- Illustration by David Helton
It didn't take long for WMMS to turn into a juggernaut after making its debut on Sept. 28, 1968. Thanks to its forward-thinking staff, it took the progressive rock format of the 1960s and 1970s to the limit and played acts that would go on to national acclaim and popularity well before other commercial stations embraced them.
Throughout the '70s and into the '80s, the ratings soared, and the station became synonymous with rock 'n' roll in Cleveland. Its program directors and DJs would go to great lengths to obtain exclusive tracks from acts such as Fleetwood Mac, whose hit album Rumours sold one million copies in the Cleveland area alone. WMMS played David Bowie's "Space Oddity" well before other stations in the country would play anything by the Thin White Duke, and after embracing Bruce Springsteen early in his career, WMMS built a library of his unreleased tracks that no other station had.
WMMS DJs interviewed then-little known acts such as U2 and John Cougar Mellencamp when they came through town, many of which would play the station's fabled Coffee Break Concert series too.
But after key personnel left WMMS in the late '80s and early '90s, the station lost its dominance and its ability to shape listeners' taste in music. Its credibility took a hit too. In 1988, it admitted to stuffing the Rolling Stone ballots to win the annual Rolling Stone Readers' Poll for Radio Station of the Year. Also, during a 1994 broadcast of The Howard Stern Show, which aired on rival station WNCX, WMMS engineer William Alford cut the cable to the broadcast, committing a felony in the process. (Okay, that move had some legit old-school WMMS cred.)
The station survived those controversies and still broadcasts today, of course, focusing primarily on talk radio with Rover in the morning and Alan Cox in the afternoon.
As WMMS celebrates the anniversary, both on-air and online, using archival audio, memorabilia and station-related artifacts to offer a cross-section of the station's diverse history and the numerous people who played a part in it, we add this oral history in the spirit of celebration. It's admittedly incomplete -- an entire book would be needed to do it rightful justice -- but we're thankful to all the folks who contributed highlights and tales from the station's glorious life, one that made it an irreplaceable soundtrack to a city.
1968-1972 The Birth of a Station
Billy Bass: [In the 1960s,] I worked at the Music Grotto, the hippie music store in town. We sold all the music that was considered the new rock — Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead and the Doors. At the time, all this great music was coming out of San Francisco, but nobody had ever heard of it. If Rolling Stone was writing about it, I would stock it, and, sure enough, people would buy it. I had the store selling all this music played on WNEW in New York and KSAN in San Francisco and KMET in Los Angeles and WMMR in Philly. They were all owned by Metromedia. Metromedia also owned WHK and WHK-FM in Cleveland. Pat McCoy was the music director of WHK, and the FCC made a ruling that if you owned an AM and an FM in the same town, you couldn't simulcast. You had to come up with original programming. He was made the program director, and the first thing he did was come to Music Grotto to tell me he wanted to do at WHK-FM what they were doing at WMMR. I didn't know about that. I talked to my wife, and she said she didn't think it was a good idea. I realized it wasn't a good idea, but I wanted to do it anyway. Now, I was on WHK-FM, which was really the first incarnation of WMMS. The program director had no idea what was going on, so I basically got to do whatever I wanted to do. I would segue songs together. I told stories. I was very anti-war. Pat McCoy didn't know about it, but all the music had an anti-war slant. Then, WHK changed the format from underground radio to easy listening, and that was the end of me. Luckily, I was so popular that WIXY hired me. And then, I got offered a deal I couldn't pass up at WNCR. They asked me to be the program director and that involved bringing Martin Perlich and Doc Nemo, two of the original underground radio DJs, with me. I wanted to bring David Spero with me too because he knew a hit record when he heard one.
Spero: I remember Billy calling me up on a Thursday night, and he said, "Hey, I've got something big that might be happening." I think I was doing 7 to midnight at 'NCR then. It was decided that the following Monday we would start on WMMS. I was going to do the morning show and be the music director. Billy was going to do afternoon drive and be the program director. Denny Sanders was already there, and Lou "King" Kirby was there as well as Dick "Wild Child" Kemp. I don't remember who we had on the all night [shift]. I was like, "Can we play everything that we want?" "Yeah." That's all we wanted to hear.
Denny Sanders: I came in October of 1971. Metromedia [owned the station, and they were] a major owner of FM stations in those days, all of which were album oriented rock. You could only own five stations in those days. They had WNEW in New York, WMMR in Philadelphia, KMET in Los Angeles, KSAN and WMMS in Cleveland. This was a heavyweight lineup of stations. I had made somewhat of a name for myself in Boston and the vice president of Metromedia gave me a feeler call in Boston and said, "We have an opening for the night show in Cleveland, would you like to come and do it?"
Spero: We went over there, and it was a totally different experience. They actually had marketing money and stuff that they were willing to spend on us. We became very community-oriented. Dennis Kucinich was the councilman for that area, and he helped get us permits and stuff to do free concerts. I'm talking about free concerts with people like Joe Cocker. We would do these things just to get our call letters out there. Honestly, we didn't know what we were doing. Our goal was that we were now looking at radio not as a way to become famous or to make a lot of money, because neither of those two things was going to happen, but an art form. And it was a way to find a way to play Led Zeppelin into Joni Mitchell into some sort of a classical or jazz piece and a little bit of spoken word and find your way around to introducing music that nobody had ever heard.
- Photo courtesy Cleveland Memory Project
- Billy Bass
Sanders: WMMS was highly undeveloped in [the early] days. They had attempted to do an album rock format in 1968, and it was aborted after several months by the national office, because they made the mistake that often people outside of Cleveland make and that is that, "Oh, Cleveland's not a hip enough town to appreciate an album oriented rock format." They tried Top 40 and all kinds of different things. And then in 1970, Nationwide Insurance put on WNCR as an album rock station and Metromedia said, "Well, if anybody's going to put on an album rock station in Cleveland, it's going to be us." So they switched the station back to album rock sometime in 1970 or early '71. The mistake they made was they kept the Top 40 jocks. They didn't know what they were playing. Metromedia realized their mistake, and I was their first attempt to bring in an album oriented music personality with some credibility to come in and try to build the station's cred up.
Bass: [When I returned to WMMS], the problem was we were in the underground state of mind, and I didn't know how to reposition ourselves. There was nothing new happening. We were still playing stuff from 1967. The new stuff was coming out of the South, and it was ZZ Top and the Marshall Tucker Band and all these Confederate flag-waving motherfuckers. I said, "I'm not playing that shit." My music director at the time was Denny Sanders. He was the only guy I kept when the general manager brought me over to WMMS. He knew radio, and he knew stuff about ratings. I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out what to do next. Denny played me "Space Oddity" by David Bowie. Not only did I like it, but I told the staff that at that moment I knew where we were going. I had seen the light. We didn't have to play that "let's go out and hang niggers" music. We started playing "Space Oddity." Almost the next day, or so it seemed, [David Bowie's] Hunky Dory came out. Now, we had more to play of that kind of music. And then, Ziggy Stardust comes out. We also had Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. The more we played it, the more popular we got.
Sanders: Billy Bass was really one of the most outstanding on air personalities that ever worked in Cleveland. He was only there for a year, but he made a big impact. I was music director in those days. I think the signature act that we played during that period was David Bowie. How that came about was I was music director and Chuck Dembreck, who was the RCA Records guy for northern Ohio, came into my office one day with a blank label record. And he said, "I want you to listen to this and tell me what you think." We put it on and we listened to the first track, the second track, the third — I couldn't take it off the turntable. I said, "This is absolutely outstanding. I've never heard anything like it. Who is this?" The album was Hunky Dory. It wasn't yet released, but it was about to be released. Now, we had kind of heard the name before because he had made some preliminary recordings for Mercury and other labels, but they were fairly undeveloped and not that distinguished. I went to Billy, who was the program director, and I said, "You've got to listen to this." He listened to the album and fell in love with it and mobilized the forces of the radio station to break that record nationally. So, people always say, "Well, who gets the credit for breaking David Bowie?" The best way I can put it is if it were a football game, I had the ball, and I threw it to Billy who made the touchdown.
Spero: In the end, as it became more corporate, I had started managing the Michael Stanley Band. I was getting a little bit of smoke from the FCC about how you can't manage an artist and play their music on the air. You know, it starts looking like Alan Freed. Changes were coming and all of a sudden, John Gorman was crossing tracks off. He had now replaced Billy — Billy had left, because he was just done. John came in as program director and it wasn't as freeform as it used to be. It was like, "Well, if you play this album, you can only play a choice of these three tracks and you have to write down what time you played it so it doesn't get played again in the next 24 hours." It stopped being spur of the moment music where you just would grab a song because it felt like the right thing. You know, there were times that I hadn't picked the next song until I saw we were about to fade out in 10 seconds. It was like, "Ah, I got it!" These things weren't planned out. It was creating a mood and a feel that if someone was listening to you, they had you on for the afternoon and they went along for the whole ride.
