Bob Sneddon, “Bob B” and others
(NOW IT CAN BE TOLD... AGAIN)
By Bob Burnham
This is an extended re-cap from a fresh perspective of some of the places I’ve been and a few of the people I’ve worked for and with in broadcasting.
To the best of my knowledge, Robert J. Sneddon was a broadcast engineering graduate (a now discontinued program) of the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts in Southfield, Michigan, but he was already managing a radio station and teaching at Southfield High School by then.
Thanks to his education at Specs, Sneddon held a First Class FCC license back when most of us only had “Third Phone Endorsed” (and back when such things actually existed). At that time, you HAD to have one to operate any kind of licensed broadcast facility.
My earliest radio memories include working under Sneddon and the part I played in Southfield Public School’s non-commercial FM station, WSHJ (which is still in operation today). In the 1970’s when I was involved, as mentioned, he both managed the station and taught at the high school. But he was also known on the air as “Bob Daly” on WXYZ-AM, back before the station switched to a talk format.
Although of non-commercial status, he formatted WSHJ-FM as tightly and as professionally as any commercial station, with a hit radio full service format by day and an album rock approach at night.
The studios were state of art for their time. There were two triple-deck cart machines and a massive cart library, and also a pair of Russco turntables for the album rock format at night. We even had a complete jingle package.
I was among the “adults” who worked nighttime air shifts. Sneddon was relentless in guiding people as to the importance of following format, meeting the top of the hour ABC news feeds precisely (the jocks read their own news at night).
He was a tyrant, but he was a tremendous teacher! He would call people in the middle of their shift to point out mistakes, at any hour of the day or night and I do mean any hour. At 4:00 AM just when you thought you could be a little sloppy or slide something in that didn’t quite fit the format, the hotline would ring and Sneddon would growl… “what was THAT!?” It didn’t matter that you were a volunteer at a public radio station. We were professionally programmed to high standards that no other non-commercial station could touch at the time. The fact was many WSHJ alumni went on to major radio stations and careers.
At WSHJ, I perfected a lot of skills that I would use extensively in the years to follow. Computer-based automation systems didn’t exist back then. The only thing that made a tight show tight – was the jock himself.
Sneddon, in reality, was a helluva good guy who gave us “real world” experience at a high school station that was actually on the FM dial with a couple hundred watts. He made a tremendous impact on all of us lucky enough to have worked under his direction. I have always felt lucky to have been a part of his “Super Rock 88” format.
The Sneddon-voiced liners and jock ID’s were unforgettable. He would almost growl: “Public radio…. COMMERCIAL free! You’re on WSHJ Southfield…” We all loved to imitate the guy, but he was one of the best teachers one could ever ask for.
When WXYZ switched to WXYT and an all talk format, Sneddon was also one of the few “Music Radio” air talents to survive and embrace the switch to talk radio.
BRC Productions, my business as a young company at that time, also sold programming services to WSHJ on reel to reel tapes, thanks to Sneddon.
By 1978, I had arrived at the suburban Detroit AM station, WBRB, in Mount Clemens, Michigan. The station was at the time, owned by Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame. The General Manager was her uncle, Leigh Feldsteen, who hired me to work the mid-day shift Monday through Friday.
The “full-service AM” format was one I had developed a knack and a passion for, and while I enjoyed a lot of what was going on at, as we called it (WBRB) “The Burb,” (long before the Tom Hanks movie) for the most part, I was uncomfortable with a lot of what was going on at the management level at WBRB.
The Chief Engineer was Bob Sietz, who was a super nice guy, but seemed old enough to be our grandfather. He appeared to be always struggling with one technical problem after another and couldn’t catch up. At least that’s the impression I got. The bottom line was simply he was ready to retire.
Feldsteen would eventually offer his job to me if I got my “First” ticket, but I declined: I wasn’t done with being on the air!
A female Program Director (it seemed) did nothing but whine and grumble and send me on endless numbers of remote broadcasts. There was no talent fee or even gas mileage paid. She did didn’t work an air shift or do much production herself and was eventually replaced by Don Alcorn (a former WHFI-FM jock).
It made sound economic sense, especially for a stand-alone AM. Alcorn had worked air shifts at many Detroit area stations and he wanted my air shift, and he of course got it. So I became a part time employee.
