Rob in the studios of WXLO,
Northwestern University, 1984
Nope. It’s radio. The primal, all-consuming passion of my life. And ever since I got my first taste of rock ‘n’ roll radio at age 15 in the dank, decrepit studios of WLPL Baltimore (right under the Cottman Transmission Shop), I knew this is where I had to be.
The resume is to-the-point. But here’s a more colorful and prosaic review of the W’s and K’s I’ve called home.
Although I made my on-camera debut at age 4 or 5 on the seasonal 'Santa Claus' show, I preferred hanging behind the scenes, and got an awfully good introduction to the broadcasting biz for a kid. I was pretty sure I would be president of CBS when I grew up.
Susquehanna sold Channel 43 in 1983; it’s now Tribune’s WPMT-TV.
Postscript: Sonia died in a York nursing home, June 18, 2004 -- minutes after I received my degree from Northwestern. She hung around long enough for all her nieces and nephews to graduate college. We'll miss you, Suz.
Where I developed a lifelong appreciation for Helvetica Bold, lower case, packed tight. (In fact, the masthead of this website is an homage of sorts to the letterhead design of my father's fledgling freelance design business, circa 1969.)
My dad spent six years as Art Director for a small Baltimore 'boutique' ad agency. I'd tag along whenever I could, filing tearsheets, reading back copies of Broadcasting magazine, and amusing myself for hours with Magic Markers.
In 1972, when the partners of Brahms-Gerber went their separate ways, my father -- all of 30 years old -- struck out on his own as well, establishing a design studio on a shoestring. Somehow he immediately picked up the print work for the brand-new Maryland State Lottery. (Remember 'You gotta play to win'? Yep, that's my pop!) I hung around the shop through high school, doing light bookkeeping and the occasional paste-up.
My father died in November 1997 -- at age 55 -- and I still miss him terribly. (I was asked to say a few words at his funeral.) Today, his wife continues as the proprietor of the studio. And I can't help but hope that someday their son -- my little brother -- will follow through on my dad's dream: to add an oversized ampersand to the logo...and make it 'Douglas Sidney Graphic Design & Son.'
For $2.90 an hour, I scraped labels off carts, filed logs and hung around, making a productive nuisance of myself all summer. Then they needed a substitute news anchor on the AM ... and I became the sole caucasian voice on an all-black oldies station.
I sucked as a newscaster. But that didn’t stop me from moving over to weekends on the FM ... where I also sucked as a jock. And that didn’t stop me from getting fired in March ‘80.
Ultimately I wound up returning in the summer of ‘81, as part of the team that humanely euthanized WLPL and replaced it with adult contemporary '92 Star'. But that’s further down the page.
Boy, I still sucked. But here I was sucking with jingles and reverb!
I left that fall to go to college ... and made a brief return in the summer of ‘82.
After 30 years as a CHR, it flipped to classic rock The Peak 98.5 ... but the station remains independently owned by Radio Hanover, Inc. And they’re still in the same cornfield.
I moved quickly through the operations and technical hierarchy (the music was that weird 'new wave' stuff I had no desire to program), and wound up as Operations Manager by the end of freshman year.
We rewired, repainted and rebuilt WNUR’s reputation to national prominence. Personnel changes and the need for a paying job, saw me leave 'The Big 89.3' in early ‘84. As a parting shot to my alma mater, I helped to start up a low-power AM station in the Communications Residential College; '640 WXLO' is still operating as WXRU.
In 1995 the McCoy Foundation pumped major bucks into the station, making it into the model of excellence 45 years’ worth of WNUR alums had dreamed of.
With a couple gallons of paint for the studio walls and 800 new carts, we put together an oldies-intensive AC format which scored a 4-share in the first book. Unfortunately, '92 Star' spent the rest of the decade trying to repeat that success.
I was a vacation-relief jock and an engineer (helping to install the stations’ new Sutton Place penthouse studios in ‘83). I returned briefly in ‘85 for overnights.
United sold the stations to Radio One in the early 90’s; today they’re urban 92Q & talk WOLB.
The station was barely squeaking by, a vanity effort of Chicago radio vet Ed Walters and his family. The programming was a hodgepodge of AC and oldies. The equipment was a hodgepodge of working and non-working.
Ed sold Y107 in the mid 80’s’; it became a new age outlet, a Z-Rock affiliate, a Christian AC ... and most recently has been sold to Univision Radio.
PD Lee Logan (who gets the credit for weaning me off liner cards) came off the air and I went full-time in middays ... until Gary Dee was hired for morning drive. Shift changes were looming, but I beat ‘em to the punch by resigning in April ‘85 and moving back to Baltimore.
After my D.C.-to-New York odyssey (keep scrollin’ down ...), I returned to US99 for overnights in March ‘86.
US99 continues to be Chicago’s country station, now owned by CBS.
Things got off to a good start. The station was showing ratings growth. I began just before Memorial Day as swing-shift talent ... and was promoted to Production Director and Assistant Chief Engineer in August. Then by the end of October most of the staff was gone, owing to 'philosophical differences' with the general manager.
Darkness preceded the light. A succession of PD’s struggled to keep the nose up ... and the station was transferred and sold a few times before coming to rest with Clear Channel. Today, WASH-FM remains the mainstream AC in D.C.
After I’d left WASH, I’d returned to Baltimore for overnights and a 50% pay cut at 92 Star.
Then the VP of United called me at home one morning after I’d just gotten to sleep...and asked me how soon I could be in New York to take over as Chief Engineer of their Spanish-contemporary AM.
