John Gorman began his broadcasting career in Boston and in 1973 moved to Cleveland to join WMMS, a small, free form FM station then under new ownership. Over the next thirteen years he would help turn WMMS into one of the most popular and influential rock stations in the country. He served as music director and program director, and eventually became operations manager of WMMS and WHK. He also consulted other Malrite properties and was instrumental in the launch of WHTZ/Z-100 in New York.
In 1986 Gorman and twelve other staff members left WMMS to start 98.5 WNCX in Cleveland.
Gorman left WNCX in early 1987 to devote more time to his radio and media consulting firm, Gorman Media. He worked with radio stations in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and other markets. Gorman Media relaunched his new current rock format, Untamed Radio, which combined mainstream rock and alternative, which was originally carried on WPHD/Buffalo in the mid ‘80s. The format was carried in Boston, New Orleans, and Akron-Canton.
In the late 1989, Gorman joined former Malrite President Carl Hirsch’s Legacy Broadcasting, which purchased WMJI/Cleveland. The format changed from adult contemporary to rock & roll oldies and became the market’s top ratings and revenue radio station. In 1994, Legacy evolved into OmniAmerica and purchased WMMS and WHK. Gorman was promoted to Vice President/Director of Broadcasting for the chain.
When the Telecommunications Bill of 1996 was signed into law, OmniAmerica was purchased by Chancellor Broadcasting with the exception of WMJI, WMMS, and WHK, which were sold to Nationwide Communications.
In 1997, Gorman left Cleveland to launch a new alternative rock station, WKRK aka K-Rock in Detroit, where he stayed until 1999. In 1999 he returned to Greater Cleveland to reform his consulting firm and founded Radio Crow, an Internet radio portal. Not pleased with the partnership arrangement, he returned to media consulting and talent coaching. Today, Gorman divides his time with Gorman Media and is partners in Fusion Multimedia, a marketing firm based in Lakewood.
Gorman won the Radio Consultant of the Year award at the 1985 annual Pop Music Convention and was awarded Operations Director of the Year in 1995 by Billboard magazine. He was inducted into the Ohio Radio-TV Hall of Fame in 2000 and received a Cleveland Icon Perseverance award from the Cleveland Entertainment Coalition in 2006.
Gorman was inducted into the Cleveland Association of Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame in April 2008.
In 2007 John wrote the highly successful and one of the best books on Cleveland’s rock history, The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio--a Memoir. It is currently available in hardback and paperback editions.
In 2009, Gorman was instrumental in launching Cleveland’s first adult album alternative station, V107.3.
Today, Gorman divides his time with Gorman Media and Fusion Multimedia.
In March he will be celebrating his 46th year in the media and communications business.
In the 50’s it seemed Chicago and Memphis was the center of the American music scene. In the 60’s it moved to Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco and in the 70’s it seemed Cleveland was the major player. How did Cleveland get so prominent in the national music scene?
Following World War II and throughout the sixties radio stations and record labels practiced musical segregation. When Tutti Frutti by Little Richard was released in 1955, it was promoted to and played only on stations that targeted African Americans. The mainstream top forty stations, whose audience was predominantly white, chose a sanitized cover version by Pat Boone. The same was true for the song “Earth Angel.” The original was by the Penguins. The white stations played a cover version by the Crew Cuts. It was a rare occasion when a black artist got airplay on top forty or middle of the road stations.
Record labels got their music played on the radio by establishing relationships with the stations’ influential DJ’s.
In that era, the monetized version of payola technically wasn’t illegal. When a number of DJs, including Alan Freed and Dick Clark, were indicted for accepting payola they were charged with tax evasion. That is, not paying taxes on goods and services received. It was only after the Congressional hearings on payola that the entire practice was ruled illegal. Record labels got their music played on the radio by establishing relationships with the stations’ influential DJ’s. They provided DJs with what ever they desired to get their music played on the radio. First and foremost, money, but also women, booze, clothing, vacations, and drugs.
Rock & roll evolved from New York, Memphis, Chicago and Cleveland and other cities that had a significant black population after World War II. It migrated from blues and jazz clubs. Country was the other driving force. After World War II ended radio stations began playing records.
In Cleveland country and R&B collided into the mainstream, further influencing the style of early rock and roll. Cleveland had the first radio station that exposed rhythm & blues based music for white kids with Alan Freed on WJW-AM. Cleveland also had Bill Randle on WERE-AM, who introduced Cleveland to country and rockabilly. Freed promoted all-star R&B concerts. Randle broke Elvis Presley, one of the first mainstream artists influenced by both R&B and country, and booked him to perform at Brooklyn High School. It was Elvis’ first date north of the Mason-Dixon line. What we call rock and roll was refined and defined in Cleveland, Ohio.
During the 50s & 60s, baby boomers became an imperative demographic for advertisers, and that’s why top forty ruled radio. It was a license to print money. Cleveland became a barometer for national hits. In those days the largest markets were the last to add new music. Cleveland was the right size catalyst market where music could cross from smaller towns to larger markets. By the late ‘50s and early 60’s every city had at least two Top 40 stations. The original intent of that format was to play the best of all genres of music - rock, middle of the road, and eventually rhythm & blues and country as the latter two genres moved into the mainstream.
The top forty format exposed the largest group of young people in the history of America to a wide variety of music and artists. The oldest baby boomers, those that came of age during Elvis, married young and started families early. And most of them stopped listening to rock & roll - except for the music and artists they grew up with.
But those coming of age during the Beatles and the British Invasion became the first post-war generation that did not stop listening to rock & roll when they grew older. The birth control pill, the draft and the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the availability of marijuana and mind altering drugs, and questioning and challenging the status quo changed everything.
