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WCCO’s Yearbook Is a Treasure

The very existence of a book produced by a station on the topic of its own history is unusual in 2004.

How badly we need good neighbors.

This sentiment seems so dated in our jaded modern times that I find it hard even to type. But as I flip through a 225-page hardcover book about the history of 830 WCCO in Minneapolis, I am reminded of the importance of good neighbors.

In truth I have conflicting emotions. I’m grateful for the years of service given to us by heritage stations like Infinity’s WCCO. Yet I feel saddened because so few stations appreciate their past or are willing to celebrate it.

The very existence of a book produced by a station on the topic of its own history is unusual in 2004. Most stations would surrender ratings points or cut down a tower before admitting they had been around for 80 years or reminding people what they had looked and sounded like 20, 30 or 50 years ago.

Let’s face it: These days, it’s all about being new and fresh and edgy, not about history, tradition and stability.

The nature of radio format change is partly to blame; but this really is not a problem unique to radio. It’s cultural. But it’s also a shame.

‘Information utility’

One reason I find the WCCO book bittersweet is that it was sent to me by Dick Carlson, senior VP and market manager of the station, and a man fond of describing the station as an “information utility.”

A few days after the book landed on my desk, we learned that Carlson had passed away. The station’s 80th anniversary in October was among his final contributions; sending me the book was one of his last tasks.

I never met Carlson, but I suspect we’d have had a lot to talk about. The same for his predecessor, former GM Brian Whittemore. I cannot help but admire these radio executives – modern-day, bottom-line managers, working for Infinity, one of the biggest of the big groups, who were nonetheless willing to devote time and staff resources to publishing a celebration of the station not only as it exists today, but in all its glorious black-and-white history.

WCCO published histories in 1964, ’74 and ’84. The 2004 book is by Paul Bergly, who worked in marketing for the station for 11 years. He writes in the forward that he grew up listening to WCCO and later encountered the station’s 60th anniversary book, by Larry Haeg Jr., just as Bergly was starting his college internship at WCCO.

“It had beautiful pictures and Haeg’s text was poetic,” he wrote. “But in the back of my mind I always wanted to write ‘the next’ WCCO history book. And so throughout my tenure at WCCO I took some 15,000 pictures, documenting most notable guests and most station functions.”

It was Bergly who pitched the idea of a book to Whittemore and later to Carlson. Both were supportive. The final product is much like a college yearbook, with most of the space given over to photos and scrapbook items from the station’s many years – remotes, famous guests, state fairs, politicians, sports coverage, morning teams, the news staff hard at work – right up to 2004.

“Listeners won’t want to see all that stuff,” I can hear the modern marketing manager saying. I disagree.

Here we find evidence of the real and intimate connection between a great local station and its listeners. The former employees in these pictures – not just hosts but news assistants, meteorologists, sound effects men, musicians – won’t be familiar to many of us outside the Twin Cities. But those radio professionals have provided the soundtrack for the lives of millions of Minnesotans.

The book includes six audio CDs with more than 35 hours of programming, selected, dubbed and cleaned up by Mark Durenberger, who first brought the project to my attention (and who only used about 1 percent of the material he had available). Durenberger was able to include some unusually long audio selections as well as short clips. The “News and Weather” disk alone is like a time machine, taking us from coverage of the war in Iraq to the Armistice Day blizzard of 1941 and beyond.

The book is an excellent marketing piece, the kind of thing that listeners would buy; the WCCO Web site reports that the limited quantities it shipped to local Borders Bookstores were in demand, and recommended that listeners call the stores to check on stock.

It’s also a super giveaway, something a listener would treasure if he or she received a signed copy at a station event.

Well done, WCCO. In 2004, looking back for a change takes courage. You really are a Good Neighbor to the Northwest.