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Monday 17 Jun 2024

WNEW Radio
JR Hafer

Some say WNEW AM and FM comprised the greatest radio station, in the world. I don't argue the point. For me, listening to WNEW, AM or FM, was the most remarkable experience, of living in New York City.

I lived in New York twice. The first time was the late 1960s. WNEW-AM offered traditional classy radio. WNEW-FM offered a new classy. These days, classy radio seems an oxymoron.

On WNEW-AM, William B. Williams respected singers and songwriters, music and musicians. Most of all he respected his listeners. They returned it, in kind.

On WNEW-FM, Scott Muni, Rosko and Alison Steele played music they and their listeners liked. They talk about the music and with listeners. Station ratings reflected the degree of common respect. WNEW AM and FM influenced New York, and beyond. On AM, Williams had a marked effect on the lexicon of pop music. He gave the "Count" to Basie and the "Duke" to Ellington. Billie Holiday was "Lady Day." Ella Fitzgerald was the "First Lady of Song." Louis Armstrong was "Pops." Sinatra was "Francis Albert," the "Chairman of the Board." Nat "King" Cole was simply "Nathaniel." I wonder if Williams could've talked the "Chairman" into recording "Two Shot of Happy, One Shot of Sad."

On FM, the influence was climbing. I moved back to New York City, in the early 1970s, about the time WNEW-FM started to peak. Scott Muni was developing the progressive rock format. Muni, Alison Steele, Rosko and Jonathan Schwartz had increasing command, of New York City radio. The WNEW-FM format changed radio.

The WNEW on-air staff became my close friends. We were best friends, over the airwaves. Young and cocky, as the young must be, the easy listening format, of WNEW-AM, was of less interest to me, second time around than WNEW-FM.

WNEW AM and FM had a rich history. There are endless behind-the-scenes tales. Such stories give credence, to the saying, "those were the days." WNEW memories are mnemonics. I hear an old song. I remember where I was or what I was doing when I first heard it on WNEW AM or FM.

The book closed for WNEW-FM on Tuesday 16 January 2007. The call letters changed to WWFS-FM. Under Scott Muni, WNEW-FM raised the bar. Album-oriented radio (AOR) let the djs pick the music and talk as they wanted. CBS, the current owner, moved the WNEW call letters to a Florida station. Some think it was a fitting move, for a New York City station. WWFS-FM became "Fresh FM."

Jonathan Schwartz joined WNEW-FM, in 1967, to help build the AOR format. The station, he says, "represented specific times in the history of New York City." The station was "the 1960s and early 1970s for a lot of people."

Schwartz, who now works WNYC-AM and XM Satellite Radio, also worked WNEW-AM. That station, he says, "was as much a part of the city as Jimmy Cannon or Brooks Atkinson." WNEW AM and FM formed the heart and soul of New York City.

The WNEW-AM era ended on 15 December 1992. The once mighty classy format slipped from the ratings book. Bloomberg Media bought the station. It changed the call letters to WBBR-AM - Bloomberg Business Reports. The format is business news. The end of WNEW-AM was as dark as its beginnings were bright.

WNEW-AM went to air the moment President Franklin D Roosevelt turned a gold key. He was in the Oval Office, of the White House, in Washington, DC. The key created an impulse that turned on the WNEW-AM transmitter in New York City. The beginning was illustrious.

In 1932, two New Jersey radio stations joined forces. WAAM-AM, in Newark, was among the first all-recorded-music stations. WODA-AM, in Patterson, was also played records and was known as the Temple of Music. Neither station was affiliated, full time, to either the NBC Red or Blue networks, or the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The new call letters were WNEW-AM.

Was there a veiled meaning in WNEW-AM? The new call letters created much interest. Everyone loves a mystery.

Let's see. WNEW-AM was a "new" station. It was the "newest" fad. "New" music was heard, day and night. Its main studios were in "Newark." Steve Allen, later mused, WNEW-AM stood for "Wonderful Network of Ed Wynn," the top clown of the day and the major shareholder in the new station.

Ed Wynn was first superstar of radio. He and W. C. Fields were the most popular vaudevillians, of the early 20th century. Wynn, a clown, did slapstick. Fields juggled, moving to comedy as his steadiness waned. Each earned $2,000 a week or more.