Murray Saul calls the sixties a time when the United States had a nervous breakdown
Cleveland remained a hot breakout market for music played on top forty throughout the sixties with WHK, KYW-WKYC, and later WIXY. It was also a major proving ground for many air personalities that went on to national prominence like Casey Casem, Johnny Holiday, Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers, Joey Reynolds, and I could go on for hours.
The genesis of the FM radio revolution occurred in 1966 when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that companies owning the license to both an AM and FM in a given market had to carry different programming on each station for x number of hours per day. Prior to that, companies that owned both simulcasted their AM programming on their FM. I’m leaving a lot of the technical stuff out - but FM could broadcast in stereo and its signal was not restricted to geographical limitations like some AM stations, especially at the upper end of the frequency.
Concurrently, boomers in their later teens and early twenties were now listening to albums instead of singles and broadening their musical tastes. They’d be sitting cross-legged on the floor passing a joint around, swigging Mateus Rose, and listening to music on albums by Bob Dylan, the Blues Project, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane for hours and hours.
Tom Donahue, a former top forty disc jockey from Philadelphia, moved to San Francisco and briefly owned a record label, Autumn, started buying hours - blocks of time on KMPX, a station featuring primarily ethnic programming - to play album tracks on the radio. He then resold the time to area merchants, mostly head shops, clubs, and record and clothing stores to cover the costs. Not long after he was turning a respectable profit. And promoter Bill Graham started booking the acts KMPX was playing at the Fillmore and other venues around San Francisco.
Actually, New York was the first city to have a commercial FM station that played more albums than singles. It was initially started by a group of ex-top forty DJs including Murray the K and Scott Muni who loved this new music and were tiring of programming to teenyboppers. That station was WOR-FM. I was in New York a few weeks after its debut and I could not stop listening to it. And, of course, you also had college radio, low wattage, but just enough signal strength to reach and influence the college towns.
How did Cleveland become the epicenter in the 70’s?
Start here. I was always fascinated with the hows and whys of music, fashion, sports, and politics. We have our gatekeepers - I’ll stick to radio - air personalities and in our case - a staff that loved music. At WMMS, we read British music magazines like Melody Maker and New Musical Express. We checked the fanzines and the rock magazines of the era for new music. We went well beyond the trade papers. In fact, knowing music as well as we did, we were quite aware that some of the radio trades were ninety percent hype, ten percent fact. They were tip sheets more than trades. The labels controlled the editorial.
We were opinionated about music -but also respectful of our audience. They were the court of public opinion. If we played music they didn’t like, they didn’t have to listen to us.
It was all about being conscious of what constitutes popular culture. It was up to us to introduce new music, new styles, new trends, and explain them, provide them ample exposure - but it was up to our listeners to either accept or reject.
Now, how does one pinpoint where the exposure ends and the acceptance or rejection begin? That’s where it gets interesting.
Consider that an overnight sensation act will often share the spotlight with a long-struggling artist’s breakthrough. And even overnight sensations were not what they appeared to be. They were just better hidden. Most of America first heard Peter Frampton with the “Frampton Comes Alive” album. He was unknown throughout most of the U.S. He had a small following, like Rory Gallagher. But in Cleveland that meant, like Gallagher, he played the Agora often. We carried those Agora concerts on the air. And, as a result, Cleveland was one of the few markets where Frampton received airplay and exposure prior to the live album. He was an overnight sensation to most of the U.S. but a struggling artist that finally made it to those who listened to WMMS over the years. And Cleveland, because of the musical infrastructure that was forming, was a market where our listeners could hear and see an act develop from a small club act to superstar.
It was obvious that our greatest success would be as a new music station. That’s easier said than done. We had to pick the right music for our listeners. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t listen and we’d be out of work.
By the early 70s, some album rock stations that had been in the format for a few years chose to lean heavily on sixties and early seventies rock and ignored the new music coming out of the U.K. like Bowie, T.Rex, and Mott the Hoople, which got labeled as “glitter rock.” They also ignored the down and dirty blue-collar based album rock from Detroit - Grand Funk, Iggy & the Stooges, MC5, the Bob Seger System.
How do you describe WMMS when you first got there?
Cleveland was going through a rough time. Fortune 500 companies, which Cleveland used to have a substantial number of, were relocating elsewhere. When I first here there was a headline story in the Cleveland Press that quoted a CEO of a company that announced plans to relocate. He said, “We don’t know where we’re moving to. We just want out of Cleveland.”
Since I had a thick Boston accent I was often asked where I was from. When I’d say “Boston,” the reply was, “Why did you move HERE?” It was as if HERE was the worst place I could possibly be. It was culture shock. Nearly everyone I’d talk to wanted out. Yet, I’m looking at Cleveland as city and seeing opportunity. It was the first week in July. I was impressed with the MetroParks, the lakefront, and a lower cost of living than I was used to in the Northeast.
Then there was location, location, location. WMMS and WHK were located at 50th and Euclid, where the Agora is today. Both stations were in that bunker add-on, which was attached to the building. It was a rough, precarious neighborhood. Employee cars were stolen out of our parking lot weekly. A couple of staff members were robbed. Hookers paraded up and down Prospect, just outside of our parking lot.
Milton Maltz, the chairman of Malrite, was quoted as saying he bought WHK, our AM station, for $3 million and Metromedia, the seller, threw in WMMS for free.
In the early 70s, many station owners joked that FM meant “Find Me.” FM radios were optional in cars. Radios that included the FM band were more expensive than AM only radios. Most weren’t interested in FM because all of the mass appeal formats were on AM. FM was primarily a haven for beautiful music, classical music, ethnic programming, religion, and college radio.
Malrite concentrated on it’s AM - WHK and its middle of the road format. For younger folks reading this, middle of the road was popular music that didn’t rock. WHK’s ratings were slipping. Their demos were growing older. Malrite changed WHK to this weird “cover hits” format, which played hit music but not by the artists that made the songs famous. They were putting all their efforts into trying to make it a meaningful format.