I spoke no Spanish ... knew nobody in Jersey (except for Grandma)...and had no clue how to run a 5-kW, 3-tower directional array. But I hung in for two months (learning how to say 'Mas musica KDM ... con un ganador cada dos horas') until I decided to chuck the engineering career track and went back to US99.
United sold WKDM in the early 90’s; at last report, it's a Mandarin-Chinese outlet.
Never mind the fact that I hadn’t actually seen the station. Or that it was temporarily based in Osceola, Ark. (pop. 8,880) until the new Memphis studios were ready. Or that I was only going to make $22,500 a year. Or .... Well, you get the picture.
For 7 weeks I lived out of a suitcase in the Blytheville, Ark. Holiday Inn, working 14-hour days and lunching for $2.50 at the Osceola Tastee Grill (home of the 16-inch slow-pitch mashed potatoes). I realized I wanted more than tractors and one traffic light; I packed up my truck and moved to Miami.
Rock 98 did move to Memphis ... was sold for $5.2 mil ... changed formats, call letters, cities of license ... and is now classic rock 98.1 the Max, WXMX.
Three hours after the owner forced me to sign a non-compete clause, I got the call I’d waited for from WAXY-FM in Ft. Lauderdale. Although I was granted a waiver to work weekends at WAXY, I spent the next six months trying to get out of my Lite 92 contract.
Once the GM realized I was serious about leaving, I trained my replacement ... and I was off to the overnight shift on the beach!
Lite 92 tried jazz for awhile ... then was sold to Fairbanks in the early 90’s; they flipped to easy listening and soft AC as WRLX; then to Clear Channel with rhythmic oldies and alternative and jazz ... back to soft AC ... and most recently, Spanish as Mia 92.1.
This was radio! A historic company (RKO General), a market icon as PD (Rick Shaw), and an AFTRA-style shop (37.5-hour workweeks). All the crap I’d endured to that point had been worth it. Every WAXY jock had a producer 24 hours a day; 3:00 in the morning ... and there’s a board-op and newscaster sitting across the glass from me!
Tugs from stations inside and outside the market allowed me to negotiate a move to mornings as News Director in ‘89. Unfortunately some good things come to a crashing, nauseous, bloody end. Such was the case at WAXY.
To pay for its bygone corporate sins, RKO was forced to sell off its properties; in March ‘90, WAXY went to Ackerley Communications. The new owners promptly pointed the nose toward the ground and opened the throttle full.
I was reassigned as Music Director ... and afternoon traffic reporter. After six months the GM and PD decided everybody would be happier if I continued my career elsewhere. I couldn’t have agreed more.
I’d been in discussions to join Jefferson-Pilot’s easy-listening behemoth, WLYF. So on the afternoon of September 17, 1990, I left the lobby vowing to wipe up Brickell Ave. with WAXY and Ackerley Communications.
Ackerley’s 'Mix 105.9' set new ratings lows for the frequency ... and they wound up unloading the station at a fire-sale price to Metroplex. A revival of WAXY 106 in the oldies format failed; today it’s Clear Channel's classic rock Big 105.9, WBGG.
I was hired as Music Director and midday host ... and immediately began to wonder if I’d made a colossal mistake. Here was a radio station playing Nat 'King' Cole back-to-back with Genesis and ABBA’s 'Dancing Queen.' Within two weeks, I’d been asked to move to morning drive, where I remained till August ‘92.
It was like watching the glaciers melt, but 'Today’s Life' slowly morphed into soft AC 'Lite 101.5' and then in ‘96 emerged as '101.5 LITE FM', riding a crest of ratings success. Along the way I became Assistant PD ... and then Program Director in the summer of ‘93. In mid-1999, my contributions were acknowledged with the title 'Director of Programming and Operations' for LITE FM and our digital brand, LiteMiami.com.
After several iterations as an all-holiday-music service and companion to the main channel, WLYF-HD2 was officially launched as a separate brand in January 2015, reprising the 'Today's Life' moniker and the stylish MOR/supersoft AC format. Streisand, Manilow and Diamond, yes; whiplash segues from ABBA to Nat, not so much. Lesson learned.
Today, even following a 2006 merger of Jefferson-Pilot with Lincoln Financial ... and the 2015 sale of Lincoln's broadcast properties to Entercom ... LITE FM is still home to refreshing music, relevant information -- and the most versatile and detail-oriented broadcasters in South Florida.
'How would you like to own a radio station?'
So began the call from a long-time friend of mine -- the same guy who convinced me to move to Osceola, Ark. -- so that should have been my first red flag. A broadcast engineering consultant had found a dark 3-kW FM and 1-kW AM daytimer in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. He bought it for a few bucks, and was looking for major-market programming and operations folk to earn their ownership through sweat equity.
We signed on 'Delta Country' in early ‘92. I handled programming and station imaging from Miami and FedEx’ed the product to Cleveland every week. After two years I had earned my 5% stake ... and the company had added a second FM.
Having yet to see a dividend, I cut way back on my involvement, and sold my shares to another partner. In November 2003, the President/GM, Larry Fuss, sold the entire cluster (by then five FM's and an AM) for a delightful multiple. (D'oh!)
Today Larry's pursued his dream and owns KKHJ-FM and WVUV-AM, the full-service hot-AC simulcast in Pago Pago, American Samoa (pronounced 'SAH-mo-ah'; I had to learn that, since I'm the image voice for the station!)
Update: Under its new ownership, the original Delta Radio cluster fell into disrepair and finally went dark. On Christmas Day 2008, in support of the old bromide 'The more things change ...', Larry moved an FM signal from nearby Clarksdale back into Cleveland -- and is repeating country radio history as 'KIX 92.1'. (Oh yeah -- you'll hear my voice from time to time on this one, too.