The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio--A Memoirby John Gorman
This rock and roll radio memoir goes behind the scenes at the nation’s hottest station during FM’s heyday, from 1973 to 1986. It was a wild and innovative time. John Gorman and a small band of true believers remade rock radio while Cleveland staked its claim as the “Rock and Roll Capital.” Filled with juicy insider details.See more details below
This rock and roll radio memoir goes behind the scenes at the nation’s hottest station during FM’s heyday, from 1973 to 1986. It was a wild and innovative time. John Gorman and a small band of true believers remade rock radio while Cleveland staked its claim as the “Rock and Roll Capital.” Filled with juicy insider details.
- Gray & Company, Publishers
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- 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
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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 Cleveland’s full-service pop-culture station. We needed other stations to play our game, and deceive them into assuming we were underpaid, undertalented, naive kids with an FM our owners didn’t know what to do with. We’d play that same hand with corporate.
Otherwise, who was to say, once we turned the station into a ratings-proven moneymaker, that Malrite wouldn’t discard the staff for the next round of younger, cheaper talent. We had to set up our own protection, personally and collectively, to protect our own asses and assets.
When Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithfull were busted for pot in early 1967, and Jagger and Richards were given to-be-determined jail sentences, the Who vowed to record only Jagger-Richards compositions until the two were freed. The band hurried into the studio and recorded versions of “Under My Thumb” and “The Last Time,” which were rushed to Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station broadcasting from a ship off the English coast. Mel Phillips, who was programming Boston’s WRKO, landed a copy and put it into rotation. I wanted to program a progressive rock station with the same passion and street smarts.
This new WMMS would embrace the moment. I felt we had to ride trends, knowing when to jump on and off. Let college radio initiate new trends, as they should; we should be attuned to the latest novelties and fads. Knowing our timing—when to embrace and, equally important, when to close—would save us during the Disco Invasion, which we would not ignore either. Novelty records were mostly ignored by album radio. Cheech and Chong, the Firesign Theatre, the Bonzo Dog Band, Monty Python, George Carlin, and Murray Roman were as close as the format got to comedy and novelty. I felt we should break that trend. The format was in desperate need of a sense of humor and a heavy injection of novelty. I recalled Peter Sellers’s narration of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” from the Top 40 of the 1960s—never a hit, but a track with its moment of curiosity and novelty. I also ended self-indulgent music segues like looping together tunes with the same theme or word in the title—like “White Bird” to “White Rabbit” to “White Room.”
When people recalled their favorite stations, they referenced the disc jockeys: Joey Reynolds, with his theme song sung by the Four Seasons to the tune of “Sherry.” Murray the K’s Swingin’ Soiree and “submarine races.” Jerry G’s “alligator counting.” Cousin Brucie’s “cousins,” and Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg, “Woo Woo for you-you.” I coveted that for WMMS. We had to be personality radio. Everyone needed a style, a hook, and signature lines.
I loved disc jockey nicknames. It was Murray The K, not Murray Kaufman; Cousin Brucie, not Bruce Morrow. It was “Emperor” Joe Mayer. I rejected pre-fab “Ron Radio” nom de plumes. I vowed that if I had to change a name, it would either be close to the original or way, way out there. I had a head start with Kid Leo, who named himself after Kid Jensen, a popular British radio DJ, and his friend Matt the Cat, whose name took a little more work.
Matthew Lapczynski was working weekends as a part-timer. Born in Belgium, he’d immigrated with his family to the United States in the 1950s, stopping first in Massachusetts and then settling in Cleveland’s Slavic Village. He was soft-spoken—just this side of too soft—but his music selection was the most mainstream on the station. He joined WMMS on April 21, 1973, the day after his twentieth birthday, and within three and a half months he had worked every shift on the station except morning drive.
His family had moved to Cleveland and settled in Maple Heights when his father accepted a position at the Immaculate Heart of St. Mary Church in Cleveland as church organist. Matt was also fluent in Polish.
Matt’s initiation to radio came by way of a friend who ran a pirate radio station out of his home. The station, which ran a Top 40 format and became the unofficial voice of Chanel High School, had a fairly powerful signal. It often changed frequencies to confuse the FCC. Listeners were notified when the frequency changed. A radio engineer heard the station and notified the FCC, which shut the station down but did not prosecute.
I liked him, but not the one-name air name Matthew, which sounded too progressive rock sixties. I wouldn’t have minded Lapczynski, except I knew it would get butchered in ratings diaries. This is the reason why “on-air” names tend to be simple and easy to recall. Denny, Matt, and I had lunch to discuss a name, but every suggestion sounded “too radio.” Matthew Williams, Matthew Thomas, Matthew Martin. Lapczynski, tall and rail thin, ordered a chocolate fudge sundae for dessert. He scooped up a chunk of vanilla ice cream, ran the spoon around the inside the glass dish to pick up some extra fudge, put the spoon to his lips, stopped, and examined it. There on the spoon was a sharp, nearly invisible sliver of glass.