1972-1978 Pushing the Progressive Rock Format
Sanders: Metromedia sold the radio station to Malrite Communications, which is Milt Maltz, one guy. Billy didn't get along with Milt Maltz, so he left and Martin Perlich went to the coast and David [Spero] hung around for a little while and I became program director. I needed to fill some slots, so I put out my tentacles looking for people that had music cred to bring on the station and part of the tentacles reached out to the Cleveland State University station, which was not on FM in those days, but it was a closed-circuit station. I had solicited tapes from these people because my feeling was that the college radio folks were the people that knew music. You know, I didn't want to bring in another 45-year-old ex-AM guy that had no idea what the hell he was playing. I hired Kid Leo. Matt the Cat came over. I was music director, program director and doing six hours a day on air along with the six-hour weekend shift. And I was really burning out. So I went to Milt Maltz and we talked and I said, "Look, I can't do both these jobs. I know a guy in Boston who would make a great program director, why don't you bring him in?"
Kid Leo: Being born and bred in Cleveland, I was way past delirious when I got a job at WMMS, as I was a fervent fan of the channel back in the early '70s. And that job grew into so much more. It allowed me to become an important and integral part of people's lives. [Listeners] accepted me and my quirky musical tastes, which turned out to be not so quirky after all. In those days, Cleveland was a joke to most in the national media and therefore to a lot of America. Our sports teams were inept, our mayors were fodder for late night talk show hosts' monologues and hell, our river even caught on fire. But Cleveland had a very good reputation as a music city. We not only nurtured that fact; we became the place for bands to break out of, the town Rolling Stone magazine and other hip publications wrote up because no other metropolis showed anywhere near the kind of the fervor we displayed. The station and the music gave Clevelanders a reason to be proud.
John Gorman: Prior to moving to Cleveland, I had been to Cleveland one year earlier to visit in the summer of 1972. We thought it was a nice city. I had nothing but good memories. WMMS was a great sounding radio station. I thought it was in some ways better than the progressive rock station in Boston. [In 1973] when Denny told me the staff was gone and asked if I was interested, I definitely was. Beyond that, Denny stressed that we could do what we wanted to do in Boston but could never achieve. We had always wanted to build our own radio station. Denny hired Jeff [Kinzbach] as production director. He didn't have an interest in being on the air, but he was a whiz at production. You had to use a razor blade to splice magnetic tape together. He could splice things together. Ed "Flash" Ferenc was working for WHK and came in as an intern. I heard his voice and realized he belonged on radio.
Charlie Kendall: John Gorman came to me when I was at WVBF in Framingham, Boston. I went to work there in 1971, not long after I got out of the Navy. As the station actually grew and different people came into the corporation, they tried to make it more commercial and make us insert hit records along with Deep Purple and the Stooges and MC5. He heard that and asked me if I would consider coming to Cleveland to work at 'MMS. He said, "I want you to come to Cleveland and do mornings. Because, unless we can crack mornings, we can't get in the top ten as a radio station. You play whatever you think Cleveland's going to want to hear!" And I said, "Really?" I had never worked at a totally freeform station. [When I was at the station, there were guys like] Bill [B.L.F. Bash] Freeman. He turned me onto the Stooges and the MC5. I turned him onto Deep Purple and Dio and some of the other hard rock and heavy metal things. We would listen to music, a couple of boy howdys and put on some tunes and turn 'em up loud. Bill was the only guy I've ever heard who could actually drop acid, do a show and you really weren't sure if he was off or anything, other than the fact that he was laughing so much.
B.L.F. Bash: Oh yeah, I did quite a bit. I kind of perfected that up in Fargo. Word got out that maybe the Bash might be doing some acid on the radio. So one day, Larry, the general manager, he's in the hall, and I said, "I'm going to do one of these purple ones" and he said, "Oh, no, no." The fact is that we were King Kong. We were the main test market in the country in Fargo. So our national sales manager, we hardly ever saw him. He was either out in L.A. or New York buying time. When I got off the air, they were all waiting, and they said, "Wow, that might have been the best damn show I've ever heard anybody do. Let's go over to the 5 Spot." We went over there and with pitcher after pitcher of beer, they said, "What do you see when you're on that stuff?" So I explained. When all was done and said -- and I was still flying pretty high on this shit -- I just basically reconstructed on how to do a radio show.
- Photo from Scene Archives
- Boom as Mr. Destructo.
Ed "Flash" Ferenc: After the first six months at Cleveland State, I joined the radio station at the school and met Kid Leo and Matt the Cat. It was 1972, I think. I got a radio show and moved up the ladder there and became the program director. Fast forward to 1973, and Malrite had just purchased WMMS. They got rid of a lot of people. They needed someone to work for two bucks an hour to help out in the newsroom, and that was me. Right at the same time, Kid Leo, who wasn't yet called Kid Leo at the time, got a call to fill in on nights from midnight to 6. He jumped on it, and I jumped on the opportunity to stick my foot in the door. In 1975, Charlie Kendall was doing the morning show. He was a great jock, but he liked to party. The ladies adored him. A morning show guy has to get up, and Charlie couldn't get up.
Kendall: Yeah, I enjoyed Cleveland's nightlife a little too much. Every show was ours. We could get into any club. We never had to pay a bar tab. You know, it was rough. I've gone from Charlie Daniels' hotel suite with him over to the [morning] show, and he sat and did the show with me. Dr. Hook did that a few times. I did it with a lot of guys. We ended up at the after-show at their place and then back to the hotel rooms and then onto the radio station for the morning show. That happened a lot. We had everybody you could think of.
Ferenc: [Kendall] would miss two or three mornings a week, so they called Jeff Kinzbach, who lived in Lakewood, to fill in.
Jeff Kinzbach: Charlie Kendall is this charmer. He'd call me at 4 in the morning and tell me to do the show. I'd fill in for him and for Debbie Ullman, who did mornings, for a while too. Flash and I just clicked, and we were good friends off the air. I was happy to take over the morning show. I guess I was destined to wake up at 4 a.m. for the rest of my life. My whole idea was to rock listeners awake. Traditionally, radio stations played softer music in the morning. I would put on Led Zeppelin or Rush. We were always a homebrew radio station, and it took us about three years to realize what we had and where we could go with it.
Donna Halper: There was a Canadian record promoter named Bob Roper. He sent me this manila envelope with a record from A&M of Canada. I open it up and it's got this really "loving hands at home" kind of cover, like, ooh, somebody got together and made a record. And, it's from this band called Rush. I've never heard of them. I've heard of Mahogany Rush -- they're from Montreal. I open it up and I'm looking for a long song, because we are an album rock station. Long songs were jokingly called bathroom songs, because when the DJ was on the air late at night and needed to go, it was nice to have a long song. So I'm always looking for a long song, but it has to be a good song. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, welcome back my friends, to the album that never ends, no thank you. I drop the needle on "Working Man" and I knew immediately. I got in touch with Roper and I'm like, "What's up??" He says, "We're not going to sign them, they're not ready, but I heard something, see if you hear something." I'm like, "Are you kidding me, yeah, absolutely." "Working Man" is a perfect Cleveland record. I get up at 7 and I go to work at 9, got no time for livin', yeah, I'm workin' all of the time. There they are and Cleveland's a factory town back then, Republic Steel, the night sky is orange with pollution. I just figured it would resonate. I brought it down to Denny Sanders and I said, "Denny, you've got to play this. He did and the phones light up immediately. "When's the new Led Zeppelin coming out?" Nope, not Led Zeppelin, Canadian band, Rush! Wow, okay, play it again? Pretty soon, we're getting requests for it. You know the rest, I got in touch with their management and I said, "Hey, you guys are doing really well in Cleveland." They're like, "Really? Nobody in Toronto wants to play us!" One thing led to another, we got a box of records down, put them in Record Revolution, Peter Schliewin, God rest his soul. Back then, that's where you got your imports, at Record Revolution.
