The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of Wmms and Cleveland Rock Radio--a Memoir

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9781886228474: The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of Wmms and Cleveland Rock Radio--a Memoir

This rock and roll radio memoir takes you behind the scenes at the nation's hottest station during FM's heyday, from 1973 to 1986. Sex and drugs, music and merchandising--it was a wild time when the FM airwaves were wide open for innovation.
John Gorman led a small band of true believers who built Cleveland's WMMS from a neglected stepchild into an influential powerhouse. The station earned high praise from musicians and even higher ratings from listeners.
Gorman tells how WMMS remade rock radio while Cleveland staked its claim as the "Rock and Roll Capital" by breaking many major international music acts. The fun may have died when FM went corporate in the late 1980s, but it was a hell of a ride while it lasted.
Filled with juicy insider details, this fast-paced story will entertain anyone who listened in during those glory days when FM delivered excitement and the Buzzard ruled the airwaves.

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About the Author:

John Gorman began his broadcasting career in Boston and in 1973 moved to Cleveland to join WMMS, a small, free-form FM station then under new ownership. Over the next thirteen years he would help turn WMMS into one of the most popular and influential rock stations in the country. He served as music director and program director, and eventually became operations manager of WMMS and WHK.
In 1986 Gorman and twelve other staff members left WMMS to start 98.5 WNCX in Cleveland. He also founded a radio consulting firm, Gorman Media, and has worked with stations in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland, and other markets.
Gorman won the Radio Consultant of the Year award at the 1985 annual Pop Music Convention and was awarded Operations Director of the Year in 1995 by Billboard magazine. He was inducted into the Ohio Radio-TV Hall of Fame in 2000. He lives in Bay Village, Ohio.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Welcome to Cleveland

Fourth of July 1973. Welcome to Cleveland. There was a dead pigeon on the windowsill of my room overlooking Public Square in the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel. Despite several calls to the front desk, the pigeon remained part of the decor for three long, hot, muggy days. It matched the desolate street scene below. Sure, this was a holiday, but still―at 10 a.m. there was not a single car or person on the street.

I’d come from Boston, the city I loved, to take the new job of music director at WMMS―a promising, “free-form” radio station whose program director and morning host, Denny Sanders, was an old friend in need of help.

Metromedia, WMMS’s former owner, had recently sold its Cleveland properties to Malrite Broadcasting, a small company relocating from suburban Detroit. Most of the staff, fearing an inevitable format change, had resigned. Denny was now program director, trying to keep the station on the air with a limited staff hired largely from the Cleveland State University station.

The clock was ticking. Malrite’s purchase of WMMS had been held up when a community group, led by activist Henry Speeth and a young councilman named Dennis Kucinich, convinced the Federal Communications Commission that the station’s progressive format provided a unique public service. Malrite, which planned to change it to country, agreed to retain progressive rock for one year, starting in January 1973. If the station failed to generate revenue and ratings, Malrite would be free to change.

Denny asked if I was interested in coming to Cleveland. I was. It sounded like a challenge and, maybe, fun.

Malrite was putting me up at the Sheraton-Cleveland for my first two weeks of employment. I was expected to find a place to live in that time. What furniture I had wasn’t worth the trouble of moving, and I hadn’t owned a car for months because Boston’s extensive transit system made one unnecessary. I had rented a small truck to move my records, books, files, and clothes, and I’d be searching for a furnished apartment on a bus or train route.

The Sheraton-Cleveland was frayed and musty. The hallway connecting to the Terminal Tower reeked of urine. The gutters on Public Square were littered with trash. Twelve blocks up Euclid Avenue, I was amazed to see a department store, Halle’s. It was the only sign of life in an area whose name, Playhouse Square, appeared suited only to history. Its theaters were boarded up, seemingly abandoned.

I drove my rented truck to the WHK-WMMS studios on Euclid Avenue near East 55th Street to meet Denny, who was waiting in the parking lot off Prospect Avenue. The building’s once-imposing facade at 5000 Euclid Avenue recalled the time, a generation earlier, when it was a glittering broadcast center, complete with auditorium and theater marquee.

Now it could have been a struggling old factory. The WHK call letters, on a vertical marquee, were grimy, and there wasn’t even a sign for WMMS. The back of the building was tarpaper. To its left on Euclid stood a bank; on the right was a Blepp-Coombs Sporting Goods store with Indians and Browns jackets in the window. The view didn’t improve inside the stations’ dingy lobby. It was a place where the woman who ran a small snack stand died behind the counter as she was closing up one evening, and no one noticed or cared until the stench became unbearable.

There were two other cars in the lot. One belonged to Hal Fisher, the general manager. Lugging a briefcase overflowing with papers, he was wrapping up a half day of work on this holiday morning. "You must be John Gorman,” he said as he shook my hand. “Welcome aboard. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

I hauled boxes upstairs, to the stuffy loft that was the music library and my office, while Denny got some paperwork out of the way, and decided to pass on a station tour in favor of lunch. My primary concern was finding a furnished apartment, and I pulled out the Plain Dealer classifieds as we waited for corned beef sandwiches at Hatton’s Deli, a few blocks down Euclid.

