Saturday, May 6, 2023

They are killing the mother of rock and roll...

         The auto industry is moving to take AM radio out of cars. Without radio kids in the 50'-70's would never have been able to "cruise" and rock and roll may never have become a cultural force.
        This is a bit of long cruise, a personal and impressionistic history as I drive to the point that if AM radio had not existed, neither would rock and roll. 
        We heard the music on AM. That spurred record sales that made the stars who
choreographed our lives.  

        It was a skill to pre-set the buttons to the exact AM rockers that you could hear in your area. Punching in and out to get your favorite tunes or hear your favorite DJ was part of driving.

        At age 11 I  heard Little Richard wailing Tutti Frutti coming out of transistor radio. It was on the sunning deck at the concession and dressing room building at the "Reservoir Park" on Clinton Street near downtown Fort Wayne. That was the first rock and roll song I heard. It just jumped out at me and attacked me with a rock rhythm. It was a total experience. Life changed. 

        My brother and I started saving money to buy a transistor. Before that radio was the floor model we listened to as younger kids. The Lone Ranger, Johnny Dollar, Lights Out, Jack Benny, Lux Theatre and so many more dramas, serials and comedy shows

        Or it was the bakelite radio that sat on a window sill in the kitchen where we listened to the news as mom prepared dinner. It was from that kitchen radio I first began to think about being a foreign correspondent or radio newsman. I was fascinated by the voices coming in from distances, sometimes fading in and out as they observed events. That seemed a life of adventure. 

        Like most boomer teens it was the new rock and roll music that filled my ears until the day that flipping up the dial I landed on a station playing jazz. It was coming from an Indianapolis radio station playing local jazz and blues artists  and what  I learned were legends. Some of the DJ's were also players and that became one of the go to preset buttons on the car radio.  

        The world of AM radio was magical. At night you could pick up signals from distant stations...WLS Chicago, WABC New York, and my favorite WLAC Nashville playing rhythm and blues. Hoss Allen, John R. or Gene Nobles were the DJ's. Exotic music, accents, commercials for Randy's Record Rack, Moon Pies and RC Cola filled the night with AM magic. 

    On weekends there was also Monitor from NBC. It opened a new world-with an ongoing live nationwide broadcast from Saturday morning to late Sunday. It was a mix of everything in life, in a fascinating format that was powerful enough to draw the attention of this kid away from rock and jazz. 

        A pending death of AM radio is a personal thing.

        My first radio news job was at WERK, a six tower, small watt AM radio station in Muncie. It was great training ground learning from news directors Ron Branson, Jack Gardner, who was also a county sheriffs deputy and then the legendary Fred Hinshaw, who was also a highly regarded state legislator, and a published poet. Before he landed in Muncie he had been an NBC announcer. He and Lorne Green, later of Bonanza, were the networks star talent. Muncie got lucky.

        It also helped to pay the college education expenses, since I ended up working so many hours. I ran the police beat, managed all of the weekend news and even had a record show-after all it was small town radio. It was a new station, signing on in 1965 and it was a sensation in Muncie.

        In the frame above our air staff was being given hearts bye local ambassadors for our public service support. That's your correspondent front right. All over America AM station DJ's were celebrities and in most markets- it was the place  people heard rock and roll and personalties. The line up was Big Joe London, Wild Bill Shirk, Mr. Show Biz Gil Hole, and your's truly, Tommy the C.

        Being Muncie, home of one of winningest high school basket ball teams in the nation, the WERK KREW were expected to shoot hoops as well, by golly! We did, fielding a team that traveled to high school gyms around the area, playing the faculty team or a team of all star Alumni. It was decent basketball and we filled gyms.

        Above Tommy the C, Wild Bill and Lar on the Air McCabe and the Union 76 car stoppers in a promotional shoot. 

        There was a cache to being being a college lad on the hit radio station at a time when dorm rooms, fraternity houses, sorority suites and businesses blasted your station rock and roll. AM and Rock was a powerful cultural institution until it changed.

        Up the road in the state capitol of Indianapolis a 50 thousand Watt powerhouse and well established radio station owned the market. It was a mix of personality and music, special events programming and a sense of community. Everything a good AM radio station was supposed to be. It was old school.

        Personalities like Jack Morrow, Bouncing' Bill Baker and Jim Shelton were 
genuine celebrities.

        And then the Good Guys came to town with their top 40 format, sensational news style, big promotions and the mid 60's radio battles heated up. It was not long before WIFE with their promotional give away's overtook the old standard WIBC.

        Enter James C. Hilliard. He had done a tour as a radio star on WIBC and had gone off to bigger markets. He returned to manage WIBC and to change radio in historic ways.

        Hilliard created a new image for the staid WIBC. It became more contemporary, and  fun. It emphasized community and featured enormously popular personalities, exciting contests, and creative engagement of listeners. It played to one of the stations's strengths, the powerful news department.

