The year was 1972 and WOHO(AM) was second in the ratings to the legacy market leader in Toledo, Ohio, WSPD(AM), a stuffy bastion of Frank Sinatra records, call-in recipe shows, all pushed by air talent well past its prime.
WOHO held weekly announcer meetings during which we would be scolded by our program director for not beating WSPDs 5,000 watts with our puny 1,000 directional watts that mostly couldn’t be heard at night. A jock I’ll call Gary interrupted the familiar harangue with an idea for a contest that would, in his words, “set Toledo on its can.” Little did we know then that Gary would be the one getting canned.
“OK, guys, we’ll take our jingle package and edit out the Os from our call letters and just replace them with silence,” Gary said. “Then we’ll get on the air and play the edited jingles and say that someone stole the Os from our call letters and buried them somewhere in Toledo. We’ll give clues as to where they are, and whoever guesses the location will win $500.”
“Hold on there, pal,” said our program director. “Let’s make that prize $250 because that’s all the general manager will pop for.”
So we marched down to the GM’s office to let him know how we were going to finally beat WSPD. When presented with the idea, our general manager, a man I’ll call Mr. Leonard, screamed “That’s crazy. How can you bury the Os from our call letters? It doesn’t make any damn sense!”
“Look, Mr. Leonard,” I explained. “No one will really be burying anything. We give clues about a secret location in Toledo and people just guess it to win.”
“OK, but make that prize $150, boys,” said Mr. Leonard. “You can throw in some of those free drive-in movie tickets we get every month. And for Christ’s sake, don’t be caught out there burying anything!”
And so it began. We started airing our WOHO PAMS jingles, the ones from which I had removed the Os. “One forty-seven, W_H_, the station with the happy difference.”
We made no other comments on the air, just played the doctored jingles. The jocks began asking on their shows, “Hey, anyone out there know what happened to our call letters?” Listeners phoned the announcers and were put on the air to offer their theories. We feigned puzzlement and allowed this to go on a few more days. In fact the Toledo Blade, the local daily paper, put a mention of our phony predicament in its entertainment section.
Things were going well, so we sprang the next phase of the scheme, wherein we presented the rules in on-air promos like this:
(Brass stab!) Voice 1: “Someone has stolen the Os from WOHO’s call letters, and we need your helping finding them!”
(Tympani roll) Voice 2: “We received a note in the mail and here is what it said:
(Mysterious background music)
‘Your call letters are in a secret place.
Guess where it is and begin the race.
Go west and look for a big brick tower,
The one that tolls this very hour.
Locate the letters and win a prize,
But don’t use your hands, just use your eyes!’”
(Tympani) Voice 1: “Tell WOHO in a postcard where you think the missing call letters are, and if you’re right, you can win $150 and free movie tickets from the home of the good guys! Send it to WOHO, Broadcast House, Toledo, Ohio!”
(Jingle out:) “W_H_, Toledo”
The location we had in mind was the bell tower at the University of Toledo, a well-known landmark. But before any postcards were received we got a panicked call from a security guy at the University of Toledo.
“Hey, what’s going on over there?” the man wanted to know. “We got people digging up the lawn over here and they said WOHO was going to make them rich!”
I replied that I’d look into it, but at that point I didn’t take this report very seriously. Who would be stupid enough to do that?
The next call was from the Toledo police department, asking the same question. That got my attention. While I was dealing with the cops, the program director walked into my office and said he’d gotten calls from three TV news departments asking if we were really telling people to dig up the lawn at UT. This was now officially out of control.
The program director called an emergency meeting of the air staff and told us that all contest promos were to be taken off the air immediately. He had made a return call to the police telling them there was a misunderstanding by a few listeners and that we were sure the problems would stop very soon. That’s when he was informed that there were about 70 cars in the parking lot at the university and people were not only tearing up the grounds but also blocking traffic.
Now we got on the air and announced that under no circumstances was anyone to dig anywhere in the city. We said we would announce the contest winner shortly. The doctored jingles came off the air and in fact no jingles were played.
That seemed to calm things down, but that was not the end of the tale. Gary, the poor jock who suggested the contest in the first place, was given two clear messages by the general manager: get out and stay out.
A couple days later a few listener postcards trickled in, but none of them guessed the correct location of the never-to-be-spoken-of-again “missing call letters.” The local newspaper editorialized about “poorly planned radio contests that endangered our citizens,” and WOHO was mentioned specifically. We had to pay landscapers to repair the damage at the university and embarrassingly, we were forced to air an apology. This was the Titanic of radio contests.
I managed to emerge from this fiasco with my job intact, but only by keeping my head down. I still have that tape I made of our jingles with the missing call letters, but don’t ask me to play it for you.
Ken Deutsch is a writer who lives in sunny Sarasota, Fla., and has a book of these tales available, “Up and Down the Dial.”