The beginning of a new decade—though merely the rolling over of a digit in the "tens" column on the calendar—often brings far more in terms of changing attitudes and the collective mind set of the population. This was never more true than in 1980.
The American political landscape changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. Music changed forever with the death of John Lennon. And Roanoke radio entered the FM era when K92 burst onto the scene with their crew of energetic, youthful sounding DJs playing the hits in stereo.
|Barry Michaels did mid-days on WROV from 1978 through 1981.|
The debut of K92 would eventually lead to the end of WROV as listeners had come to know it but the change was gradual. Burt Levine, many have said, was a good station manager because he didn't react to changes in the market until he had to. He was one to ride out temporary storms of public opinion and make changes, rationally, when needed.
Burt didn't pull all the Beatles records after the 1966 John Lennon flap, he didn't buy the station's first professionally produced jingle package until three years after one was first heard on Pixie Radio. He'd competed against an FM rock station, WSLQ, and won. And he wasn't about to change the course of WROV in a knee-jerk reaction to Aylett Coleman putting a new CHR FM station on the air.
|Jim Carroll, shown here in 1980, covered over 1,300 high school sporting events between 1964 and 2004.|
So, for most of 1980, it continued to be business as usual at 15th & Cleveland. The air staff remained mostly intact with Rob O'Brady in the mornings, Barry Michaels midday, Bart Prater in the afternoons, Dave Shropshire as Chris Stevens at night and Steve Finnegan on the all-night show. Larry Bly kept doing his Saturday morning/Sunday night shows. The only small change was the hiring of Pat Garrett for weekend overnights and fill-ins. Pat was hired to fill the opening created when Vince "The Prince" Miller left to do the late night show on the new K92.
Everything else—including the music format and the commitment to public service—remained intact. In January, Rob raised the money to pay the expenses for a former Hollins College student who was to be a torch bearer for the Lake Placid, NY, Olympics. Declaring January 21 to be "Suzy Mink Day," Rob raised almost $700 for the cause. Rob was still doing the school menus in his own unique style and telling "O'Brady's Ladies" what colors to wear and had just taken his 600th office staff to "Lunch With Rob."
|Cards like these were used to keep track of which oldies were played when Barry was the music director. Recognize any familiar names or initials?|
Barry continued as music director, spending much time talking to record stores, musicians, promoters and listeners and rolling this information into a playlist that truly reflected the tastes of Roanoke. Finnegan & Garrett alternated for the all-night show. James Norman, whose primary job was being the remote engineer, also did an occasional weekend all-night show.
The station brought back its weekly countdown show, hosted by Chris, who continued his nightly show with his "cast of characters" and who, as a Star Wars fanatic, had listeners sign a petition in an attempt to get him a role in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back which was released later that year. Though he wasn't successful, he did collect 350 signatures and got the attention of LucasFilms VP Sid Ganis who wrote Chris a nice letter and said he'd given a tape of Chris doing an episode of "Battlestar Gashog" to George Lucas.
|Rob O'Brady takes a break from waking up the Roanoke valley to sip his coffee.|
And Bart, now in his twelfth year at the station, was still the funniest guy in town (well, except maybe for Larry) and with Fred Palmer (a.k.a. "Quiddly") at the creative services desk continued to come up with fun and ingenious contests and promotions. One came in May, 1980 following the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
The station contacted a radio station in southwest Washington and had them send a coffee can full of genuine Mt. St. Helens volcanic ash, which was packaged in small transparent containers and given away in the "Blow Your Top" contest. Each hour listeners called in, "blew their tops" about something that was making them angry, and received packages of ash for doing so.
|Genuine ash from the Mt. St. Helens volcano was given to folks who "blew their top."|
Another was "The Robert Cheese Giveaway." You can imagine how much junk you'd find in a building that had housed a radio station for over twenty-five years. Old albums, Frisbees, pen and pencil sets, lighters, Hazel Bishop compacts, etc.