Denny Sanders: I did the John Lennon interview [in 1974]. That was terrific! The Walls and Bridges album was just released and they wanted to pick five or six stations to do interviews. We were pretty influential in those days, so I got it. I think they contacted John [Gorman], and they said, we want somebody to do it and God bless him, he said, “Oh, that’s Denny.” So he gave it to me. The only thing that I do remember is that we had almost no notice. I got the call at home at about nine or ten o’clock in the morning from John and he says, “Guess what! I’ve got John Lennon for an interview.” I said, “Oh, when?” He says, “Two o’clock.” And I said, “Oh my God, WHAT?” [Laughs] Luckily, since I followed the music, I didn’t have to do too much homework. I had to check a few facts and figures. But you know, it was a very nice conversation, about a half an hour. I still have the recording, of course. I wouldn’t let that one go! He was terrific. I thought he might be edgy, because he can be edgy and if he doesn’t like something, he can be nasty, but he was sweet as sugar. He was wonderful. Very terrific. I think because I didn’t ask stupid questions and I knew my stuff, I think he appreciated a good solid interview and he was very nice about it. So that was the Lennon interview. [I also spoke with] Brian Wilson. My God. When you think about it, I talked to probably two of the greatest composers of the 20th century, John Lennon and Brian Wilson, holy smoke. Brian Wilson was a complete surprise. We were scheduled to talk to Mike Love. Mike Love would always come by the station and we did interviews with him. I was on air live and the record company had scheduled Mike to come in. He shows up and he says, “Oh, by the way, I brought a friend with me. In walks Brian Wilson. And I thought, holy smoke! Now, this was during Brian’s really bad period, where he was quite overweight and he was a little out of it. But I sat him down and we mic’ed him up and I thought, “Well, you don’t get Brian Wilson every day.” So I just went into my memory banks and started asking, “How did ‘Good Vibrations’ come about, how do you write, how does this work?” I remember one funny story. I said, “Brian, there’s an urban legend around that you have a sandbox under the piano when you compose, so you can stick your toes in the sand and kind of feel the beach. Is that true or is that an urban legend?” He said in a shaky voice, “Well, it was true, but I had to take it out, because the cats got into the box.” [Laughs]
Gorman: Back then, there was the Allman Brothers and Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin, but there was other music taking place. We started reading New Musical Express and the British music magazines. When Kid Leo joined the station, he was playing the post-'60s bands like Roxy, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. We played some of the stuff from New York too like the New York Dolls. We wanted to put all the music together in some kind of format. The moment I knew it would work was when I realized we could play Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers and New York Dolls all in the same hour and make it work. We started playing Suzi Quatro as an import. We had a lot of help in getting music. [The late singer-guitarist] Peter Laughner was a brilliant musician and songwriter. He died way too young. He lived not far from the station on Prospect. He would come down to the station and turn us on to different music. We became the first station in the country to play Patti Smith. He went to New York and saw Patti Smith and picked up her single which was a cover of "Hey Joe" and the other side was "Piss Factory." Peter Schliewin at Record Revolution turned me onto Queen long before that album came out.
Larry Bole: Working at WMMS was a real musical education. Before I started there, I had been working at the Cleveland State station, which became the farm team for WMMS. We knew immediately Leo was a star. I mean, what college student goes walking around campus with a silk jockey cap and long hair and a beard and calls himself "Kid Leo"? It's so amazing, I was a part-timer and I could program my own show. That's unheard of on a major station. There were some guidelines that John Gorman gave us. He told us things like "don't play two instrumentals together." But those were just guidelines. I had an import hour show. I worked at the Music Grotto, so I had access to the imports there. We had old German Krautrock and all the British stuff. I have run into two people in the last month who have told me what avid listeners they were. Even after I left the station and started working for Warner Bros., I kept doing shows at WMMS under the name Beebop Kirby for the first couple of months in 1979.
David Helton: There were several movie directors, who came in there. John Alonso, who did the movie FM, before they did that movie, they came through the station to see what we were doing. The writers and the producers and John, they came through and he stood there and talked to me for quite a while. In fact, after he left, Dan Garfinkel said, I bet you that they’re going to have an artist in that movie, some cartoonist in there, doing the station’s mascot or something like that -- although they didn’t. But that was highly unusual. I used to say to people, friends, who would say, “What do you do?” I’d say, “I’m an artist for radio” and they went, “What?” But I haven’t seen the movie FM in a long time. I still have the vinyl soundtrack and it’s a great soundtrack. Of course, Steely Dan’s “FM,” that’s the title cut. I know the people from WKRP in Cincinnati came through there too, the TV show about radio. They came through there and a few others too, I guess, just to take notes and see how it was done.
Gorman: I'd have to block out a couple of hours at least, a week, to work on the Get Down with Murray Saul. Sometimes it would be only one day, sometimes it would be two days if we were having trouble putting it together. The Get Down sort of found its own way and had a format of sorts and we had to come up with a "slave driver" story and we had to come up with what's happening in current events locally and nationally. We would pick a different restaurant every week, in a different side of town. When we were really busy, we had our regular places we would go. I think that Jim's Steakhouse in the Flats probably was the place that we would meet at the most. We'd have a lunch and do the Get Down there. Murray would have a copy of the New York Times and the Plain Dealer. We would start from that. We would just start talking about things. From there, it would be, "Hey, that's it. Let's talk about that." Milton Maltz, who was the owner of 'MMS, he was a short guy who talked with a snarl. He was not a happy man. Milt actually was not the only, but probably the prime inspiration for the "slave driver" character. He never asked and we never told [him that it was based on him]. Most of those Get Downs either came from a news item or something that happened at the station. We would just run away with it -- Murray would come up with a line, I'd come up with a line and we'd put them all together and we'd edit them to see what worked. Most of them were cut live. The only time that they were actually recorded was if something was happening that Friday and we had to leave the station right away. Because the usual trend was that Murray would go out to his car, smoke a joint and this is when we were at 55th and Euclid where the Agora is today. That was a very rough neighborhood back then. But Murray would go to the car, smoke a joint, come back in and build to the Get Down and then we'd go on to the evening. So there was a regular routine there. There was one day that Murray did the usual thing [for his Get Down] and we wrapped everything up. We walked out to the parking lot and Murray said, "Where's my fucking car?" It turned out that Murray's car got stolen. And what was happening back then is that the parking lot we were in, everybody had a car stolen there at least once, or broken into. A week later, Murray says, "By the way, you haven't seen my car going around without me in it, have you?" That was the following week's Get Down.
Sanders: There were some wonderful shows that were done in the early studio period [of the Coffee Break Concerts]. Warren Zevon, I think it was one of his very first radio appearances. Poor Matt The Cat, he gets shit all of the time, because there’s bootlegs out all over the place with the Warren Zevon Coffee Break and Matt calls him Warren “Zeh-von.” Everybody gives him a lot of shit. I’ve seen it on the posting boards, you know, what’s the matter with him, why didn’t he know how to pronounce his name? My question was always, where was the record company guy with the prep? Zevon was completely unknown at the time. Matt, from what I understand, Warren came in and there was no bio prep. Usually there’s a prep done by the record company guy. Okay, here’s how you pronounce the name, here’s his background, here’s some things he wants to talk about. Here’s some things he doesn’t want to talk about. You know, it’s pre-interview prep with the record guy, usually. From what I understand, there was none and poor Matt was left hanging out to dry. So I think it’s very unfair, some of the shit that I see on the internet about that.
Shelley Stile: I remember that Zevon went through a bottle of tequila during the course of that Coffee Break.
Gorman: For that whole period of time, Matt The Cat was the perfect midday host. At a time when we were trying to get people to listen to 'MMS at work, Matt was absolutely...he's very soothing. He knew his audience. You couldn't find a better person on the air than Matt, to do that 10am to 2pm [shift]. When we went live with the Coffee Break Concerts, he was really a good interviewer. He was the guy who had to go up between the songs and pull something out of a lot of these bands that nobody ever heard of, but they'd be superstars a couple of years later. Matt could talk to anybody -- he could have David Johansen on one week and he could have Angus Young on another week. No matter what the genre was, he could handle it. Matt was one of a kind.
Sanders: Everyone was so uniquely talented. Betty Korvan was tough and sassy and one of the earlier female rock jocks, but unlike someone like Allison Steele in New York, she never tried to be sultry. After Betty, you will notice that women on Cleveland rock stations got away from that purring kitten stuff. That was Betty's influence. She loved the Rolling Stones and had two cats named Mick and Keith, as I recall. She later moved to Deadwood, South Dakota where she was on KSQY out there for many years and was quite popular.
Betty "Crash" Korvan: I had worked at the radio station at Cleveland State so I knew Matt the Cat, Kid Leo, Larry Bole and Flash. Flash said to make a tape for John [Gorman], and I did. I knew he liked Linda Ronstadt so I made sure I put that on there. That was 1973. I was on all nights for the first couple of years. People would have parties, especially on the weekends, so I tried to be a nice soundtrack for that. I had been a Stones fan. I saw them in the early 1970s at the Akron Rubber Bowl and Stevie Wonder opened for them. Somebody turned me onto Goat's Head Soup and then I realized there was more to the Stones than I ever thought. I played them a lot but being on the all-night show you could get away with playing longer, maybe jazzy tunes and live stuff. I liked to do that.
Shelley Stile: Betty was a complete and total rock and roll girl. She really liked heavy metal as well and she was very, very different. She had her own specific following. She did 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., so she was a night owl. Betty adored Jimmy Page. I had a really good friend who was head of promotions, a guy by the name of Danny Marcus, one of the greatest promotion men of all time. Anyhow, we were really good friends and Zeppelin was on tour. I believe that it was either '76 or '77. I went out with them for a week. It was just extraordinary. I was at Madison Square Garden with them. They were probably the most drug-fueled band I've ever been in contact with. When they came to Cleveland... I'm sure you've heard tales of Swingos and the debauchery that went on there. I called Betty up and I said, "Meet me at Swingos." She walked in and there's the band sitting around the table with me and Danny. I thought she was going to pee her pants. She was like, "Oh my God!" Not a groupie, you know what I mean? She didn't want anything to do with that. She was just in awe of Page. And then that weekend, we got Bonzo to completely destroy a hotel room. Because I made the mistake of saying, "Hey Bonzo, let's go wreck Danny's room." Which he proceeded to do in about 60 seconds. Swingos put up with that kind of shit -- televisions being thrown out windows and rooms being completely destroyed. I mean, did you see the movie Almost Famous? That whole hotel situation, that was Swingos, 100 percent.
