The 1970s - The Rock of Roanoke - Part 3

Bart truly came into his own as the premiere air personality of the region during the 1970s. A WROV personality since 1968 and program director at the station since 1972, he'd crowned his years of experience in the market with the Billboard Award in 1975. He was the star of the station—a Roanoker Magazine interview called him "part actor, part philosopher, and part wild man"—and he had legions of fans, national recognition and lots of offers to go to larger markets.

But his small town background and lack of desire to go to a big city kept him here, much to the delight of all. "I don't want an apartment in New York City. I'm a country boy and I have to be able to get out in the woods to hike and fish or just sit on a log for hours and think" he said in 1977. In his private life he enjoyed being a husband and a dad and became an accomplished pilot in his spare time.

Bart in a photo used on the cover of an issue of The New Valley Review, 1974.

But professionally he was the best and he loved his job and the station. "This is a dynamite station and a dynamite staff" he said of WROV. And nobody better exemplified it than he. By the mid 1970s Bart was well-polished, confident and hilarious. He had moved from doing original songs to focusing his wit on promotions, production and occasional features.

The radio station in the late 1970s saw a few staff changes. The drive time slots remained consistent with Rob in the mornings and Bart in the afternoons. Rob was becoming very popular as a morning man and had begun a few new show features such as "O'Brady's Ladies" where Rob would name a daily color that women were supposed to wear to work that day.

Rob O'Brady probably raised more money for charity than any other Roanoke radio personality. Here's a 1977 Roanoker ad highlighting his participation in the March of Dimes Super-Walk.

Larry Bly continued working weekends, usually Saturday mornings and often doing an oldies show Sunday night. But the rest of the staff went through some churn.

Starr Stevens left in 1977 to return to FM radio at a station in Parkersburg, WV. He was eventually replaced by Jeff Clark. Jeff worked on the side as a volunteer fireman/paramedic and listeners of his show could sometimes hear a police scanner blaring in the background when the mike was on.

Starr Stevens added a beard right before leaving in 1977.

WROV continued a tradition of hiring the best creative people in the business for the job of Copy Writer / Promotions Director. Going all the way back to Jan Wilkins and John Hartmann in the sixties and Dick Bentz in the early 1970s, WROV was home to Kevin O'Neill in the mid 1970s.

Kevin became well known for his take-off on Randy Newman's 1977 hit "Short People." Titled "Tall People," the song portrayed them as big hairy apes and the lyrics included "They got arms like gorillas and long hairy toes; When you're standing beside 'em you got to look up their nose." The song and WROV received some national publicity when the lyrics were read by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. For a while the station ran promos calling itself "the station Johnny Carson talks about."

A May, 1978 Redbook article about "tall vs. short" mentioned the Randy Newman record, and Kevin O'Neill's rebuttal.

Kevin did a great Paul McCartney impression and was very creative. He later moved to NYC and worked for the ad agency that developed the Charlie Chaplin spots for IBM, which are said to have been his original idea.

When Kevin left in 1977 he was replaced by Fred Palmer. Fred was known to the rest of the staff as "Quiddly" and turned out many award-winning commercials over the next four years. Fred followed in Bart's footprints as a writer of original funny songs that included "Jonestown" and "I'm The Guy Who Went For The Ice" (about the Jim Jones "People's Temple" mess in 1979). He created characters around which promotions were designed including his nerdy, boring character "Robert Cheese," British Invasion expert "Chauncey Gardner" and ancient Indian mystic "Saline Debonay."

WANTED: BIG LICK'S BIG SIX. A print ad from 1977 that featured a photo of the air staff (see below).

Better yet, Fred seemed to become Bart's creative alter-ego, the two became the best of friends and inspired each other to new heights. An example was "The Adventures of Swayne Forkbeard: The Viking Who Lived Too Late" which aired on Bart's show in 1980. And the two were ingenious at turning seemingly random events into successful radio promotions.

