The 1980s - The Station You Grew Up With
Part 3

During the 1980s WROV was a regular participant in the annual Downtown Roanoke Bed Race to benefit the United Fund. Begun in 1982, the race featured area businesses with roll-able hospital beds decorated with various themes, who raced down Jefferson Street (starting in 1986 it was held at Lakeside). In 1984 the event added the first "Outrageous Olympics" in which members of the public competed in various eating contests reminiscent of the WROV Oddball Olympics of 1979-80.

WROV's 1984 entry featured members of the station dressed in tuxedos, carrying wine glasses and cigars. When asked about a winning strategy, Bruce Jacobson said "Winning is out of the question; survival is the key. We've all been practicing a lot. This is not our first encounter with a bed." Other entrants included area hospitals whose beds had health related themes. Each year hundreds of dollars was raised by the event for the United Fund.

Listeners got buttons when Bruce did the night show in 1985.

The 1980s brought a stream of bad luck to WROV which helped lead to Burt Levine finally deciding to sell it. The advent of FM Top 40 radio in Roanoke with K92 caused the station to lose its status as the top-rated rock station in town, but that wasn't the worst.

In May, 1983, Burt's wife and long-time business partner Muriel suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm that left her in a coma. Muriel always took care of the bookkeeping and scheduling of commercials from her office in the Levine home and truly was the "power behind the throne."

Burt recalled "We were finishing up a breakfast meeting when she put her head down on the table, like you might if someone had said something you didn't agree with. Then about five seconds later she came to and said she didn't remember what had just happened. We were a little concerned but everything seemed OK. But a couple of minutes later her whole body just went limp."

Though Muriel never regained consciousness, Burt continued to consider her to be part of the business and signed her name to the company's holiday gifts to employees. But he now had to spend more time tending to the responsibility of running the station and over the next five years it seemed to wear him down.

To reflect a more mature image the station began using this logo around 1982.

In October 1984, Rob O'Brady's dog of six years, Rampart, was found dead in his back yard. The dog was most likely poisoned, but his body was cremated before any sort of a veterinary autopsy could be performed.

Authorities "guessed" that the dog had been starved to death and an over-zealous press and public saw a chance to make a big splash by taking down a celebrity. Remember, these were the mid 1980s, the decade in which cable TV gave us Geraldo Rivera and cable channels resorted to sleazy tabloid fluff to fill the schedule and attract viewers. News stories quoted "unnamed" sources and aired video that had been edited to make Rob's yard look like a crime scene in what had to be an all time low for Roanoke journalism.

Rob, who has probably done more for local charities than any other person in the history of the city, was put through three weeks of hell for something he did not do. Burt, as always, refused to act on a whim with a knee-jerk reaction and stood by Rob, though he did take him off the air until the mess blew over.

Steve McFarland was the morning man and PD in 1985

When it did, Rob bravely returned to his show, showing he had more character than those who had falsely accused him. But the episode had taken its toll on Rob, who seemed to have aged several years from the stress, and on the station which had again weathered a PR nightmare.

1985 wasn't much better. In an attempt to turn things around, WROV attempted a big spring ratings period promotion, the WROV "$100,000 Cash Grab." Beginning on April 4, two people per day qualified for the big "Run for the Money" giveaway by being the correct numbered callers on Steve McFarland's morning show.

Over the next two months, a total of eighty-four people won the chance to spend sixty seconds grabbing as much "cash" as they could from a mountain of play money in a meeting room at the civic center in June. Totals would be tallied and in the end, the person who had grabbed the largest amount of play money would win that amount of REAL money in payments that would be spread out over the next year. In the end, the winner took home about $30,000.

The WROV $100,000 Cash Grab of 1985.

This sort of contest was quite a shift for Burt Levine, who in the fall of 1984 said that he preferred to attract listeners with quality programming instead of massive cash giveaways. This time, said Burt, "we thought we shouldn't take too many chances, we should do what is expected."

As one would have guessed, it drew some criticism from competitors including K92, who called it "a deception to the public" because the promotional announcements made it sound as if the winner would get the entire $100,000. K92 even ran promos on the air calling the cash grab "B.S.—a broadcast sham."

And it proved to be a financial disaster for the radio station as well. Larry Bly recalls "Laban and I were on the air at the Salem Civic Center that day and we knew right then and there that Burt was in big trouble. (The winner) sailed down the floor and scooped up just about every fake dollar that was laying there. Supposedly it was to be covered by insurance, but Burt must have been too cheap to take insurance out. So the station had to pay big-time over a period of many many months."