Denny Sanders, when he hired me, didn’t tell me this. He became the program director of WMMS when Billy Bass left but he really preferred a different management position, which would allow him more time to focus on his show. He was doing the program directing duties to protect the format. You know that line in “Do You Believe In Magic” by the Lovin’ Spoonful - “Trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll?” That was part of the job. Denny had to spend time with the new owners and define our music and programming that, to them, was radically dissimilar and seemingly illogical compared to the more traditional formats they were used to. Denny was also doing morning drive, which meant a 6 to 10 AM show time and not getting out of the station until 8 or 9 at night. I was initially hired as music director. That meant selecting the music that would garner a sizeable and saleable audience. Denny’s ulterior motive was to eventually turn over the programming reigns over to me.
Malrite, the company that purchased WMMS and WHK from Metromedia, wanted to change the format from album rock to country - but were prevented from doing so. You’ll have to read my book, “The Buzzard,” to find out why. A renowned Cleveland politician played an imperative role in saving the format. I will always be grateful for what he did. Malrite agreed to give our format one year to generate viable ratings and revenue. If it didn’t, we - and the format - would be gone. Seven of those months had already past when I was hired. We had no promotion and marketing budget. The only tools at our disposal were our own instincts and gut. And a team of people that had never worked together before.
Let me stop here for a moment. I’ve heard that Ohio State, Case Western, and Tri-C had courses on management that used WMMS as a source. “How to run your business and be successful like WMMS.” I’ve talked to some people who had taken those courses. What they were taught was way off the mark. Had to get that in.
Here is the real story. Yes, it was a team. And the team was made up of highly talented individuals. Nearly all of us were, to a degree, introverts. We came from divergent backgrounds - blue collar to privilege. Our staff was made up from those born, raised, or living in east, west, and south sides of Cleveland and Akron. Some of us, like Denny, Boom, Charlie Kendall, and B.L.F. Bash, were not Cleveland natives. We didn’t grow up here. Len “Boom” Goldberg was in his early forties, which was old - and the opposite side of the generation gap - back in 1973. Murray Saul, when the joined WMMS, was in his late forties. Betty Korvan was 19. Denny, Leo, Jeff, and I were in our early 20’s. And a few of us had at one time or another dabbled with our own pirate radio stations. The diversity definitely helped us.
We often would work in solitude on projects, ideas, promotions, whatever. And then we’d get together, most of the time informally; we’d collaborate on how to apply these concepts that we were passionate about to WMMS. And the creativity was contagious and continuous.
We were family. We were also like a sports team. We had positions - in our case, dayparts. Beyond that, we brought and shared our own singular and distinct musical tastes. We had our own specific interests in what we read, what movies and TV shows we watched and what we did for fun. The solitary element is no different from a sports team. Exercise, diet, and mastering your position on the team are one’s solo efforts. And there is a key differentiation between a team and a committee. I dislike committees. A camel is a horse designed by committee. Most of what you hear on the radio today is designed by committee.
We assembled our collective concepts and constructed WMMS around this wide, diverse collection of music. There was no passivity amongst us. Everyone was a contributor to our success. Our goal, right from the onset, was to bring personality and honest, unbridled excitement and entertainment to the station.
The album rock format was born in the sixties. Our job was to grow it up right for the seventies and beyond. WMMS already had a rich past history we had to live up to - when Billy Bass, Martin Perlich, Shauna, and others constructed the original WMMS. That version of WMMS was pretty close to being deleted because, in the end, only Denny and David Spero were survivors from the original Metromedia crew. The rest could not - and justly so - deal with Malrite, the new owners. Some of the original WMMS staff went out west to KMET in Los Angeles, which was also owned by Metromedia. Billy Bass crossed into music promotion and worked with David Bowie’s management and later, RCA and Chrysalis Records. He broke a lot of acts that became big names for those labels. Though I didn’t live here when Billy and the staff worked at WMMS I visited Denny in Cleveland a few months after he moved here. It was just before Metromedia announced plans to sell WMMS so, at that moment in time everything at the station was at peak performance. I spent a few days in Cleveland, and was captivated by how plugged in to the city this station sounded.
Since the early seventies were defining a new decade - different than the sixties, we viewed our format as the soundtrack to popular culture as opposed to being just an album rock/progressive rock station. We called it full-service. That encompassed how we covered and presented news, public affairs, public service, and anything else related to the lifestyle of our listeners. The difference with how we were building the format here compared to the east and west coast stations was unique. Their stations were slightly abstruse and laid back. Our version was more energetic and in your face the way rock and roll should be.
We wanted vigor. We wanted fun. We wanted unconventional. We wanted to break rules and make new ones so we could break them again when we had to. We were quite conscious that it was a business. We had to get ratings, we had to generate revenue - and we had five months - between July and December of 1973 to prove to Malrite, the owners, that this format would work. And we pulled it off.
You created a lineup at WMMS that still after all of these years you can still roll the names off like Jeff, Matt, Leo, Denny, Betty and Boom. You created a station that was personality driven.
It was we not me. Denny and I shared many of the same reference points from growing up in Boston and being very close in age. We could name the air personalities we listened to on every station and the dayparts they were on. Most top forty stations published weekly surveys that were distributed to record stores. And the stations always profiled their air talent. Most top forty stations had cool logos, too. We wanted to bring back that attitude to our format.
We did not want to stop at just saving our album rock format. We had a goal to be the biggest station as far as our signal could reach and beyond - and we wanted to have national influence as a breakout station because that would make us important to the rest of the world. And we were young enough, naïve enough, and high enough to believe we could do it. Those top forty stations we grew up with - whether it was Cleveland or Boston - every DJ had his - it was all male in those days - own style and personality - and, in turn, some DJs were directly identified with breaking and supporting certain artists. They got behind them, told us they loved ‘em and we should, too. We wanted to achieve the same objective.
