Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Look Back At When Big 600 WTAC Went Country

Back in the 50s and 60s – There was no bigger radio station in the Flint and Mid-Michigan area than “The Home of The Good Guys – Big 600 WTAC”. The station’s line-up of disc-jockeys (Bob Dell, Peter C. Cavenaugh, Wild Willie, Gary Raymond, Johnny Cole, Bill Pearson, Ed Berryman and more) were the jocks you listened to on the radio and who you wanted spinning records at your high school sock hop or dance at the Knights of Columbus Hall. WTAC was so popular and was such a driving force in the life of mid-Michigan teenagers that makers of everything from soft drinks to pimple cream wanted to advertise on the station. WTAC was so popular that the calendars of the WTAC disc jocks were booked as much as a year in advance. In the 50s and 60s, if you wanted your event to be a success – you wanted a WTAC jock there spinning the records and entertaining the crowds.

What made the station different from other radio stations in the area at that time? All you had to do was look at the music play lists and you would get your answer. WTAC was more interested in blazing new trails and not following the safe and acceptable music trends of the era. While other stations played the safe pop acts like Bobby Vinton singing “Red Roses For A Blue Lady”, WTAC cranked up the decibels and was the first station in the United States to play The Who and that’s not all.

The same time that Motown was leaving its imprint on the music world – Michigan’s rock n’ roll scene began to make a lot of noise and WTAC was the station that people tuned in to hear groups like Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, the Bob Seger System, Brownsville Station, Frigid Pink, Question Mark and the Mysterians, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Dick Wagner and The Frost, Terry Knight and The Pack, and Alice Cooper. It was because of WTAC influence that other radio stations across the country picked up on the music from these Michigan artists and made them hits in their area.

With a signal that beamed from Flint to as far north as the Mackinac Bridge and into parts of Canada, WTAC was untouchable in the 50s and through part of 70s and they took on all challengers – but like other AM radio stations in the country there was no way it was going to survive the arrival of FM radio. The beginning of the end for WTAC came when the Methodist Radio Parish sold their AM and FM station on Lapeer Road and one of the first things that the new owners did was to convince two of WTAC’s long-time disc jockeys (Bill Pearson and Bill Gibson) to join them. The station’s call letters were changed to from WMRP to WWCK and that began the change in radio listenership in the Flint area from the AM signal to FM.

There were other factors in WTAC’s demise other than FM radio. The people that owned WTAC – a out-of-town multi-national corporation who’s main business was making a well-known brand of lawn tractor – was getting out of the broadcasting business and they cut their operating budget for the station to a bare minimum. WTAC’s corporate parent had sold all of the television stations that they owned and had about sold all of their radio stations, but one – WTAC – and they were having a hard time getting buyers interested in what was a stand alone AM station in a market where more and more people were listening to their favorite music on the FM band.

The once unstoppable WTAC was seeing its ratings diminish with each and every new ratings book and they found it harder to get people to listen to rock n’ roll on the AM band in this new brand new FM world. Something had to be done to make the station more attractive to advertisers and to any potential new owners. It was determined under a new general manager – former radio and tv ad salesman Ray Nelson – that a format change would happen. With the approval of the station’s out-of-town corporate owner – WTAC would switch from a Top 40 radio format to country – directly challenging Flint’s long establish country music station – 1470 WKMF.

There were some at WTAC who didn’t think that the station should switch formats, but during a staff meeting with everyone in attendance, Ray Nelson assured everyone that it would work. And to those the people who didn’t like country music, Ray Nelson asked everyone to give it a chance, because he believed in his heart that before long everyone would love the music so much that they wouldn’t work for a station with any other format.

It was after that staff meeting that the real work on the format change began. Before any radio station can make a format change – you have to acquire a new music library – which can be expensive. When your corporate owner doesn’t want to dig deep to purchase a new music library – you have to make do with what you can get your hands on and that’s exactly what they did at WTAC – getting a few records here, there and everywhere, including from some of their listeners’ record collections..

For about a week before the date of the format switch – an emphasis was placed on getting the new country songs recorded on carts (which is how music at that time was played on the air by the jocks) and into the studio. You might find this hard to believe – but there was probably only two hundred songs at the most recorded on to cart for the jocks to play by the time of the format change. When you consider that most country songs at that time were about two and a half minutes in length – those two hundred songs would be repeated about eight hours – which meant that they had to get more music into the studios before the quick turnaround in the station’s music turned people off.

Everyone who worked at the station wanted to be there for that moment when the last rock record was played and the first country song aired signaling a change in format. It was with the start of Johnny Cole’s midnight to five am shift that WTAC switched formats to country with absolutely no warning whatsoever. You would have thought that there would have been angry listeners phoning the station to protest the change from AC/DC and Led Zepplin to The Judds and Dave and Sugar, but to be honest with you, the phones didn’t light up like a Christmas tree and there were very few angry listeners. Rock n’ roll radio didn’t die – it just switched over to the FM band.