Burt's son David Levine, who had taken over the reins as music director following Chuck's departure, stepped down to devote more time to his family business, The Gazebo plant shop, which he ran with his wife Sandy. Bill Jordan filled in as the music director for a while, then left in October, 1977 to return to the Hampton area to WGH, now being run by former WROV PD Bob Canada.

Bart in 1977. Screen captures courtesy of WDBJ-7 News and Lawrence Young.

Bill was replaced by Dave McKay. Jeff Clark left and his spot was filled by Dino Delgallo who went by "Dino" on the air. When Dino left he was followed by Tim Meadows. Tim was a high-strung up-tempo jock, one of the best to fill the night shift since Starr Stevens. He was a "kick butt and shoot the wounded" renegade sort of announcer who partied all the time and abused everything in the process, much like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

When Dave McKay left WROV to become a record promoter in October, 1978, the station needed a strong midday personality and a good music director. And they found one. Barry Michaels, better known to listeners as "The Giant Bear," was originally from Martinsville, VA. He came to WROV after having worked for several regional stations, the most recent being Ray Childers' Christiansburg station WQBX - 7Q.

WROV Staff, 1977: Rob O'Brady, Vince Miller, Jeff Clark, Bill Jordan, Larry Bly, Bart Prater

After two weeks of overnight training Barry moved to mid-days with the departure of McKay. Though he always had his eye on making it to the big time, Barry decided that Roanoke and WROV were the perfect place to perfect his craft of being a top-notch air personality and music director. And that he did, winning "Music Director of the Year" and "DJ of the Year" honors in 1979 from the Bobby Poe Pop Music Survey.

The Bear had wanted to work at WROV since his days as a student at Virginia Western Community College. His friendly, deep voice was liked by all who heard him including the many females who listened during the midday hours. One of Barry's trademarks was his loud, booming "YEEEEEEE-AH!" Another of his qualities was that he always sounded like he loved every minute of his air shift, which he did.

Bart & Larry host the Danny Thomas St. Jude's telethon on WSLS-TV, 1978.

"You have to make people feel good. The hardest thing about being on the air is that you have to leave your problems at home when you start your show." In that regard, few personalities have ever been better than The Giant Bear, who went on to work in Charleston, SC then Orlando, FL where he was the first ever DJ to do a live show from Walt Disney World.

In 1978, Burt decided it was time to renovate the control room, which had looked much the same since building the "concrete slab" section of the building in the late 1950s. The counters were redone with orange Formica, walls were paneled halfway up with sound-absorbing dark green carpeting going the rest of the way. Since nearly all the music was now on tape cartridges there was no need for the album bins so they were removed and replaced with a wall of racks for "carts" and the carousel cart rack that used to stand behind the air chair was removed.

The two turntables to the left of the air chair were removed and replaced with one on the right, which was recessed into the counter and covered with a clear Plexiglas lid that could be removed for the playing of the occasional record. The doors were painted orange to match the counters. But the equipment—the Gates Diplomat board, the Electro-Voice monitor and the rest—remained the same, though Al did install actual remote meters in place of the video monitor that used to hang from the ceiling.

The remodeled studio. The turntable was under the DP bottle and book on the left. The metal thing on the counter in the foreground was a copy stand that was dropped on the floor for a sound effect. You can see the window back into the Quonset Hut part of the building, the transmitter log on the clipboard, and a "personal pint of pure crude oil" (the little brown box on the back of the console).

About this time, Bart did his infamous "Tour of WROV" in which he used the theater of the mind to show us the "new" station including DJ Lounge (where Rob O'Brady was relaxing with his girlfriend), the GM's office (where Don Foutz was asleep on his desk) and the WROV Chapel "where everyday comes our pray for money."

According to legend, Bart aired "the tour" one day when Burt Levine was supposed to be flying out of town on business, unbeknownst to him, Burt missed his flight and was being driven home in a cab listening to the station at the time, and wasn't terribly happy.

