The agreement between the Times World corporation and Roanoke Radio which settled the issues involving Channel 7, Channel 27, WROV-FM and WROV-AM was finally reached in the Summer of 1955 when the radio stations were sold to a group headed by Burt Levine and his wife Muriel, doing business as WROV Broadcasters, Incorporated.
But the story of the "Burt Levine" years of WROV really begins in 1952. Roanoke was a burgeoning city where the quality of life was good and improving. The Mill Mountain Zoo had recently opened. Roanoke had just been named an "All America" City. The Korean War was over, the troops were home, and people were settling down and starting families. Roanoke had a new television station, WSLS-TV. There were three radio stations, WDBJ, WSLS, and WROV. The fourth, WRIS, would be on by 1954. About this time, Burt was in town looking to buy a radio station.
|Burt ran this ad in the paper on July 14, 1955, about a month after he took over.|
Ironically, Burt, the son of a Pennsylvania merchant, didn't originally intend to get into the "business side" of radio. "The local station auditioned four of us from high school during the summer, presumably so one of us would get a paying job," said Burt, "but it turned out we all auditioned all summer and nobody got a paying job. That was my introduction to radio." He graduated from Temple University and eventually did get a paying job writing advertising copy for a station in Philadelphia. "I never thought of myself as a salesman, I thought of myself as a writer" he said.
"When the salesman got sick and had to move to Phoenix for his health, I was the only one that knew the accounts. They told me 'Go start selling.' So, with great reluctance, that's how I started selling."
|Early ad from the 1956 Broadcasting Yearbook showing a different version of Rover the Dog.|
Around this time Burt met and married Muriel, whose father, Lou Poller, was a well established broadcasting executive and owner of several radio and TV stations across the USA. Among them was WCAN-TV in Milwaukee, a CBS affiliate and the only television station in Wisconsin that carried Edward R. Murrow's 1954 edition of "See It Now" which led to the political downfall of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Lou hired Burt as the young sales manager of WCAN Radio.
A few years later, Burt and Muriel decided to buy their own station. Burt had traveled through the Roanoke Valley and was so impressed with the friendly people and merchants that he decided it was a perfect place. So, after three years of researching the market, Burt and a group of investors affiliated with Lou formed WROV Broadcasters, Inc and purchased WROV in 1955. Over time, Burt and Muriel bought out their partners and owned the station outright.
The April 14, 1955 edition of The Roanoke Times reported that "Arlington Men Will Run WROV" and described a group of businessmen headed by Cy Blumenthal and represented by Roanoke attorney Morton Honeyman who bought the station for $45,000. Honeyman was the station's attorney for years and was partners with Roanoke's Harvey Lutins. Blumenthal, we think, was one of Muriel's uncles.
The group had applied for a permit to operate a 1,000-watt daytime station on the 1050kc frequency the previous January. But with the outcome of the negotiations between Times World and Roanoke Radio, they instead offered to purchase WROV AM & FM when it was decided that both stations would be sold to a third party.
|Don McNeil & Bill Stern.. Don's Breakfast Club was on WROV until early 1960 and Bill Stern Sports was a WROV favorite through 1956.|
In May, the paper announced "WROV Requests FCC To Approve Corporate Change" and reported that the station asked the commission to assign its license to Joseph Goodman and associates (more of Muriel's people, we think), doing business as WROV Broadcasters, Inc. By the end of May, this change was approved. Ten days later Frank Koehler, manager of WROV since 1947, abruptly left to become the sales manager of WDBJ-AM effective July 11.
June 12, 1955, we see the first mention of Burt in an article reporting that Coleman Austin, former WROV personality and current manager of WRIS, was appointed sports director of WROV. Austin was "the first addition to the station's staff under new management, station manager Burt Levine said." But Austin never returned to WROV. Apparently, after running this story, he changed his mind and turned down the job.
|A newer ROVer the Bulldog adorned WROV sales brochures and stationery in the late 1950s and early 1960s.|
So, by the summer of 1955, the Levines were in charge at WROV. Burt ran the show from the radio station. But, through most of Burt's 33 years of owning WROV, Muriel was his teammate, partner, and "the power behind the throne." Burt may have had the vision, but Muriel had the strong business skills and above all, the access to her family's money, expertise, and her family's experience in the business. She was a great systems person and later put in one of the earliest IBM systems to manage the station's accounting and program logs.