On the night of the format change – Ray Nelson and the entire staff at WTAC had a party to celebrate and like all good parties – one or two people consumed a little more alcohol than some others. The late Gary Raymond was one of those people who had a little “too much party” and added to the confusion of the format switch. Having fallen asleep in his car in the station’s parking lot after the party – Gary didn’t want to wake up and go on the air for his shift at five am. After all of his years in broadcasting, Gary was afraid that he couldn’t be as entertaining playing country music as he was as a rock jock and he thought that his audience might not accept him as a country disc-jockey. It took a bit of work and a lot of convincing to get him out of his car and on the air – but once he did get on the air – he was the consummate professional – and was quickly accepted by the country music audience in the Flint area who grew up listening to him play rock n’ roll..

WTAC’s switch to country was not an immediate success, but it did make a bit of an impact. With WTAC playing country music (and on a much more powerful signal) WKMF had to work a little harder at keeping their share of the radio listening audience and they had to work hard to keep their advertisers, because there were some advertisers who made the switch to WTAC.

The switch to country didn’t last long though. The station was eventually sold and the format changed once again. Although it’s era as a country station was brief – WTAC’s switch to Country was a success. With no budget whatsoever for promotion – Country WTAC nipped mightily at the boot heels of WKMF and ate away at their total audience share. Who knows what could have happened had the new owners allowed the country format to continue? One thing is for sure – it would have made for some interesting Flint radio listening.

I was one of the people who is proud to say that he has worked for WTAC in not one, but three different formats, as the station’s continuity director and later the producer of Dave Barber’s Flint Feedback and Morning Magazine programs. And of all of the formats at WTAC – the country format was probably the most enjoyable to be a part of, thanks in large part because of the leadership of Ray Nelson. Everyone at the station worked hard and played hard and we cherished our victories because a lot of people didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.

It’s been some twenty-eight years or more since WTAC switched from Top 40 – what has become of some of WTAC’s country jocks?

Jim Kramer (who was the program director for WTAC’s switch to country) is and has been the host of the morning show at WKCQ in Saginaw, Michigan.

Dan Richards has pretty much worked for every country station in Flint having worked for WKMF and WFBE and he still hosts what many consider one of the best country classics show on the radio today every Sunday night debut on WKCQ.

Downtown Ed Brown works for an online music promotion company called “All Access” and still keeps his on-air chops fresh doing as an oldies but goodies jock for a station in the south.

Dave Barber, who hosted “Flint Feedback” for two hours weekdays during WTAC’s Country period, is now the program director and host of “Capital Television” in Rhode Island.

And two of WTAC’s most popular country jocks are no longer with us – Gary Raymond, died along with his daughter, in a holiday fire in his home while still a disc-jockey at WTAC and a few years ago, morning man Big Bill Anderson (who joined the station from WKMF) died.

And WTAC – well – that’s gone, too. The building that it broadcast from was razed and the land it was on is now the site of one of Grand Blanc’s newest sub-divisions. The people who now own what was WTAC has changed its call letters to WSNL and the station is now the shining star in a group of faith-based radio stations of its corporate parent.


flashbackdan said...

Thanks for the memories Rich. Don't forget Mike Hamilton (Mike Hamm) Larry Allen (Ken Lincoln) and Scott Murray (Scott Kuhl, later the sports anchor at WNEM-TV5). WTAC was my first radio gig. I stayed a year after David Leyton's in-laws bought the station and then moved to WKMF. Great times with great people!

007 said...

Rich, I remember listening to WTAC during their top 40 format growing up in the 70s, then on to WWCK 105! Wish you could of gave a little history of CK 105 and what happen to that station. During the late 80s, they too changed formats and that definitely killed Rock & Roll for more then a decade in the Flint area. I know now that there are at least 2-3 stations that are now filling that void in the flint area, but I do not believe they are broadcasting from the Flint area. If this is true, the last ‘great white hope’ was CK 105!! Maybe you could shed some light on this issue.... either way, WTAC was a great station, during its time period and surely will have lasting memories for many.

The Greek

Stay Positive said...

Rich, I see flashbackdan posted that David Leyton's in laws bought the station. When I read that, I found on Facebook that Leyton's wife was named Therese. I went to Longfellow with Therese. But the question I can't find the answer to is about Errol Kaufman/David W. Grant from WJRT and WTRX. He's apparently now living in Hawaii. Is he one of the in laws?

Rich Frost said...

Stay Positive:

I chatted with someone today who I thought might have the answer to your question and Errol Kaufman is no relation to David Leyton's wife Therese.

Anonymous said...

Someone...(that 'legendary...someone') pointed me your way. My first wife passed away in 1990 and I have remarried a young (let's hear it for the 'ole dude'...jailbait YEAH) Thang called Karen and we live 'bout a quarter of a mile from the Volcano here in the Village. Got a note from Peter C. a while ago and I've spoken with Wally Kennedy ("I basically agree with both positions."), Dave Barber and a coupla others along the way. Flint was FUN and warmly remembered, particularly the 'JRT daze. Kind of you to even note my time in you town. Aloha to all, Errol Kaufman

Stay Positive said...

Thanks for your response, Mr. Kaufman. I just found it. I remember seeing you at Atwood Stadium with your camera when you were at WJRT.

Well, the other Kaufman story has come full circle. I found a Sandra Bernhard video by accident where she talks about her former neighbors, the Kaufmans, describing them as "schlepers". I had to look that one up for the connotation, only having known the term schlep. But I see those Kaufmans are Sandra's Facebook Friends, so I guess it's all right.