In 1932, Wynn took his act to radio, dropping the sight gags. Juggling didn't work on radio. Fields relied on comedy. He was a top guest, on most any network show, and a central part of the success of the "Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show."

Wynn had no plans to move to radio. When asked, Wynn casually asked for $5,000 a show, in a time when $50 a month was top pay. He didn't expect Texaco to bite. It did, and paid him more each season.

For three years, Wynn was the "Texaco Fire Chief." It was the number one show for those years, but there was a problem. "Wynn," said his son, the actor, Keenan Wynn, "was a clown. He could make you laugh. He could make you cry. He did the [radio] show in costume.

"Suddenly," says Keenan, my father had to "come up with 55 jokes a week, every week, 39 weeks a year. He was a visual performer. [Radio] was a heavy burden. He did what he could, but he was a sad man for those years."

Ed Wynn later fell on hard times, but, in 1932, he wanted to start a network. WNEW-AM was the hub. The network didn't pan out. In the late 1930s, Wynn sold his share of WNEW-AM.

WNEW-FM station moved to Manhattan, not long after its launch. The format was live music. From 1926 to 1948, most radio stations relied on network programming, mostly from NBC or CBS. WNEW-AM used little network programming. The reliance on music and not networks was largely because of Martin Block.

A bit of back story, first. Someone kidnapped Charles Augustus Lindbergh, during the evening of 1 March 1932. He was the 20-month old son of aviator, Charles Lindberg, and writer, Anne Morrow. Everyone followed the case, closely. The "Lindberg Affair," wrote H. L. Mencken, is the biggest story since the resurrection.

Eventually, the Flemington, New Jersey, district attorney charged Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a carpenter, with kidnapping and murdering the Lindberg baby. He ostensibly got rid of the body. It didn't matter.

Convicted and put to death, Hauptmann claimed innocence, to the end. He turned down $90,000, from Hearst newspapers, for his confession. The New Jersey governor offered to trade the death penalty for life in prison, if he confessed. Hauptmann again refused.

WNEW-AM scored a coup, with the Lindberg Affair. It was the only radio station allowed inside the courthouse. Radio, everywhere, relied on WNEW-AM and the telephone to satisfy listener interest, in the trial. It's as if one station, in the world, got to cover the World Cup or the World Series. The scale, of this coup, is hard to imagine.

The coup also caused a problem. News bulletins, not gavel to gavel coverage, were all WNEW-AM could handle, technically. Large gaps of time, between bulletins, needed filling.

Live orchestras provided most music for radio, in 1932. WNEW-AM tried this alternative, for a month or so. It caused many problems, which dampened the effect of the coup.

News bulletins came randomly. The bulletins varied in length. There was little predictability.

WNEW-AM hired an orchestra, with up to 25 musicians, for each trial day. This was expensive. The orchestra had to allow random interruptions. It might be half way through a song when a bulletin arrived. The musicians didn't welcome the disruptions.

A month into the trial, a novel solution emerged. Martin Block worked the WNEW-AM studio, in New York City, during the trail. "Now we switch you to [our reporter], in Flemington, New Jersey," he'd say, "for news about the Hauptmann trial." After the update, Block would reintroduce the orchestra. "Now, we return to the music of Alvin de Lug and his band of Mugs."

Block worked KFWB-AM, in Los Angeles. As a cost saving measure, Al Jarvis played records, on KFWB-AM. He'd pretend the records were a live performance, talk about the singers and musicians and joke around.

The KFWB-AM audience knew Jarvis was kidding. They liked it. His audience grew quickly. Eventually, he called his daily show, "Make Believe Ballroom."

Bored, as trial announcer, Block wondered how to get more involved. He asked station manager, Bernice Judis, if she might give the Jarvis format a try. It was less costly and more flexible than an orchestra. It worked, at KFWB-AM, why not at WNEW-AM.

The idea of playing recorded music was unacceptable. Sophisticated radio, such as WNEW-AM, aired live music. Amateurs played records. Hadn't two stations, which played records, joined to form WNEW-AM and make money, with live music?

No respectable station stooped to playing records. At the peak of the Depression, WNEW-AM management argued that if listeners wanted a record they'd buy it. Singers and musicians, at the same time, argued that if listeners heard their records, free, on radio, they wouldn't buy.