But she was seldom seen at the radio station. Both Burt and Muriel felt that having him at the station and her working from home was a good idea and the best arrangement for their family. According to Burt, "we felt it would be a disaster if both of us worked in one place." So for the purposes of telling the story here, we will refer to Burt as being the owner because he was the person with a presence at the radio station. This, solely to save on the typing but not at all intended to diminish Muriel's role.
Burt later recalled "We bought the radio station in the morning and the Times World corporation bought the UHF equipment in the afternoon. We thought that it would be a matter of six months that there would be two television stations on the air in Roanoke. We subleased to Times World our big studio, until WDBJ Television was able to build their studio at the Times World building." WDBJ-TV was on the air by the fall of 1956, but not using the UHF equipment. Instead, they applied for and received the license to broadcast on VHF channel 7.
|Ken Tanner and Jerry Joynes. Ken hosted "Yawn Patrol" and Jerry was the host of "Moonlight Serenade."|
WDBJ-TV left the Mountain Trust Bank studios for their new ones in the Times World building in 1956. WROV also moved out around the same time. There weren't any live "big studio" shows on the station anymore. Also, the advent of tape recorders made it possible to pre-produce commercials instead of having to rely on the sponsors to do them live on the air. Smaller, less expensive facilities would be adequate and, most importantly, would greatly reduce Burt's overhead during his early years in business.
So the stations moved into the transmitter facility—the Quonset hut near the tower on Cleveland Avenue at 15th street. A small studio was set up near the transmitter. And the station began doing lots of remote broadcasts including Jerry Joynes' show from the window of the Heironimus store on Campbell Avenue. Jerry recalls "When we went over there it was just the Quonset hut. Then they built this small building right adjacent to it. You went up two steps to get to it. Those were some interesting years."
The new addition was a concrete-flat building that was just uphill from the hut and faced Cleveland Avenue. It was painted white and, being slightly larger than the hut, more than doubled the size of the facility. It contained an office for Burt, a reception area, an open area for the sales people's desks, a production studio and a new control room. The hut continued to house the transmitter, the music library, and the all-important restroom. For more details about the building in its various stages, see the floor plan page.
|Regional buses carried WROV advertisements in the late 1950s and early 1960s.|
Another early business decision by Burt was to mothball WROV-FM. Burt saw the FM as a money-loser, sold the equipment and turned in the license. At some point, 103.7 was deallocated for Roanoke by the FCC in favor of the 92.3 frequency. For years, Burt would joke that the sale of the FM equipment was "the biggest sale the FM ever made" but twenty-five years later this decision would come back to haunt WROV. At the time, though, it appeared to be a sound business move and allowed the FM antenna to be removed from the AM tower, which improved the AM signal.
Sometimes in life a unique set of random circumstances coalesce to produce a truly unique phenomenon. This was the case in the mid 1950s. Television was killing radio in the ratings, though most shows were targeted toward older Americans who could afford TV sets. A new form of music called "rock and roll" was becoming popular, due to the likes of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Pat Boone with Elvis just around the corner. The post-war baby boom made young people the largest segment of the population, yet they were largely ignored by the mainstream media.
Burt recalled: "It was that period (1955-1958) when you got the transition of the radio networks. TV was breaking out all over. They were moving the top talent on radio—the Jack Benny's, all the mystery shows, the comedy shows—everything that was on national radio was moving over to TV. We saw that local advertisers could replace the national advertisers for whole programs. We came in at a time when we saw the transition (toward) local radio celebrities over national because the national radio celebrities were turning their attention to TV."
So Burt's idea "to start from scratch and make radio exciting with local personalities to take the place of national personalities" and target young people by playing the new "rock and roll" music was a very shrewd business move. This strategy would eventually lead to WROV—which was smaller than their competition in terms of transmitting power and financial resources—becoming dominant in the market by outsmarting and outworking them.