Korvan: Shelley was the one who got me to meet Led Zeppelin. We were at Swingos, and Robert Plant came in and I melted. I just didn't think anyone could be that good looking up close. Being a guitar person, I wanted to meet Jimmy Page. After that, we went up to their room and Shelley and this record label guy were laying on a four-post bed. [Drummer] John [Bonham] walks in and takes the two bottom posts of the bed and rips them off and says, "I got me a new set of drumsticks!" That was incredible. I was just standing there with my mouth hanging open. That was one of the highlights. I didn't want to see anyone throwing TVs out of the window and there were a lot of groupies hanging around and everything started getting kinda plastic, so I went home to feed my cats.
Bash: I didn't want to play "Maggot Brain" in the first place. Except the first time I played it. I played it as an oldie. That's why I never played "Funhouse," because I figured it had already been played here, I mean, Detroit's next door. You know, I never played much MC5, except the third album, because I figured it deserved to be played. Funkadelic, I like "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts" better, because I think the guitar break is better. But for sheer psychedelia, you know, the old story is that George Clinton dosed the guitar player on LSD and told him, "Play the guitar like your mom just died!" [Laughs] So when he was coming on, he thought his mom had just died. I played that record when it first came out. I played it in Boston, Indianapolis, Tucson, so it was already old news to me. I figured that 'MMS had already played it. And I guess they probably hadn't played it that much. It was in the library. It looked like it had been handled numerous times. So I just played it one night, you know, "Here's a blast from the past." Moldy oldie, I just threw it in. The phones went crazy, "What is that?" I said, "That's 'Maggot Brain.'" "What's that?" I kind of leaned in and said, "You don't know what 'Maggot Brain' is? It's one of the greatest psychedelic pieces ever made. It's a great tune." It was a Saturday night. And then next Saturday, "Play 'Maggot Brain' again." Pretty soon, it was like, every other call, was [asking for] 'Maggot Brain." I didn't want to do it, but I said, "Okay, I've got a little cult starting here. You want a cult? I'll give you a cult! You're going to have to stay up until 3:30 to hear it! If they want it, they can stay up that late to hear it. Because this was Saturday night and I was going to be up all night anyway. I always loved ending that show, because man, by the time I was done on Saturday night, I was higher than a fucking kite and I always liked finishing the show with "Walking The Dog" by the Troggs. The way it ends, the guitar feedback stops and then they just all start laughing. It was funny as hell, man. But I started playing [“Maggot Brain”] at 3:30 and then after about three or four years, I just had a little twinge. I must have read one too many books on Buddhism or something. I became compassionate. So I said, "Okay, I'll play it at 1:30. They don't have to stay up half the night to listen to it.” So that's when that started. I probably played it more at 1:30 than I did at 3:30, but I hardass'ed them for a good two or three years. [Much later,] I got people really pissed off because Mike Watt did a helluva job on his solo album of "Maggot Brain," where he got Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic, playing organ in there. I knew I was going to leave the station and the organ had kind of a funeral dirge sound to it. So I said, "Man, I'm going to do my own funeral." That was like three or four years away. I didn't tell anybody, I said [to myself], this is perfect. And man, I get death threats! "You're not playing the right 'Maggot Brain!'"
Gorman: I can't say enough good things about Jules Belkin. He really knew the concert business and he really knew the audience. In those days, we spent a lot of time talking to one another. The reason the World Series of Rock shows went so well is that we'd have meetings in advance and Jules would say, "Okay, these are the bands that we can get." He'd ask about certain other new bands to fill in the blanks. Def Leppard was one of those cases. It was Def Leppard's first album and I think they were only 16 year old kids then. I remember that they were the youngest band I'd ever seen. The way that came about, he mentioned this Def Leppard band and I said, "Yeah, yeah, we're playing them," so he said, "Okay, I'll put them in." Scorpions was another and it was the first date they played in the U.S. When I met the band, they couldn't speak English. They could sing in English, but they couldn't speak it. What really made those World Series of Rock shows work was that it was a mix of superstars, mid-level acts and up and coming. I remember the first time when Jules [got in touch with us], he said, "Art Modell just cut the new deal with the city for the Stadium and he was looking for any way he could make some extra money besides the football games. Jules proposed doing [these shows]. They were the largest enclosed rock concerts in the country at the time when they started. I think the reason that it ran its course is that it got too successful and [the thought was,] let's stop it while it's successful. Because the World Series of Rock wasn't just attracting greater Cleveland, it was attracting Detroit, Buffalo, Erie, Indianapolis, you name it. There were a lot of people and the Cleveland audiences were great. There was very little problems at most concerts. I don't care how hard rock they were, you know, most concerts went off without a hitch. I think as the World Series of Rock shows evolved, you did have a lot of people coming in from other cities that were a little rowdier and a little crazier. I think it was probably a good idea to end them before something bad happened.
Sanders: We had a wonderful staff. Jeff's professionalism and Flash's nuttiness and news chops was perfect for the morning, Matt had a sincerity and likability that great for mid day, Kid Leo was second to none as an interviewer and music trend spotter -- just look at what he is doing with Underground Garage which is fantastic! Betty Korvan was tough and sassy and Bill "B.L.F." Freeman who was from another planet! It really was a hell of a lineup and there were very few changes for many years, unheard of today, so we all became part of the fabric of Cleveland, which was a great honor. Don't forget Dia [Stein] who was a real pro and props have to go to Ruby Cheeks, Shelly Stile, Charlie Kendall, Steve Lushbaugh, David Spero, TR, the one and only Murray Saul and of course the voice of God himself Len "Boom Boom" Goldberg. Also, you have to give major credit to behind the scenes folks like Dan Garfinkel and Jim Marchyshyn in the Marketing Department, Frank Foti and Steve Church in engineering, our wonderful staff artist, David Helton and John's executive assistant Rhonda Kiefer. And of course John Gorman, who was the Lorne Michaels of the operation.
1978-1987 The Heyday and Campaigning for the Rock Hall
Denny Sanders: The mid-'70s to mid-'80s were really the classic days. We had ratings that nobody could touch. We had 11, 12, 13, 14 shares of total audience. You don't see numbers like that today. The highest ratings you'll see today is maybe a 10. And that's during Christmas when a station is playing Christmas music. At one point, at the height of the station's fame -- you have to remember there's 1.7 million people in metropolitan Cleveland --we had a regular audience of almost 700,000, which meant that one in three people in the entire metropolitan area listened to the station. It was that dominating.
Gorman: [During the mid-'80s], out of the blue one day, I got a call from Eddie Spizel, who had had an agency in Cleveland. He had moved to San Francisco where he created a successful ad agency. I was wondering why he was calling me. He started talking about how Bill Graham was building a Rock Hall near Ghirardelli Square. It would be a tribute to the bands that made rock 'n roll but it's all the San Francisco. He was yelling at me about how rock 'n' roll started in Cleveland, and it should be there. He said, "You need to do something about this." The first thing that came to mind was Atlantic Records. I met [founder] Ahmet Ertegun, but I didn't know him. We were good friends with Tunc Erim. He was one of Ahmet's right hand people. He loved coming to Cleveland because we were breaking all this music for him. Roxy Music was on his label. When they played Cleveland, they would play Public Hall. In other cities, they would play small halls. We talked to him about the Rock Hall of Fame idea, and he took it to Ahmet. Tunc says Ahmet had only one thing to say. He said, "What will Cleveland do to get the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?" I said, "If you build it in New York, it's just another building. If you build it in Cleveland, it will be the most important building in the city." The next call was made to George Voinovich, who was the mayor at the time, and Dick Celeste, who was the governor. We pitched it by talking about this huge audience we had. If you had told me back then that it was going to happen, I wouldn't have believed it. The only disappointment I have is that Eddie Spizel and Tunc don't get the credit they deserve.
Ferenc: There was a concerted effort to bring the Rock Hall to Cleveland. WMMS led the drive because Cleveland sold more records per capita than any other city. We heard a poll was coming out in USA Today, and we got the phone number you could call. It was 50 cents for a call. We hit the ground running. Being No. 1, everyone copied us. The other radio TV stations and radio stations did the same thing. We pounded that sucker. They had to take Cleveland because we blew the phones up. The Rock Hall wouldn't be there if it weren't for WMMS. I'm not alone in saying that. [CEO] Greg Harris at the Rock Hall will even tell you that.