In the early seventies album rock or album-oriented rock (AOR) as the industry referenced it was still defined progressive rock. We were theoretically the antithesis of top 40. They had jingles, we didn’t. They played hit singles from a small playlist; we played albums from a large playlist. Their DJs screamed, ours whispered. We felt what the audience really wanted was something in-between these two divergent styles.
We didn’t want to miss any musical opportunity. Since our airstaff had a wide variety of musical tastes, we pitched the labels for copies of every new album for everyone. And they were encouraged to provide input to our decision-making. We missed as often as we hit. There were many acts we were convinced would go the distance that didn’t. But one can’t score if one doesn’t shoot nor should one expect to score every time you shoot. Ultimately, our litmus test was the court of public opinion - our listeners.
And we found a lot of music on our own. The late Peter Laughner, a brilliant musician from Cinderella Backstreet and Rocket from the Tombs, turned us on to a quite a few of cutting-edge artists, including Patty Smith. He came back from a New York trip with a copy of her single, “Hey Joe” and “Piss Factory.” This was prior to getting signed to Arista. The labels, which were many, and had local offices in Cleveland staffed by music lovers not bean counters, didn’t understand our format in the early days but as we began influencing sales, they took note.
It seemed you went from no exposure to massive exposure overnight and reading in the book, with no budget.
Much of what I know about radio came from interning and working entry-level positions at stations. It was a huge advantage to have worked at both Boston’s biggest and best as well as the smallest that barely showed up in the ratings. I learned from every situation. Radio was a much larger, more influential, and more listened-to medium back then. It’s show business, which is a winner-take-all setup, with few participants reaping the rewards. For every Jeff, Flash, Matt, Leo, Denny, Betty, Bash, Boom, Dia, Ruby, John Lanigan, Bob Conrad, Bill Randle, Joey Reynolds there are literally thousands of other air talents who have sacrificed years of their youth to make it in broadcasting only to come away with very little. I knew that coming in. We all did. You arrive with the odds against you - but there was no way this team was not going make it. And even being a team, it still took a solid group effort to achieve our goals.
For the first year Denny and I did all the promotions, made all the contacts, and wrote and distributed the weekly press releases so we’d get exposure in the Plain Dealer’s and Cleveland Press’ entertainment weekly as well as the Scene, and whatever alternative weekly was publishing.
There’s no sugarcoating the facts about radio. The pay is low, the working conditions can be harsh, and expectations are often unrealistic. Most radio stations have high turnover. We wanted to buck that trend. Yes, we were getting paid little. Yes, the facilities at 50th & Euclid were decrepit and in a dangerous neighborhood but, you see, we concentrated on the positives. What we had and what we could do. We had this radio station and we had the determination and drive to make something happen with it.
Years later, when I was consulting other stations, I strived for the same approach to teamwork. Most stations have the propensity to build morning drive and a revolving, ever-changing cast for the rest of the day. I - and we - believed all dayparts - including night and overnights - were vital to a station’s success. And the few stations that followed that game plan enjoyed success and low to no turnover. Since there can only be one number one we had to be it.
Consider this. Today, we live in a rapid paced 24-hour world and here’s radio moving in the opposite direction. So many stations abandon their listeners after morning drive or afternoon drive. The sole reason radio audiences are shrinking rapidly and time spent listening to the radio is plummeting is because most stations no longer serve their audience. Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand budgets and it’s between no talent on the air or someone voice-tracked (pre-recorded), I’ll go with the latter. But given the choice of being live and local or Memorex, I’ll go with the former.
WMMS was built from the nights and weekends backward. Initially, 7-12mid, (Denny Sanders and Steve Lushbaugh and later Betty Korvan) was our Arbitron-rated highest daypart - and the daypart we charged the most for advertising in. We also paid attention to overnights. We actually sold advertising overnights because we could show a loyal, dedicated audience in that daypart (Kid Leo and later B.L.F Bash). Then, we built afternoon drive (David Spero, then Matt the Cat, then Kid Leo), then middays (Len “Boom” Goldberg, later Matt the Cat), and finally morning drive (Debbie Ullman, followed by Charlie Kendall & Flash, and finally, Jeff Kinzbach, and Ed “Flash” Ferenc, which eventually evolved into an all-star cast Buzzard Morning Zoo).
At the close of 1973, we had built-up our audience appreciably, which translated to more advertising dollars to halt Malrite from changing format. Initially, our sales department pitched unconventional merchants like head shops, record stores, and clothing. In those days our sales people looked like us and our listeners and many of the ad agencies in Cleveland were stodgy and conservative. There were occasions when our sales people were asked to wait in the hall rather than sit in the lobby with the more traditional looking suit and tie sales people from WGAR and 3WE.
I feel what helped us, too, was the dialogue we had with our sales department. Typically, they are two separate departments that rarely interact. In our case, we were invited to sales meetings and sales people were invited to ours. Of course we sparred sporadically - but, there was an understanding between sales and programming that was unique to radio and, I believe, another reason for our success. Walt Tiburski, Joel Frensdorf, Gaye Ramstrom, Dean Thacker - everyone in sales and programming - communicated with one another. We did what was best for one another whenever we could.
Yes, in the early days, in the parking lot of the station you could tell who owned what. The sales people had the luxury cars, programming had the beaters. But that eventually changed. And don’t forget. Murray Saul came out of sales. Once we proved we could sell records the labels started advertising to support our airplay. We had zero budget for promotion and marketing unless we creatively traded for it. And even then we had our share of rejection. We asked for an advertising trade with Scene magazine - back when it was strictly an entertainment weekly - in 1973 and got turned down. We were told that we weren’t as credible as WIXY or WGAR. I still have their rejection letter.
