Lee Zapis developed a love of music at an early age. His father, Xen Zapis, had a huge record collection in his basement in Rocky River, where Lee and his sister, Maria, grew up, and the siblings would often sift through it.
"I remember all those 78s and 45s we had back then," says Zapis one morning from Joe's Deli, a Rocky River restaurant that's near his Bay Village home. "We listened to them a lot, but we'd also often just throw them at each other. I'm sure some of them would've been valuable today, but who knew at the time?"
Zapis would eventually put that knowledge to good use. From 1981 to 1999, he owned WZAK and transformed the station from its early origins in ethnic programming into a commercially successful urban contemporary channel.
In his new book,Change Is On the Air: How WZAK Became #1 in Cleveland, Zapis chronicles the station's remarkable history, tracing its origins and sharing stories about notable on-air personalities such as Lynne "Bad Boy" Tolliver.
Digging Through the Archives
Zapis started working on the book two years ago. His parents were alive at the time, but they unexpectedly passed away while he was writing the book.
"That really knocked me for a loop," he says. "They were both looking forward to reading it."
In the process of writing the 125-page book, he sifted through tons of material. The book includes archival photos and images of old advertisements too.
"My original thought was that I wanted to do a book with a focus on sociology and culture and how our station fit into the social fabric of Cleveland, but it became more of a business book," says Zapis. "It's got one foot in each camp. It's hard to take 20 years and condense it."
The Greek Squad
Since the station was a family business, it makes sense that the book begins with a bit of family history. Xen Zapis married his wife Lula in 1952. They had both graduated from John Hay High School, but they didn't know each other then. They met later at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Tremont.
Just prior to marrying, Xen had started hosting a Greek radio show. He didn't have any experience in radio but wanted to make sure there was an ethnic program on the air that catered to the Greek community.
"He heard a bunch of other nationalities had their own radio programs and just walked into [WSRS] and said he wanted to do a Greek program," says Zapis. "They said, 'Sure, no problem. It's $50 for the hour.' He said he didn't have $50, and they explained to him that he had to find sponsors. Sure enough, he went out and found sponsors. He had 12 that paid $5 a week, so he made $10 profit each week."
Xen Zapis would borrow Greek records from friends because he didn't have enough Greek records to play on the air. After he and Lulu married, they hosted the show together, taking it to a number of different local stations before landing at WXEN. She'd read the news in Greek, and he'd read the news in English.
Zapis writes, "My mother became the co-host of the radio show, and, in my opinion, the star."
In 1962, the Muzak Corporation approached Xen Zapis and three other producers about starting up a new station, and they ponied up $7,500 each to launch WZAK in 1962.
"[Owning WZAK at that time] made us known in the Greek community," Zapis says. "We would do local news on the station, so people would call us about a death or a wedding or when a relative was visiting from Greece."
While attending Cleveland State University, Lee Zapis started working at the radio station part-time, and he'd eventually parlay that into a gig at WZAK, which his father would take complete control of in the late '70s after buying out the other investors and the Muzak Corporation; at that point, Zapis began working at the station full-time and assumed an ownership position.
A Sudden Switch
In the early '80s, many of the ethnic programming producers had retired and ratings had declined. A market survey suggested the one thing Cleveland radio lacked was an urban contemporary station that played a mix of R&B, smooth jazz and pop. In 1981, much to the chagrin of its hardcore audience members who liked the ethnic programming, the station switched to urban contemporary.
"When the previous ethnic stations switched, they gave their DJs a 30-day notice, and they used that time to organize protests and opposition," says Zapis. "We didn't want that to happen to us. Our attorney met with everyone and told them they'd be off the air immediately, but they could stay on the air on Sundays."
At 6 a.m. on March 2, 1981, DJ Rich Kenney played Twennynine's "Fancy Dancer," and from that point forward, the station began playing music that appealed to African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 44.
Many loyal listeners weren't happy.
"I remember getting phone calls, and people said there was something wrong with their radios because they couldn't the station in," says Zapis. "I felt bad about it. We knew nothing about commercial radio, but the principles for the ethnic programming are the same ones for urban contemporary. We did events and promotions, and it's just a matter of understanding your community and being responsive to them."
To help develop its urban contemporary programming, the station hired Lynn Tolliver, a former MCA Records retail rep.
"He was from Cleveland but living in Detroit at the time, and Ray Calabrese, who managed the Dazz Band, told us to talk to Lynn," says Zapis. "We got to know him. He was always very creative and full of energy. He was such a radio nerd that when he was a kid, he would call record stores and create his own charts about what was selling and then pass it out. Who does that as a kid?"
Hired in 1982, Tolliver would turn things around. He recruited on-air personalities such as Kim Johnson, Lankford "the Man" Stephens, Ralph Poole, Kym Sellers and Bobby Rush.
He even created Sexual Harassment, a studio group, to record a track called "I Need a Freak" that would become a national hit (the Black Eyed Peas would later sample it on their hit tune "My Humps").
"Lynn was very creative and had recorded music since he was young," says Zapis when asked about the origins of "I Need a Freak." "He put together this band and named the group Sexual Harassment and recorded 'I Need a Freak.' It took on a life of its own. At the time, he didn't promote himself as part of it and worked in the band under a pseudonym. I went to St. Louis that summer it came out and heard it there. It got played in the clubs and became a cult hit."
By 1984, the station was No. 1 with black listeners, and it started presenting concerts such as the Plum Fest, a concert at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium that featured Gladys Knight, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin and Maze.