Sanders: As we got into the '80s and we played Prince and Michael Jackson -- we got a lot of shit for playing Michael Jackson. I remember an interview, somebody said, "Why are you playing Michael Jackson?" And I said, "Well, bear in mind that Eddie Van Halen did probably the hottest set of guitar licks that I've heard him do in a long time on 'Beat It.' Mick Jagger recorded with him on 'State of Shock.' [Paul] McCartney recorded with him. What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to blank out the Michael Jackson vocals?" [Laughs] C'mon, get with it! Every party I'd go to, there they were playing Michael Jackson. You know, you're not going to play Foreigner block parties in the middle of the whole musical revolution. And our signature, the WMMS signature in those days, was always staying abreast of current music. So we played Michael Jackson. Now, when we played Michael Jackson and Prince and Culture Club and some of the newer cutting edge acts like Depeche Mode, OMD and Psychedelic Furs, Thompson Twins and stuff like that, we made sure we had a Rolling Stones or J. Geils Band [song] after it, so that you weren't really stressing the audience too much. You're not going to break music to a handful of aficionados. You're going to break music to the masses and the only way to reach the masses is to have a commercial service and the only way to have a commercial service is to realize the patience of the audience is limited. So you've got to know how to do it, and we were very successful and I'm very proud of those days.
Bash: I didn't give a rat's ass. To me, it was just going back to the old Top 40 days. What's the difference between playing Michael Jackson and "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'?" Or some little kid singing like he's trying to seduce some woman. Michael Jackson, that little squealy voice that he had. He had a perfect voice, but the Jackson Five, you know? I love Motown, but the Jackson Five, I thought, "Uh, I'll stick with Marvin Gaye." So to me, it was kind of getting back to basics, you know, sink or swim. You've got to deal with the reality of the times. I had no problem with that. I dug it. And then when Prince hit, I love Prince, because he knew his way around a guitar and he came out of a very healthy music scene in Minneapolis. If I could play Prince, I sure as hell could play the Replacements, Husker Du and all of the rest of them. That opened a little door for me at night, because I could do the Minneapolis thing. I relished it. But, I couldn't go into the station and turn backflips up and down the hall, "Hooray, we're playing Michael Jackson!" Because it would not have been politically correct. It was grudgingly accepted by some of the gentry of the station. You know, the funny thing is, I don't give a damn what bad rap the station took. That's when we were King Kong. I don't give a damn if we filled out ballot sheets for Rolling Stone Magazine. Any other station did too. They just didn't admit it and we beat 'em at their own damn game, man.
1988-1994 The Party's Over
Sanders: John [Gorman] and I left in 1986. Partly because Malrite Communications, which owned the radio station, partly because of the revenue generated by WMMS, was able to expand into other cities. They ended up in New York with Z100 and they ended up in L.A. with a country music station and a few other markets. And then they decided that they needed a national program director. The headquarters of the company, of course, were in Cleveland. Well, they brought in this guy and I won't mention his name, who was the national program director. He came in and the first thing he did was start screwing with WMMS. I remember John and I and others saying to him, "What's the matter with you? This is a successful radio station!" He said, "This isn't supposed to work!" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, you're playing Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne and you're playing the Pretenders and the next minute, you're playing Bob Marley and the Wailers and then you're playing the Average White Band and you're all over the place!" I said, "But it works, please, don't touch it. We're never going to be able to create this thing ever again."
Ferenc: When Gorman left, Kid Leo pretty much took over. But when Kid Leo left in 1988, things started to unravel. Gorman had to leave because of corporate meddling. Once they realized what a monster was created, not by them, they got their hands in it. Everyone was coming after it and there was no such thing as classic rock at the time, and WNCX came on in 1987 or 1988 and capitalized on the music that we had broke. [John] Lanigan didn't call it the Zoo, but he built up his morning show. It was great to have competition, but in the late '80s, you saw the wheels coming off the train. When we moved in 1991 or 1992, we knew they were dressing it up to sell the station. When it was sold, it was sold to one group and then to another. What happened to radio is what happened to every small business in America that was making a lot of money. The mom and pop hardware store became Lowe's or Home Depot. The corner pharmacy became Walgreens or CVS. All that mattered was money.
- Photo courtesy Billy Bass
- Kid Leo and Billy Bass.
Michael Luczak: Everybody was caught up in the house of cards where they were just buying and selling [radio stations]. Jeff and Flash had been there 20 years or whatever. I'm sure they thought they were going to be there until they were 60 too. It was a shock to the system.
Kinzbach: It was funny. It wasn't like anyone came to town and beat us. The organization made mistakes and shot themselves in the foot. A key person would leave a key position. Instead of filling with someone locally who was qualified, they'd bring someone in from another part of the country. Sometimes, they wouldn't replace a person who left to save some money.
Mike Olszewki: Jeff and Flash were incredibly successful. I remember at one point, they had a 20 share in the morning. A 20 share out of 22 stations! And they were disappointed when they went to 18. It was amazing. The thing that surprised me the most about that was that they were so easy to work with. Because you're thinking, wait a minute, these guys have been doing this now for 15 years. You would think, huge egos and stuff like that. Hey, if you're one of the soldiers, you were their friend. If you were one of the guys, we're all in this together. We're a team together.
Luczak: I liked the fact that Jeff and Flash had strong ratings, they had been together and they were signed up for another five years or something. Just leave these guys alone and things should be okay. It wasn't like I was getting in there to say, "Man, you oughta do this," because I had some cockamamie idea about how I thought the morning show could sound. I more or less said, "This is what I inherited and it's pretty good." When you talk about the demise of the 'MMS morning show, it was Howard Stern. Cleveland was the fifth market that he went into and I remember at the time, [John] Chaffee told me to do some research. They had a research department at corporate, so I was able to get the ratings books from New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles. I looked at what the Howard Stern station did against the rock station that they were attacking. In his first syndication days, he was always on rock stations and he was always going against an established heritage type of station. These books are almost like carbon copies of each other. Stern would get there and after six months to a year, he's number one in the market. If the heritage station had a 10 share and the Stern station had a two, after a year's time, it would be flipped. That was what really killed 'MMS.
Ric "Rocco" Bennett: Luczak had a vision for what he wanted out of the night show. There was actually a thing down in Texas called Outlaw Radio, which was the flavor he wanted. We would have a pre-show meeting and he would give me things that he thought I should do and we'd go over the day before. It was like a morning show as far as entertainment value goes, because I had something going pretty much every 15 to 30 minutes. That was Gonzo Radio, it was unpredictable and my time spent listening was off the chain. That was because of things like, BOOM, here's a six pack from Judas Priest. I had that going. And I had major comedians coming through. Ron White, Jeff Foxworthy, you know, these guys who went on to be famous were coming through at night, because it was easier for them and a lot of times, Jeff and Flash had a full schedule and they didn't want to deal with comedians.
Rich Cain: It was 1990 or 1991 and I was at broadcasting school and they asked me if I would like an interview for an internship at WMMS. I thought I had died and got on the rock and roll train. I got set up to come in and meet Boom. Damn, I’m nervous, after all, here’s one of my heroes. I’m sitting in a room about ready to poop my pants and in walks this huge man with the big gravelly voice. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, it’s him.” He had on bib overalls and I was so intimidated. But I was going to get this internship. He starts talking and asking me questions about myself. I was just trying to answer them intelligently. He says, “Are you punctual?” I looked at him, dumbfounded, and said, “Of course, I can read and write.” At that moment, he looked at me baffled. I looked at him and said, “Oh shit, I blew it.” We both started laughing and I got the position. I answered phones for Rocco and did all the things interns do. My first night there, I’ll never forget it. I was so proud. Dammit, I’m working on Gonzo Radio and I’m answering every line that lit up. This was at the Statler Office Tower. I feel someone behind me tapping me on the shoulder. I hold my finger up to signal to hang on. I finish my call and turn around. Eddie Money is standing there, “Hey man, are you Rocco?”
Luczak: The end of my time there, I never knew what was going to happen. There was always going to be a surprise and usually it was bad. I think I shared that feeling with a lot of the staff, because we just didn't know what was going to happen tomorrow. It wasn't like Walt had come in as the new GM and said, "Okay, we're Shamrock now, we're going to invest a hundred thousand dollars in our TV campaign and we're going to take this kind of position and we're going to dominate the market again." They were just treading water and just hanging onto it. What do they call it? Pump and dump. Shamrock saw the call letters, they saw the heritage station and they saw a station with decent ratings. Stern signed on in '92, but I don't think the ratings really showed until the end of '93. That's when it got pretty bad. Chuck Bortnick, the guy who hired me, was gone. Chuck's boss and my boss on the music side, John Chaffee, he was gone, because Malrite said goodbye. You didn't have that comfort of knowing that if you've got a problem, you can walk down the hall and talk to the top guys and they'd help you work it out. We didn't know the top guys and they didn't know us. All I wanted to do was hang onto my job and continue to be the program director and live and grow old in Cleveland. But there's no way I could have predicted the future. It's really kind of sad. Carl Hirsch, he lied to me. He said I was going to be there and that I'd have a job. My contract expired at the end of December in 1993 and I took a few days off for Christmas and New Year's. I came back in, the first day back, Walt calls me into his office and says, "Well, Omni is taking over and they don't want to retain you. So here's two week's severance and we'll see you later." That was really fucked up. But you know what? It wasn't like it was only happening at 'MMS. That was going on at 50 rock stations across the country.