Zeppelin, a short-lived underground bi-weekly, published in Cuyahoga Falls but with distribution throughout Northeast Ohio, was the first paper willing to barter with us on a regular basis.
Then there was the time when Dave DeCapua, who was our sales manager at the time, learned that Malrite had banked or had left over something like forty-five minutes of production time trade with Channel 3 that was about to run out. He asked if we could use it. Of course, I said yes, even though I didn’t know what we’d do with it.
Suzi Quatro, who was a headline act in Cleveland and nowhere else at the time, was coming back to town for a concert. We talked her into doing a TV spot for us. We got the spot done right to the second but didn’t have enough time remaining on the trade to superimpose our call letters on it. But, as it turned out, we had no money to run the spot anyway, so no one ever saw it. These days, I bring it with me when I do speaking engagements.
We had to get our call letters and frequency in front of our potential audience through guerilla marketing - they didn’t even call it that back then. These are the pre-Buzzard logo days. 1973, early 1974. We contacted anyone promoting a concert or event that would appeal to our audience to co-sponsoring their event if they would put our call letters on their print ads and tickets. Promoting upcoming concerts and related rock and roll entertainment did not sound like commercials. We were providing information our audience wanted to know.
I remember this as clearly today as I did in November 1973. Denny and I opened up the Friday Plain Dealer Action Tab - and no exaggeration - nearly every page had some concert or some event that said “WMMS Presents” on it and it didn’t cost us a penny.
I’m a firm believer in advertising and promotion and marketing. And we did by providing a service to promoters in exchange for displaying our call letters. I can define successful advertising in three words: repeat, repeat, repeat. Since we didn’t have a budget, we had to come up with alternatives. And we did.
In 1973 the Agora, which was on East 24th, had an exclusive deal with WNCR thru the end to the year even though they had changed format from the other album rock station in town to top forty. That prevented us from doing a deal with them. It was frustrating because the Agora was booking acts that we, not WNCR, were playing.
Kid Leo and I went to one of the WNCR shows - Blue Oyster Cult. Just before they went on some motor mouth Top forty DJ went on stage and said something inane like “Hey cats and kittens, we got a groovy show for you tonight.” It confirmed that the there wasn’t much of a future with the WNCR and Agora affiliation.
When Jules Belkin ran Belkin Productions he is a class act and a savvy businessman. I believe that no matter what business Jules chose be in, he’d be successful. We worked a deal where Jules gave WMMS the first right of refusal on concert sponsorship. It was a relationship that was good as they get. We sponsored nearly every rock concert Belkin Productions booked. He also provided free tickets for the entire staff. It was a win-win. Belkin also put our call letters on all of their print advertising and tickets. That was major, major exposure for us.
In 1973, ‘74, the most viewed radio station logo was WGAR’s - that smiley-face musical note. Second was 3WE. That will change, we said amongst ourselves.
I often describe to people it seemed like the “perfect storm” in Cleveland in the 70’s. We had WMMS, Belkin Productions and the Agora all here at the same time and for us the music fan a great time to live in Cleveland.
When the WNCR contract came to a close we called Hank LoConti at the Agora at the same time he was calling us. That’s how rapidly both sides wanted to start the relationship. The deal solidified what we eventually called the “well oiled machine”. You would hear new music on WMMS. The first time an act came to town they would play the Agora - the WMMS Monday Night Out, which ended up being a Monday and Tuesday night out. We broadcast the show on the air, which afforded significant exposure to new acts. From there, it was, once again, up to the court of public opinion - our listeners. They would determine, based on popularity, whether the act would play the Agora again or move up the ranks to The Front Row, Music Hall or the Allen Theatre or leapfrog to Public Hall. Then, if the act’s popularity continued to grow, it would be onto the Coliseum, Blossom and the World Series Of Rock. Cleveland was one of - if not the only city where one could watch an act progress from a club band to superstardom. Bad Company, Boston, U2, AC/DC, INXS, Bob Seger, and hundreds of other name acts played the Agora the first time they performed in Cleveland.
I talked to the Agora, either Buddy Maver, who booked the shows to Hank LoConti, who owned the club, multiple times weekly. If we were getting response on a new act I’d let them know. If they were getting pitched on an act to book, we’d let them know the response on our end. Again, it was a win-win. We avoided acts that wouldn’t work for us.
Though there were fears of an oversaturation of music, more shows led to even more shows. We had weeks where there were concerts every night of the week. These were exciting times. Nothing could duplicate the experience of seeing live music in those days. No matter how good an act was on record - the real proof was in the live performance. There was no MTV, there were no video players, and except for In Concert or Midnight Special on late night television, radio, concerts, and your own records were “it” for access to rock and roll.
Being young and having a preference for rock and roll in Cleveland meant that there was no shortage of venues to go to on any given night to see a rock show.
One of the things I picked up in the book was “Environmental Programming”. Explain that.
It involves being in the moment. News, weather, music, anything. There are songs that fit on a sunny day that wouldn’t work on a rainy day. But it goes well beyond that.
When the Rolling Stones played the WMMS World Series of Rock at the Stadium, which over 88,000 attended, we presented a “Rolling Stones Orgy” on the air. For the entire day we played wall-to-wall Stones. If one was going to or coming from a Stones concert you wanted to hear the Stones so we delivered.
We even got WMMS carried on the p.a. in between acts so the 88,000 who were at Cleveland Stadium were listening to us in between each act. We pulled out and played rare stuff - unreleased studio material and live performances. We found some bizarre tracks, too. The Stones covering Freddie Cannon’s “Tallahassee Lassie” and Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.” Give ‘em what they want - and more. Sure, college stations do marathons and special artist days - but this is a 50,000 watt flame throwing rock & roll station that is going against the grain and breaking all radio programming rules.