Still, Hauptmann trail coverage was costly, if profitable. It caused a lot of headaches, too. After saying, "No," several times, Judis agreed to let Block play records to fill gaps in the trail coverage.

On Sunday 3 February 1935, Block aired his version of "Make Believe Ballroom." A $25 a week, part timer prevailed. For a few months, "Make Believe Ballroom" aired on WNEW-AM when needed. It wasn't part of the regular schedule.

There were a few more hurdles for Block. WNEW-AM didn't own any records. Block bought five, all by Clyde McCoy, at a Liberty Record Shop. He was filling time, to start, and variety wasn't a concern.

After the 32-day trial, another problem, advertising, arose. Initially, the WNEW-AM sales staff refused to sell time on a program comprised of recordings. Then the sales staff claimed there was no advertiser interest for "Make Believe Ballroom."

For about three years, the show had little advertising. It was sustained by WNEW-AM. Ultimately, this was less of a problem for Block than for most.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1901, Block flogged razor blades and potato peelers, in Times Square. Around 1930, he joined the rush of opportunists to Los Angeles. His first radio job was reading commercials, on a station based in Tijuana, Mexico.

On his own, Block signed Retardo Pills to sponsor "Make Believe Ballroom." Retardo sold a harmless sugar pill and the promise of quick weight loss. "Ladies," Block purred into the microphone, "be fair to your husband by taking Retardo Reducing Pills." The price was one dollar a box.

A week after Retardo signed on, Block and WNEW-AM claimed the sale of pills topped 3,750 boxes. These sales were a direct response to the radio spots. Edwin Cigars wanted to run spots on WNEW-AM, too.

There was little doubt the show was a hit. In no time, "Make Believe Ballroom" had a 25 share of the New York City radio audience. Copies of the show aired in every radio market. In Canada, the name was changed to "Maple Leaf Ballroom."

Block found fame and fortune. Name singers and musicians visited him, on air, to talk and plug their new records or local shows. Advertisers came, too, and in droves. Always involved, creatively, Block claimed to have coined two successful slogans: ABC for "Always Buy Chesterfield" and "LSMFT" for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

At first, Block used "Sugar Blues," by Clyde McCoy as the theme music for his show. By 1937, he was using, "Make Believe Ballroom," by Charlie Barnett. Around 1940, Block collaborated, with Glenn Miller, on a new theme, "It's Make Believe Ballroom Time."

In 1940, his show went into international syndication. Each show circulated on a vinyl disc. These discs were about 50% larger than a standard vinyl album. After airing a show, the station bicycled, that is, mailed, the disc to the next station.

By 1945, Block reputedly earned $22,000 a week. The usual weekly wage, at the time, was $20. His pay included station salary; fees for voicing and creating commercials; syndication payments and royalties from various sources.

The end began in August 1946. KFWB-AM, Los Angeles, announced Block was returning. The station was a tad premature.

After a year of headlines and negotiations, Block moved to KFWB-AM. From the moment he opened his microphone, listeners in Los Angeles despised him. LA listeners thought him a toxic, arrogant, know-it-all, sleazy New Yorker. Few listened.

By early 1948, Block had enough of LA radio and vice-versa. He returned to New York City, hoping to cash in on the television boom. Block wasn't the television type. Before long, he was back on WNEW-AM, hosting "Make Believe Ballroom."

Block stayed at WNEW-AM until 1954. Art Ford took over "Make Believe Ballroom," in 1955. While at a conference, in Europe, in 1958, Ford was fired, by WNEW-AM. William B. Williams became host of the show.

The success of Block and "Make Believe Ballroom" led to an overnight show, "Milkman's Matinee."

Both WNEW AM and FM looked for djs, who knew music, could talk about music and celebrities and hold listeners. Over time, the AM djs included Gene Rayburn and Dee Finch, Al "Jazzbeau" Collins, Dick Shepherd, Ted Brown, Jim Landers, Steve Allen, Dick Summer and Bruce Bradley. The list, of WNEW-AM personalities, is the best of radio.