1994-1997 The Next Generation
Bennett: We were being sold and we knew to who. The devil was back and an excruciating two weeks of interviews went on. People waited for the death march to be called over to the 'MJI building. There were those of us, Jeff, Lisa [Dillon], yours truly, we were never called over to be talked to. I'm trying to remember, but it had to be about 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday or Friday. Gorman showed up in the lobby with a cart rack and a bunch of kids. I was like, I guess I gotta go now. And that's how I was fired after eight years of service. It was my pleasure, you know, I wouldn't have changed a thing, but what a fucked up way to go out. But I've got to give [Gorman] credit, because he and Denny [Sanders] created....they made me. I was also lucky enough during my engineering time there to have one of my best friends in the world, the late Mike "Mondo" Knisely, as my assistant chief engineer. I was at my dream job, with my best friend, doing what I lived and breathed. And they paid me. I felt like I was stealing every day! I'm glad 'MMS is 50. It's not the same. It can't be. And who would want it to be?
Gorman: There were some great talented people involved with the Next Generation. Among them, Brian and Joe (who moved from The End, WENZ), Lou Santini, Jennifer Wylde, and Sue Tyler. And, for some reason, the station gained popularity in Canada - and we had steady listeners from Windsor, Chatham and London, Ontario, which could pick up the station's signal. And some of the on-air talent and the BuzzardFest concerts at Blossom were covered by MuchMusic, the MTV of Canada at the time.
Mitch Todd: I remember the very, very awkward day that we were going to flip the format. I had to very awkwardly walk into the studio about 2:30, because I think they were going to flip it at 3, something like that. I had a big handful of carts with all of the new imaging. I remember Rocco was on the air and I didn't' know Rocco, I just knew of him. I walked in and I said, "Hey man, I'm Mitch, I'm over at Majic, I'm the imaging guy, how's it going?" He said, "How the fuck do you think it's going?" And I'm like, okay, I just need to very quietly put some carts in here and hopefully not get into a fistfight. I said, "Look, man, I know it's awkward, this is really weird, I'm just working for here, I'm just doing my job, dude." It was emotional, because there were people that were losing their job.
Joe Cronauer: It was May of 1994 and our two year contract at 107.9 The End was up in July. Ownership of WMMS changed and so did most of the staff of the Buzzard. Jeff and Flash were no more and they brought in Ross Brittain from New York to take mornings until they found a permanent show. I don’t ever remember Brian or myself ever praying, daydreaming, or wishing to work at WMMS, it was unthinkable that two local guys from Parma could get a gig like that. (Of course, God had other plans.) My wife’s cousin, Frank Foti, a brilliant engineer genius who used to work with WMMS and other Malrite stations including Z100 in New York City, called me up and said management at MMS wanted to speak with Brian and myself in a private, discreet place. It’s wild thinking back to that. It’s like fishing from a boat and waiting for a nibble then…WHAM! You get this legendary fish...BUZZARD on the hook and you don’t want to lose it! You don’t even enjoy the process! You don’t savor it! You reel it in as fast as you can, right? You just want to land it before it changes its mind! Next thing you know, we’re at Barnacle Bills in Lakewood and we met in a dark booth next to the lobster tank (private and discreet right?) They told us that they wanted us to come to work with them. Both Brian and I truly appreciated what The End did for us – bringing us back to our hometown, from WAZU in Dayton, giving us a stage to perform on every morning, and though the signal was not the strongest on the dial, we managed to gain a lot of new listeners. It was obvious that The End wasn’t thinking of retaining us - with less than 5 weeks on our contract, so we were upfront with The End’s GM and told him after July, we’re moving on. He asked us to “keep it quiet” to the staff until after Memorial Day and we agreed. So Monday, Memorial Day, May 30th, 1994, my phone started ringing -- or maybe my beeper/pager started going off -- with friends and family telling me it was all over the news that The End wasn’t renewing our contract due to “creative differences!” Really? We’re trying to be pros! WMMS instructed us to say nothing to the press -- tough to do when your current employer claims they’re breaking up with you! WMMS called us to the station and we were met with ‘MMS management and Janet Macoska, world famous rock and roll photographer, and now a dear friend -- who took pictures of us signing contracts with bags over our heads with me in a t-shirt with a giant “J” on it and Brian with a “B” on his shirt. By mid-July, after the Buzzard and The End worked out the legal stuff and the non-compete mumbo jumbo, Brian and Joe we’re doing mornings on WMMS. Who’da thunk it? (Besides God, of course.)
Todd: I got to meet Len Goldberg, of course. I had met him earlier, because we were doing the imaging. He was the voice for the top of the hour [legal IDs]. That led to my famous sweeper -- I was coaching Len and I was trying to get him to say “Cleveland” a certain way. And you heard me on the talkback system, talking to him, “I need more punch on Cleveland!” Well, this is before he knew me and we were just starting. He goes, “Listen, I’ve been saying Cleveland for 22 fucking years. You’re not changing Cleveland, that’s a signature.” And you hear me go, “Okay, go ahead.” The funny part that was not really told was that after about 10 more minutes, I got the take I wanted. It took him about 10 more minutes to get there. Well, very shortly after that, we became really good friends. I’d be hanging at his house and we were hanging out together a lot and partying. That was a classic moment. I made a sweeper out of it and it was kind of positioned that he beat me up or whatever, but it really wasn’t. The real story is that I was just trying to get a certain take and put a new twist on it. It was a very sad day when he passed away.
Jennifer Wylde: I've got to give props to Lisa Rodman, who found my tape at the bottom of a shoebox. I came in there with some cocky attitude, because I didn't know any better back then. You know, I didn't realize I was standing in front of John Gorman. I was this cocky 22-year-old kid. He's like, "What's your favorite band?" I go, "Red Hot Chili Peppers, they have a new album out." So that's how I got hired at WRQK. He was the consultant there at that time. I was not at 'RQK for too long and then he brought me over to WMMS. It was a dream come true, because obviously, being a Cleveland girl, growing up in Cleveland and listening to 'MMS, it was so surreal. Especially B.L.F Bash coming in after me and how many nights in high school did I listen to him?
Todd: Gorman was a master at spotting talent, sometimes diamonds in the rough, and hiring them and developing them. Jennifer Wylde is a great example of that. She became pretty successful down in Miami. He would pursue people. He chased me for a year before I came to work for him. I think working with John was probably the crux of the heart of the fun of the whole thing, because he made it fun. He was definitely the ringleader of this nuthouse. All of these different talents kind of came together through him. And we made history there, I think, honestly. I mean, I don't want to romanticize it too much, but that was a talked-about station for years, nationally.
Sue Tyler: I was working at Jammin' 92 doing overnights. A girl kept calling the request lines and it was Jennifer Wylde. She was working nights at WRQK and she lived in Solon. She must have called every night, more than once. She kept telling me that I needed to come work for The Buzzard, that John Gorman was going to reinvent the Buzzard and he was building a new station and that I should come work with them. I told her that there was no way John Gorman was going to hire me. But she set up an interview between me and John. He told me that he had listened to my tape and that he had already filled all of the part-time slots, but he really did want me to work with them, so he offered me swing, so I would do weekends and fill-ins. Obviously, I took it, but I had to actually work under two names.I needed the money, so I didn't want to quit Jammin' 92. On Jammin' 92, I was Shannon Steele. John said, "Well, now we have to give you a new name." He asked me who my favorite artist was, and that was Steven Tyler. He said, "Okay, your last name's Tyler, what's your middle name?" I said, "Sue." He said, "There you are, you're Sue Tyler. I became Sue Tyler and I worked five nights a week on Jammin' 92 as Shannon Steele and two days a week on 'MMS as Sue Tyler, until I got busted by my PD at Jammin', who told me I either had to quit my full-time with him, or quit 'MMS. So I quit my full-time job, because I wanted to work for John and I believed in what he was doing at 'MMS.
- Photo by Janet Macoska
- Phil Collins at WMMS in 1980.
Wylde: You know, I just heard her on the air and even though it was Top 40, I liked her sound. There's something about Sue Tyler and I -- we're just soulmates. I heard her and said, "She's got to be on our team. What's she doing over there? Why's she talking about Tevin Campbell, "Can We Talk," you know? Because I know that this girl doesn't want to be playing that record. She got there on her own merits and her own talents. But I definitely would call her when she was on the air and be like, "Oh my God, you've got to be with us!"
Steven “Spoony” Nicola: I came in there in 1994. It was shortly after Brian and Joe started on the air there. One of the things that I remember when I first came into the station was all of the records all over the walls. All of the history from that station, all of the gold and platinum albums, they were part of that. They made that happen for all of those artists with the airplay that they gave them and to me, I was in awe, every time I walked up and down those halls. I used to love working the overnights, because no one else was around. I could put on a long song or something like that and I could just walk the halls and just look at all of the records. I would take it all in every time that I was there. I loved it. The nostalgia and everything of all of those awards on the wall, to this day, I think about it. It’s like, this station was a part of making these bands big.
