Sunday, March 17, 2002

WLW 700 turns 80

A cast of characters and twisted tales make broadcast history at 'nation's station'

By John Kiesewetter,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For 80 years, WLW-AM (700) has been “the Big One,” the city's dominant radio station.

        Most longtime Tristate residents know the history of WLW-AM. It was the nation's only 500,000-watt station for five years (1934-39). It helped launch the careers of Red Skelton, Red Barber, Doris Day, Chet Atkins, Rod Serling and Rosemary and Betty Clooney.

        As the station marks its 80th anniversary on Friday, here are some things you may not know about “the nation's station.”

Play it again

[photo] Powel Crosley at the Harrison transmitter site in 1922.
(Enquirer file photos)
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        And you thought playing the same song, over and over again, was a 1970s rock 'n' roll radio stunt. But that's how the station started.

        In 1921, industrialist Powel Crosley Jr. repeatedly played a “Song of India” phonograph record over 8CR, his experimental 20-watt station at his College Hill home. He asked anyone who heard it to mail him a postcard and heard from people as far away as Troy, Ohio.

        On March 22, 1922, Mr. Crosley began operating WLW-AM on 50 watts.

Fired up

        On Oct. 4, 1928, WLW-AM became the nation's “first 50,000-watt commercial broadcasting station to operate on a regular schedule,” according to a 1935 Crosley Radio Corp. history.

        That 1927 Western Electric transmitter is still in the red brick building under WLW-AM's diamond-shaped tower on Tylersville Road. The “105” serial number means it was the fifth transmitter of its type built by the company, says Paul Jellison, WLW-AM chief engineer.

Red's radio

        When WLW-AM hired Red Barber in 1934, the Florida sportscaster had never seen a Major League Baseball game. So the station also sent announcer Peter Grant to Crosley Field for the Cincinnati Reds' 1934 Opening Day.

        “Just before the game started, Peter Grant ... came in and sat in the back of the booth,” Mr. Barber told The Enquirer in 1992. “About the fourth or fifth inning, Grant left. And so that told me I was doing all right.”

        In 1935, WLW-AM joined New York's WOR-AM, Chicago's WGN-AM and Detroit's CKLW as founding partners in the Mutual Broadcasting System to air baseball's first night game — from Crosley Field — with Mr. Barber at the microphone.

The Big One

        Before it was “the Big One,” WLW-AM was the biggest one.

        On May 2, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a button in the White House to turn on WLW-AM's 500,000-watt transmitter near Mason. For five years, WLW-AM was the world's only half-million-watt broadcaster, earning the nickname “The Nation's Station.”

        During a Netherland Plaza gala that night, Mr. Crosley received congratulatory telegrams from President Roosevelt; CBS President William S. Paley; Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J.; and Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication.

        The Enquirer reported: “Mr. Crosley replied to the Marconi message in a special broadcast in Italian, which it was hoped could be heard in Rome, Italy, where the inventor of wireless was listening to the program.”

Presidential parody

        WLW-AM was parodying presidents decades before Gary Burbank joined the station in 1981.

        Red Skelton, who would be one of TV's biggest stars in 1960s, raised the ire of President Roosevelt's staff in 1939. When the comedian broadcast his national Avalon Time show from WLW-AM, announcer Peter Grant would mimic FDR's voice reading Avalon Cigarette commercials.

        “The White House called and said, "You've got to stop this announcer!' He sounded just like Roosevelt,” Mr. Skelton told The Enquirer in 1992.

Time to shine

    WLW-AM, the “cradle of stars,” helped launch the careers of:
    Eddie Albert, Chet Atkins, Red Barber, Marty Brennaman, Rosemary and Betty Clooney, Cris Collinsworth, Norman Corwin, Jeannette Davis, Doris Day, Boomer Esiason, Burt Farber, Red Foley, Earl Hamner, Homer and Jethro, Durward Kirby, Ruth Lyons, Al Michaels, the Mills Brothers, Rod Serling, Red Skelton, Harry Smith, Bob Trumpy, Fats Waller, Andy Williams.
        Andy Williams and his three brothers came to WLW-AM in 1942, after Chicago's WLS-AM canceled their radio show.