“Look,” he said. “I almost swallowed that.”
“Lucky you,” I said. “You’re like a cat—using up one of your nine lives.” Silence. “Matt the Cat! Matt the Cat. What about that name?”
Denny liked it. Lapczynski thought it sounded stupid, and not believable. And Kid Leo was? It’s show biz, I told him. It fit, it wasn’t derogatory or offensive, it was catchy, it rhymed, and it didn’t sound like “Ron Radio.” Besides, listeners might feel they knew him a bit better because of a perception that Matt the Cat was his nickname.
On the first day he used it, he got hang-up calls saying, “Matt the Cat—pussy!” from the usual suspects who complained about everything. Ride it out, I suggested. It would work. Look at Leo, with his share of late-night callers saying, “Kid Leo, huh? Prizefighter? I’ll come down there and kick your ass.” I made sure the Saturday schedule changed “Matthew” to “Matt the Cat,” which was how he signed on that afternoon. Within a couple of weeks, the name was established, and the peanut gallery harrassers moved on to another element of WMMS to complain about. A few years later, a research study showed “Kid Leo” and “Matt the Cat” among the most recognized staff names on Cleveland radio.
Being known and recognized was important. I wanted our staff to be out in public, to be on TV, to get their pictures in the paper. I wanted listeners to place voices with names instantly. No surprises, and none of that “you don’t look anything like you sound” on my air talent. I wanted them to be rock stars in their own right, respected, even loved.
I spent hours discussing radio with Leo, Matt, Kinzbach, announcers David Spero and Steve Lushbaugh, John Chaffee, and Walt Tiburski and Joel Frensdorf in sales—their likes, dislikes, and perceptions of regional radio. What had attracted them to it? Its music was a soundtrack to life. Our generation used radio differently than our parents. We’d been both weaned on and contaminated by television. We were the instant gratification generation. For us, the line between entertainment and reality was blurred.
My single greatest influence was satirist Stan Freberg, who mastered the art of using the imaginative aura of radio. He described a flotilla of helicopters carrying a giant maraschino cherry to drop on a mountain of whipped cream. With the right script, direction, and production, you could create any vision you wished. I wanted WMMS to sound like it was coming from a state-of-the-art studio, not the pit we worked in.
I devoured every trade paper and kept tabs on every format. I analyzed the Top 40 page, the Country page, the Middle-of-the-Road page. I perused playlists regardless of format, and studied victorious radio stations. The word “soundtrack” kept coming back to me. We had to be that 24/7 soundtrack, and “full service” for our listeners. When I wasn’t scanning trades, I was reading any book I could find on administration and leadership. They weren’t so common in 1973. Dale Carnegie was—and to most, should be—the bible of direction. I didn’t always follow his suggestions, and more often than not, that would be a mistake. I read and listened to lectures by Zig Zigler and Gunther Klauss.
And I studied Cleveland. I spent hours reading old issues of the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press on microfilm at the public library. The city’s political and social mood in the 1970s would become a primary explanation for the success of WMMS. To my surprise, I learned Cleveland was not really midwestern like Kansas City or Chicago. If anything, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County had more in common with the Northeast than Columbus, which has far more in common with Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Like most major industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, its post–World War II boom had gone bust. It had to find new reasons to be meaningful to the rest of the world. For forty long years, the region failed, coming perilously close to morphing into Southeast Detroit. Cleveland lacked any postwar shaping of its urban neighborhoods, roads, and public transportation. Its crippled school system was among the first to rupture. The region suffered from poor city and county services, and widespread political corruption shaped an environment that invited little investment in the city from the private sector. Cleveland’s racial polarization was among the nation’s worst.
Nationally, Cleveland was a joke. The locals knew it, and the young despised it. To the rest of the country, it was a burning river, Mayor Ralph Perk accidentally setting his hair on fire, his wife skipping an invitation to the White House to go bowling. Downtown was dying. Even the sports teams added to the national joke. Art Modell, King Midas in reverse, was dismantling the once great Cleveland Browns. The Indians’ pennant and contention years were a distant memory. There was little to root for. I reminisced about growing up in the 1950s in Boston, a city with comparable problems—appalling services, inadequate and poorly supplied schools, little if any downtown renewal or construction. There was no life north of New York City in those days, but Boston had turned around. If Boston could, why not Cleveland?
One of my first objectives became making WMMS the Cleveland cheerleader for the next generation. While other media played up doom and gloom, we would champion Cleveland as a city rebuilt on rock and roll—a memorable place to have fun and party, a city with immense potential and the best rock audience on the planet. We would turn every Cleveland liability into an asset.
[Excerpted from The Buzzard, © John Gorman and Tom Feran. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]
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