True-Life Radio Tales

WBEN There, ROCKed That

WBEN-AM and FM (ROCK 102) Buffalo

I had listened to Buffalo radio station ROCK 102 FM while in Hamilton, Ontario, when I was out of work for months after my stint at CHAM in Canada. ROCK 102 FM was fully automated and all screwed up. So was their sister station WBEN-AM, but I didn’t know that as I had never listened to it. The job opening was for the AM station, and at my interview I insisted on working at both stations, and got employed at both of them.

At ROCK 102 I inherited a dumb contest (where listeners would have to visit a list of sponsors to win a prize; clearly too much work for too little), bad new station identification jingles (bastardized versions of the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”), and highly predictable songs. Nobody changed the pre-recorded tapes, we just wound them back to the beginning and played them over and over.

I like to say I fixed everything in 15 minutes, and I did. Killed the contest, removed the jingles, and assigned the tape rotations to the music director. Fixed. The ratings went up!

My secret was that the essence of ROCK 102 to me was what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a typical radio station with personalities, banter and so on. It was an automated music source, pure and simple, with as little as possible in the way. And the station had a killer signal, penetrating Rochester, Erie, PA and the “Golden Triangle” of Canada including Toronto.

Canada then passed a law mandating that advertising on “border blasters” like our station would no longer be a business tax deduction, and we lost millions. Still, the cost of operation was so low it continued to make lots of money anyway.

ROCK 102 and WBEN helped kill the legendary WKBW, a station in Buffalo that had been around since 1925. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was competition!

Bernadette Peters pays the station a visit.

Regarding WBEN-AM: as I’m writing this for general eyes, I won’t go into all the programming things that were wrong with the station which nevertheless remained popular and legendary, but just to give you a taste: while I was driving to my interview I heard the station play Lisa Minnelli, Burl Ives and Jefferson Starship…all in a row. Talk about disjointed programming. Well, OK, It took much longer than 15 minutes but eventually I fixed it. This involved putting together an almost new DJ lineup. The result was that after some time, we then had the number one AM and the number one FM station in the area. And I then had 25 job offers over five years or so, as it turned out the competition was trying to remove me.

I almost took a job in Portland, Oregon and passed on a good gig in Chicago – the general manager there said that he had interviewed 35 people, flew me in twice to be interviewed by his co-GM and sales manager – and I turned the job down over not coming to terms over a difference of $5,000. I wanted more and he wouldn’t bend. I thought that if he really did interview all those people and got down to one, he ought to bend, and if he wouldn’t, I didn’t want to work for him, because going through all that trouble and then not hiring me was dumb. An interview with a station in Philly was also a close call, especially with it being my home town, but that GM wouldn’t guarantee me a computer, so, no.

Some snapshots:

WBEN had the first computerized snow-closing announcement system in the country, thanks to our brilliant chief engineer, Dave May. He built it and programmed it. He also built what had to be among the first music programming systems, by which I could assure how the songs were mixed, rotated and played on WBEN.

Dave has a great voice and had been on the air, and did our traffic reports from our helicopter – while he learned to fly it by himself!

We had new studios built by the previous owners, which were way over-equipped. Example: the usual radio microphone costs about $450. We had many $3,500 microphones. We had custom quadraphonic equipment installed, just in case quad caught on! We originated broadcasts for the network of stations that broadcast the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres. The studio also sported a major production facility for radio commercials, which I ran from 9 am until 3am or so. By the way, a CBS TV affiliate was located down the hall.

One of four production rooms for commercials.

One day I came back from doing some commercials at a local studio (I was pretty popular) and found two Buffalo Bills players – huge men, a linebacker and a nose tackle, waiting for me – and they were angry. They wanted their pay for their one hour a week show, and they had been stiffed somehow. Everybody told them to see me. I must note that it was surreal. They could literally have swiped me off the planet. The disparity in our sizes was so silly. We got them their money and all was smoothed over. We even did a radio promo that had them fighting about whose name should be mentioned first in the spot.

We had Bills’ coach Chuck Knox on the air once a week for an hour. Mister cliché. Here’s the take-away: no coach will ever disparage his team or any team to the public. Later, post-Chuck, we had Kay Stephenson, then the youngest coach in the NFL. He was horrible, so I gave him a big speech about how I could work with him to coach him into better performances. I went on and on, trying to get his buy-in. His reaction: “If you don’t like me, I’ll quit.” But that wasn’t an option. The Sabres’ head coach Scotty Bowman was also one of our regulars, for an hour a week during the season.

Jeff Kaye, our morning man, and the team of news, weather and traffic held a 20 share of the listening audience of everyone over 12 years old. This was one of the last few giant audiences then claimed by morning radio at the time. When he left us, he left us to be the main voice for the company that produces NFL Films, replacing the late John Facenda, who was a one of a kind, and who I got to do promos for us sometime before his passing! In speaking to Facenda I found out that he lived maybe a mile from where I grew up and I had been by his home hundreds of times on my way home from grade school. He was a true gentleman. Also the voice of god.

And let it be noted that Buffalo always had radio better than its market size would lead one to believe. It might not have been a major market, but I felt we could compete well in a major.

It was fun being down the hall from the TV station. Hey, look! Dan Rather…Jane Fonda…they’d stop by…