WNEW-AM began hourly newscasts, in 1942. It was the first station to do so. News about the impending war, for the USA, was likely motivation. Once the USA entered the war, newscasts were a top priority among listeners. WNEW-FM and the New York "Daily News" cooperated, on the newscasts. After the war, audiences expected frequent newscasts: news was a good reason to listen to radio.

In 1958, WNEW-AM expanded its news service. It had regional bureaus, regular beats and ties to major news providers, around the world. WNEW-AM provided as much news, given its music and talk, as does an all-news station, today.

The music and talk on-air staff, at WNEW AM and FM, became celebrities. So, too, did those who worked in the newsroom. Responsible journalists are not stars, in the sense of William B. Williams, Dick Summer or Alison Steele. News people are influential. Listeners seek authoritative and reliable news people. At WNEW-AM, news people, such as Ike Pappas, Alan Walden, Bob Hagen, Christopher Glenn and Mort Crim, gave radio news authoritative voice.

WNEW-AM djs were stars, in their own right, and more than disc jockies. Frank Sinatra explained that William B. Williams, for example, was no more a "disc jockey" than Vincent van Gogh was a "brush jockey." Williams, said Sinatra, "was a radio personality — host of "Make-Believe Ballroom," a man who presented fine music in the style fine music deserved."

The same could be said of everyone who worked, on air, at WNEW AM or FM. Social responsibility was important. WNEW AM and FM could easily have copped a slogan from WBZ-TV, channel four in Boston, that is, "We're 4 you."

As George Duncan, manager of WNEW AM and FM, in the 1960s, said, often, "When it comes down to it, it's the listener who counts." Any one, on air at WNEW AM or FM would agree. This was their nature.

Metromedia bought WNEW-AM, in the late 1940s. WNEW-FM went to air in 1949. It was a low-budget version of WNEW-AM. In 1966, WNEW-FM made a bad decision, followed by several good decisions.

The bad decision was a gimmick: using only women on air. WNEW-FM held a contest, a mass audition, to fill four shifts. Eight hundred women tried out.

One winner, Alison Steele, was realistic about the gimmick. WNEW-AM had personalities earning $250,000 a year, with ratings to match. WNEW-FM, she said, had a hard time making scale, of $125 a week, and no ratings. Gimmicks were all the station could afford.

The all-woman line up failed, and was gone in 18 months. WNEW-FM kept Scott Muni, its programme director, and Alison Steele. In 1967, Rosko was hired "To play meaningful music," station manager, George Duncan, told Claude Hall, of Billboard, on 28 October 1967, "and [build] for the future." Jonathan Schwartz joined later that year for the same reasons.

Muni developed a new format, progressive rock. The WNEW-FM line up fit the format, to a tee, as it fit them. Eventually, the WNEW-FM format segued into Album-oriented Rock (AOR).

By 1972, WNEW-FM had grown into a baby-boomer version of WNEW-AM. Whereas the AM side focused the standards, hits of an earlier generation, the FM side was creating standards for the current generation. No on-air staffer, on WNEW AM or FM just jockeyed the discs: each one did what fit and fit what they did.

The apogee of WNEW AM and FM ran from 1968 to 1972. The on air line ups were most-finely tuned during this time. Ratings peaked, on AM and FM.

During this time, the influence of WNEW AM and FM, on radio, was massive. Stations across North America copied the AM or FM side. The AOR format was a cash cow for FM radio.

Metromedia sold its money maker, in 1978. Thereafter, the licence and image, of WNEW AM and FM, became a commodity, sold and resold. On 15 December 1992, WNEW-AM became WBBR-AM, the flagship station of the Bloomberg Business News service.

When Muni left WNEW-FM, in 1998, he said there was nothing left. For a time, WNEW-FM used the "Fresh FM" format, without success. On 16 January 2007, WNEW-FM became WWFS-FM; the owner, CBS, retired the call letters to a Florida station.

The real "heyday," of WNEW AM and FM, I think, was late 1960s and 1970s. In those days, I was one of the many listeners, on prolonged visits to New York City. If there had been no WNEW AM or FM, my visits would've felt longer and been lonelier. AM news kept me in touch, and the personalities were reassuring. On FM, the soothing voice, of Alison Steele; the wit and wisdom, of Scott Muni, and the rallying cry of Rosko, I would've been one homesick puppy.

JR Hafer writes from his home in central Florida.

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