In 1976, WOHO(AM) was second in the ratings to the legacy market leader in Toledo, Ohio, WSPD(AM), a stuffy bastion of Frank Sinatra records and call-in recipe shows pushed by air talent well past its prime. At the time, Ken Deutsch served as WOHO’s “outgoing program director.” Here, he recalls some of the efforts and misadventures the station embarked on while attempting to unseat its chief rival.
“I want you to get rid of that bubblegum crap we’re playing, and fire those rock jocks!” shouted our general manager. “Do it now!”
And with that subtle directive from the GM, Toledo’s WOHO(AM) began the transition from a successful top-40 operation to an adult news and talk format.
We did this by gradually adding more information segments and nighttime talk shows, and by tweaking what music we did play to reflect adult tastes. At that time, AMs around the country were heading in this direction in order to reach a more desirable demographic for advertisers: 18–49.
But our GM failed to predict the cost of this upgrade, and how long it would take to change our image in the mind of the public.
Rock n’ roll disc jockeys were relatively cheap; skilled and experienced news people were expensive, and we had many to hire. To get the message about our format change out to the public, we also had to invest in billboards, newspaper ads and TV spots, some of which couldn’t be traded out, no matter how we tried.
After about six months we sent an intern out on the streets to take an unofficial survey on what people thought of the new WOHO. Most “Joe and Jane Lunch Pails” (as our general manager referred to our listeners) thought WOHO was still top 40, and several mentioned the names of jocks who had not been at the station for over a year. Uh oh.
It looked like it might take a while longer to convert those people who had been listening to WSPD(AM) for most of their lives.
The GM put up with the high costs for about a year — which I estimated was one third of the time it would have taken to change public perceptions — before he exploded in his office one day while looking at some financials.
“Ken, what the hell have you done to our station? We were doing great playing the teen hits, and we were making money like crazy! Now look at this!” he shouted while shoving a balance sheet in my face, “I told you that switching to an adult format was a bad idea!”
I looked at him standing there, veins popping out on his forehead, and it was at that moment that I made a decision: to just let him yell at me until his anger subsided. The next few months were difficult as our GM put increasing pressure on everyone to get the ratings up, something that was largely out of our hands. That would just take time.
Then our beloved GM, who as you may have guessed ran more on raw emotion than research, let me know he was bringing in a “consultant” to tweak our programming.
By that, he meant he was hiring a hatchet man to dismantle the news format and get us back into top 40, no matter who got crushed.
Shortly thereafter I met this guru, whom I’ll call “Punkie.” He was a California rock jock with no programming credentials, and he brought with him a character called “Timmy the Frog,” who existed as a sound effect on a cart.
During his air shift, Punkie talked to Timmy and spewed jive talk. Punkie didn’t have a title at our station, but he seemed to have the power to make whatever changes he liked to our personnel and our music.
I ran an aircheck of Punkie one day to preserve his shtick for posterity.
“More More More,” and the Andrea True Connection, and here comes Timmy the Frog —
(Sound effect: ribbit ribbit splash)
Hanging around in the WO-HO porcelain palace in the WO-HO powder room at 3:02, baby. We also have the Disco Lady —
(Sound effect: lady sighing suggestively)
Oh, right in my ear, dear! I love it!
(Starts next record)
You’re in a giving mood, I’m in a taking mood, I’m in a shaking mood, I’m in a quaking mood, baby. I’m in a mood that’s so good I got to deliver, man! I got to give give give, I got it all to live. Starbuck and “Moonlight Feels Right” at WOHO.
One of Punkie’s first acts was to fire the news writers and the woman who worked part time handling traffic reports on the air. This left our afternoon anchor, whom we’ll call “Lawrence,” bereft of support.
Lawrence calmly approached Punkie and told him that without these people he was unable to do his job, and furthermore that it was unfair to his staff to fire them so abruptly.
Punkie’s response to Lawrence: “Oh, I see, you got an integrity thing going on. I can dig that.”
But within three weeks the adult news and talk format had been dismantled, and we were back to bubblegum. It was the collapse of a two-year experiment.
I lost track of the station after that because I had already given my notice. But listen, if you see Punkie, or Timmy the Frog for that matter, give them my regards.
Ken Deutsch is a writer based in Sarasota, Fla. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.