The next day, my first on the job, I took the bus down Euclid and got an early start. Waiting for Denny to finish his morning show, I headed upstairs to the music library, switched on the intercom for WMMS. The library hadn’t been a priority. Few albums were filed alphabetically or in the correct cabinet, and I found box upon box of unopened albums. I spent an hour trying to make sense of it. In a desk drawer, I found a faded copy of a months-old clipping from Scene magazine, a local entertainment tabloid, criticizing the station for losing its past glory. On the intercom in the background, a song ended and a deep voice―like the voice of God―boomed from the speakers. “This is . . . Len Goldberg . . . on W-M-M-S. Good mornin’ to you. Here’s Van Morrison.” This guy did middays? He made Isaac Hayes sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Denny walked in, his show over, and brought me down to the studio to meet Len. If Central Casting was looking for a mad cave dweller, Len would have been the essential choice. His thick head of hair was a veritable jungle, and his full beard matched. Small, square reading glasses perched on his nose, and he had on well-worn bib overalls over a blue T-shirt. His voice could rattle windows like a passing freight train.

“The music department is completely fucked up,” he said. “Half this fucking library is scratched to shit, and there’s a lot of things I want to play that we don’t have. You want a list? I’ll give you a list.” He paused and took a hit of pot from a tiny pipe, probably to see my reaction. Although surprised, I pretended that I saw that sort of thing every day. "Meet JC yet?” he asked. “My advice to you is not to let JC run this fucking radio station. If you are the music director, you should run the fucking department the way you see fit. Understand? You do that and we’ll get along just great.”

We walked down the hall toward the archaic production studio, and I met the new production director, Jeff Kinzbach―six feet tall, rail thin, with shoulder-length hair. Then I followed Denny to a claustrophobic office in the back of the FM sales office and met the sales manager, Walt Tiburski. He proposed a Cleveland tour to visit a few clients and record labels, immediately suggesting a date and time.

My next order of business was to meet John Chaffee, Malrite’s national program director, who had approved my hiring. From phone conversations, I pictured a conservatively dressed executive in his early 30s. Short, dark hair, light to medium build.

“We call him JC,” Denny said. “JC is brilliant, brilliant in his own way. He’s very product oriented."

I asked what he looked like. “Like a hippie on Dragnet,” Denny said. "You know how Dragnet stereotyped everyone. Just think of how Dragnet would portray a hippie. He wouldn’t look like a real hippie. He would look like a Jack Webb version of a hippie. A stereotyped character.”

At that instant, someone who looked exactly like a hippie from Dragnet entered the hallway. Graying, shoulder-length hair. A slightly wild, medium-length beard. Dark, piercing eyes. A two-piece outfit, not exactly a suit, of a peculiar fabric in a medium blue hue. Cuban-heeled boots. A furry shoulder bag. JC, extremely courteous, welcomed me “on board” and marched toward the back of the building.

Denny suggested lunch at Hatton’s. As we pulled out of the parking lot, he cranked up the radio―“Evil Woman” by Spooky Tooth. Then it happened. “Eeeeee-vil (click) Eeee-vil (click) . . . Eeeevil (click).” Len Goldberg, in his best burning bush voice, boomed through the speakers, “If anyone from the music department is listening, we need a new copy of that Spooky Tooth album”―followed by a loud crack.

“Denny, did he just break the album on the air?”

“Hmmm. Sounds like it, doesn’t it?”

On my second morning, I walked up the stairs to the music office loft, opened the door, and turned on the light. Someone was sleeping on the couch in the corner. He was tall, thin, had shoulder-length hair and a beard. “Whuttufuck, whuttufuck,” he mumbled.

That was my introduction to Kid Leo. Denny had left him a note to meet me. For Leo, the best way to do that was to stick around after his 2 a.m.–6 a.m. show. He was groggy and tired, but we exchanged pleasantries. He asked me about Boston―“Are they all eggheads and weirdos up there?”―and I asked him about Cleveland. We talked music. Being roughly the same age, we shared similar reference points, and he was extremely knowledgeable―from New Music through Top 40, garage bands, and rhythm and blues. He grew up listening to WJMO―“they had this jock, Michael ‘Da Lover’ Payne―an’ sometimes WIXY, KYW-KYC, ’NCR, ’MMS. ’MMS is what got me interested in radio.”

I soon met the rest of the staff and started to settle in. With the exception of a quick hello, however, I had no interaction with Milton Maltz, the president and essentially the owner of Malrite Communications. The office help called him “Grouchy,” after one of the Seven Dwarfs. Others called him “Little Napoleon,” “The Tiny Tyrant,” and “The Mean Midget.” Terms of endearment. Everyone feared his explosive temper. It was considered normal to hear his snarling shouts emanating from the stairway to Malrite’s corporate suite. If Maltz was meeting in Hal Fisher’s office, one could easily hear his bellows in the second-floor music loft directly above it.