When one adds up the math, we probably had more people listening for long periods of time to WMMS that day than any other radio station in America.
Many of the World Series of Rock concerts brought in hundreds to thousands from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, and beyond. A lot of out-of-town radio people came in for the shows, too - and we’d put them in the press box to view the show. Most wondered how we got WMMS on the Stadium p.a. in between acts. I told them the truth. We asked. If you don’t ask, you don’t have a chance. If you ask, it’s a foot in the door to negotiate for more.
Years later, we were in the stadium for a football game and looked over at one of the clocks and said among ourselves, “You know, we ought to have a Buzzard on that clock.” A few weeks later we did.
For the Led Zeppelin concert at the Coliseum we ran all of our animated spots over and over and over. Was it overkill? Not at all. Successful advertising is all about having the right message, which you repeat, repeat, repeat. Think of Rick Case. Think of Larry Robinson. Think of the Audio Warehouse. They bought tonnage and it paid off. To this day all I have to say is “across from but not in the Great Lakes Mall” and you know whom I’m talking about.
We would program sets of music by acts playing sold out shows at the Stadium, the Coliseum, and Blossom for those on the way to and on the way home from their concerts.
Sometimes it would be spur of the moment decision. If an act won the audience over at Blossom here was an opportunity to program to everyone who is stuck in traffic on those little country roads around that venue. We’d always have our staff at the shows to call in and give us a wrap-up of the show so we’d know what to do, when to do it, and what songs to play. For Springsteen and other major acts, we’d the songs in the same order as performed in concert. If you were there, you were locked in. If you weren’t you wanted to hear what you missed.
In later years when we had a real promotional budget, we’d do the outrageous and unexpected. When Journey played the Coliseum we picked up the parking tab. We didn’t say a word about it in advance. It caught everyone pulling into the parking lot by surprise. It was a perfect way to say thank you to our listeners. And it was well worth the investment. Obviously, we were working with the limitations of a budget. Sometimes we’d determine that it was better to spend our promotion and marketing dollars on something our gut felt was right - instead of the logical. We’re we right to pull some TV or print or billboard advertising for covering the parking costs at a Journey concert? Absolutely. Did we do research on it? Absolutely not. It was a gut decision and it worked. That’s what playing to the environment is.
When news broke that was related to our audience we had to be on top of it and be just as detailed and professional as an all-news station. For example, John Lennon’s death, John Belushi’s overdose, the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. We halted regular programming. Our staff came in - or stayed on - and we’d be on the phones, gathering actualities, interviews, and even feeding other stations and national networks. It was expected of us. Also, back then, there was still that “generation gap.” Conventional newscasts didn’t cover rock and roll news - so it was up to us to gather it. As years went on, we became the “go to” station for television and newspapers for rock news and information and our airstaff would be called on to serve as authorities, which they were, on these newsworthy subjects.
It wasn’t long before Kid Leo had a regular feature on PM Magazine and Shelley Stile hosted WKYC’s Friday night rock and roll feature. We took PM Magazine once step further. Anytime we had an interesting or timely guest stopping by the station we’d ask PM Magazine if they wanted to an interview, too, and offered our station as the backdrop. It was convenient for them and it provided us exposure. Again, it’s unconventional publicity and visibility money could not buy. I’d get calls from friends in other cities who were seeing WMMS on their local stations carrying PM Magazine.
Denny Sanders was a semi-regular on the Morning and Afternoon Exchange shows. Jeff and Flash were always featured whenever there was a popular culture link with a local morning newscast. There was a pie fight with Jeff and Betty Korvan on Big Chuck and Houlihan. I’d love to find that video.
Then we started doing simulcasts with TV stations for concerts - and even a regular weekly show, Live at the Agora. And all these features took place years before MTV.
We excelled in timelessness. When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by and became part of the Sybonese Liberation Army, we parodied our own celebrity IDs by cutting one that sounded like it was being made from a phone booth saying, “Hi, this is Patty Hearst and when I’m hiding out in Cleveland I listen to WMMS. Oops…gotta go.”
Minutes after we received the bulletin that she was caught we recut the ID with a different close. As she finishes the ID you hear sirens and police rushing the phone booth saying “We got you now. Ha Ha Ha!” along with the appropriate sound effects of Patty Hearst being pulled out of the phone booth. We had that on the air minutes - I mean maybe one or two songs - after reading the bulletin on her capture. And these were the old days when we used magnetic tape had to slice by hand and edit by eye.
Our listeners came to expect that instant gratification so we had to deliver and respond. But we accepted it as a challenge.
We immediately played off on an incident when Fleetwood Mac played the Coliseum. When on tour, you lose track of what day it is and what city you’re in. So, it’s the first night of the Fleetwood Mac concert at the Coliseum- and though Fleetwood Mac are now huge worldwide with the success of their “Rumours” album - Cleveland was still, by far, their biggest market. At the end of the show Stevie Nicks accidentally said, “Thank you, Cincinnati.” The crowd groaned and Stevie quickly corrected herself.
Backstage, Stevie was discomfited from her gaffe. We had a state of the art portable recorder. I pulled Stevie in a quiet corner and scribbled a line for her to cut. It read, “Hi, this is Stevie Nicks. When I’m not in Cincinnati I’m in Cleveland listening to WMMS.” We rushed it down to the studio and had it on the air in time for Bash’s overnight show and Jeff and Flash the next morning. That’s environmental programming.