The Flood of 1985. In the aftermath, Burt did his best to grin and bear it. All of the carpet (in pile behind him) had to go, along with most of the record library which was kept in the lower "Quonset hut" portion of the building.

Then on Halloween night, 1985, it started raining and didn't stop for five days. The rain, indirectly related to Hurricane Juan, became heavy on Monday, November 4 and continued through the next day causing the Roanoke Flood of 1985. Before it was finished, it had killed 10 Roanokers, cost $440 million dollars in damage, and knocked WROV off the air for more than just a few hours for the first time since it went on in 1946. The station's location in "the heart of P.D. Bottom" about 100 yards from the river was a bad place to be for this record-breaking flood.

Burt and the rest of the staff stood by his desk watching the water come closer and closer, saying "it hit us all of a sudden like a fire hydrant opening up." He finally made the decision to take the station off the air and move the transmitting equipment and everything else they could out of the Quonset hut to the higher part of the building.

Jeff Dickerson recalls "Mike Bell was the last one on air before the mighty 'Noke flooded the studios and the last words he said before killing the power were 'Thanks for stopping by.'" WROV was back on the air in about a week, though the building sustained much damage. Especially the music library which was in the "hut." Many of the actual records Roanoke grew up listening to were ruined and had to be thrown out, as well as all of the carpet in the building.

Rob O'Brady & Bruce Jacobson did afternoons together for a while in 1984.

And this came on the heels of some of the station's worst-ever ratings. In a year that saw K92 dominate as it never had before with a 34.9% share of the listening audience, WROV slipped to seventh place with only 4.2% and finished behind (in this order) K92, WPVR, Q99, WSLC, WFIR, WJLM and WTOY. Roanoke was now dominated by FM stations, which accounted for 72% of all listening in the valley in 1985.

Ironically, WROV—the station who rose to prominence thirty years prior by making radio "exciting with local personalities to take the place of national personalities" saw itself increasingly doing just the opposite. In 1985 they began carrying a Wednesday night program with David Brenner and occasional "album parties" featuring certain pop stars. Plus much more sports with the addition of UVa football and basketball games.

A WROV / Mr. PIBB bumper sticker from the mid 1980s.

And the station continued softening up for the new adult target audience of 25-54 year olds where they actually saw modest gains in the ratings; for example, while Burt approved of airing a special on the history of the band Chicago, he refused one on the Rolling Stones saying "an hour and a half of solid Stones would turn off too many of the station's female listeners."

By 1986, Steve McFarland was doing mornings and Drew Lane, who had formerly played on the Virginia Tech baseball team, was doing sports for him. Mike Bell, Rob O'Brady, and Bruce were still around, as well as Sam Giles and Dave Cowan. The station continued its trend toward more syndicated programming, especially on weekends when listeners could hear the Beatles-oriented show "Ticket To Ride" with WNEW, New York's Scott Muni on Sunday nights.

Drew Lane worked mornings in the late 1980s and is now part of a morning team in Detroit.

Sam Giles did an "Album Tracks" show on Sunday nights. Laban & Larry continued doing their weekend shows three Saturdays per month with Jack Fisher working on the fourth. Laban and Larry were offered a full-time show on the station. Laban enthusiastically wanted to do it, but Larry pointed out how the "time-consuming" nature of it would interfere with his advertising work and they turned it down. McFarland eventually left and was replaced as PD by Mike Bell.

Fred Frelantz, back from three years with "Roanoke," had just announced that he was going to return to WROV, joining Jack once a month as they had done in the early 1980s. But this was not to be. WROV's bad news continued in June, 1986 on a Friday the 13th when Fred died in a fire in his apartment. Fred, who always left burning cigarettes in ashtrays and standing up on tables, unknowingly dropped ashes into a stuffed chair in his living room while enjoying some popcorn and TV before going to bed.

Fred had his hair permed in 1983 when The Vikings became Roanoke.

The chair smoldered for several hours and the intense heat melted the smoke detector which apparently held dead batteries and probably would have saved him. One of Fred's upstairs neighbors awoke to a popping sound and smelled smoke but decided to check the doors of the building's apartments to find the location of the fire before calling for help.

