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Photos, Confessions From Rock Radio Wars Talk At Library

John Kiesewetter
Former radio executive Randy Michaels with DJ-turned-county auditor Dusty Rhodes at the "Remembering Rock Radio Rivalries" at the downtown public library Sunday.

Confessions from the "Remembering Radio's Rock Rivalries" panel discussion at the downtown public library Sunday:

--WEBN-FM's Jay Gilbert was the person who plastered WEBN stickers all over the WKRQ-FM van parked in Hyde Park.

--Former WLW/WEBN executive Randy Michaels didn't really think a station would change formats from rock to country when he started spreading speculation that Q102 would change from rock to country.

--Former WEBN-FM "Dawn Patrol" member Bob "The Producer" Berry came clean on how he ended up on stage with Carly Simon at a Bogarts concert promoted exclusively by WARM98.

These are some of the great stories from a 90-minute discussion Sunday from panelists Mike McConnell and Eddie Fingers (both 96 ROCK, now on WLW), Pat Barry (Q102, now on oldies WDJO-AM), Jay Gilbert (WEBN, now on FOX 92.5), Kevin "Doc" Wolfe (Gary Burbank's former WLW-AM sidekick) and premiere prankster Randy Michaels (Q102, WLW, WEBN, Clear Channel/Jacor president, now out of radio and living in Northern Kentucky).

Credit John Kiesewetter
From left: Mike McConnell, Pat Barry, Jay Gilbert, Media Heritage President Mike Martini, Kevin "Doc" Wolfe, Dusty Rhodes, Rick Bird, Bob "The Producer" Berry, Eddie Fingers and Randy Michaels.

The "radio wars" program talk drew many radio vets, including Dusty Rhodes, Ron Schumacher, Marty Bender, Rick Bird, Sherry Rowland, Sandy Megowen, Pete Leighton (Beau Michaels), Jim Richards, Fred Anderson, Mark Magistrelli and Robyn Carey Allgeyer. Thanks to Media Heritage President Mike Martini, who organized and hosted the program, in addition to providing many Cincinnati TV/radio items for the "Living On The Air"display at the main public library downtown.  

Before the consolidation of radio ownership, folks at WEBN-FM, Q102, 96 ROCK and WSAI-FM engaged in all kinds of scams, stunts and dirty tricks to win over listeners as FM radio passed AM stations in popularity. These are some of the favorite things I heard:

WKRQ-FM (Q102): In the 1960s, Taft Broadcasting's focus was on popular WKRC-AM, WKRC-TV and their Hanna-Barbera cartoon factory in Hollywood that produced "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons." Executives didn't know what to do with the new FM station, so they played classical music and "beautiful music" marketed to buses.  

When young brash programmer Randy Michaels arrived from Buffalo, "they were clueless. They didn't know anything about FM, and didn't care to know about it. We changed the format without telling them, and it worked out," Michaels said.

In 18 months, Q102 was No. 1 in town with a 12.6 (percent) audience share, Barry said.

Credit John Kiesewetter
Former 96 ROCK coworkers Mike McConnell, Marty Bender and Eddie Fingers

BOX TOP: When a rival station promised to give away the contents of a big box atop Riverfront Coliseum (now U.S. Bank Arena), the 96 ROCK program director asked his morning duo – Eddie Fingers and Marty Bender – a simple question: "Do you have a police record?" Fingers said he had a minor blemish; Bender didn't. So Bender flew in the station's helicopter, and was dropped off on the coliseum roof. Fingers was back in the Hamilton studio when Bender broadcast live from inside the rooftop box.

"I'm in here, and there's nothing here."

At the time, WLW-AM owned 96 ROCK. After Bender was arrested, his case was handed over to an attorney who worked at WLW, a guy named Bill Cunningham.

NOT SO NEW CAR: In 1975 or '76, Q102 announced it was giving away two new Jeeps, one red and the other blue. DJs and other staffers continuously drove them all over town to events and promotions to hype interest in the give-away. The result? The lucky winners received well-worn "new" cars.

"The one I drove had 30,000 miles on it by the time we gave it away," Barry said.

Credit John Kiesewetter
Jay Gilbert

WEBN GIVEAWAY: After one station – thought to be the old YES 95 – gave away a half-million dollars, WEBN-FM upped the ante by announcing it would give away $20 million. And it did!

"We gave away $20 million -- $1 a year for 20 million years. And it was arranged so that the $1 a year would go to the person's heirs. So someone out there is getting $1 a year from WEBN."

Q102 FROG BAIT: One of the most popular bits on Q102 was when DJ Mark Sebastian would claim he put a frog in a blender, referring of course to the WEBN mascot.

"It delighted our listeners so much – and infuriated their listeners so much – that we had to figure out how many times a day we could do it," Barry said.

GETTING PLASTERED: On their way home from tubing, some Q102 folks got a flat tire in the station van. They parked it on Easthill Avenue in Hyde Park, and left. It turns out they abandoned the van in front of the house where Jay Gilbert lived at the time. So Gilbert "put about 100 WEBN stickers all over the van. They were backwards, 'cause you're supposed to put them on the inside of your car. But I guess it ruined the paint job."

WEBN-FM'S PAYROLL PROBLEM: For Cincinnati's iconic rock station, the early years of rock weren't a stairway to heaven. The station had trouble getting advertisers and making payroll, said Gilbert, who was hired in 1974 when the station was seven years old. Potential advertisers thought the station only had "hippie listeners" with little purchasing power. "Money was tight at WEBN. And yes, they did have to raid the Coke machine one time to make payroll," Gilbert said.