One more topic worth mentioning is advertising. We used to fight to recut spots - commercials - that didn’t fit the format. Most clients went along with the recuts. In the early 70s Jeff Kinzbach was production director and definitely one of the best in the country. A few agencies chose to cut their spots with Jeff - and it was also lucrative for some our airstaff who would become the regional or even national voice of certain clients. I loved hearing Jeff, Boom or Denny’s voice on the competition. Boom was the voice of Audio Warehouse - and they bought tons of advertising on all stations in Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown. You’d hear Boom’s voice - “Fast Eddie and the boys at Audio Warehouse….” at least once an hour at nights and weekends on just about any rock or top forty station in the region. Jeff was the voice for the Shoppe in Berea. Denny and Leo did some national ads for album releases. When Jeff took over mornings, we hired Tom O’Brien from WNBC in New York to handle production. Yes, we had to go to New York to find production talent compatible to Jeff. And Tom never regretted leaving New York for Cleveland because he had far more creative freedom at WMMS. That’s just the way we were. Creativity begets creativity.
It was subtle and genius at the same time
During the day, chances are you’re working, going to school, whatever. Most have a lot on their plate. Few have time to sit back and listen to a long jam. We wouldn’t play “In the Memory of Elizabeth Reed” or the 18 or so minute version of “Southern Man” at 8 in the morning. But in the evening one is more likely to be in the state of mind and environment to hear to a 7,8,9, 10 minute song or jam. On Thursday and Friday nights we’d be that much more up-tempo. We had to crank it up a notch on Thursday and really put the pedal to the metal on Friday because we were entrusted with the soundtrack to the almighty, mighty weekend. I don’t care what the format is, on Friday night if you’re not delivering real positive forward motion energy, real high gloss energy, you’re dead to your listeners. You don’t sound 11 AM on a Tuesday afternoon when it’s Friday night. You don’t want to hear “After The Gold Rush” by Neil Young on a Friday night. No one is in that frame of mind. On a Sunday morning, that’s different. First and foremost, Jeff and Flash and the Buzzard Morning Zoo knew their audience; Matt the Cat knew his, Kid Leo knew is, Denny, Betty, and Bash knew theirs. Dia, Ruby, Boom - everyone. All had their own inimitable style, all knew and respected their audience and delivered accordingly. But when you were on 100.7 - no matter what time - day or night - weekday or weekend - you knew it was WMMS.
You also have to recognize that Cleveland was an arduous market for radio. Both the radio and television stations in this market undercharged - no, significantly undercharged their advertising rates. And it impaired the market financially.
WGAR was the top rated station when I got here but their rates remained exceptionally low. They were owned by Nationwide Broadcasting, a division of the insurance company, and were influential in state politics. They owned Governor Jim Rhodes and Rhodes owned them. And Nationwide carried no debt on their properties. They could afford to squeeze the rest of the market. Since WGAR charged such low rates, they forced every other station in town to lower theirs.
It was bad business. Plus Cleveland was sliding into a financial strait. The city was shoddily mismanaged. The school budget was a slush fund that was continually raided by other departments. The infrastructure was deteriorating. And there wasn’t enough money to go around and cover all the radio and TV stations. So competition was fierce. That competitiveness spread to programming.
Stations enacted a wartime stance. Our competition was the enemy. We didn’t just want to just beat them. We wanted to annihilate them. The true winners were the listeners. In the seventies and eighties, nearly every radio station‘s programming overachieved. In other markets, radio stations competed by giving away cash, cars, trips, and other prizes. In Cleveland, the battle was fought on programming quality. Yes, WMMS was the best. But our competition wasn’t far behind. They forced us to be better. Remember, we were the nothing format that initially no one took seriously. We were a bunch of damn longhaired hippie freaks playing weird music. Oh, yeah?
Television had the equivalent dilemma in this market, maybe even worse. The rates were far too low for the numbers television delivered in this market.
It did lead to some creative, innovative programming. Believe me, there was no one as innovative as Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi. No other television station would have invested the time and money to support a horror-science fiction movie show host. But whoever was running WJW-TV at the time took all the right chances. The material and endless double entendres that appealed to adults as much as kids. Anderson and Chuck Shadowski worked in on that show rivaled network fare. It was avant-garde for local TV. And Cleveland had Upbeat one of the first syndicated rock shows. I used to watch it Boston. Though Ghoulardi wasn’t syndicated, the Ghoul was - Ron Sweed - to other stations in the Kaiser Broadcasting chain, which owned Channel 56 at the time. Kaiser owned a station in Boston, and it carried the Ghoul, so I was already familiar with Ron’s character - and knew all about Parma - before I moved here.
When WMMS became the top station in the market, we raised the rates accordingly - but it was still a tough struggle to get the rate we deserved after years of stations selling on the cheap. We had the best sales team in the city - but even they couldn’t get the rates where they should have been. The highest rate we ever got was $700 a spot for United Airlines on the Buzzard Morning Zoo. That was around the mid ‘80s. In today’s money that would be double - $1,400 a spot.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention promotion. We didn’t really have a promotion and marketing director position. We preferred the title Minister of Propaganda. Dan Garfinkel and Jim Marchyshyn were the two that best defined the position. When Dan started, the position didn’t really exist at radio. And it covered everything from promotion, marketing, and advertising to something else stations had never done before, merchandising. It started with a Buzzard bumper sticker and a T-shirt. In just a few short years we had over one million items in total, in circulation. Everything from shirts, skimpy halter-tops, hats, scarves, and raincoats - you name it and we found a way to merchandise it. Most important, too, is that the profits we made on our merchandise went to various charities. We always gave back to the community.
Dan also put together our first big free concert at Edgewater Park with Joe Cocker, Michael Stanley, Angel…and a number of other acts. That was our baptism of fire. After that, we were hooked.