Fred was found on his bedroom floor. The fire department thought that he became aware of the fire, got up and was overcome by the smoke and heat in the living room. Fred was dead on arrival at Roanoke Memorial Hospital. John Andrews was on the air at WROV and was the first to receive the bad news. Since Fred had no family in Roanoke, Fred's longtime business/music partner Tommy Holcomb made the funeral arrangements. Fred was a legendary personality and was the "king" in Roanoke. And in retrospect, his life paralleled the radio station's. It really took off just before Fred arrived, and it began fading away a few years after he passed away.

Fred in a drawing by John Earle of the Roanoke Times & World News.

WROV's big fall promotion for 1986 was giving away a pair of World Series tickets (plus travel expenses) to Game 6 and Game 7 of what may have been one of the best World Series' ever. The Boston Red Sox got out to a 3-2 game lead only to lose (much to the chagrin of one Rob O'Brady) to the New York Mets because of what some fans call "The Curse of the Bambino" which is said to have begun hexing the Red Sox in 1920 when they traded Babe Ruth to a team in New York. This, they said, was why the Sox blew a 5-2 lead held in the Eighth and went on to lose Game 7 by score of 6-5 in the Eleventh.

Every baseball fan in Roanoke had a chance to win them through a baseball trivia contest which began Monday morning, October 20. Every hour at twenty minutes past the hour, caller number ten got to answer a baseball trivia question. The questions were not easy; WROV's Operations Manager Mike Bell wanted it that way. After four days only twenty people had answered correctly. Of them, the winner was selected in a drawing. The winner was Scott Klein of Salem and he was an appropriate winner.

Scott's grandfather Harry had just passed away the previous April. At his funeral, a Jewish service on Long Island, everyone wore Mets caps instead of yarmulkes. After the funeral the Mets went on an eleven game winning streak and went on to finish 108-54, one of the best records on baseball history. Throughout the series, every time the Mets got into a jam, Scott said he went off into a corner and prayed to his grandfather. Just before the winner was drawn, Scott says he asked his grandfather for one more favor. Scott was there for the Game 7 comeback and said of his grandfather "Now I know, I just know, he's going wild up there."

Trivia contests were a regular occurrence on WROV for 30 years. It was a perfect promotion. It was fun, the material for questions was endless, and the prizes could be anything (and usually weren't very expensive). During the 1980s, trivia winners got their five minutes of fame plus these certificates. The Latin at the top, roughly translated, meant "Knowledge, Prudence, Bullshit."

A few weeks later came the Bruce Springsteen incident. Bruce's much anticipated live 1979-85 album was to be released in early November and was to include a new hit single. K92 had, for days, been telling its listeners that it would debut the new live single "War" at noon on Friday, November 7. That Friday morning an eight-song sampler from the album arrived in the mail at 15th Street and Cleveland Avenue. So WROV put it on the air at 11:00, one hour before K92.

Apparently, nobody in the Roanoke market was supposed to play the record prior to 12:00 Noon because of the promotional deal that Columbia Records had worked out with K92. But Columbia forgot to note this on the package delivered to WROV so legally, they were in the clear.

And predictably, K92 was livid. Jan Jeffries, then the K92 VP said "anybody who reads the trades or talks to any record company would know" of the restrictions on the record and therefore WROV "must have little if any contact with the record companies." Though both sides tried to downplay the incident, media accounts clearly suggested that K92 was not happy over being beaten to the punch. Burt Levine was quoted as saying that doing so was "fun, it was lots of fun."

Festival '87 in Elmwood Park included the WROV Treasure Hunt. Folks who donated $1 to to the festival earned the chance to look for the hidden key as clues were given on the air.

On April 1, 1987, while taking his morning shower, Sam Giles thought of a funny prank to pull for April Fools' Day. Beginning that morning, WROV began broadcasting reports that the Roanoke Times & World News was going to buy the station, change the call letters to WRTW, and change the format to news and elevator music. As the story went, the staff had barricaded itself inside the studio and called in security guards to patrol the building.

And it didn't stop there. Other Roanokers who were in on the joke called in with comments, including one from the Norfolk Southern Railroad's local PR director who said that if the takeover happened, the railroad would close its local headquarters and move to Charlotte, NC to "hurt the paper's revenue sources." Listeners, who were extremely upset, began calling in contributions to help with the ensuing legal battle. This prompted Operations Director Mike Bell to explain that it was just a joke, but folks still insisted on believing it anyway. Mike added "It's great to know so many people care about WROV. I guess Roanokers have finally found out how much of a hot property we are."

