All That Jazz Ended On WNOP-AM 15 Years Ago

Dec 31, 2015

Legendary Jazz expert Oscar Treadwell
Credit WVXU

On New Year’s Eve 15 years ago, Cincinnati jazz lovers weren’t celebrating. They were about to lose their favorite station, WNOP-AM, which last broadcast jazz on Dec. 31, 2000.

For 40 years, the crazy little station filled the airwaves with Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz giants.

It was unlike any other station in Cincinnati – or possibly the nation. Who else broadcast from three huge oil tanks welded together, floating on the Ohio River on the Newport shore.

They called it “The Jazz Ark.”

DJ’s played vinyl records on spring-mounted turntables with weighted arms as The Jazz Ark rocked and rolled on the river.

When the Ohio River froze in 1977, DJ Bunky Tadwell (aka Walt Harrell) did play-by-play of hundreds of people (and several automobiles) crossing the river.

Boy, I couldn’t live like that! That’s a line from an old Hudson & Landry comedy record often heard on the station. WNOP-AM’s comedy album collection was as impressive as its jazz library.

I loved it when they stopped the music to air a cut from Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Shelly Berman, Stan Freberg, Steve Allen, George Carlin, Bill Dana or Hudson & Landry.

Buddy, have a drink! That line from an Andy Griffith comedy record could be heard all the time – before songs, during a news break, or in commercials for Northern Kentucky liquor stores.

WNOP: Where Nonsense Occasionally Prevails. That was one of a dozen station identification announcements recorded by Shelly Berman as a way of saying thank-you to WNOP for airing his comedy albums.

Who Needs Our Problems? That was another Berman spot.

The struggling AM station had its problems in 1961, when the owners let Dick Pike change the format to jazz. He once told me: “They said I could do anything I wanted.”

So he hired the hippest on-air staff in town: Leo “Old Undies” Underhill, Ray Scott, Ty Williams (later WEBN-FM), Dee Felice and the late great Oscar Treadwell (whose “Jazz with OT” repeats air 10 p.m. Sundays here on 91.7 WVXU). Bob Nave, Max Warner, Chris Wagner and Val Coleman also commandeered The Jazz Ark for a while.

WNOP-AM got noticed by Variety, Billboard and Downbeat magazines – but not much in local Arbitron radio ratings diaries. “It never made any money,” Pike told me.

Which is why 15 years ago owner Al Vontz III sold WNOP-AM to Sacred Heart Radio for the Catholic format still heard on the station.

When I hear jazz, or play a Stan Freberg comedy track, I flash back to days listening to WNOP-AM in my car radio. So here's a toast to The Jazz Ark.

Buddy, have a drink! 

Were you a WNOP-AM staffer or loyal listener? Contact WVXU-FM producer Lee Hay, who is assembling a WNOP-AM retrospective to air in 2016. Email her at lhay@wvxu.org.