Cronauer: Long before Brian and I were radio partners, we were friends. We met in neighboring high schools in Parma. Brian went to Valley Forge , I went to Normandy. We became really good friends during college (Ohio University) and started doing stand-up comedy at the open mic nights at the Cleveland Comedy Club and at Hilarities in Cuyahoga Falls. We became best friends when we started working together as the morning team at WONE 97.5 in Akron. From the very beginning I was a big fan of Brian. He made and makes me laugh more than anyone in my life. For every “funny” thing we ever did on the air, there are hundreds of moments off the air and throughout our lives. There’s not many people in entertainment/media that can say they worked with their best friend for over 23 years. I have been blessed for sure.
Lou Santini: I was at Rock 107 and John was getting things organized at the Next Generation at WMMS. He called me before my shift. I started off part-time at Rock 107 and then full-time overnights and I really made my bones 7 to midnight, where I built my audience. Eventually, I got moved to afternoon drive. He couldn’t quite tell me exactly what he was doing and I wasn’t getting it. He said, “We’re making some changes up here at ‘MMS, why don’t you send me a tape?” I remember saying something like, “Alright, yeah, okay, I’ll get right on that.” A week or so went by and he called me again and he goes, “Hey, I never got your tape.” I said, “Oh, yeah, sorry -- I’ve been real busy here.” I was doing a lot of personal appearances for Rock 107, plus i had a side business emceeing at private events and stuff on my own. At that time, I was kind of thinking, not that I was going to quit radio or anything, but just, how do I approach this? How do I get to the next level? So a third week goes by and John calls me up and says, “Look, you pretty much have the job, but I can’t officially hire you until you send me a tape!” So I remember that I said, “Okay, I will do it. I promise.” I love John and I didn’t have a problem with John Gorman. I didn’t really have a problem with anyone at Rock 107 -- I just simply wasn’t getting paid a lot. I was getting kind of burned out and I’d never worked a job where I had gotten burned out before. I still loved the fans and the listeners and stuff, but I’m like, geez, I always quit jobs because something better came along and here I am getting disenfranchised. So even though John basically offered me the gig, I was kind of reluctant, because I was living in Canton.
Todd: For a production guy, [the radio wars were] a lot of fun. John Gorman is a spin master and he was great at coming up with funny ways of directly attacking the competition. First, it was The End, and then we ended up stealing Brian and Joe from there. Then it was 'NCX, [with] Doug or "Drug" Podell, as we used to call him. He wasn't mean-spirited. Sometimes later it got that way with other people in other markets I worked in. He said, "You know, it's just like lawyers, they're in court all day, they're on the opposite side of the fence, they're at each other's throats, but at the end of the day, they all have a beer across the street at the same pub and laugh about it." We didn't quite have that camaraderie with the competition, I mean, it was probably a little tenser than that. But we didn't take it seriously. We were just having fun. I think just in the nature of the creativity that John particularly led, we got under their skin. And we beat them.
Tyler: The sound of the station was so full and balls to the wall. It was so fun to listen to and it was so fun to hear them do production, like "Where the Music Means Something," taking on 'NCX with the "Jurassic Rock" thing and John just loved to get them where it hurt. We had such a huge feud [with WNCX]. John made us feel like we were the gladiators that owned the world. He was the greatest at giving pep talks to a station and giving us hope for the future.
Wylde: It was just a magical time. Because also remember, the music was changing so much too. I don't know how Tommy Lee had our hotline, but we did some promotion with Motley Crue. Gorman didn't want to do it, because we're phasing out the hair bands. That's just not what the Next Generation was about anymore. I remember Tommy calling and being like, "Why won't anybody play our records anymore?" He was like, crying. I wanted to be like, "Because you're a friggin' hair band and hair bands are out!" Still, me being an '80s chick, I thought it would be awesome to interview Tommy. So I had him on reel, and I was interviewing him. Gorman wouldn't let me air the interview, so I had to pretend to interview Tommy! [Laughs] I went through the whole interview on reel and I couldn't tell him that I wasn't allowed to air it!
Todd: We called it The Next Generation, obviously, after the Star Trek thing, because that had just come out then. You know, there was a tie to the past, Boom, yet we were in the future with Keith and the modern approach. You've got to remember, we were kind of reinventing what alternative production sounded like. Eventually, everybody copied that style. But we were figuring it out on our own. Because Z100 was more CHR, of course. Here, we were really doing a mashup of alternative and rock. It was a hybrid format, which was really, really unique and cool. The Next Generation was a unique span of time for that legendary station. It was a second wind, I think. Before the wind just kind of died out of the sails completely. And then Nationwide Communications bought it, and it became part of Clear Channel [later] and went to hell after that.
1997-2003 Active Rock, Talk Radio
Bob Neumann: I was there from 1996 through 1998. I came from programming WNCX and WENZ across the street. Looking back, it's always easy to troubleshoot the decisions made. The decision to take the station active rock was the right decision in the long run. It's still active rock, 20 years later. Perhaps our formula was not quite right, but let's not forget that alternative took a huge hit as a format just a few years later, which drove many heritage alt stations out of the format like WBCN Boston, and K-Rock NYC, the home of Howard Stern at that time. The decision was based on research, pure and simple. WNCX had the lock on Classic Rock and with Howard as the morning show, who wants to be the second classic rock station without Howard? The company wanted to gather more 25 to 54[-year-old] persons, which alternative as a format was not delivering. I can't comment on our first morning attempt. I believe our second attempt was a good one. I brought Danny Czekalinski, a true Cleveland guy and one of the most talented morning guys I've worked with in my nearly 40-year career, back to his hometown and paired him up with Darla Jaye, Cory Gallant and D.C.
Cory Gallant: I was on mornings on WMMS from 1997 until 1999 as Cory Lingus, first with The Liz Wilde Show as one of her on-air sidekicks and writers and then later as part of the more successful [ratings-wise] Danny, Daria & Cory Show. I had come from a smaller market in Maryland doing mornings as the lead for a local rock station. Liz and I had been friends for years. While the Danny, Darla & Cory Show was like a crazy fun family, the Liz Wilde Show was a organized dysfunctional family. Lots of talent and originality on that show but little leadership and direction which sadly resulted in its short run on WMMS. This included the little known fact of me punching out Liz’s other sidekick, Sly, during a commercial break while we were live in the air. He was an a-hole. [Laughs]
Neumann: If you remember, Metallica was the biggest rock band on the planet at that time. I wanted to get them to help us kick off the format change. It was a phone call to Cliff Burnstein, the big guy at Q Prime Management. I asked him flat out if they would do it. There were stipulations. One was that we couldn’t share the recording of the show with any other radio stations. I agreed and he did it as a favor to the station. We paid a nominal fee. Other radio stations around the country sent reporters to Cleveland to cover the show and record our live broadcast. That came back to bite me in the ass as a station in Chicago aired the broadcast and Cliff was pissed! During the concert, James Hetfield dropped quite a few f-bombs and Dan Morris from Nationwide Communications, our owner, wanted me to go on stage and tell James to stop swearing. I told him it would only make things worse.
Danny Czekalinski: I was in Kansas City anchoring morning drive at Mix 93.3. Everyone flew into Kansas City, but Cleveland will always be home, so it was a no-brainer for me to come home to the station I grew up listening to. I knew the market having grown up there so I knew all the past nuances in the history of the city. It was a blue-collar edition of Seinfeld. There weren't any secrets [on the show with Darla Jaye and Cory Gallant]. Everyone lived their lives on the radio. The day my belongings were being loaded into a moving truck, Nationwide sold the company to Jacor, so everyone knew that a lot of us would not make the cut when new management took over. In my opinion, the show and station never had a chance since the new guys were gonna want to put their team in place. Bob Neumann was great. He was a coach and only offered advice and never insisted we do this or we do that. Even though he knew he was most likely living on borrowed time he never mentioned it or let it show. By far the best Program Director I have ever worked for. Bob and Spaceman [Scott Hughes] were great being the buffers between the morning show and the sales department. They made a great team and always had our backs. I have no doubt that we would have enjoyed great success if Jacor didn't blow up the show.
Denny Sanders: In 1998, I did a 30th Anniversary Special for WMMS. I was programming WMJI, their sister station, at the time and they wanted me to come over and do something. I told them that I would produce something for them, but one condition: I could play anything that I wanted. They agreed! This may be the very last time that many of these songs were ever heard on a commercial station in Cleveland. It ran once and has never been rerun. This is the first time in 20 years that it has been heard.