Well, Fred and Bart gathered up all of this unrelated random stuff then created the boring, bland, and nerdy character Robert Cheese (played by Fred) and made him the focal point of giving it away. Promos featured "Robert" saying "You probably won't want this stuff, it's not very interesting, but here it is..." and each hour the phones lit up as each thing was given away. Talk about getting your house cleaned "Tom Sawyer" style.
|Bart hosts a segment of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, Labor Day, 1980.|
Heading into the spring ratings, WROV relied upon an old standard promotion, "Super Hi-Lo" where listeners called in, one per hour, to guess the amount of the current jackpot. Each was told, using high and low pitched bell sound effects, whether their guess was high or low and this continued until someone narrowed it down and correctly guessed the amount in the jackpot. The contest lasted the entire twelve-week ratings period and included twenty jackpots which averaged being about $85.
And the station again staged the Oddball Olympics in May, 1980 at the Roanoke Salem Plaza. The festivities began with the "Transistor Marching Oddballs" parade which was held near the old Lakeside site in Salem. Listeners were invited to show up with a transistor radio and march with it tuned to WROV, which played "marching music" (actually some disco records) while the parade was taking place.
|Super Hi-Lo ads appeared in The Roanoke Times & World News every weekday in April and May, 1980. The original photo of Rob (top left) was redone because everyone thought it made Rob look like a criminal on a "WANTED" poster.|
The previous year, hundreds of people participated in the parade but this year was different. In what was the first real sign of the station's losing its younger listeners to K92, the crowd was much smaller than the year before. Attendance during the week of "Oddball Olympics" events wasn't much better, still, a good time was had by the staff and those who did attend.
Another popular WROV promotion continued into the summer: WROV Rovers Softball. Led by manager Rob O'Brady, the Rovers consisted of members of the air staff and a few other regulars who were good softball players (thank heavens) and played games against other area businesses and civic groups including WDBJ-TV and the Bank of Virginia. Most people don't realize that the Rovers played a LOT of games against almost anybody who wanted to take them on.
|The WROV Rovers and Salem Redbirds combined fan clubs in 1980.|
In 1980, in an ad in the Valley Shopper, Rob said "We try to give everyone an equal opportunity to come out and enjoy softball with us. Because interest has been so great, we seem to average 80 to 90 games per season. We have the kind of team everyone can enjoy. We can play competitive ball with league and church teams, or have a great time spending the afternoon playing ball with a troop of Girl Scouts."
"We helped support the Cave Spring Little American League by playing ball with the coaches and we think everybody had a great time, especially the kids who got to watch their coaches play." We know that the guys who played for the Rovers had a good time. The games were fun, also, the post game activities usually included Rob and the guys going out and hoisting a few cold ones. The Rovers also took part in several promotions with the Salem Redbirds baseball team.
|WROV Oddball Olympics DJ Cookie Eating Contest, May 1980, Roanoke Salem Plaza. Barry and Steve Finnegan eat as Rob emcees; Chris Stevens keeps up; Bart wins, Pat Garrett grabs his drink.|
Another promotion was the WROV Energy Army. Those who were alive back then remember that 52 Americans were being held hostage in Iran by students who followed the Ayatollah Khomeini, leading to much anti-Arab sentiment. This became even worse when a Roanoke Marine named Davis Harvey was killed in a failed rescue attempt. At the time, Americans were frustrated and angry and Iran-bashing was a sure ratings winner. WROV had previously given out "Roanoke Valley United for Freedom" armbands. The "Energy Army" piggy-backed on that.
The "Energy Army" promotion was publicized with a song by Bart & Quiddly saying Iran "one, two, three and a half; we don't need no Iranian gas, they can keep their oil and keep their gas and pump it up Khomeini's nose" with military marching drums playing in the background. The actual promotion rewarded listeners with t-shirts (which you can see modeled in the picture below) for calling in with ideas on how to use less oil and gasoline.
|The Oddball Olympics Parade banner was carried in the parade by Steve Finnegan and Pat Garrett in 1980. In this picture you'll also find Ellen Dowdy as Wonder Woman and Fred Palmer as Saline Debonay.|
Though things at the radio station seemed normal on the surface, everybody deep down seemed to realize that the writing was on the wall. Though some of the younger folks on the staff still seemed to be in a state of denial—holding out hope that Roanokers with ratings diaries would continue to "dance with the person who brought them to the prom" instead of going with the new and technologically superior sound of K92—most knew that the end of the reign of The Rock of Roanoke was near. It came on the day we called "Black Monday." August 18, 1980. The day the ratings results arrived.