        Andy Williams, then 11, sang on the 15-minute Time to Shine show at 8 a.m. before going to school. Mr. Williams could still sing the opening theme song for Griffin (shoe) Polish 60 years later:

        “It's time to shine! So shine your shoes, and you'll wear a smile. Shine your shoes, and you'll be in style. The Sun shines East, and the Sun shines West — Griffin Polish shines the best!”

        Mr. Williams sang the jingle for the Cincinnati Radio: The Nation's Station (1921-41) documentary to premiere 8-10:30 p.m. Friday (WLW-AM's birthday) on WVXU-FM (91.7).

Stop the music

        Even at 50,000 watts, WLW-AM pumps out a powerful signal. Just ask residents near Mason.

        In the 1940s, people heard the station in wire fences, loose downspouting or wood-burning stoves. A motel at Tylersville and Reading roads “had a neon sign that would never go off,” said Clyde Haehnle, a retired engineer.

        The strong-signal problem was so pervasive that WLW-AM had “three or four” employees making house calls to remedy radio interference. “They'd put sheet-metal screws in the downspouting to tighten it up, and keep it quiet,” he said.

        Today people complain about hearing WLW-AM on their computer speakers or telephones, Mr. Jellison said.

Off the air

        Not everyone from WLW-AM's “cradle of stars” was heard on the air. Pioneer radio dramatist Norman Corwin wrote briefly for the station in 1936. Rod Serling began his career at Crosley Broadcasting in 1950.

        Before he created The Twilight Zone for TV in 1959, Mr. Serling wrote WLWT-TV sitcoms and variety shows and WLW-AM historical documentaries, community profiles and commercials.

        “For radio he wrote lots of commercial copy and announcer patter, Geritol commercials and the like,” said H. Michael Sanders, a local Serling historian.

Reds scare

[photo] Ruth Lyons and a station executive cut the cake for the first anniversary of the Fifty-Fifty Club,
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        Baseball fans lost the right to elect All-Star teams after 1957, at least in part because of Ruth Lyons.

        On her top-rated WLW-AM/WLWT-TV Fifty-Fifty Club, she urged Cincinnati fans to stuff the ballot box for Reds that year. The Cincinnati Times-Star, WKRC-AM and Reds announcer Waite Hoyt also hyped the voting.

        Tristate residents cast more than 500,000 votes, electing seven Reds as starters. Commissioner Ford Frick intervened, replacing Gus Bell, Wally Post and George Crowe with Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

        Fans didn't vote for All-Stars again until 1970.

Musical interlude

        What was just a silly jingle to Ms. Lyons' listeners was serious business to the Federal Communications Commission.

        The FCC mandated that a station ID be broadcast at the top of each hour — which posed a problem for the 90-minute noon Fifty-Fifty Club simulcast on WLW-AM and four sister TV stations.

        In the 1960s, Ms. Lyons' band sang this at 1 p.m.: “This is WLW, the Nation's Station! Channel 2 in Dayton — Channel 4, Columbus — 13 is the station over in Indianapolis, Indiana — And the whole thing originates live, on Channel 5, in Cincinnati, O-hi-o!”

Nux's new partner

Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall in 1975.
        In 1974, the Reds hired Marty Brennaman, 31, to replace announcer Al Michaels, who would later go on to ABC's Monday Night Football.

        Partner Joe Nuxhall has never forgotten Mr. Brennaman's first spring training broadcast from the Reds' Al Lang Field in Tampa, when he welcomed WLW-AM listeners to “Al Michaels Field.”

Hello, Goodbye

        Before hosting A&E's Biography or the CBS Morning Show, Harry Smith spent the winter of 1975-76 as WLW-AM's overnight personality.

        The former Denver DJ remembers appearing on the noon Bob Braun Show, the successor to Ms. Lyons, and sitting next to Johnny Bench after the Reds' 1975 World Series victory.

        At 24, he realized he'd never make a great DJ at WLW-AM, so he started talking to listeners on the phone.

        After four months, he returned to Denver, where injecting more talk into his radio show led to a public TV talk show, a TV news anchor job and an offer from CBS News.

Let's dance

        By 1983, the once powerful “Nation's Station” was losing money, as many radio listeners had switched to FM. WLW-AM had dropped to fourth place when Randy Michaels and a group from rival Taft Broadcasting in Cincinnati bought the station.

        Mr. Michaels fired DJ Jim LaBarbara, cut back on music and introduced the talk-show format. He said he was “teaching the grand old lady of radio how to dance.”