But this transformation didn't happen overnight. The change from the WROV that Burt purchased to what the station was to become took several years and in the meantime, the station retained some of its "old time radio" roots. Though all the live country shows were gone from the schedule by 1956, the station continued airing many network favorites through the end of the decade.
|Ken Tanner, Barbara Felton, Jivin' Jackson and Jerry Joynes were featured on this "bus card" from around 1957.|
Three radio dramas ran every morning through 1957. One, When A Girl Marries, was about Joan Field, a daughter in high society who married a struggling lawyer, Harry Davis, against her mother's wishes. Another, Whispering Streets, starred Gertrude Warner, Cathy Lewis, Bette Davis and Anne Seymour as hostess-narrators and featured daily stories including "The Boy Who Wanted To Die', "Gold Digging Cowboy", "A Hole In One", and "The Distraught Mother." Another, My True Story, was a radio series which ran on various networks from 1943-1962 that was based upon stories appearing in True Story confession magazine.
WROV also carried syndicated news commentators including Paul Harvey, John Secondari, John Vandercook and John Daly. Secondari later became a famous producer of documentaries for ABC. Vandercook had been an NBC newsman but became an ABC employee when the network bought station KQV in Pittsburgh. Daly was host of TV quiz show It's News To Me, which featured Walter Cronkite as a panelist. Paul Harvey has been a popular commentator for years and, interestingly, returned to WROV in 1981 when the station sought an older, more mature audience.
Every morning at nine, WROV carried the immensely popular show Don McNeil's Breakfast Club. Don McNeil was from Illinois, grew up in Wisconsin and was ABC's answer to Arthur Godfrey. Listeners laughed at and with him, sang and prayed with him. The show combined sentiment with human interest, music, song, and prayer. Among the most popular features were Don's "calls to breakfast" which were every-15-minutes-wake-up-calls where Don had the audience march around the table. Many thought McNeil was corny but he didn't care. He had a special ability to talk to anyone, from foreign heads of state to humble day laborers.
|Tennis Court Dancing|
WROV continued to carry "Breakfast Club" until early 1960. WROV aired another popular syndicated show at night, Bill Stern Sports. Stern was best-known as the host of The Colgate Sports Newsreel. On his fifteen-minute shows he told tales of sports legends and strange occurrences which kept listeners eagerly waiting for the climax. Although some of his reports stretched the limits of credibility, no one doubted that he was a master storyteller who used emphasis, repetition, and pauses to perfection.
Locally, Jerry worked the afternoon shift and mostly played "pop" records of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Peggy Lee. During the late 1950s his show was called "Club 1240" and was usually brought to you by "Budweiser, the king of beers." Jerry recalls "Frank Bova, who had Bova Distributing Company and distributed Budweiser, had his own rating system.
"He'd go out and look alongside the road and count the empty beer bottles. And right after I started there must have been an upswing in the number of Budweiser bottles, because he thought I was doing a great job. If I'd had any idea that was going on I could have gone out and thrown out a few myself! But I didn't know that until years later."
|Jerry Joynes does his show from Heironimus, Campbell Avenue, 1958. The remote unit was kept in the back of a VW Bus.|
For a while, Jerry also did the 9pm - midnight slot, as well as Salem Rebels baseball games. This often meant Jerry had to be in two places at the same time. "I did Salem Rebels baseball. Now you talk about working, we only did the home games. I did 3 to 6pm and 9 to 12 midnight on the air, so I'd tape one hour of my night show, do 3-6, then go do the baseball game and the 6-9 guy would play back the hour on the air to give me time to get back to the radio station to pick up where the tape ran out and finish my night show."
His night show was called "Moonlight Serenade" and consisted of easy big band music. Glenn Miller's hit was the theme song. Says Jerry "I did my opening over that. It was over the intro then it would come up and they'd sing 'Moonlight Serenade' and I'd go into the first song. I was probably the last guy who ever did a radio show with piano music playing underneath my voice!"