That day, most of the staff, including Bart and Rob, were at Mill Mountain Zoo doing a remote to raise enough money for two squirrel monkeys, a toucan and two goats (apparently some of the existing animals were getting lonely, if you know what we mean). The station did an all-day remote which included putting Rob in the toucan cage and not letting him out until a donations milestone was met. People were allowed into the zoo for free but were encouraged to contribute to the cause.
|Bart & Rob did these publicity photographs for the Mill Mountain Zoo promotion. The stuffed toy monkey was used in the pictures to underscore the main reason we were there.|
Pat Garrett recalls "The main goal of the zoo promotion was to raise enough money to get the monkeys. The zoo already had about seven squirrel monkeys and all of them were males. They were apparently so—let's just say 'starved for affection'— that they were engaging in some—let's just say 'interesting'—behavior. They didn't seem to care one bit that visitors to the zoo were standing there watching.
"Apparently some of the visiting parents of small kids weren't happy over having to answer questions like "Dad what are those monkeys doing in there?" and telling the zoo people about it. They asked the station for help and we were happy to oblige. The other animals were added to the 'want list' but the main focus of the promotion was the "monkey" situation. Remember the Simon & Garfunkel song that went 'someone told me its all happening at the zoo?' We didn't use that for the theme song but it would have been fitting."
|Rob in the toucan cage at the Mill Mountain Zoo, August 1980.|
Meanwhile, back at the station, it was learned that K92 had knocked WROV from its traditional spot at the top of the local rock radio ratings. The split in the rock audience put WSLC at the top, followed by K92, WPVR, WFIR and then WROV. Though all saw it coming, going from #1 to #5 in a year was still a bitter pill to swallow, and all knew that changes would be coming soon.
Some of the first ones involved staff members who moved on. In August, Steve Finnegan left WROV for WRQK in Greensboro, NC. Steve is said to have gotten this job because he wanted fifty cents per hour less than that demanded by John Isley (who, upon missing this opportunity, went to Charlotte where he met Billy James and began what became the John Boy & Billy Show). Steve was replaced on the overnight show by John King. John came from WUEZ in Salem and had worked the Blacksburg area on WJJJ, WVVV and WUVT.
|Bart & Rob and the rest of the staff spent a day in August, 1980 raising money for the Mill Mountain Zoo. This ad later appeared in a Roanoker magazine.|
About a month later, Chris Stevens left for a job at WKTM in Charleston, SC. He left his "Chris Stevens" name at WROV and has since used his real name, Dave Shropshire. John King took over the night show and Pat Garrett held down the overnight shift until Matt Eakle came on board.
Matt came from doing mornings at WSLQ-99. And Ben Peyton, hired a few months earlier as WROV Operations Manager, left to start his own business. Though all would have been leaving anyway, the timing made it feel as though they were the first casualties of the ratings war.
|Matt Eakle & John King both WUVT alumni, came onboard in late 1980.|
As the year ended, Burt decided to cede the teenage listeners and their music to K92 and target an adult audience. The new catch phrase was "This is the radio station you grew up with, and we've grown up with you." The harder records were taken off the playlist. The staff was told to turn down the energy and address the 25-49 crowd. A new PD, Jim Lewis, was hired to "guide" the staff through the transition.
Jim had a big frizzy blonde hairdo that prompted Bart to call him "Rasta Man." WROV added Alan Archer's "Accurate" forecasts and Howard Cosell's sports commentary and in 1981 resumed Paul Harvey's daily broadcasts—not heard on WROV since the 1950s. Jim Carroll covered more local high school games and the hourly IDs said "full service radio - WROV Roanoke."
|Burt Levine and Aylett Coleman were featured in this infamous Roanoker magazine cartoon|
In 1981 Mike McVay, PD of WAKY in Louisville, KY, was hired as the station consultant. McVay showed up once a month, programmed the music and critiqued the announcers. Having a consultant didn't go over well with Bart (whose resume arguably sported far more accolades than his) nor with some of the others. It seemed that the more bland and boring the announcers were, the more he liked it. For some, it was hard not to become cynical.
