#6 Grand Rapids – part 1

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I love Grand Rapids, Michigan. In fact, I love it so much that I’ve lived there 3 different times. From 1971-80, 1982-89, and 1996-2007.  Grand Rapids was always good to me.

WGRD was a daytime only AM station. In order to remain competitive, WGRD’s parent company, Regional Broadcasting,  purchased an FM station from the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids.  WXTO, the Aquinas College station became WGRD-FM.  And now, WGRD could operate 24/7 and compete against the top 40 competitors  WLAV and WZZM.   In order to fill the extra hours, additional DJ’s needed to be hired and I was one of them.

Program Director Ron White hired me to do the overnight show on WGRD.  The show was Midnight to 6.  Ron was (and probably still is) a very strict formatics guy.  Believe me, you just didn’t veer from the format.  One slip..one screwup..one format violation..and the batphone would light up.  This was Ron’s private line into the studio and it was connected to a flood light mounted on the wall.  When the batphone rang, it lit up the entire studio.  I know guys who got sun tanned from Ron’s calls.  When the batphone rang, you would very timidly say “hello” and on the other end of the line it was Ron’s infamous “Geeeeeeez…what are you doing!!!!”  You ex GRD guys know what I’m talking about.  Ron had a code of rules you were handed from day 1.  I remember the first paragraph.  “You choose broadcasting as a profession..Therefore, you owe it to broadcasting to be a professional”.  That was pretty heady stuff for a 21 year old kid from Lima, Ohio.  But I truly admired Ron for his professionalism and I learned a lot.  From 1971 to 1980 there simply was no better Top 40 station in Grand Rapids than WGRD and we had the ratings to back that claim up.

General Manager Don Anderson had created an atmosphere that made almost every day a joy to go to work.  During my years at WGRD (1971-80) Don had built a staff of pros both in programming and in sales.  Don was the most competitive guy I ever met.  When it was time to play..we played hard.  And when it was time to work..we worked hard.

I did the overnight show for 6 months.  During that time the other disc jockeys, knowing I had a weakness for cracking up, would sneak into the station and play pranks just to get me to laugh.  When I first started at WGRD, we operated out of the transmitter building while new posh studios were being constructed in Downtown GR’s Water’s Building.  The transmitter building was actually an old bungalow.  The studio was located directly at the entrance to the front door.  Behind the studio was the toilet.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times a prankster would flush the toilet just as I was reading a public service announcement.  “Here’s a reminder from the Big 14 and Stereo 98 (flush)” this would be followed by me laughing my way through the announcement..and that would be followed by (batphone) “Geeeeeeez, whats going on down there?”  BUSTED!! One time the guys arranged for a stripper to show up at something like 3am.  The front door to the transmitter building opened up.  And there was some girl wearing a tight knit dress with a huge zipper down the front.  Of course this all happened as I was in a live set.   I can still hear the sound of that zipper..zipping down.  (Batphone)…”Geeeeez, what’s going on down there?”

In November of 1971 we moved from “where the deer and the antelope play” to Grand Rapids Most Prestigious Business Address…The Waters Building.  The transmitter building was a dump and we treated it that way.  Graffiti was scrawled everywhere.  Anonymous pearls of wisdom from the staff..mostly making fun of everyone.  I think DJ Mike McCarthy penned most of them.  He had a thing for Nietzsche.  All of that changed when we moved downtown.  That professionalism stuff Ron preached meant you were no longer a slob.  We had a nice new facility.  Brand new equipment.  Carpet on the walls (can’t write graffiti there) and a conference room that was complete with a stocked bar and WGRD logo embossed cocktail glasses.

Our chief engineer was John Seymour.  John was a brilliant engineer who could make anything work.  John was also pretty savvy when it came to money matters.  He knew how to make a buck and save a buck.  He saved a lot of money by mooching smokes off other staffers.  His technique was pure Seymour.  John would approach his intended, rubbing his hands eagerly, smile on his face “got a cigarette old buddy”.   We used to put explosive loads in marked cigarettes and made sure that when John came for a smoke, he’d get one of those.  I’m sitting here laughing just recalling that.  John would light up, and then…blam!!!  “Shit!!!!..you son of a bitch!!!!”  By the way, this didn’t happen just once..it happened multiple times.

