At age 13 Art Vuolo huddled under the blanket at night listening in the dark with an earpiece. His rocket-shaped plastic radio had an antenna sprouting from its nose. With an alligator clip to ground the radio to a wall plug, he could tune in "Night Beat" with Bernie Herman on WIRE(AM), a station a few miles away from his home in Indianapolis.
This was 1958. Within 10 years Vuolo would be on his way to making his own radio history, not as a DJ but as an archivist of the radio industry.
"The radio bug really bit me then," said Vuolo (pronounced VOE-low) from his home in the Detroit suburb of Novi, Mich.
"Another radio personality who had a big influence on me was Jim Shelton, who hosted record hops in addition to 'Platter Party' on WIBC(AM). He let me help him out at remotes and dances, and I got to the point where I could sign his name on his 8-by-10 promo photos as well as he could."
By DXing, Vuolo was able to extend his horizons and tune in stations all over the country at night. He kept a log of what he heard and came to appreciate the air talents in each market.
Art Vuolo, right, pals with Shotgun Tom Kelly. Photos courtesy of George Griggs "Eventually our family moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., and in high school I became the DJ at our after-football Friday night dances. I went to a local record shop and picked up a bunch of 45s and always gave the store credit — 'Music courtesy of Discount Records' — and even I wore a bright red blazer."
He has long since stowed the platters and the sport coat in his closet, but his one-man company, Radioguide/Vuolo Video Air-Chex, offers an enormous selection of DVDs and audio tapes that chronicle American radio over the last 40 years. He inherited more than 1,000 Chicago-area audio tapes from the late Tim Benko's Windy City Airchecks, which are also available.
Whether it is a memorable programmers' seminar, a morning show crew in action, a station promotional video or a radio reunion weekend, it may be represented in Art's collection.
Turning air into money
His desire to turn his childhood hobby into a business began when he was working at an appliance store.
"Here I was at Big George's Home Appliance Mart in Ann Arbor," he said. "I sold clock radios, table radios, transistor radios and occasionally irons and toasters. A lot of people back in 1965 didn't listen to FM, and I wanted to upgrade them from the typical AM radio to one that had AM and FM. I did this by typing out a list of all the FM stations customers could receive on the more expensive radios. When I showed people what they were missing, they often bought the AM/FM radios."
Shortly thereafter Vuolo began to sell market-by-market station lists to advertisers, and he lined up a group of stores to distribute them.
"People would hand me their road atlas and ask me to make lists of stations for say, a trip to Florida, because the push-buttons in their cars wouldn't get them anything once they got outside the local area," he said.
"I began to sell these lists to advertisers and I called them Radioguides. The first official one came out in Detroit in 1971. They are still being printed today. But it always worked the same way in each market: I had a radio station promote it, a sponsor would pay for it and a distributor like a restaurant chain handed them out."
In 1987, Nabisco's Baby Ruth candy bars bought the concept for more than 80 markets.
"I made some money then, but the biggest job I ever did was in 1995 when we created college football Radioguides," he said. "We printed about 10 million guides for the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and a couple of other conferences. I made enough money from that to buy my house." He produced his most recent Radioguide about a year ago. When RW checked in with him in July, he was pitching several potential clients, though "budgets are tight" of late, he said.
In the late 1970s, he was given the moniker "Radio's Best Friend" by Scott Shannon, who was then on the air in Atlanta. The nickname stuck with some help from trade publication Radio & Records in the 1980s. It fit because Vuolo always loved radio.
But he was also hit by the possibilities of a new medium: home video.
"I went to a radio convention and a jock there named Shotgun Tom Kelly had filmed a sales presentation for his station showing the guys on the air. I just went nuts," said Vuolo.
When he bought a Sony Betamax VCR in April 1976, all his editing had to be done in-camera.
"I started recording presentations for a lot of stations and I'm still doing it today. The first one was for WIFE(AM) in Indianapolis," he said. He used a borrowed color TV camera to record that first tour, featuring key employees and the various jocks on the air.
"Now I shoot on digital tape and edit on an Avid or use (Apple's) Final Cut Express on my MacBook Pro."
Vuolo's studio, equipped for working with legacy media. Video killed the radio star
While many of Vuolo's products deal with radio's past, he also is interested in its future.
"It's a very visual world and presentations today lean toward video," he said. "With video you can show a crowd getting excited at a station event. You can show the jocks having fun in the studio."
Vuolo's Web site describes his "Air-Chex" as "video field trips into the studios of many of America's best radio stations for an educational and often very entertaining inside perspective." The site describes this as one of the largest video libraries of radio-related video in the country, if not the largest.
Many stations today are ready for their close-up. Studio lighting and décor are getting more camera-friendly. "Morning guys all think they should be on TV or the Internet," said Vuolo, noting that "The Bob & Tom Show," which he documented on video for 25 years, is now seen nationally on WGN America.
"We are no longer interested in 'theater of the mind.' We want to see the people behind the curtain."
As a result, Vuolo says, "What I'm known for more than anything now is being an archivist. I'm kind of preserving it for future generations so people can see how it was at one time before the corporate world ruined it."
Vuolo sees the many media with which terrestrial stations compete, and he is not sure how AM and FM will fare.
"It scares me," he said. "The iPod has done a lot of damage. It's taken everyone 21 and younger away from radio. I sat next to a 15-year-old girl on a plane and she had an iPod. I asked her if she ever listened to radio and she looked at me like I was crazy. They download (illegally) off the Internet and don't see it as stealing music."
And while some stations have integrated the Internet into their operations, Vuolo wonders what will happen to traditional radio when wireless Internet becomes widely available in cars.
"Local information is the only thing that will save AM and FM. And I think that stations that just play music are in serious trouble because there are so many places for people to get music."
Generations to come
Does the Internet, with its YouTube content and mass access to video, take away the special niche position he's enjoyed as a radio archivist working with visuals?
"The stuff on the Internet is short-form," he replies. "I just had someone today order a 1994 KDWB reunion video, and it's very long. 'WLS Rewind' is 2.5 hours. My teaser on YouTube is 10 minutes! I sell DVDs because they are better quality than what is found online."
Vuolo's biggest concern is what will become of his audio and video library after he is gone. He is about to turn 64 and would like those assets to be preserved but also accessible to as many people as possible.
"Some day I won't be around and someone will have to sort through my stuff. I tell everyone, 'Don't wait for the estate sale!'"
Tom Kent is president of Tom Kent Radio Network and syndicates his own nostalgic oldies show. He is a long-time fan of Art Vuolo. "Over the years Art has become the unofficial historian of radio," he said. "I think it's great that he is capturing these moments when no one else is."
Or as WOR(AM), New York personality Joey Reynolds stated, "Art Vuolo is backed up like a cheap toilet, yet flushed with enviable enthusiasm for the radio industry." That is quite a visual metaphor.
A quick trip to www.vuolovideo.com will demonstrate the breadth of Vuolo's collection.
Ken Deutsch is a former DJ who sincerely hopes no airchecks from his own inept radio years remain in this or any other collection.