Meanwhile, across town, the K92 folks were having the time of their lives and the listeners and local press were loving every minute of it. Especially The Roanoker magazine, who had recently run a cartoon of Burt and Aylett racing around a track with Aylett pulling into the lead and Burt about to step on what appeared to be a pile of something on the track.
Pat remembers "One fall day in 1980 I went by the station to get my paycheck. Burt and Bart were standing in the lobby looking at the new edition of The Roanoker and having a disagreement over whether the little 'blob' on the track where Burt was about to put his right foot down was an ink spot or a pile of shit. Burt said 'They wouldn't draw me stepping in shit.' Bart insisted 'Oh it's shit all right, they even drew in the little stink lines.'"
|K92 was cool. In 1980, the Roanoker magazine put them on the cover in Star Trek attire. From left to right: Bill Jordan, David Lee Michaels, John Barry, Larry Dowdy, Vince Miller and Russ Brown.|
The Roanoker also did a cover photo of the K92 crew in Star Trek uniforms and several feature articles. K92 was cool. The WROV air staffers respected them and really wanted to compete with them. But it would have been darned near impossible given their FM vs. AM advantage. Still, they felt like they could do itat least in the Roanoke metro area—if given the chance. But management decided that this was futile and began pushing the station in a more adult direction. Some of the staff adapted to it well, but for others it was only a matter of time before they'd want to move across town and join the K92 party.
But by no means did they throw in the towel. In fact, 1981 brought the biggest promotion ever to WROV, the "prize-winning, money-saving discount-getting, great-things-can-happen-to-you, genuine plastic SUPERCARD." Cards were distributed through the newspaper and sponsors and were good for discounts at various merchants. They had serial numbers that were used in contests. Every hour a Supercard number was announced on the air and the holder had one hour to call in. Each card had on the back a separate verification number, like a PIN, that the winner used for positive identification.
|The "Prize-Winning Money-Saving Discount-Getting Great-Things-Can-Happen-To-You" WROV Supercard gave listeners chances to win all sorts of good stuff.|
The Supercards were distributed on fliers that listed all the prizes to be given away. Each flier included an entry blank that could be filled out and mailed in to qualify the registrant for additional bonus prizes. Burt went all out this time, giving away $1000 worth of furniture, a seven-day trip for two to Hawaii, an organ, a three-night Disney World trip for a family of four, the winner's weight in fine imported cheeses, a waterbed and even a 1981 Isuzu in what was billed as WROV's "biggest contest ever." Simultaneously, the station continued its drift toward being adult-oriented by increasing news, weather and sports, adding traffic reports.
When winners called in, they were tape recorded and the phone conversation was later played back over the air. At least they were SUPPOSED to be tape recorded. Pat remembers "One night I was giving away a prize package, it consisted of a Pentel pen set, a package of meat products from Valleydale and several other things. The hour was almost over and I was going into a break when the phone rang. I answered it and it was the winning card holder, a guy whose name was Joseph Sparrow. I didn't have time to record him so—being a naive 23 year old radio guy with relatively little experience—I decided to put him on the air live. Upon rewarding him the prize Joseph loudly proclaimed to the audience 'I'M A HAPPY MO-THER-F***-ER!!!'"
|You could win ALL THIS COOL STUFF with your WROV Supercard during the Spring of 1981.|
"I was certain that I was going to be fired for this and so were several other listeners who called in. Upon finding out about it, Burt called me and said 'Well, I guess you learned your lesson, didn't you? Just be sure you don't make that same mistake again!' I happened to be airchecking the show that night and we ended up using that 'incident' for a promo, bleeping out the 'F***-ER' part by inserting a loud, cartoon 'BOINNNG!!' sound effect. I still have that tape somewhere and when I find it it will be added to the WROV History Website."