        Award winning news director Fred Heckman went on to become a bit of legend in radio news. At the time he was known as a no nonsense hard boiled newsman. Here again my life and AM were to be intertwined.  The giant 1070 WIBC lurked in my future

        When Lana and I honeymooned in Europe in the spring and summer of 1969, I asked a friend to fill in on my WERK shift. That's the kind of world it was back then. The friend was Dave Letterman. He told me on my return that Heckman had called looking for the "young charger" news reporter in Muncie. Dave told him I was in Europe and Heckman said "have him give me a call when he gets back." I did.

        He hired me to join his state capitol news team and told me to get a hair cut, even though Lana had extensively cut my near shoulder length hair the night before the interview.    

        My first days on the job I was "broken in" by another legend, Bob Hoover. Hoover entered journalism in the 20's as a newspaper photographer. He'd been a friend of Hoagy Carmichael, even played drums for him, played poker with Harry Truman, used to jump on the running board of squad cars and ride out with the police. After a shoot out one mortally wounded cop fell into Hoover's arms and pled with him to look after his daughter. 
        Bob had a vault of memories and extraordinary stories. He also had a "grapevine" of news sources and after he figured I was alright he introduced me around. The other guy who I shadowed was Bruce Taylor who conducts  the Oddball Observations blog and about whom I have written. Bruce remains a dear friend. He also started on AM, in the wilderness of the Dakotas.

        Radio news departments battled for scoops, leads and listeners in those days. It was a street war. Radio stations had more staff than some television newsrooms.
Where once newspapers fought circulation wars, radio stations waged that fight and AM listeners benefited. AM radio invented the idea of breaking news, continuing coverage, and keeping the public informed. It was the first place people went for information.

      The Historical Society asked me to write a magazine article on one of the nations most famous hostage situations. Tony Kiritsis held mortgage banker Dick Hall at the end of a shotgun, wired to his head, for three days. I covered the incident as part of our continuing coverage night and day. 

    Kiritsis called Heckman during the crisis. Media from around the world swarmed to the Indianapolis apartment complex. For the first time the FBI sent a "hostage negotiator" a new thing then. The principles, all of the other media and law enforcement listened to our AM coverage to get the latest. 
    Films have been made about our team coverage and the issues it raised. It was a time before rules and protocols about hostage coverage.

    With the popular and culturally nuanced entertainment side and the news and sports department dominance, the old AM station had become a staple in people's daily routines and their lives.

      Along the way Hilliard had turned the old AM giant into one of America's great radio stations and I was delighted to be a part of it.  But he had other plans and they have become part of American radio lore, but it may also have been an opening chip in the erosion of AM radio.

     A book, countless articles, documentary films and stories have been done about what was about to happen. 
    WIBC had an FM station as well WIBC FM.  Like most FM stations it played background music. Hard to believe now, but in those days very few people had FM radios. Once the station was off the air for hours, and no one called to complain. A lot of folks had never heard of FM. But in San Francisco and in New York FM's had been turned on to become progressive music rockers. 
    In Indianapolis they changed the call letters to WNAP, hired a few young DJ's and became one of the earliest FM rock and roll stations. They upgraded to stereo and started pushing the sale of FM receivers and sound systems. It was all fledgling and  a start up but it showed promised.
    Hilliard spotted a creative young DJ and gave him the reigns to program the station in a fresh, innovative and imaginative way.

        Cris Conner, "King Freak," "Naptown's Night-Time Baby Driver," "Moto Groove"
were the nick names he used as he created a surreal world of rock, personality, hip culture and life style news.
        Cris reached out to one of the AM DJ's he had worked with up state.

        Mike Griffin, a Notre Dame journalism student had worked at a South Bend newspaper and was eventually hired at a radio station, where he had a music show. That's where Conner and Griffin met. In the interim Griffin joined Naval Air and was stationed to a base in San Francisco, where he absorbed the culture and music and spent weekends photographing the city's mid 60's vibe, music and clubs. 
        As soon as Griffin was separated from the Navy, Conner hired him to join the new WNAP. Griffin brought his first hand knowledge of the emerging San Francisco music and lifestyle cultures. He and Conner were ready to turn on the city and Hilliard was ready to step up the radio war and its widening impact.

Cris with head phones and Tom in sport coat  along with Tommy Chong greet drivers who created a massive traffic jam who drove by the studio to meet the Cheech and Chong star and to get free tickets. (You can see a television crew on the scene covering the jam that had down town traffic tied up.)

    WNAP needed a news voice and it eventually came around to me to start creating a new kind of news cast for this new kind of radio. I grabbed a type writer, set up in the studio and became part of the morning programming. Originally with Griffin, then with the late Bob Richards and eventually with Cris and a growing cast including Bruce Macho Munson, Mister Ron Below,  and Fast Freddie Fever in one of the first off the wall entourages. We took the show out of the studio whenever and however we could.
    We created theatre of mind festivals, parades, and we even did a couple of days  imagining the city in the year 2093, thanks to sophisticated electronic gear. It was a sci-fi event that was scheduled for only one day, but it was such a success we extended it, working around the clock to write and record the sketches.

