DJ Ron Britain, who had a 72% audience share for WSAI-AM in the early 1960s, made his name in Cincinnati radio.
Britain, who died Sunday at his Louisville home at 86, arrived here in 1960 from Louisville as Ron Magel, his real name. WSAI program director Jim Lightfoot suggested "Britain." The name stuck throughout his career, which included most of five decades in Chicago.
Britain started in radio hosting a Louisville show at age 14 in 1949, and came to WSAI in 1960, at age 26, after radio gigs in Kentucky, West Virginia and New Jersey.
"Ron was one of the most original and creative DJs I've ever known," said Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, who came to Cincinnati in 1961 as a WSAI evening DJ. "He saw radio as a theater of the mind and poured his incredible talent into every program."
Britain, Mike Sherman and Rhodes were part of the WSAI "Good Guys" when the station launched a "new Top 40" format in the summer of 1961. Britain did 6-9 p.m., and Rhodes followed at 9 p.m.-midnight until Britain left for WHK in Cleveland in late 1963.
A lot of Britain's radio schtick traces back to WSAI, the hugely popular Price Hill rock 'n' roll station in the 1960s. He used phrases like "Tulu Babes" and "Chico Buddies" on the air here. He also owned and operated the Club Tulu in Clifton, a non-alcoholic teenage nightspot, according to a 1975 Enquirer story.
His young fans called him the "King Bee."
"The King Bee thing started in Cincinnati," Britain told Rick Kaemfper of Chicago Radio Spotlight. "I had all these teen (fan) clubs, and I couldn't stand it when the kids called me Mr. Britain and they didn't feel comfortable calling me Ron, so they started calling me King Bee. I liked it, and started using it myself."
A Cincinnati breakfast changed his life.
"Right after I was hired, I was having breakfast with the program director Jim Lightfoot, and he asked what I was going to call myself. I said, 'How about Ron Magel?' He thought it sounded a little too ethnic, and wanted something more showbiz-y. We started brainstorming possible names, and he asked me to tell him a little more about myself," Britain told Kaemfper.
"Well, I told him that everyone liked to kid me about being such an Anglophile. You have to remember, this was before the British Invasion. It seemed a little unusual at the time. I drove a Jaguar, which I still do by the way, and I dressed like an Englishman. He said, well let's go with 'Britain,' like the country, and from that point on it was my name. The name took off.
"In Cincinnati, I leased a supper club that seated like 10,000 people, and I had a big banner with the Union Jack British flag, and I did record hops, and it was a huge hit. At one point in Cincinnati I had 72 percent of the listening audience."
He went to Cleveland hoping to jump from there to New York. Instead he was offered a job in 1965 in Chicago, where he worked for WCFL, WIND, WLS, WJMK, WTMX, WRLL and the Satellite Music Network-Chicago on and off through 2002. In between, he did a brief stint at KCMO in Kansas City, and returned to Cincinnati to do morning's on WKRC in 1975.
Britain, an only child, said his comic influences included Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, the Marx Brothers and the BBC's The Goon Show, said Robert Feder, longtime Chicago media reporter. Britain started his radio career after earning a fine arts degree from the University of Louisville and serving in the U.S. Army. He worked at 21 stations in 11 cities over 50 years.
Britain was "a gifted radio performer with a brilliantly creative mind and a sensitive soul (who) left a legacy of laughter for generations of Chicago listeners," Feder said.
"He found his greatest success and most lasting fame in Chicago … At the peak of the Top 40 rivalry between WCFL and WLS, Britain was in a class by himself, creating a nightly theater of the mind unlike anything heard before."