Tony Tilford: I started at 'MMS in the winter of 1999, Feb. 1, I think. Jacor had purchased the station, and they were going to give it another go as a full-on rock station. I was working in Lexington, Kentucky, at the time, and they called and asked if I would be interested. Of course, I replied yes, and we set a date for me to come up to Cleveland and interview. The first thing I did after I hung up the phone was throw up. I was a bit in shock and, I guess, nerves, and adrenaline and whatever took over. Someone had just asked me if I wanted to program WMMS. Honestly, at the time, I think throwing up was the appropriate response. Yes, the station had lost its way for a bit, but 'MMS was the standard. There were other really good rock stations around, but those other stations opted in to carry the live broadcast of the 'MMS birthday show. That's how big 'MMS was. Other stations carried their birthday show. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis... they ran another station's birthday party.
- Photo by Janet Macoska
- Starship free concert 1987.
Rick Eberhart: I came there in the fall of '99 with the Dick Dale Show. Dick called me and said, "Hey, they want to talk to us in Cleveland, Ohio. Some guy named Tony Tilford called and they want to fly us up there. We're not going to get the job or anything, but it's a good reason to take a weekend, they'll wine us and dine us, we can see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." I'm like, "Yeah, whatever, I'll do it!" We go up there and under the cover of night, they sneak us into the radio station. They had this guy named Matt Harris [doing mornings at that time]. They snuck us into the night and Seth [the Barbarian] was there. Tony Tilford was like, "Yeah, these are my cousins from Florida. I'm just showing them around."
Tilford: Dick was probably the most talented on-air talent I worked with when I was there. I remember they did an interview with Vince Neil one time. They pretended like they were just two dorky kids in a basement, and spent three minutes asking him if he liked cats, what his favorite kind of cat was, what his cat's name was, and other goofy shit about cats. Listening to Vince Neil try and figure out what the hell was going on, and then trying to answer questions about cats, it sounds dumb, but it was crazy funny. It's a shame that real life got in the way. That show may very well have worked. After that we brought in Wolf and Mulrooney from Albany. Somebody in the Ivory Tower had this crazy idea that they could do a live show in two markets at the same time. Not syndication mind you, but two live shows. One segment would be content that could run in both markets, then a 20-minute segment for Cleveland, and then a 20-minute segment for Albany, repeat. That sounded about as good as you might think it did. Those guys lasted less than a year, and it was some sort of high-level drama with them every week. Including a time when they were in the smoke room during a break -- you could still smoke in the building back then. Apparently one of them tried to put out a cigarette in the other's eye. I did not see it happen, but that was the story, and it had some serious credibility. Yet another short lived failed experiment. This is when I tried the Maxwell/Deke experiment. In retrospect, they were probably right to steer me away from that show. I love both those guys, but [Maxwell] had yet to achieve the level of maturity he currently enjoys, and the only reason I was able to bring Deke up from Cincinnati is because he got himself into some sort of high-level trouble with management.
Cousin Deke: It was such a different time back then -- long nights and late hours -- and working on a deadline with equipment that wasn't anything like we have today. It was a cool place to walk into -- obviously it had the history and the clout -- but I was also coming in from WEBN, who, arguably at the time, had even more of that going on. 'EBN was a year older and hadn't almost been killed off. I do remember being shocked at how small the staff was. It seemed like they'd pared things down going into that format flip that never happened and never got around to re-staffing the place.
Tom Megalis: I was at MMS from like 2002 to 2004. We had a revolving crazy door of a show. Cousin Deke, then Rocko [of Boston radio duo Rocko and Birdsey] and then Rick [Eberhart]. I was doing some guest appearance stuff at WDVE in Pittsburgh when Gene Romano there said, "Hey, wanna do your crazy characters in Cleveland at WMMS?" I was like, The Buzzard?" I grew up in Warren, so me and the Buzzard go way back. Then, I got to work with the dynamic duo of Jim Trapp and Kevin Metheny.[Post-Rocko], oddly enough, just when it looked like we were catching some traction and people were responding, Kevin [Metheny] walks me into his office and says, "Funny show today. But I'm afraid our experiment has ended." So out the door we all went.
2003- Present The Alan Cox and Rover Era
Tilford: We almost brought Maxwell in [to WMMS in the early '00s]. I had known him, as Pawley, from his days at WEBN. After he was let go in Tampa and moved back to Cincinnati, I brought him up and put him on air with Cousin Deke for a week. I was trying to pair them up for the morning show. The powers that be felt it was too toxic a combination. I think it was that they both had a complete disregard for authority. They felt that the team would be uncontrollable. I told them that I liked managing the crazy ones, and that the two of them would listen to me. They told me I was nuts for wanting a headache like that, and passed. Fast forward to a short time later, I take a job in Dayton and when I get there, Maxwell is part time doing the 3 to 7 Saturday shift. Cleveland starts talking to him again, and [Kevin] Metheny hires him to come up.
Deke: The Maxwell story is just crazy -- I'm still bitter about that. We could've had a great show, but Tilford never asked anyone permission before he gave us that tryout. They didn't even care that we'd clicked so well and had such a good time doing it. They wouldn't even listen to the tapes of it.
- Photo courtesy John Gorman
- Left to Right: Ed “Flash” Ferenc, John Gorman, Jeff Kinzbach, Gov. Dick Celeste, Ruby Cheeks.
Bo Matthews: I had been working for the company that owned WMMS in a different city. It was funny the way it worked. I mentioned WMMS by name at the time when I was getting ready to sign a contract in Jacksonville. I said I would love to get back there to program that station. I think it was like a week later when they called me and said there was an opportunity. I was over the moon, but when I got there I realized [the station] had been the unfortunate victim of a lot of change over the years and changes with the morning shows where nothing had caught on. It was also trying to find its identity and what it stood for. The heritage had been beat up, so you couldn't get by being the Buzzard. I hired a morning show that didn't work.
Cristi (Cantle) Johnson: A record rep, Howard from Atlantic Records, put a bug in our ear when he found out that 'MMS was looking for a morning show. They were interested because they had heard about the success Sean [Kelly], Hunter [Scott] and I had in Michigan. There was a lot that [Bo Matthews] and I didn't see eye to eye on, but even when my own partners tried to throw me under the bus, he consistently had my back. Our show fell apart internally & was replaced by the Bob and Tom Show. Our failure was a real team effort, and we never worked together again, but if I'm being real honest, I was the Johnny Manziel of the crew. Too young, too overconfident and too drunk to handle the responsibility that was given to me. However I have no intention of playing Canadian football.
Matthews: I hired Maxwell in the afternoon. Slats, who is a very talented guy, had some success doing comedy in the afternoon. We wanted to create a content destination in the afternoon but not turn WMMS into a talk station. I found Maxwell in Pittsburgh. I was familiar with him. I met him and we brought him in to do a music show that we could grow into more content. That's ultimately what we ended up doing. I also hired Rover. Rover is such a talented guy and was such a thorn in our side. We had gone through different failed morning show attempts and company initiatives that hadn't worked for us. Myself and Kevin Metheny sat down with him and told him he had the opportunity to come across the street and work with us. When you're dealing with talent in the market and want to steal someone away, there is a huge amount of time where they have to wait out a non-compete. He had a deal with Chicago, and it hadn't worked out there, so the Cleveland station for CBS was paying him as an affiliate even though they had him live in the studio. He didn't have a talent contract. It was really unique. When that contract was done, we could overnight take him from CBS into our building. I think we did it over a week's time, but it wasn't a six-month waiting period like it would typically have to be. It was a matter of Kevin Metheny and I saying that he had all the ratings built in. He was on 92.3 at the time. We felt that if he came to WMMS, he would bring these people over and him being on a heritage station like WMMS would help his audience grow. Once, he came over to WMMS, he had everybody. It worked out the way we hoped. I am so proud and happy for him. He's such a talented and hard-working guy. I also hired Alan Cox. That was a situation where there are talented people who end up out of work. Alan Cox had worked in Pittsburgh. It has a similar sensibility. He had had some success in Pittsburgh, but he was different from Rover. He had some talk background, so he could do longer stuff. Because of Maxwell, we had already arrived at the notion that we wanted a content destination in the afternoon. He had a skill set that was more cerebral and almost like a Daily Show-type of vibe. Not that Rover is not. I don't know that there is a better interviewer on the planet than Rover. Those are some of my favorite moments on the show – when he does a one-on-one with another guest. He's amazing and really smart when it comes to that kind of stuff. When I was there, he did a lot of stunts and extreme stuff with people eating bugs or getting bloody in the hallway. Alan Cox had none of that, so it was a nice contrast.
Editor's Note: Unfortunately, iHeartMedia declined our request to chat with any current employees, including Cox and Rover, unless we promised a positive story and approval on the final printed product. So this oral history of Cleveland's legendary station will end not with quotes from its current roster but from middle management at a bankrupt national conglomerate of stations. Enjoy.
Keith Abrams, Regional Senior Vice President of Programming, iHeartMedia: We have heard from your folks that you are doing a story and talking to others. We would not want to participate in a story that was negative to what MMS is today. The radio station played a very positive, important role back in the 'music only' days...but is very different today....and so is the radio business. And please stop contacting current IHM employees.