        Mr. Michaels, now president of Clear Channel's radio division, which owns WLW-AM, hosted a talk show one night devoted to this topic: “Who Would You Like To Kill? How Would You Do It? What Would You Do With The Body?”

Let's party

        Mr. Michaels also hired Cincinnati's first radio psychic, Lynn Gladhill, to host overnights.

        She was fired in 1984, after seven months, for drinking wine and uttering obscenities on the air. She told listeners she “was doing the show only in her pantyhose.”

Letterman's letter

        When WLW-AM invited David Letterman to be 1985 Opening Day Parade grand marshal, the station received a hand-written note from the Indianapolis native.

        “I can't make it, and I'm very sorry about it. I have been a WLW fan since I was a kid. The same goes for the Reds,” he wrote on NBC stationery from his Late Night show.

        The station also had offered Mr. Letterman a guest spot on the air during Opening Day, after the comedian had said on Phil Donahue's TV show that he aspired to work for WLW-AM while growing up in Indiana.

        Mr. Letterman wrote: “Thanks for the lovely invitation. I must say, however, that I was hoping for afternoon drive.”

Arresting radio

        Proof of WLW-AM's powerful signal came again in 1986, when overnight DJ Dale “The Truckin' Bozo” Sommers helped catch a robbery suspect in Georgia.

        Mr. Sommers was chatting off the air with a regular caller, known only as the “Mississippi Lady,” from a 24-hour convenience store in Camilla, Ga., when he heard her tell someone, “You can't come back here.”

        The woman, later identified as Linda Driskill, quickly hung up the phone.

        The Cincinnati DJ surmised that something was wrong and called Camilla police, who were familiar with his Bozo Show and a store clerk known as the “Mississippi Lady.” Within minutes, an officer apprehended the robber. He immediately confessed.

Marge shots

        As Major League Baseball was investigating allegations of Marge Schott's racial and ethnic slurs in 1992, WLW-AM talk hosts weren't overly critical of the Reds president and CEO.

        Why? WLW-AM's lucrative Reds radio contract specifically prohibited station employees from assailing Mrs. Schott, any Reds partners and officers.

        “I've been told that I can't talk about her on the air,” Gary Burbank told the Enquirer.

        So he referred to the gravel-voiced mock Marge caller as “Saint CEO.” When he once asked how the penny-pinching owner could pay for a new stadium, the mock Marge explained that she had been saving up coupons from Raleigh cigarettes.


        One October night in 1994, WLW-AM listeners heard anti-smoking crusader Ahron Leichtman hosting a one-hour talk show, replacing Bill Cunningham.

        Mr. Leichtman was given a free hour after suing WLW-AM over Andy Furman blowing cigar smoke in his face at the station. Mr. Furman, the SportsTalk host, also was in trouble that year for calling Reds General Manager Jim Bowden a “liar” and a “weasel,” and for referring to UC President Joseph Steger as “Adolf Steger.” (Mr. Furman had speculated that he was not hired for a UC job because he was Jewish.)

        “This is worse than stupid,” Mr. Furman saidafter apologizing to Mr. Steger. He said his WLW-AM bosses sometimes “think I'm a loose cannon, that I'm retarded, that I'm crazy.”

Great Scott

        Cincinnati was buzzing about Jim Scott in early 1996, after the 12-year morning man abruptly quit WLW-AM. Soon a rival station launched a “Where's Jim Scott?” campaign.

        On Feb. 12, Mr. Scott started at WWNK-FM (94.1), owned by Citicasters, the former Taft Broadcasting. Mayor Roxanne Qualls appeared on his show to declare “Jim Scott Day.”

        But “Jim Scott Day” ended with WLW-AM's owners, Jacor Communications, buying Citicasters for $775 million.

        “I'm glad I'm not a person who burns bridges,” said Mr. Scott, who would return to WLW-AM in 18 months.

Y2K insurance

        When the country was crazed about possible “Y2K” computer crashes in late 1999, someone at WLW-AM had a great idea: Why not fire up the old Western Electric transmitter on New Year's Eve?

        “If anything wouldn't be affected by Y2K, it would be the Western Electric,” Mr. Jellison said.

        So WLW-AM entered the 21st century on the 50,000-watt transmitter that had powered its historic 500,000-watt signal.


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