Gilbert also surprised me by saying 'EBN wasn't playing hard album rock exclusively in the 1970s. He also played records by John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Michael Franks and Barry Manilow when he was hired in 1974. "If you were there in the mid '70s, Barry Manilow was cool for about an hour," Gilbert said.

RATINGS WARS:  Before "portable people meters" technology to track listening, radio ratings companies relied on listeners to fill out diaries. And that was a big problem for rock stations targeting men ages 18-24. Instead of logging their listening hour by hour, or day by day, many listeners would fill in their diaries weekly, or after the ratings period ended.

McConnell said: "You were going after the most irresponsible group. And you want them to keep a diary for two weeks? And pay them one dollar?"

In the '70s and '80s, radio only had ratings' surveys twice a year, in May and November.  So the stunts and promotions mostly were packed into those two months. Now radio ratings are released 13 times a year.

Credit John Kiesewetter
Mike McConnell and Dusty Rhodes

WEBN PROMOTIONS:  Every station's goal was to break through the clutter, and make a lasting impression on listeners with promotions, contests, giveaways and outlandish stunts.  The folks at WEBN-FM were masters at this, creating commercials for fake products (Tree Frog Beer, Brute Force Cybernetics); broadcasting a series of TV commercials showing its DJs in a padded cell (and then apologizing for them in the last TV spot); and supporting the "air campaign" with billboards.  In one stroke of genius, WEBN-FM asked major advertisers if they could put up additional billboards promoting their products – and then vandalize them with a spray-painted WEBN logo. It worked.

Fingers on his days at WEBN: "We had a 25 (percent) share in our demo (demographic). That's insane!"

"Bo Wood always said, 'The best radio comes out of a typewriter,' back in the days when people used typewriters," said Bob "The Producer" Berry.

"When we did those billboards," Michaels explained, "we wanted people to talk about them. And if people didn't call, we had scripts and we'd have people call the newspapers" and complain about them.

"It mattered what people remembered. All this silliness, this irresponsible juvenile behavior was for a purpose," Michaels said.  The research staff studied where ratings diaries were distributed, and targeted those areas. "All that foolishness… there's been some intellectual underpinning to my behavior – and that's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

BOB'S BEST: After writer-producer Bob Berry jumped to WEBN-FM from WKRC-AM/WKRQ-FM, his new bosses weren't sure how to use him. They quickly discovered he was very funny doing weird live broadcasts. One of his first – and best – bits was broadcasting live on Good Friday as Catholics prayed the rosary on the steps up to Mount Adams' Immaculata Church. Dressed as the Easter bunny. Fingers and listeners howled with laughter when he asked a woman, "Do you mind if I pray through?"

On another Good Friday broadcast, things didn't go as well.  At the bottom of the stairs he told a woman, "You know, the first step is admitting you have a problem."  She gave him an icy glare, he said.

STATION BREAKS: Fingers says that 96 ROCK DJ Alan Sells would "put on a 10-minute song and go wash his car" outside the station, which was in an old house on a hill in west Hamilton, up New London Road from Badin High School.

Gilbert admitted he once put on Iron Butterfly's' 17-minute "In A Gadda Da Vida" and went out to buy a submarine sandwich.

HEAVY STUFF: Before being hired by Q102 in 1974, Pat Barry worked briefly for old WSAI-FM with Buddy Baron. Barry and Baron weren't exactly svelte. Which prompted a coworker to ask: "Are we hiring our DJs by the pound now?"

WARM98 GETS HOT: WRRM-FM was the major sponsor for Carly Simon's concert at Bogarts.  The deal included an interview that morning at the station. So Carly Simon got in a taxi in front of her Cincinnati hotel and asked the driver to take her to the radio station. The driver recognized her as a famous singer-songwriter and took her to the No. 1 station in town, WEBN. She appeared on the "Dawn Patrol" morning show with Fingers and Berry, and asked Bob to join her on stage that night to sing "You're So Vain."

When Berry arrived at Bogarts, the first thing he saw was the WARM98 table at the front door. Inside Bogarts, WARM98 executives and clients were seated in the front row.  They were not pleased when Simon talked about having a good time on the radio that morning, and inviting Berry from a rival station on stage.  One WARM98 executive seated down front stood up and screamed at her, Berry said.

GOING COUNTRY:  After Q102, Michaels worked for Taft's big country station in Kansas City. When he returned to Cincinnati in 1978 as a Taft vice president, he told people that "Q102 would announce a format change" on one particular Friday.

Rumors spread that Q102 would stop competing for rock listeners with WEBN, WSAI and other stations by switching to country music and go head-to-head with WUBE-FM. WUBE-FM reacted by announcing it would give away a new house.  On that Friday, in a pre-emptive strike, WSAI-FM announced it was going country. Then Q102 announced its "format change," telling listeners it would not play any Barry Manilow Bee Gees records that weekend. WSAI-FM blinked, and Q102 had a chance to pick up more rock listeners in a less crowded field.

SAVING RADIO: Can radio be saved? Jay Gilbert pointed out that "radio has always changed." In the 1940s, some "thought it was disgraceful" that stations played records, instead of having staff orchestras and performers, as Crosley Broadcasting's WLW-AM still did. "It's always been changing," Gilbert says.

Said Michaels, who was chief executive of the Chicago Tribune until 2010: "I spent some time in the newspaper business. And you think that radio's grim!"

Michaels says the huge debt problems of Cumulus and iHeartMedia (former Clear Channel) has the companies focused on cutting costs, not "the art" and "theater of the mind" which made Cincinnati radio in the 1980s so much fun. "I think there is hope that the art will return someday," he said.

Stay tuned.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.