We were also opposed to a Buzzard costume. We were dead set against it. As other stations started adopting mascots - chickens, bears, and frogs - they hired people to wear cheesy mascot costumes. Our Buzzard was mythological. The Buzzard was in all of us. So, when we were doing a WMMS-sponsored event, it was always hosted by one of our air personalities.
Our call letters and Buzzard were prominent and in-your-face at every event we sponsored - and we raided every event worthy of being raided even if other radio stations were sponsoring them.
Two that immediately come to mind.
There was a Cheap Trick concert at, I believe it was the Allen Theater that M105 sponsored. We pulled our van in front of the venue and our airstaff, support staff, anyone that could fit in the van, jumped out like a SWAT team and began passing out “WMMS welcomes Cheap Trick to Cleveland” shirts. We must have dropped a couple of hundred, at least, but that did the cheap trick, so to speak. We had visibility everywhere inside the theater.
Another was a Boston concert at the Coliseum that was deceitfully rewarded to M105. I called the band’s manager, Paul Ahern, who was a friend from Boston, the city, and he rectified the situation. Concurrently, we had learned that a tuxedo rental store that advertised with us was about to get rid of out of date white tuxedo jackets. We got our talons on large number of them - I think a hundred, maybe more. We silk-screened the back with the Buzzard piloting the flying saucer from the cover of the album with the words “WMMS Welcomes Boston to Cleveland.” We got a huge block of tickets to giveaway, which we did, along with the tuxedo jackets - and asked winners to wear the jackets to the concert. On the night of the show, the WMMS Boston jackets were everywhere. We buried M105’s visibility. There were many other stories. Those are the two that come to mind.
Years later, when Jim took over, the promotion and marketing department had expanding to a full staff just to keep up the demand of all the promotions, contests, concerts, and events we were involved in. By that time we had our giant inflatable Buzzard, a plane, a jet helicopter, a race car, a boat, and various station vehicles emblazoned with our call letters and Buzzard.
By that time we were doing massive WMMS appreciation day concerts - Jefferson Starship at Public Hall, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band at, I believe, Public Hall, too. Eurythmics at the State. INXS at Blossom, Thompson Twins and Berlin, also at Blossom. And then we were doing free outdoor concerts downtown with the original Three Dog Night at Burke Lakefront, Blue Oyster Cult and John Waite, next to City Hall, and on and on and on. It was all about giving back to our listeners - just on a slightly larger scale than we did in the 70s.
The position was loosely defined - we didn’t have long, drawn-out job descriptions - as making sure everyone in the Cleveland total survey area came in contact with our call letters and Buzzard at least once per day. In the ’80s, that figure was upped to a half dozen times a day - and we had no problem fulfilling that.
What stuns people who’d come in from other markets was the sheer volume of response we’d receive from promotions, contests, and special events.
We knew why. Consider that we were the top young adult station from the early 70s on - and number one, listeners twelve years old and older overall a few years later. Though we were in the Cleveland market, which was 18th when I arrived here and hovered around 22 or 23 when I left in 1986, we were also the number one station young adult station in Akron and Canton as well - as eventually the number one station overall in Akron for a number of years and the number three station overall in Canton after WHBC AM and FM. The Cleveland Metro was made up of Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga and Medina counties. Later, Lorain County’s population was added to the Metro figures. But there were a few other counties outside of the Metro where WMMS was also dominant. If you added all the raw numbers of those listening to WMMS in what is called Cleveland’s area of dominant influence, which is measured by the reach of the strongest television signal in Greater Cleveland, we had a per person audience that matched the top ten markets.
When M105 launched their rock format in the early seventies, many in the music and radio business were convinced they’d put WMMS under. They had a tighter rotation, played only the hits, didn’t take chances, and ran many commercial-free hours.
Their program director, Eric Stevens, worked with some of the best talents while he was at WIXY. He was well connected in the music industry. Initially, our promotion and ad budgets were about the same. But our payroll was at least triple theirs.
M105 heavily promoted its continuous music and commercial-free hours but did only minimal promotion on its air talent.
In most markets, when a second album rock station debuted with a tighter playlist and promoted commercial free hours, they soundly beat the incumbent station. We were aware of that. WCOL-FM in Columbus was deleted by the tight-playlisted WLVQ. WDVE in Pittsburgh wiped out rival WYDD. WCOZ tripled WBCN’s audience in three months in Boston. WPLJ had double the audience of WNEW-FM in New York. KLOS did the same to KMET in Los Angeles.
For many years we managed a delicate balancing act of not sacrificing our edginess and breaking new music and still coming out on top. I credit most of our success to our airstaff. They provided the added value - the edge M105 lacked. Our support staff backed the attack with their vital promotion, marketing, artwork, and guidance. We took our competition very, very seriously.
Now, to answer your question. The WGCL we parodied with our “Baboon Busters” campaign was long gone. WGCL’s ratings were down; its cash flow was way down. The station hired Randy Michaels as a consultant who tightened the playlist, and reduced the airstaff to reading liner cards - considering that this was a station that had top-notch hit radio personalities like Dancin’ Danny Wright in afternoon drive, and Joe Bohannon at night. Once Michaels eliminated the localism and neutered the talent, the station was over.
We dealt with other competition over the years. Some well-known some forgotten. There was WRQC, the old WLYT, which had been sixteen different formats before then and since then. Their rock format lasted a year.
There was the syndicated Z-Rock, which had a loyal following but its total audience was far too small be a factor.
Both M105 and WRQC had brief moments where they reinvented themselves in a desperation move as left-of-center, musically, to WMMS. It cost WRQC the format. They gave up after that. M105 tried to make a quick retreat to an early version of classic rock. It never had the chance to recover and rebuild. The station was sold to Larry Robinson who changed the call letters to WMJI and changed to an adult contemporary format.
In Part 2 next week John talks about the fall of WMMS, payola in radio, and what really happened at 107.3.