The station made a lot of money selling remote broadcasts, and after about two or three weekends of me doing remotes in often unexpected VERY remote locations, where the signal barely reached, I walked out. If nothing else, during my WBRB stay, I did enjoy working with our morning guy, Larry O’Brien (who was at the time, booth announcer at Channel 9, then CKLW-TV), and our afternoon drive guy, the late Bob Stone, who was a great talent. WBRB eventually went dark (as in went out of business).
It was later while working as Chief Engineer for Wolpin Broadcasting Company, I was the individual who dismantled that very station when Wolpin acquired the license some 15 years later. Wolpin, however, did not put it back on the air, but the newer WBRB transmitter (in the 1990s) was moved to WCAR in Garden City and became the main 1090 AM transmitter.
By Summer of 1979, I arrived at WAAM, in Ann Arbor, Michigan for what would be the highlight of my radio career. Michigan broadcast veteran, Jack Hood, brought me on board as on-air talent where I was known as “Bob Marshall.”
The station’s Chief Engineer at that time, the Texan-accented Randy Custer, also tapped into my resources and made me his Assistant. I worked extensively making sure weekly broadcasts from various Kroger stores featuring “Fat Bob” Taylor were flawless. Taylor had been a fixture on the legendary J.P. McCarthy’s WJR-Detroit show, and he was our midday guy on WAAM.
Within months, however, Hood had offered me a full time position (officially) as Production Director and air talent six days a week.
During Christmas of 1979, I worked many over-time hours assembling on reel tapes, Hood’s 24-hour “Christmas’s Past” Special that aired on the station during Christmas eve and day along with producing several promos. It was a massive project completed in just a few days, but it was great fun.
Custer eventually had to find another technical Assistant. While Hood would resign his position as WAAM Operations Manager a year later, it was during that period I absorbed and adopted many of his programming philosophies as my own. During that short period of time, I had further developed both a production style and on-air “schtick” that became the foundation for what I would do for the rest on my on-air career.
I survived a couple more management changes at WAAM. By the time the station decided they wanted to try their hand at producing their own talk show, they also decided they could no longer afford their Production Director (me).
A month after I was married in the first part of 1981, I was no longer WAAM’s production guy. A year later, however, Jimmy Barrett (best known as talent at WDEE and later at WJR) was WAAM’s interim PD would ask me to return to do weekends.
I’ve always considered the time spent at WAAM as a high point of my career. While there were high points and low points of any job, the level of talent that developed there was tremendous. I actually trained Ken Kal as a weekend fill-in air talent. Today, Ken is best known as the voice of the Detroit Red Wings. Mostly, I’m grateful to Jack Hood. I wouldn’t say he taught me everything I know, but he provided a level of encouragement, mentoring and programming concepts that I carry with me to this day and try to pass on to others.
Between my WAAM strints, I worked an afternoon drive shift at WKHM in Jackson, Michigan. This AM station was then the sister station to the rock station WJXQ-FM "Q-106" (where I wanted to work, but never did). The AM was destined to go to a satellite-fed format. I was the guy hired to work afternoon drive time on the AM before the switch kicked in, and that was it.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed my stay at WKHM immensely, and wished it could have been longer. Around this time, I began a more intensive self-training in broadcast and studio electronics. Realizing the style of AM radio I enjoyed most was being replaced by syndicated shows and talk programming, I recognized a need to diversify if I was going to remain in the broadcast industry. Although my high school yearbook has a photo of me working on the school’s radio station control board, my real interest up to that point had been on-air and production work.
The first station I did a significant amount of technical work for was also in Jackson, Michigan. WJCO was another stand-alone AM with a 5,000 watt daytime signal, and new owners who really had no idea as to how to program, operate or maintain a radio station. Their equipment and transmitter was very old, poorly maintained and unreliable. All the major equipment had the RCA logo on it. I eventually got them to replace the audio console, but the RCA transmitter remained in service at least through the mid 1990s while the site still existed before the license was donated to a local college.
While I was doing work for them, they changed the call letters to WHBT, then it was sold again. Much later, I believe they changed the call letters back after General Motors got wind of their “Heartbeat” slogan. GM felt was infringing on their Chevrolet ad campaign.
As for myself, originally, I had pitched the station on what I could do for them programming-wise. The desperate state of their ancient transmitter and studios, however, soon put me in a position as their main tech guy. This would lead to one of my first significant facility redesign and rebuilding projects.
After a few years with WJCO / WHBT, I wound up back in the Detroit area, at a position that found me. The original owners I had worked for in Jackson were former hosts on WCAR, a suburban Detroit station whose success was built on a combination of talk and ethnic brokered programming but that really wasn't my official introduction to WCAR.