In an editorial a few days later, the newspaper said they weren't offended by the prank and that they wouldn't wish "such troubles" on the station or its management. But they warned that "while they're manufacturing news and playing jokes on faithful listeners, somebody might sneak onto their hot property and open up a real radio station."

Another WROV bumper sticker from the 1980s showing the "old radio" logo.

In October, 1987, WROV decided to repeat the previous year's successful World Series ticket giveaway, but this year it didn't go quite so smoothly. As before, the station ran a two week promotion that awarded pairs of tickets to two lucky winners. Then they realized that they had forgotten to get the tickets.

In September, someone in the Baltimore Orioles office had told WROV that he could probably get the tickets. In October, after the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins had won their way into the series, Mike Bell talked to the Orioles office and was told he could get tickets to the middle three games in St. Louis. All that was needed to seal the deal was a confirmation call from Burt Levine.

But Burt, who likely had other things on his mind including his wife's poor health, forgot to call. Upon realizing his mistake, Burt said "I had to decide whether I was going to Brazil or to Oakey's" funeral home. But after meeting with winner Rick Moss and telling him the bad news about the tickets, he decided to make one last attempt to find some. And Jim Carroll came to the rescue.

Jim, long time sales manager and sports director, called his friend Sam Lazzaro who was a VP with the Salem Buccaneers baseball team. Sam called many of his baseball friends, among them Carolina League President John Hopkins who was in Minnesota for the first two games. Hopkins, it turned out, had tickets for the entire series but wasn't able to make the last five games and said that WROV could have his pair of tickets for all of them.

Rob O'Brady on the air in 1988.

The tickets were flown from Minnesota to Roanoke and Burt was there at the airport counter at six in the morning to pick them up and hand them to the Mosses. The other winner, Michele Ellington who was a student at Lord Botetourt High School, got the tickets for the last two games. When it was all over, Burt said he didn't care who won the Series. "I was just rooting for ME."

By 1987, Muriel's poor health, the tough business competition in a market that had finally discovered FM radio, the flood and the run of bad luck had begun taking a toll on Burt Levine. In 1988 he remarked "The last five years have been difficult ones for me both professionally and personally. And it's only natural to feel sorry for yourself, but after a week or so you find out that they don't pay anything for that. I just tried to fight that, to think positive. You do the best you can with what you've got."

Still, selling WROV to advertisers had been increasingly difficult since K92 entered the market and became the ratings leader. Burt began to realize that the only way WROV could ever operate as it once did was to affiliate it with an FM station. He said "You've got to have an FM if you want to get back into the big league again, because, without the opportunity to reach that many people, you're limited in how much you can make and how much you can spend." He hoped to find a way to do that without having to sell the AM station. And most people don't realize it, but he almost succeeded in pulling it off.

Burt Levine poses outside of the control room in 1988.

In early 1988, Burt is said to have worked out a deal to buy WJLM 93.5 FM from Lloyd Gochenour and at the last minute, the deal fell through. John Andrews recalls "They had agreed on terms and price and had shook on the deal. When they next met 'Gokey' had decided to go up on the price which of course nixed the deal. I had never seen Burt so mad, and he never had a kind word for 'Gokey' again. It makes you wonder though. If Burt had bought J-93, he would not have left the business when he did and instead of 96.3 'ROV it would've been 93 'ROV. Food for thought."

When this didn't work out, Burt and two silent partners formed a company that applied for a new low-powered 3000W station in Roanoke. The rules under which his group applied for the new license prohibited him from owning another broadcasting property in the Roanoke Valley. Also, building a new radio station is not inexpensive.

So Burt saw selling WROV as a way to honor the terms of the license application as well as generate some much needed cash. He began looking for a buyer for WROV and in September he agreed to sell WROV to North Carolina station owner Tom Joyner for approximately $500,000.

Burt's low-powered FM station never went on the air. Tom Joyner married WROV-AM with the former WMVA-FM from Martinsville, moved the tower to near Boones Mill, and in 1989 the new WROV-FM 96.3 went on the air in Roanoke. Burt remained a consultant for a few years. WROV-AM remained on the air primarily as an oldies station until September, 1998 when the call letters became WGMN "The Game" to reflect the new all-sports format.

At some point if there's enough interest and if we can find and talk with some of those who were there, we will document the story of those years in detail. In the meantime, you can read the highlights of those years on the Epilogue page.