Ken Tanner, a student at Roanoke Catholic High School, was hired in 1956 as disc jockey and analyst for high school football games. This, much to the chagrin of the nuns, who were not happy that Ken's job took time away from his school work and often caused him to "play hooky." Eventually, they gave him the boot. Ken then ended up at Jefferson High School, where they were much more understanding and gave him a special parking space on 6th Street so he could do the WROV morning show then quickly get to school and parked in time to make it to English class.
|Gary Cooper, Roanoke's first all-night DJ, did the Night Owl show on WROV in the late 1950s.|
That same year, WROV became Roanoke's first 24-hour radio station and Gary Cooper was hired as Roanoke's first all-night disc jockey. At the time, it was a really big deal for Roanoke to get its first 24-hour radio station. Gary was swamped with phone calls, primarily from the many people working the graveyard shift at the N&W Railroad at the time. For a while he called his all-night show "Gary's Party Time." He eventually became a mainstay at WRIS radio, where he worked well into the 1990s.
Barbara Felton also began working at the station in 1956. Barbara was born and raised in what is now called the "Old Southwest" section of Roanoke. After divorcing her husband, who owned Felton's Carpets in Roanoke, she needed to find a job—a daunting proposition since she had left college to become a housewife and had no particular skills. She heard that the Levines, who had just bought WROV, were hiring and they gave her a job.
She was hired as the traffic director and soon began doing the show, It's A Woman's World. She arrived with no experience in the business, but she caught on very quickly. She remembers it as being a very exciting, but very hard job. "It was a real learning experience. You learn how to put in long hours. I learned how to run traffic, I learned how to write copy, I did my own show. I sold all the time in that show. I went out and actually got the sponsors for that show. And, needless to say, I didn't earn very much money." This was the 1950s and—unfortunately—women's business skills generally weren't appreciated nor compensated as well as men's.
|Barbara Felton interviews the Kroger produce man for Woman's World.|
But it was a great place to learn about the broadcasting business. "You know, I needed more help in that office. When Burt and Muriel would go away, I was the receptionist, I was running traffic, I was doing the billing, my show. I mean, it was just extroardinary, It was stunning. I had to come in on Saturdays in order to get the work caught up. But, I got the experience that I needed, in order to know how to organize my day around too many hours of work."
Ken remembers that Barbara was baptized by fire. "As I recall, Barbara and her husband split up and she needed a job and the Levines offered her one. She was originally hired as a copy writer though she had never done this before. Early on, lots of others on the staff gave her a very hard time. I was her friend and always encouraged her and took up for her. She worked long hours and quickly became very good at her job. Then she began hosting the Woman's World show." During its run, "Woman's World" was the top rated show in its time slot and was sold out.
Another integral piece of the puzzle, Chief Engineer Alfred "Al" Beckley joined the staff in 1958 and stayed until he retired in the early 1990s. Of all the people who contributed to the success of WROV over the years, Al is probably the one who made the largest contribution while receiving the least recognition. As the station's engineer Al was relatively unknown among the legions of listeners. Yet he's the man who got the most out of the 250W signal (which went to 1000W during the day in 1962) and made WROV sound better coming out of an AM radio than any other station in town.
|Ken Tanner poses with orchestra leader Paul Whiteman in the Quonset Hut, 1958. Paul is the man who discovered singer Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby.|
It was not widely known, but during this era, Burt was also part owner of a 50,000 watt radio station in Oklahoma. Along with partners Arnold Lerner, Myer Feldman, Raymond Ruff, Harold Thurman and M. Van Zampft, he owned KOMA in Olkahoma City from December, 1956 through November, 1958. This group, we think, was a "front group" for Lou Poller who already owned the maximum number of stations permitted by the FCC but still saw KOMA as a good business opportunity.
It's interesting to note that the next owners of KOMA, Storz Broadcasting, hired as a program director Rod Roddy, who years later would become the announcer for Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. And in 1959, Roddy hired a young college guy named Ron Sunshine. It's also interesting to note that for a time, during Burt's ownership of KOMA, there was a kid working during school at his crosstown rival station KOCY named Fred Frelantz. Some believed that this was how the two met, but that's not the case (keep reading).