Another thing that happened is a Knight-Ridder syndicated newspaper column appeared about my “old-time” radio show catalog business. The article was a tie-in with Woody Allen’s film, “Radio Days.” Life for me was never the same after that, as my business became my full time “job” for a few years after – yet present-day radio remained a passion!
I would be a featured guest with Peter Werbe on Detroit’s WRIF weekend public affairs show. But I would also be interviewed on WCAR.
The success of WCAR (the Garden City station) was in part due to the guidance of a man I would soon work for and with for the better part of 10 years: Jack Bailey. Bailey had surrounded himself with one of the finest group of professionals I had been associated with up to that point – yet turned out to be the most fun to work with. A few remain good friends today. During the years spent at this station, I was involved in the technical aspect as Chief Engineer, but at the programming level as well. I produced and hosted a series of programs called “Radio Vault.”
The owner of the station, Walter Wolpin, was also generous with us during the holidays. The annual holiday parties were memorable and fun. After that, the station eventually went through a couple of ownership changes, which ultimately, none of us quite survived.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I provided technical services for WXYT / CBS, specifically for their syndicated broadcasts of Detroit Lions Football. During the 1998 season, I was on the scene for each and every pre and post game show originated at the stadium or an area sports restaurant.
Next I arrived as Chief Engineer for a group of stations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Monroe, Michigan as well. The stations were (are again today) operated by Cumulus Broadcast Corporation, a huge corporation with over 200 stations under its belt. My stay here was relatively short.
My business, BRC Broadcast Services was doing well at the time but the Cumulus Ann Arbor radio stations were going through a difficult transitional period. The group, having gone several months without ANY kind of technical help, meant I had to be the daily “miracle worker” guy on short notice. I had to deal with four radio stations crammed into a space formerly occupied by only two with of course, a minimal budget. Nothing new, right!?
The stress level quickly got to be more than I was willing to tolerate (especially with my own business being profitable but now somewhat neglected). I WAS there, however, for the surprise FCC inspection during the last week prior to my resignation date! The result: The stations passed, with no problems. The General Manager asked me to stay, but I declined.
I won’t say anything further about the Cumulus period, other than a person or two I actually enjoyed working with: Mark Thompson, the Ops Manager at the Ann Arbor group was a good guy to work with; ditto for John O’Leary who was then doing drive time on the rock station, WIQB. John would later arrive at WCSX, Greater Media’s classic rock station in Detroit. In Monroe, Michigan, Herb Cody, General Manager then at WTWR-FM was also the best.
I survived those days for a time, which is something I attach some pride to.
In addition to having BRC Broadcast Services producing syndicated talk shows almost around the clock (it seemed), I was also doing technical maintenance for a couple of local stations, in most cases, as “designated” Chief Engineer.
Another life-changing occurence: I also took on an extra project for Specs Howard School of Broadcast. While none of this work involved what I truly liked doing the most, nonetheless, it kept me busy, was profitable, and was work I did in fact, gain some enjoyment from.
I assumed upon leaving Cumulus, self-employment would occupy 100% of my time. I was doing both management of my own studio and broadcast engineering as well, now all I needed was to get a weekend on-air gig! But instead the musician-side of me bubbled back to the top of my life, and I started playing in local bands more than ever!
A friend who was then an instructor at Specs Howard said I should apply for an opening at the school. This turned out to be a full-time opportunity. I wasn’t planning on working for anyone except myself for the next few years, however, the gig at Specs turned out to be a great change in my life. I became part of the Operations Department in ways I never could have guessed.
I have helped the school in its transition into the digital age, by doing most of the hands-on work myself which I do enjoy. But I also bring a lifetime of experiences in the industry to share – that actually came to me (from what seems like another lifetime) from people like Bob Sneddon, Jack Hood and others.
At Specs, I try NOT to be that stereotypical weird engineer guy with the pocket calculator who comes out only at night….instead I work daytime hours!
And again, the fact that those ‘SHJ Sneddon liners from “that other lifetime” are STILL burned into my brain forever should be evidence of the impact he had on all of us: “Commercials DON’T get in the way…. On Eighty-Eight…’SHJ!…”
Today, Mr. Sneddon is a Florida resident. I wish him well.
I’m still a Michigan resident where the weather sucks, and life is not quite perfect for me (and a lot worse for a lot of people) yet I’ve still been lucky in many respects.
" -Bob B "