• I get my first journalism job after college, a tiny radio station in a cornfield
• I’m pink-slipped within months, along with the rest of the staff
• We rebound mightily with the launch of WIOT-FM and take over the Toledo airwaves
“What do I do after I’ve interviewed someone with my portable tape recorder? How do I get parts of that on the air?” I asked.
“Get a cart and dub the sound bite you want onto it,” said Frank Stacy.
I looked around the tiny newsroom. I couldn’t see anything resembling a basket, let alone a cart. A shopping cart, maybe?
I was learning on the job. I had not worked at my college radio station. I’d only learned how to report and write newspaper stories at my college, twenty miles down the road.
Frank Stacy was the outgoing news director whom I was about to replace at WGLN-FM in Sylvania, Ohio, in 1971. He patiently showed me a tape cartridge, i.e. a “cart.” It looked like an 8-track from a car stereo system. He showed me how to erase the sound bite previously recorded on it and how to pull bites from the interview cassette onto carts. Also, how to “fire off” the carts as I read up to them in my newscasts.
I had always felt too shy to go on the radio. But when I “potted up” the microphone for my first, nervous newscast, I was to find that years of listening to New York’s Top 40 stations as an adolescent in North Jersey had ingrained in me the delivery patterns of radio newsmen…although I had to modify them somewhat to make them fit the laid-back ambiance of free-form progressive rock radio. (Note my use of the word “newsman.” At that time, the prevailing view in the industry was that radio listeners would not take seriously news delivered by a woman.)
WGLN-FM was housed in what was essentially a large shack next to a transmitter tower a hundred yards from the road alongside a cornfield in a far western exurb of Toledo. It was owned by a farmer who originally put it on the air with religious programming. When that didn’t draw enough listeners to pay the bills, he was convinced to try a country music format. That was failing as well.
Along came Dorian Pastor, a radio and jazz buff out of the University of Toledo, and Rick Campbell, the owner of a local head shop and waterbed store. They persuaded the station’s owner to sell them a block of late-night time in which they played Hendrix, Joplin, Doors, Airplane, et al, and spoke to listeners in the semi-stoned patois of the time. Before long, there were enough listeners to convince the station’s owners to let them convert its format to free-form progressive rock around the clock.
When I called out of the blue to see if they needed a newsman, the program director, Pastor, invited me up for an interview. My friend Richard lent me his car for the trip. Despite my lack of radio experience, I think Dorian – a transplanted Brooklynite with wild, frizzy hair and a non-stop habit of chain-smoking joints – could tell a kindred spirit who could quickly figure out how to do radio news for fellow “freaks.” The incumbent newsman, Stacy, by his own admission, had no idea what this kind of radio was about and had already lined up a new job at a mainstream station across the state, in Ashtabula. For years afterward, I would see stories he contributed to the Associated Press state wire about school board meetings, fires and zoning disputes.
I got the hang of things quickly enough and, among other stories, covered the trial of a local Black Panther Party leader charged in a shoot-out with the police. This was sort of the minor-league version of big-market news, as nationwide, the Black Panthers found themselves at the center of many similar stories. It was a good way to cut my teeth in broadcast news.
After about a year on air, to our surprise, WGLN-FM was bought by the owner of the city’s Top 40 powerhouse, WOHO-AM. At that time in the radio industry, AM-FM combinations had become commonplace and Lew Dickey wanted an FM frequency of his own. He invited the WGLN air staff and office people over to Broadcast House, his impressively large headquarters in East Toledo. He told us he didn’t understand what we were doing, music-wise, but his sales staff was hearing good things on the street (read: losing ad buys to us). “So keep doing what you’re doing, guys,” he said.
A month later he called us all back over to Broadcast House and fired us. He was installing an automated easy-listening format. As we stood in his office getting pink-slipped en masse, a DJ who had a larger resume than mine noticed the worried look on my face and whispered, “Welcome to radio. This happens all the time.”
Simultaneously, Chris Loop, the afternoon DJ who had been left behind at our cornfield broadcast house to keep us on the air, glanced out the office window and saw one of Dickey’s men coming up the walk with a large pair of metal clippers. Dickey had heard of a famous incident in rock radio history that had taken place some years earlier in San Francisco. The air staff of free-form pioneer KSAN-FM had forestalled a format change by barricading themselves inside the studios for days and appealing for the community to come out and support them. Dickey was taking no chances. If we somehow tipped off Chris about the shutdown and tried to pull off a similar protest, the guy was to use the clippers to sever the line from the tiny studio and office facility to the nearby transmission tower. Unwittingly, Chris let him in and the off-switch was thrown.
(Fast-forward to the 21st Century: Lew Dickey’s sons, Lew and John, took over the third-largest radio conglomerate in the country, Cumulous Media. In 2017 Cumulous filed for bankruptcy. Dickey’s sons were described by former Chicago Tribune media reporter Robert Feder as “miserable bosses who diminished if not destroyed some of the most iconic radio brands.” The apple falls not far from the tower.)
So, I moved to Boston and drove a cab. That is, until I realized my inability to memorize that city’s oddly-laid-out street grid severely limited my tips. Then I worked in the basement of the John Hancock building microfilming insurance documents. The best thing about that job was that, while monotonously feeding pages into the microfilm machine, we were allowed to listen to a radio if we used an ear plug. A mono ear-plug, in those days. I listened to the legendary WBCN-FM and its equally legendary “News Dissector,” Danny Schecter. I dropped a tape and resume off at the station, but was never contacted. Years later in New York, I became friends with the irrepressible Schecter – now deceased – and wound up doing stories about him and his social activism.
After months of living on the enclosed back porch of my sister’s place in Concord, Mass, I received a telegram – yes, a telegram. “Western Union. Dit-dih-dit-dih-dit..”
Dorian and his crew had found another Toledo broadcaster interested in trying album-oriented rock. The owner of WCWA-AM and FM was Frazier Reams, Jr., a Democratic politician who had once run unsuccessfully for Governor of Ohio. After being shown some of the ratings and sales figures for the late WGLN’s brief tenure as a progressive rock station, he was convinced to change the format of his FM easy-listening station and switch its call letters to WIOT-FM. We went on the air at midnight Christmas Eve, 1972, to the strains of a just-released cover version of “Roll Over, Beethoven” by the Electric Light Orchestra.
For the first six months or so, I had to be the morning drive disc jockey as well as newscaster, because the budget didn’t allow for a full-time newsperson. Do not be fooled – this was no “Morning Zoo.” There were no pranks, no promos, no comedy bits. Just me spinning long LP cuts, reading some AP wire copy and maybe handing out a pair of tickets to the fifth caller for Alice Cooper at the Toledo Sports Arena.
It was because of Alice Cooper that one day I read my name in Rolling Stone magazine. I had attended his concert at the Sports Arena and it had ended abruptly when someone threw a lit firecracker. Cooper quite rightly walked off the stage, to the dismay of the packed house. The next day Ben Fong-Torres, a Rolling Stone writer in San Francisco, called the station and asked for the news director. He interviewed me for his report in the next RS issue. The big time!
I also did my first television interview for the local PBS station which was launching a youth-oriented magazine show.
It would be another 15 years and a few haircuts before I worked in TV again.
It was at WIOT that I built my first news department, hiring Craig Kopp out of Bowling Green State U. and requisitioning Rick Bird from another position at the station. They both went on to long, distinguished broadcasting careers.
FM. No static at all. Dead air, sometimes.