    We did wine tasting on the air and then followed with wine tasting events. We created the Free Money give away, at first just dropping in on offices and handing out cash. Once we created another traffic shutdown by asking if people would be silly enough to brave a driving thunderstorm to catch free money thrown to them from the roof of the station. 

        Celebrities were frequent guests. One morning Cris and I decided in that very moment to see if we could get a plane, get to Boston and watch the Marathon all the while reporting on our adventure. We spent a week camping in the wilds near a beaver pond and doing it live. Ditto spending a night in jail, or broadcasting from a bedroom in a department store window. 

        I had an easy job, to be the straight man, the voice of sanity, the journalist reporter amidst a team of entertainers and personalities. I used new and emerging news sources in addition to the traditional wire services and network feeds. I brought in Earth News, Zodiac New Service, Lou Irwin's reporting on culture. We created new information units and formats. It clicked.

        Soon WIBC and WNAP in combination dominated radio listenership. WNAP was a laboratory for new radio concepts. In the meantime Hilliard had moved Fairbanks broadcasting into a position of ownership of stations in other major markets.

        Canadian AM broadcaster George Johns was hired to be the national programming director. He worked with the Indianapolis stations, tweaking and joining the experimentation. Eventually he exported ideas and concepts to sister stations around the country. They too were FM stations going into markets to knock off once dominant AM stations. 
        By 1979 I was leaving radio to try my hand at long form television journalism.
WNAP and WIBC were golden. The long hairs in blue jeans at WNAP had become  huge winners, and ideas we experiment with were being deployed by our stations and then copied by the growing list of FM radio stations that had become the norm. 
        The chain of stations Hilliard assembled was hugely successful.

        AM radio became something else. You've heard it.  All things have a life span and so much of what AM used to be is dispensed or available in other media. 

        It was all great run. Radio was the most personal of media. But as I read of the pending demise of AM, already in critical condition, it started me down memory lane and I wanted to pay tribute. I also wished to reflect on the role AM played in bringing rock and roll to America and then how that rock and roll culture changed including in radio.

        It's interesting to me that over the years, basketball has remained the same essentially, same court and rules and game. Ditto baseballl, football. Law is still the same, and teaching has made some adjustments but it's the same profession.
        Media is different. Newspapers had their day, AM radio had its era. Now in a digital world it's all fusing and changing. But I have to think that pod casting is in the last analysis a kind of return to AM radio. A voice, a listener, the engagement of the mind and a relationship is built.

        Still, there was nothing like hearing a great DJ play your favorite song coming through the night from some distant capitol. It was a sweet world!

        Thanks for taking this cruise.
        See you down the trail. 


  1. Such a great history lesson Tom. Lorne Greene -- no shit? I loved radio so much I was perplexed when kilocycles now had to be called kilohertz. (Why are you doing this to me?!). AM has bit the dust but what a great first link to the world beyond. Being able to hear KSL in Salt Lake city or KOA in Denver from the neon cornfield. I remember living in Talbott village staying up all night with friends listening to Harry Abraham at WHAM in Rochester, NY who did a jazz show "Best of all possible worlds", perfect for 2 AM. And WLAC?...forget about it....I always thought the story behind that station and the caucasian disc jockeys would have been a great John Waters movie. Thanks for sharing your memories Tom and the photos are too much!

  2. Nice flashback Tom, as usual, very well told. And now The Giant sleeps in the dark. RIP- WIBC.
    In the Record Biz whenever MD/PD's found out I was originally from Indy all they wanted to talk about was WNAP and not the records I was riding. It was an Honor and Great Pleasure to be a small part of WNAP. Mister Below

  3. A fine post, Tom. I read it twice, so much information about the industry I did not know.
    The only thing I can comment on is the basketball photo: Nice form and follow-thru on the jump shot.

  4. Hi Tom, I didn't want to miss this great post that chronicles your long involvement in radio and newscasting, which I only knew vaguely of before. Sometimes it's hard to be just a retiree in Cambria with not enough to do of such a monumental nature as "before." FYI, I once had an am radio show myself in Chicago called the WLS show (my initials). Been so long I forgot the details. In my youth I also worked for Newsweek on an MPA internship out of j school (got a photo published there), the L.A. Times (just a copyboy but I was
    in the newsroom). My being in a idyllic small town is no accident--I was a nationally well known small town relocation consultant, with features in USA Today, the New York Times and elsewhere--ran a natiowide rural relocation service called the Greener Pastures Institute. Author, Moving to Small Town America (Dearborn Financial). I do hope you can hotlink all your memories to a wide audience of contacts. I have very few left. See you on the courts soon.

  5. Great history. Thanks for the trip down memory lane...all the way back to my crystal set listening in the dark to Chicago White Sox games.