Don Anderson wanted to win…always.  Being number 2 was just not an option.  Across town, at FM rival WZZM-FM, the Manager George Lyons attempted a direct challenge to WGRD’s superiority in the ratings.  Now this would be like Lithuania going to war against Russia.  Don offered the airstaff a $100 bonus per rating point difference between WGRD and WZZM.  We were fired up.  We were going to kick serious ass.  We gave away his and her Corvettes, thousands of dollars in cash, vacations, you name it.  (even Presto hot-doggers) And when the ratings came out, we bested WZZM by 12.7 shares!  Holy Shit..that meant we all got a $1270 bonus.  We celebrated in the conference room.  I think a food fight broke out too but I don’t exactly recall because I had one or 5 too many rum and coca colas.  Anderson went out and bought a sympathy card and sent it to George Lyons.  It read: “with deepest sympathy on your recent loss” And then Don added in his own handwriting “you SOB”.

Our main competitor in Grand Rapids was WLAV, programmed by John Leader.  WLAV was a great sounding radio station but it was an AM station and the ratings were in decline.  The owner of WLAV was John Shepherd and he also had WLAV-FM.  But John never wanted to simulcast the FM with the AM.  WLAV-FM was an AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio station at the time and had garnered a decent audience share.  But it never beat WGRD in those years.  Today, WLAV FM is a classic rock station with big ratings in Grand Rapids.

I committed a grievous sin in 1976. For an interminable 7 months I left WGRD to be program director of WZZM.  I had taken a loss of all sense of reality and thought I could beat WGRD.  As I said, it was like Lithuania going to war with Russia.  WZZM was the red headed step child to WZZM TV.  George Lyons didn’t care much about radio anyhow but he liked me.  So I gave it a try..and it took about one day to figure out that THIS WAS A BIG MISTAKE!  The technical sound of the station was atrocious.  I asked the chief engineer, Dale Wolters,  to look into the matter.  Dale was a nice guy but he was also deaf.  I’ll never forget it when he told me “sounds ok to me”.  Good Grief!!

It was during my tenure as PD of WZZM that I needed a new morning disc jockey.  I had heard my old Lima boss was looking.  I contacted Tom Sidwell and brought him on board.  It was a disaster.  The entire sales staff revolted.  The station manager Bob Wohfiel said I had to get rid of him.  Tom just did not sound good on the station.  And so, after only a month, I had to let him go.  Tom saved my butt many times..but I couldn’t  save his.

About 7 months at WZZM was all I could stand.  WGRD needed a new afternoon DJ and  I was back on the phone to Ron begging to go back.  When I told George I was leaving and going back to GRD, he reached into his desk and pulled out a sympathy card he received years before.  “This…this is the kind of guy you want to work for???!!!)  Uhhhh, yep.

WGRD was Grand Rapids number one young adult station throughout the 70’s, and in many cases beat powerhouse WOOD in total audience.  Ron and Don had created a legacy that to this day stands as one of America’s most successful Top 40 stations. 

 

 

One thought on “#6 Grand Rapids – part 1”

  1. Wow Skip, you are right on with your description of WZZM. You fought the same demons I fought there for 5 years without success. GRD had Ron and Don, guys who grew up on top 40 radio and knew just what they were doing. We had George Lyons and Ron Dykstra, neither of whom understood top 40 radio what so ever.

    I started at ZZM in the summer of ’69 and by the summer of ’70 as an 18 year old kid was the assistand PD and music director. I was hired by Bill Hollon. I learned a lot from Bill, sometimes what not to do. After Bill left ZZM in 73, I figured I was next in line for PD. Wrong. Ron Dykstra said I was too young and he hired Denny Hunt from WILS in Lansing. The only thing Denny knew about radio was how to turn the radio nob on and off. Mostly off, cause he never listened to the station when he wasn’t there. Needless to say we didn’t get any suntan from lights in the control room at ZZM.

    He was followed by Lee DeYoung who said he was going to educate the Top 40 audience by playing better music than GRD. For instance he wouldn’t play Billy, Don’t be a hero but would instead play The Golden Age of Rock and Roll by Mott The Hoople. His belief was that he knew better than the audience about what they should be listening to. You then inherited the mess that Lee left behind and the rest is history.

    For what it’s worth, ZZM did beat GRD 3 times in the 70’s. In 1970 and 1971 when GRD was still just an AM daytimer, then once in the spring of 1973 (must have been a fluke book). ZZM never beat GRD again after that 1973 book. I did happen to hold my own against GRD. In my last rating book there in the fall of 1974 on the 7-midnight shift GRD had a 15.8 12 plus while ZZM had 12.8. However in women 18 plus ZZM had 9.1 while GRD had 3.9 and Men 18 plus ZZM 13.3 and GRD 6.1. For those numbers I was shown the door. Go figure.

    What Am I doing now, at the age of 66 I am the program director at a station in Grand Rapids. Must not be too young anymore. Anyhow Skip, thanks for the memories.

    Bob Stickroe

    Like

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