During the late 1950s, Ken Tanner was host of the long-running WROV morning show "Yawn Patrol" followed by Don McNeil, Barbara's "It's A Woman's World" and then, Lee Davis hosted the midday program. By 1959 Ken did the midday show. Ken, along with WDBJ's Bill Spahr and WBLU's Dick Moran are remembered for "Tennis Court Dancing," a series of summer hops held at various Roanoke and Salem tennis courts. Typically, Ken hosted Friday night dances at Roanoke's Fishburn Park.
|Vinton's Jim Gearhart did the early afternoon show in 1958.|
Another voice heard on WROV in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Jim Gearhart. Jim grew up in Vinton where his dad was a town councilman. Jim majored in Literature at Roanoke College and originally wanted to be a teacher. However, when looking for a summer job one year, he auditioned for a role in a local outdoor drama called Thy Kingdom Come. Jim won the part of "Chief Villain, the Roman Centurion."
One night, as the story goes, Burt was in the audience, heard Jim and offered him a job at WROV. At 5 A.M. the following Monday, Jim began his broadcasting career, but didn't have much experience with the equipment. So, in trouper style, Jim talked for several hours until help arrived. Hoarse but enthralled, he fell in love with the microphone. And it was that ad-lib morning gabfest which set the tone of his style and approach that he has kept to this day - his belief that the spoken word is more important the musical note. Jim currently does a talk show on a station in New Jersey.
But the original Roanoke radio superstar was a man named Armand W. Allyn, who went by the name of Jivin' Jackson. Jackson, already in his 30s when he came to Roanoke, had previously worked at WOR in New York but was let go, allegedly because of drinking problems. He landed in Norfolk at WNOR, where he worked with Jerry Joynes. This connection eventually led to his coming to WROV.
|A table card from one of the many events at the Grandin Road Kroger store.|
Jivin' Jackson had a rough sounding voice, similar to Wolfman Jack. He was inspired by Hoss Allen of Nashville's "15 WLAC"—who many Roanokers listened to at night for rhythm and blues music. Jackson played "r & b" records and jazz and was an authority on the subject, counting among his friends many black stars such as Lloyd Price and Little Richard. In 1959, the Broadcasting Yearbook listed that WROV's "specialty programs" included "21 hours" of weekly "Negro" programming—this, no doubt, due to Jackson.
Jackson began his show with "'You're listening to Jivin' Jackson, the square bear from way out in nowhere, the Ding-Dong Daddy from Bonsack, with the cool sound in and around Roanoke town, for all you cats and chicks, guys and dolls, and true lovers, too. Remember, ain't nothing shaking but the leaves on the trees and they wouldn't be shaking if it wasn't for the breeze. Ain't nothing jumping but the beans in the pot and they wouldn't be jumping if the water wasn't hot!"
Before long, Jivin' Jackson was one of the most popular disc jockeys in town. And this came as no surprise to Burt, who saw that this was the beginning of an era. As Burt put it, "Us older folks wanted to be young and the younger folks WERE young." Burt recalled "TV was only on at night. During the day, radio was the primary medium. But at night, we had to start developing a new audience. The new audience was teens. So we put Jackson on in late 1955."
Ken recalls a funny story involving Jivin' Jackson, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy were preparing for a concert at the old American Legion auditorium in Roanoke which had a six-channel audio board. "Tommy insisted on having six microphones for his orchestra and one for him" says Ken, "but with a six-channel board this wasn't possible. Tommy was upset and basically refused to play unless the additional microphone was added.
|Jivin' Jackson at (we think) the Boat Show.|
"About that time, Jivin' Jackson said 'Let me handle this' and mounted a mike on a stand, then ran the cord off into a dark corner and hid the end of it underneath a board. He then brought the mike out, told Tommy the problem was solved, Tommy placed it where he wanted it, said it sounded great, and the show went on. Afterward, they let Jimmy in on the secret. Jimmy said 'Well, that about figures. Tommy always was a dumbass!'"