The Giant Bear. Barry Michaels in the WROV production room, 1979.

In 1979, Steve Finnegan joined the staff after working at WFIR/WPVR where he was fired for playing a record that was too up-tempo for their MOR format. Steve was from Erie, PA but had lived in Roanoke and gone to Cave Spring High School, where he worked on the school's closed-circuit radio station WCSH with his friend Pat Garrett , who he met because of WROV. Says Pat: "I was doing the Cave Spring High School reports on Chuck's show and met Rich Randall in late 1974 when he came to work overnights.

"Shortly after meeting him I was at some friend-of-a-friend's birthday party and Rich and WROV were the background entertainment. I saw one guy trying to call the radio station to make a request. He was Steve Finnegan. I told him I knew Rich and we began talking about WROV and how great a radio station it was, he said 'I want to know who that Garrett guy is' and the rest is history.

Steve Finnegan has a smoke, 1979.

Both spent evenings riding around Roanoke cutting their radio teeth listening to Chuck and Starr on WROV and other radio stars that could be tuned in after dark. "We would regularly drive all the way up to the top of Poor Mountain—a good 20 mile drive if not more—and park on the side of the road near the WDBJ transmitter building so we could hear John Landecker and The Real Bob James on the radio with no interference.

"Other times we would wrap one end of a long wire around the antenna of the radio, drag it through the window and all the way out into the yard and hook the other end to the clothesline so we could pick them at home. Once, Steve called Bob James, got on WGAR and won his 'Rate A Joke' contest with his 'Grecian Urn' gag." (Q: "What's a Grecian Urn?" A: "Oh, about $5.00 an hour!")

John "Records" Landecker of WLS, Chicago & The Real Bob James of WGAR, Cleveland inspired Finnegan, Garrett and many others in the 1970s. (photos compliments of

"We absolutely were in complete total awe of those guys. John Landecker did his nightly 'Boogie Checks' where he'd put listeners on the air and generally abuse them. Bob James did bits. My favorite one featured Bob calling the Shaker Heights Cleaners and telling them he had a small fur suit he needed to have cleaned but the guy wearing it couldn't take it off. Turned out that he was describing a monkey.

"Steve graduated from Cave Spring in 1975 and I did in 1976. I sent John Landecker a graduation announcement, and we'd decided that that summer we were going to drive to Chicago, find the station, and walk in and 'talk radio' with those guys. Years later I read Superjock! by WLS's Larry Lujack, and in it Larry basically said 'all you young radio wanna-bes, PLEASE don't show up here wanting to 'talk radio!!!' No, we weren't full of ourselves, were we?"

Fred Palmer, a.k.a. "Quiddly" as "Saline DeBonay" in 1979.

A few other events of note happened in 1979. The first was the Roanoke Ice Storm of January 20-21, 1979. Up to an inch of solid ice was reported over sections of Southwest Virginia. Numerous trees and power lines came down causing extended power outages and some homes were without power for over ten days. During the worst of it, WROV was the only radio or TV station not to go off the air and won lots of loyal listeners.

Prater & Palmer jumped on this immediately and were giving away "I Survived The Ice Storm" shirts to people who called in and described how they were getting through it. Six months later, they gave away hundreds of gallons of Ice Cream and more shirts in what they called the "Ice Cream Storm."

Bart talks to listeners after the Ice Storm of 1979 while sporting an "Ice Storm" shirt. Also courtesy of WDBJ-7 News.

Another big WROV Prater & Palmer promotional success that year was the Oddball Olympics. The station set up camp for a week at Roanoke Salem Plaza with a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records on hand, and challenged people to come out and try to set new world records. And several were. Unofficial world records were set in the barrel roll and doughnut eating. Milton Young broke the world record for swinging, setting a new record of 128 hours. Bobby Kempf set the world "lemon eating" record by eating three, with peels, in 15.3 seconds.

