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There’s Gold in Them Thar ‘Ears’
If you’re of a certain generation, you might have caught Kal Rudman breaking hits on the radio or predicting the next big thing on The Merv Griffin Show, just two of the many roles he’s played over the years, both in front of a microphone and behind the scenes.
But if you haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know “The Man with the Golden Ears,” let him introduce himself with his typical boom and swagger:
“I was the main force in all the areas of the pop-music portion of the overall culture of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century,” he says.
Hyperbole? Indubitably. But there’s more than a kernel of truth to it, too.
Geographically, if not culturally, it’s not so far from 7th and Berks in North Philadelphia, where Rudman grew up in the 1940s, to Cherry Hill, N.J., where he’s lived and worked for decades. Where, on an unseasonably warm spring day, he holds court at Ponzio’s and shares life lessons over a slice of coconut cream pie, a few scoops of ice cream and a cold glass of milk.
He doesn’t want to talk about music, the entertainment industry or even the philanthropy that takes up much of his attention these days. In a reflective mood soon after the death of 60 Minutes fixture Mike Wallace, Rudman’s focus keeps drifting back to the similarities between the two men and their divergent paths within the field of broadcasting.
But unlike Wallace, who retired at 87 and died April 7 at 93, Rudman’s a relatively youthful 82 and still hungry to be heard.
“The conventional wisdom — just like Hollywood — you reach a certain age and you’re obsolete,” Rudman says ruefully. “In many cases, no matter how big you were.”
One of the first things you’ll notice about the self-proclaimed “Round Mound of Sound” is how timeless his look is. Unlike many of the music moguls who followed, he’d rather put his money where it counts than waste it on the trendy trappings of success.
“No bling. No rings. No Mercedes Benz. No $5,000 suits,” Rudman says. “I don’t have to impress the neighbors or family. The less you say — my parents taught me that.”
Before he was a philanthropist, before he was a publisher, before he was a teacher, the first-generation American juggled jobs and junior high. He attended Central High School alongside ambitious boys who’d grow up to be influential men in whatever fields they chose. But when writing his yearbook bio, he set a more attainable career goal.
“I was so uncertain that I could possibly crack the field of broadcasting, certainly to a recognizable awareness, that since I was writing, I said I planned to be a teacher,” Rudman recalls. “And of course the watchword at that time was, ‘Don’t go into teaching. There’s no money in it.’ I didn’t even know enough to grasp how much money ‘no money’ was.
“And if I ended up doing more, hey, ‘He exceeded his aspirations that are in the yearbook.’ ”
As it turned out, he did become a teacher. That led to a stint with Philadelphia’s Radio Committee, which extended the schools’ reach into students’ homes. With his God-given deep voice and a well-honed rhetorical flow, Rudman took to the airwaves right away.
Being trained by pioneers of the medium wasn’t just a crash course in broadcasting, but a practical lesson in the ways of the world.
“It’s the same as teaching in a school or working in a hospital,” he says. “The biggest and the best and the brightest — whatever — they’re all there. All the bad stuff, that’s there, too: politics, brutal competition, envy, greed.”
Other radio announcers of the late ’50s had developed their own brand of poise and patois. Those were practically prerequisites for the job. But Rudman had an additional gift: He quickly found he had a knack for picking hits.
As a DJ in Camden at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues, he had the freedom to play a favorite song over and over until listeners asked him to play it again. He was Billboard’s first R&B expert, and by 1968, he’d founded Friday Morning Quarterback, which grew from a single trade magazine into a fleet of glossies, each concentrating on a different format.
As his media empire transitions to a web-only existence, Rudman sounds realistic about the change. After all, he’s been around for generations of changes in technology. “When we went on the air [in the ’50s], not one of the shows used a TelePrompTer. So you did preparation. You had to know what you were talking about.”
Through it all, Rudman stayed anchored to the area, eschewing New York and Los Angeles for the comforts of home. If performers and producers wanted his ear — and hit-makers from Dolly Parton to Bruce Springsteen certainly did — they came to him. “I didn’t need the stars personally,” he says.
True to form, he’s more likely to drop the name of bygone radio jocks and press agents than the singers and songs whose success he had a hand in. Much of his fortune has stayed in the area as well. The man who’s overseen so many Top 40 charts doesn’t want to talk numbers — his wife has always discouraged that — but the Kal and Lucille Rudman Foundation has donated millions to health, public safety and educational efforts in the Delaware Valley.
“I take care of a lot of people,” he says. “I don’t just focus on helping the Jewish people.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t supported Jewish institutions when the project’s right. But whether it’s training the next generation of media professionals at Drexel and Temple or putting firefighters and police through Holy Family or Camden County College, Rudman seems proudest of the commitments he’s kept year after year.
As he explains with his signature flair: “It’s not how heavy you are — analogy, it’s not what I’ve done for the police and the fire department one time — it’s how long, loooong, you’re heavy. And how often and how long I’ve been sending the police to community college.”
He’s not a modest man. Why should he be? When he talks about all the things he’s done, it’s not empty bragging. So what if he’s not a team player? He scoffs at the suggestion of wasting his time on someone else’s committee, and doesn’t even acknowledge the idea of sharing the burden of choosing worthy causes.
“I don’t go on a board. I’m a lone ranger,” he says. “I do my own thing. I’m not looking for new friends and relatives.”
That ability to make decisions with a minimum of fuss, he believes, is how he’s able to bring people together when he needs their specialized skills to get the job done.
“If I tell Chaim Yankel to call Shloyme, and Shloyme to call him, a lot of the time, ‘Oh, I didn’t get to it.’ But it’s important. They didn’t get to it. I don’t trust them to call each other. I know better. I’m on their tuches until they get together. Then my job is pretty much done, because they should be making whatever it is happen.”
In an age of social networking, Rudman’s way may not be the most modern approach, but you can’t deny it works for him — and all the people he’s helped.
M.J. Fine is a writer, editor and music critic. She still spends more time with her hi-fi than with iTunes or Spotify. You can find her in the front row and in record stores.