Only JC appeared to have a true rapport with Maltz. He called him Milt. Fisher called him Mr. Maltz. I doubted he even knew who I was until the afternoon I collided with him as I came down the stairs from the music loft, and he stormed out of Fisher’s office with Fisher and JC behind him.

“WE-E-E were just talking about you,” Maltz said. Snarled, actually. It was his way of speaking. Teeth bared, lips drawn back in a scowl, he punched up certain words and drew them out dramatically, a character out of Dickens. “How LONG before YOU feel we will have the NUMBER ONE FM? You need to create GOALS. GOALS.

“You have a number of BASS-tards in this town,” he said. “Sons of BITCH-ezz who will FIGHT to preserve the status quo. You have to PUSH THEM OUT OF THE WAY. SEIZE THEIR AUDIENCE! Give them no oppor-TOON-ity to counterattack. That’s how you will win.”

He turned and walked away. In unison, Fisher and JC said, “Thank you, John.”

There was plenty of work to be done. What came first, for me, was instituting new policies for the music department.

The “free form” format had no guidelines at all. I could add anything I wanted, which was a recipe for disaster. Because WMMS was adding about fifteen albums a week, the chances for all of them to get airplay were low, and individual tracks could not get enough airplay to become familiar to listeners. To be successful, we needed to pick from the best of the bunch, and not become top-heavy in any one genre of rock.

I broke the music into separate categories―New, Up and Coming, Hot, and Recurrent―and added a separate entry for singles in advance of their album release. Under that system, we could control how much music got added and played. It would give us a more consistent sound, and allow a full variety of new songs from current and new artists to get decent exposure and rotation. I also gave the airstaff input into music selection by asking them to vote on new releases, after providing every full-time announcer a copy of every new album we received.

We called for reports from area record stores, though they were often tainted. Columbia was the biggest offender. Virtually every album it released hit the top five in sales immediately, and when you’d see an album in the top five by an unknown artist who was getting little or no airplay―Dr. Feelgood, for example―you knew something was amiss. Eventually, we learned how it worked: Columbia would provide these stores with twenty-five free copies, known as “cleans,” for a top-five store report. That meant a 100 percent profit for the record store, and artists whose albums were provided in the trade for a false report did not receive royalties from their sale. The “free” albums and goods the label provided the record store were charged against the artists’ royalties. With new contesting and giveaway practices in place, we began giving away concert tickets with Belkin Productions. I would contact the labels and match up tickets with the performers’ latest album releases, adding a “WMMS―with new rock first” tag to our on-air giveaway sheets.

Noticing that the Friday entertainment supplements of the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press carried news, gossip, and charts from area stations, I typed a weekly press release listing our album and ticket giveaways, scheduled interviews, and details of special programming―anything to get the WMMS call letters and rounded-off “101 FM” frequency into print. If a jock had a particular favorite track or album, I listed that, too. And while the station had shunned as “too commercial” a listing in the week’s top twenty for WIXY, WGCL, WNCR, WJMO, WABQ and CKLW, I thought we should join the party. We provided a top twenty album list compiled from a combination of airplay, requests, and pure guesswork on my part, and sent a copy to Jane Scott at the Plain Dealer. WMMS was the only station listing albums.

There always seemed to be problems between WMMS and Scene magazine, which at that time was a locally owned magazine that covered music clubs and concerts. I made a courtesy call to editor Jim Girard, who connected me with someone identified only as the “decision maker.” After I inquired about a possible trade with Scene, in which we would run a number of spots for them each in exchange for a quarter-page print ad for WMMS, Decision Maker said, “We only do those deals with stations that have ratings.” When I asked about the weekly ad for WPIC-FM from Sharon, Pennsylvania, he claimed it was Youngstown’s top-rated rock station. I knew better. Decision Maker hung up without saying good-bye. Don’t get mad―get even. I took note of an ad in Scene displaying a Nazi swastika for the N.S. Bookstore, which sold Nazi books, patches, posters, and rings―and sent letters to other advertisers I felt would be most affronted by it. N.S. Bookstore was conspicuous by its absence in future editions. Touché.

We were aiming at Cleveland’s mass audience―the baby boom bulge of young teens to twenty-five-year-olds―and I believed we needed to serve as an adult Top 40, a true rock station station playing all genres of rock music. I’d done my homework on Cleveland and its rich rock radio history, from Alan Freed at WJW through WHK, KYW, and WIXY, plus CKLW, WAKR, and any of the other stations that influenced the area. As with my native Boston, its history was a cut above average, on par with some of the greatest radio markets in the country. WMMS was billed as the place “Where Music Means Something,” and the slogan applied to Cleveland in general. (Our listeners also knew it as an acronym for Weed Makes Me Smile, but that was not used on the air.)

To be successful, WMMS had to be more than just another radio station. In an early memo to the staff, I wrote that we should grow into C...

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