On the days leading up to the early Earth re-entry of NASA's Skylab space station on July 11, 1979, Rob O'Brady had a great idea for a promotion that would raise money for one of his favorite charities. WROV issued "Skylab Can't Hurt Me" guarantees. For a $1.00 donation to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, one received a written guarantee (signed by Fred Palmer's character Saline DeBonay) that promised pieces of Skylab would not fall on your house (and if one did anyway, the $1.00 would be cheerfully refunded, no questions asked).

Tim Meadows, Rob O'Brady, "Saline DeBonay", and Bart prepare to move the station to Dixie Caverns so it will be safe from falling Skylab parts in July 1979.

On the day of re-entry the station was "moved" from 15th & Cleveland Avenue to inside of Dixie Caverns so that Skylab wouldn't land on it. The newspaper ran photos of equipment being moved out of the building and wanted a photo of Saline DeBonay, so Ellen Dowdy turned Fred into an old mystical-looking old Indian man with her theatrical makeup.

Other promotions that year included the giving away of a Mr. Pibb van. During the contest, various members of the air staff showed it off by driving it around town. A few days after it was over, the winner brought it back to the station complaining that he'd found marijuana seeds on the carpet under the driver's seat. And after the Iranian hostage ordeal began in November, talk of an "oil crisis" led to the station giving away pint-sized "personal" bottles of real crude oil.

The WROV Skylab Can't Hurt Me Guarantee of 1979. If a piece of Skylab hit your house, you got your $1.00 back.

1979 proved to be the last big "hurrah" and the end of an era for WROV, the Rock of Roanoke. The station dominated the ratings, largely because of the many loyal listeners won and friends made during the Ice Storm and from the publicity gained from the Oddball Olympics. The solid air staff of Rob, Barry, Bart, Tim and "The FINMAN" sounded great.

But toward the end of summer, Aylett Coleman, owner of easy listening station WLRG, announced that beginning on New Year's Day, 1980 he would be changing the format to Top 40 in what would be the birth of Roanoke's first FM CHR (contemporary hit radio) station, WXLK - K92. Ironically, Burt's decision to sell his FM frequency years before had gone full circle and was about to come back and bite him.

KISS with Bart & Jay Prater, Barry Michaels & contest winners in 1979.

The last jock to join the WROV staff in the 1970s was Chris Stevens, real name Dave Shropshire. Dave replaced Tim Meadows, who had to leave the station due to personal problems in November, 1979. As "Chris", Dave brought along his "cast of characters" (all were Dave doing different voices) including Maynard Fleckman, Mr. Rogers, Lester Road Hog, Poppin' Pervert the strange little doughboy and The Rev. Fletcher T. Cobb.

Dave also did reviews of movie satires including "Star Warts" and "Paws" (the story of a New England town attacked by a giant rabbit). Dave is now in Davenport, IA where he runs his own studio, Shropsounds . Tim Meadows returned in the late 1980s as part of the original lineup of WROV 96.3 FM. His troubles returned and sadly, he passed away in the early 1990s.

Dave Shropshire, known to WROV listeners as Chris Stevens, 1980.

K92, preparing to explode onto the Roanoke Radio scene with the dawn of the 1980s, hired Vince "The Prince" Miller away from WROV in December. They also brought Bill Jordan back to the Roanoke Valley and hired Bucky Stover to work weekends. And Larry Dowdy already worked for Aylett Coleman at WLRG.

K92 came on the air on New Year's Eve playing the Doobie Brothers' "Listen To The Music" and proclaiming how much better it sounded in stereo. It was long overdue. WROV, would, for the time being, continue business as usual. FMs had come and gone before, Q99 had tried Top 40 and rock formats but had never displaced WROV as the king of Roanoke rock radio.

But this time something seemed different. If they'd hired Bill, Vince and Bucky, all thought, they must be serious. The dynamics of the market had changed—big time. Though WROV would continue to provide quality entertainment for years to come, everyone saw the writing on the wall. Welcome to the 1980s.