you the name of the station you’re listening to. Listeners often think that the jingles are made right at the station, or by a local band. But broadcast professionals know that creating effective jingles requires the services of a unique kind of production company. Today, artfully crafted pieces of music which sing the praises of a station’s "call letters" are an accepted part of most radio formats. These jingles are heard throughout the world, but there are only a small number of companies responsible for making them. Most of the work is done in Dallas, Texas, where the radio jingle industry began with a company called PAMS.
Why "call letters"?
To understand how all this came to be, let’s go back to a time when the idea of sending messages through the air without wires seemed preposterous. Fortunately, pioneers like Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi considered it to be the ultimate challenge. Their research, begun in the late 1800’s, is directly responsible for the medium we know as radio.
At first, this new “wireless” capability was primarily used as a means of telegraphic signaling between ships at sea and stations on land. The stations adopted short "call signs" to help identify each other without having to spell out their entire names. There were few standards though, and the resulting confusion culminated in the 1906 Berlin International Wireless Telegraph Convention. That’s where it was agreed that coastal and ship stations were to have unique call signs formed from a group of three letters. The 1912 London International Radiotelegraphic Convention refined this idea by assigning each country its own range of “call letters” to identify its broadcast stations. For example, the United States was initially allocated letter combinations with the prefix letters K, N, and W.
At the time, licensing of American stations was the responsibility of The Bureau of Navigation (a division of the Department of Commerce). In 1923 the Bureau decided that U.S. stations located east of the Mississippi River would be assigned call letters beginning with W, and stations west of the Mississippi would have names beginning with K. There were several exceptions, some of which survive to this day.
It didn’t take long before the commercial and entertainment possibilities of radio were explored. America’s first commercial radio station signed on in 1920, and by 1923 there were over 500 licensed stations. Clearly there was going to be a need for more call letter combinations, so the government switched to granting call signs with four letters rather than three. Most call signs were assigned randomly, but some station owners requested call letters that reflected their initials or some other significant slogan.
The earliest jingles
The broadcasting industry grew steadily. In the 1930s and ‘40s radio was a prime source of family entertainment. Networks spanned the nation and allowed the entire country to share in the great events, news, and entertainment of the day. To make this a profitable endeavor, commercial time was sold to advertisers and sponsors. Before long, messages and songs about everything from cereals to soaps, and soft drinks to cigars filled the airwaves. The catchy musical messages became known as “jingles”. The same singers and musicians who were featured on the entertainment shows usually also performed jingles for the sponsors.
Although most of the effort was devoted to singing the virtues of products, a few stations began airing jingles to promote themselves. This became increasingly important as more and more stations took to the air, and the jumble of call letters that a listener was exposed to began to rise. It wasn’t just vanity. The value of a station’s commercial time was (and is) gauged by its audience ratings. In order for the ratings to be high, listeners must know and remember which station they heard so they can report it accurately in a survey. The memorable jingles aided listeners’ recall. They also added more production value to a station’s sound, enabled them to bridge awkward transitions and fill time if a program ended too early.
PAMS started it all
As early as 1947, singing station identifications (ID’s) were used by KLIF in Dallas, Texas. One of the musicians working on KLIF at the time was a Dallas native by the name of Bill Meeks. In addition to leading two bands that performed live on the station, Bill also sold commercial time to the shows’ sponsors. He participated in creating commercials and jingles for those sponsors, as well as making musical identifications for the station itself. They got favorable reaction, and KLIF did well. After a while, some of Bill’s clients urged him to devote more time to working on their advertising needs. So in 1951 Mr. Meeks formed his own advertising agency. He named it PAMS, which is an acronym for Production Advertising Merchandising Service. Initially, the company created and placed radio spots for local accounts. This ad agency experience strengthened Bill’s belief that most listeners at the time didn’t really know which station they were listening to. He noted that some stations with supposedly low ratings generated good response for advertisers, while many highly rated stations did not. Drawing on his experience at KLIF, Bill decided that many radio stations could benefit from having musical station ID’s.
PAMS designed a group of ten jingles, and called the package simply "Series 1". A more elaborate "Series 2" followed shortly thereafter. The idea was that stations would hear a demonstration tape of the jingles (a "demo"), and re-write the lyrics to suit their own requirements. PAMS would then assemble the vocal group in a studio and re-sing the jingles using the new lyrics, over the already-existing instrumental backgrounds. This is the essence of jingle syndication. It began at PAMS in the early 1950"s, and the process continues to this day.
As word of success stories spread, PAMS began recording jingles for broadcasters from coast to coast. Although PAMS produced hundreds of musical jingles for merchants and advertising agencies, station identification jingles became the firm’s specialty. What began as a decision in 1906 to issue unique call signs to stations, eventually grew into a multi-million dollar industry devoted to setting those call signs to music.
Top-40 relies on Jingles
As radio felt the impact of its younger sibling television, the style of radio programming was forced to change. Live musical and dramatic performances gave way to disc jockeys who played the latest records. In the late 1950s the idea of top-40 radio was born. It was a mix of only the most popular records, youthful DJs, and outrageous self- promotion. For those who grew up with it, the top-40 sound of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s made an indelible impression. This was before the age of FM radio and portable CD players. AM radio was where people turned for music and entertainment, and broadcasters battled fiercely to be perceived as the most exciting spot on the dial. In market after market, the winners were the ones who used PAMS jingles. And the sound of the jingles is forever linked in our memories with the sound of the stations and their DJs.
Smart programmers always wanted to ride the latest trend. Whenever PAMS came up with a new idea and developed it into a series of jingles, many stations would build their entire image around the new jingle package. For a while it seemed as if the industry would wait to hear each new PAMS package so that they would know what to do next. Phrases like “Go Go”, “The In Sound”, “Fun Vibrations”, and “Music Power” became part of radio stations all over the world. The unmistakable PAMS sound was everywhere.
The Demo Tapes
As PAMS created each new collection of mass-appeal jingles, the series would be named, and also numbered sequentially. A demo tape would be prepared and sent to prospective clients to show them what the jingles sounded like. Often the demos would include a narrated sales pitch to explain the concepts involved. Sometimes there would be different variations of a series, or modular sections of a package that a station could choose from. These were differentiated with letters (e.g. “Series 34A” or “Series 34B”). Through the years PAMS also created many specialized jingle packages for other radio formats such as country, easy listening and talk. These packages were given names, but not included as one of the numbered series.
For a period spanning three decades, PAMS was the most influential and imitated source of radio jingles in the world, and an integral part of the sound of legendary stations. A great part of PAMS’ success was due to the ingenuity and musical excellence of the many writers, producers, engineers, and talent who worked there over the years. Another important ingredient was the prevailing atmosphere in broadcasting which allowed and encouraged jingles and DJs to be entertaining in their own right. By the mid ‘70s, however, changing trends in broadcasting, along with increased competition, began to have a serious impact on PAMS’ product and sales. Business difficulties ensued, and PAMS suspended operations in 1978. It remained legally dormant until 1990, when the corporation was bought and returned to active status with the intent of preserving the classic PAMS heritage. For more details please read about our recent history.
Listening to jingles from years gone by can be like looking at pictures in a photo album. The memories are interesting and fun, and they show us how we got to where we are today. PAMS jingles through the years have always reflected what was happening in music and pop culture, and listening to them can be an interesting study in Americana. It’s a combination of art, nostalgia and magic that ought to be preserved. This website is part of our effort to do so. Enjoy the memories!
Jonathan M. Wolfert
PAMS Productions, Inc.