It was during this era that WROV began its ascendance to a position of dominance in the market. It started with Jivin' Jackson and worked backwards. In a 1988 interview, Burt recalled "by 1956 we were number one at night—while WDBJ and WSLS sent their key staff off to their TV operations. In 1957 we were number one from afternoon drive up through midnight. And four or five years later, we were number one at all times."
Barbara remembers it well. "Working at WROV during the time that I was there, it was an exciting time to be there. Because in no time at all, WROV had taken over the radio marketplace. There was no doubt about it. They had the on-air personalities. So, in terms of a place to work in the broadcast community, WROV was it. It was an exciting time to be there. The station started growing by leaps and bounds. (Burt and Muriel) made a lot of changes. They were smart broadcasters. Both of them. And they literally and figuratively—in Arbitron and whatever else was being measured—they just took over the marketplace. So to that degree, it was a very exciting place to work."
But for some, the excitement was tempered by the long hours and the modest pay. In addition to being very smart broadcasters, the Levines were also good businesspeople who kept an eye on the bottom line. This made life difficult for Barbara, who earned less commission for sales of "Woman's World" than the male sales people. Also, unlike many of the single employees of the station, Barbara had three kids and trying to make ends meet was difficult, to say the least.
She recalls "Nothing came from discussing salary with Burt and Muriel. You'd talk to them about the fact that you needed a raise, or that you were being underpaid, your hours were too long, or whatever. There simply was no place in their way of thinking to discuss salary. The whole environment there was one of tremendous excitement of the halcyon days when everything was going well, and the tension between that and not making a good living."
|Jivin' Jackson plays records at a 1956 hop.|
This is also said to have contributed to the departure of Jivin' Jackson, who left in 1959. Having once worked in New York, and with his high ratings, Jackson also felt that he was wasn't treated fairly on pay day. Then, following a leave of absence, he was demoted. Jerry recalls, "Jack had throat cancer, I think it was, and he was out for about six months. I think Burt paid for his medical bills. And when he came back, his spot was filled. He did the all night show but that didn't work out for him so he left for WSLS."
All of this resulted in a lawsuit. Ken recalls, "If I remember correctly, Burt tried to enforce a no compete contract and Jackson struck back accusing Burt of marking off hours. If you put down, say, that you went to work at 3PM and got off at 9PM they would dock you an hour for dinner from 5 to 6 weather you took it or not. Most of the time Jack would eat at his desk. However in Burt's defense, he did hire Jackson when he was down on his luck, having landed in Norfolk 'on the bottle' from WOR in New York."
According to the Roanoke Times, Jackson said the station owed him more than $11,500.00 in overtime and damages. The station contended that since Jackson was a "special personality" and "professional" he fell outside the protection of the Federal Wage and Hour Act which covered "ordinary employees." Jackson's attorney argued, in a pre-trial hearing, that he was "just another employee." The newspaper made no mention of the non-compete clause. Both parties agreed to settle out of court in April, 1960—a week before the trial was to begin—for an undisclosed amount.
Once he was legally ensconced at WSLS, Jivin' Jackson broadcasted live from the DJ booth atop the Apperson Drive Lendy's. Lendy's also continued to sponsor Jerry on WROV, but he never worked in the Apperson Drive booth (though some people think they remember him there). "I was never in the booth. They were my sponsor at night for about a year...Budweiser and—what was it then—Shoney's. And I was there but I was just downstairs." Jivin' Jackson stayed at WSLS until 1961 when he took a job working for Colonel Sanders in Kentucky, a job he came by—no doubt—through his Lendy's connections.
As the decade drew to a close, WROV was becoming the dominant local radio station in most dayparts with an airstaff that included Jerry Joynes, Ken Tanner, Barbara Felton, Gary Cooper and a new announcer named Wynn Alby, who did an evening program called "Alby's Album" and was also involved with sports. The 1960s were just around the corner and with them, would come the final "pieces of the puzzle" that would result in WROV's dominence of the market.