In 1985, Zapis got a scare when a gunman attacked Tolliver as he was leaving the station.
"It was the day after Christmas and snowing," says Zapis. "I got a phone call from the guy who did cleanup and maintenance at the station. He said Tolliver had been shot in the studio. I thought, 'Holy shit.' My dad and I drove to the hospital. We got there before Lynn did."
What had happened was that as Tolliver was leaving the station, which at that time was on Superior Avenue next to the Plain Dealer building, to go emcee at a club, a gunman jumped him.
"This masked gunman shot him three or four times," says Zapis. "Luckily, the guy was a bad shot. Lynn let himself into the studio while Jeffrey Charles was on the air, and he knew Tolliver was a practical joker and thought it was a joke. They never caught any assailant. We thought it was one of the overnight DJs who had a beef with him. People in focus groups thought it was a publicity stunt, but Arbitron takes a break after Christmas, so that wasn't even a possibility."
The station courted controversy throughout the '80s. When it played the Prince track "Erotic City," listeners would call to complain if it played the edited version. They wanted to hear the uncensored rendition of the track.
"Compared to the lyrics of songs today, it's pretty mild," says Zapis. "But at the time, we pushed the envelope. It really always came down to how much attention we could draw to ourselves without spending a lot of money. We never had a lot of money to spend."
Many of the ads from that time period stirred up controversy too.
"We wanted people to talk about us," says Zapis. "We had one segment called Four Play during which we played four songs in a row. So we had an ad that featured a young lady saying, 'I love Four Play.' We had another program called Back to Back Hits, and in the ad, we showed women's backsides. That got people worked up. I hate to say it, but the community activists played into our hands. It was about trying to increase the station's awareness."
Pranks were part of the station's approach as well.
"Tolliver would take a couple of days off, and we would put a promo on the air that said, 'Lynn will not be on the radio for the next couple of days in response to something offensive he said about so and so.' He never said anything, but people wanted to know what he had said. It was like theater of the mind. Today, you could never get away with it because some intern would tweet out that it wasn't true."
Tolliver's reputation earned him the title "America's Bad Boy," and by the late '80s, he was regularly being nominated for Billboard Radio Awards.
Hitting Their Stride
In his book, Zapis says that despite the fact that the nation's economy was in a funk, the station's best year was 1992.
"By 1992, we had been doing it for 10 years and had kind of hit our stride," he says. "We had driven our competitors out of the format and that gave us more freedom. We still tried to be disciplined. We wanted to expand the music list, and we wanted to know how to do that. We found that if you add pop music, you drive off your audience. We had to focus on our core. Every decision you made, you had to think about what your core audience would want. Tolliver had a good sense of that."
Acts like LL Cool J would stop at the station when they were in town, and to keep up with the times, the station started playing more hip-hop and launched its Phat Friday program in 1995.
"We had specialty shows that featured hip-hop," says Zapis. "David Tolliver and Antonio 'Banana' Marshall did a hip-hop show. The music evolved and black music, if you want to call it that, isn't homogenous. You have hip-hop, R&B and we even played some smooth jazz."
In 1997, the station started airing The Tom Joyner Show in the morning. Joyner had a syndicated program out of Dallas, and Zapis says that picking up his program was more of a defensive move since he feared another Cleveland station might get it and start "a real battle" for morning ratings.
"Our morning show was free-wheeling and unstructured and we couldn't even get the mayor to come on the air," says Zapis. "Joyner interviewed Clinton on the air and flew on Air Force One. He did crazy shit like that. My concern was that if someone wanted to come after WZAK, they would pick up Tom Joyner and have adult urban programming the rest of the day. We took on Tom Joyner and moved Tolliver, and it worked out."
Sold to the Highest Bidder
When Zapis sold the station along with five other stations owned by the Zapis Corporation, it had a 9.9 share.
"I'll never forget that — we never hit double digits," Zapis says, adding that he and his father received multiple offers when they put the station up for sale and went with the highest bidder. "We worked really hard for the station and wanted to see it succeed. At the time, I had qualms about selling it. It was a family business. I had never heard the term exit strategy, so I didn't know what that was."
The idea to sell the station came after Zapis and his father met with Milt Maltz, who had divested his TV station interests at about the same time. At a lunch, Maltz gave Zapis and his father some advice.
"He said, 'Never fall in love with something that can't love you back,' and, 'if not now, when?'" says Zapis. "We thought we should think about it. We wanted to buy other stations, but it was impossible to compete with big consolidated companies."
Chancellor Media Corporation of Texas bought WZAK along with WZJM, WDOK, WQAL, WRMR and WJMO for $129 million, reportedly the biggest radio deal in Cleveland broadcasting history.
Zapis says his life is now "dramatically different" than it was when he ran the radio station. Back then, he used to listen to radio constantly and says that if he was awake, he was listening.
Now, Zapis, who runs Zapis Capital Group and invests in technology, health care, real estate and media, says he doesn't tune in as regularly, though he does like listening to talk radio.
"I still love that business," he says. "Radio is the most effective media. In those days, our station was central to the black community. You knew what artists were in town. We weren't political and didn't do any news, but people tuned in to have a companion."
He says that when it's done properly, "nothing connects with people more than radio."
"It's considered mass media, but most people are listening to it by themselves, maybe in their cars or at their desks," he says, adding that he's currently an investor in an app that will "try to make music social again."
"A great radio personality can really make you feel a connection."