Surviving formats and ownership changes
By Bob Burnham
As Jack Webb of 1950s "Dragnet" would say, "the story you're about to read is true..."
however, the names were NOT changed!
I spent a good chunk of my career at WCAR Radio, a directional AM station in Garden City, Michigan. It was licensed “Livonia-Detroit” presumably because its signal blanketed the Detroit suburb of Livonia both day and night.
Historically, at 1090 AM – it was the sister to WBRB in Mt. Clemens (where I also worked). The original letters were WERB, then WTAK, the first all-talk station in the Detroit area. The next set of call letters were WIID. When Golden West (Gene Autry) purchased the original WCAR (1130 AM) it became WCXI and switched to a country format.
The original WCAR call letters were freed up. WIID switched to WCAR.
In 1979, the station (now WCAR) acquired its 24-hour license (daytime only before then) and added six more towers to the four it already had. The owner, Walter Wolpin, hired former WWJ-AM and WAAM-AM salesman, Jack Bailey to manage the operation. The station was under Bailey’s direction for most of the years I was at the station.
In the late 1990s, Wolpin sold the station to the Children’s Broadcasting Corporation, also known as “Radio Aahs,” a satellite-fed syndicated format originating from Minneapolis. Most of the existing staff supporting the combination talk, brokered and ethnic shows had to be, as they say, “let go.”
“Radio Aahs” was similar in format to today’s Radio Disney, targeting younger listeners. A failed partnership between Disney and Aahs, however, was the start of the downfall of this owner.
WCAR was eventually sold in the late 1990s. At that time, Jack Bailey resigned and long-time employee and current Program Director, Susan McGraw assumed the GM role. McGraw and I were soon the only surviving employees from the original staff.
A failed first attempt to sell the station gave us an extra year of employment. I can’t imagine what we filled our hours with during that period. I do recall many trips to a nearby restaurant where traditionally we took staff as their “goodbye meal.”
By then, I had installed equipment that allowed the engineer to monitor the stations’ ten towers and transmitter from a home computer. The station was now fully equipped for unattended operation and automatically changed directional patterns and power at sunrise and sunset. A computer handled all programming elements as well.
We had returned partially to the brokered format obviously because it generated revenue to keep us employed. Most of our best clients, however, had already gone to WPON, WNZK or the re-named WLLZ-AM (560 AM which had been WHND).
So what DID we fill those hours with?
No, it WASN'T the Susan and Bob show 24 hours!
We broadcast a satellite-fed format from the original Children’s Broadcast Corporation studio in Minneapolis. It was called “Beat Radio.” I had thought disco was already long dead by then (especially on an AM station!), but these people didn't think so, apparently.
"Beat Radio” was produced by a group of former pirate operators in Minneapolis, presumably because they could finally have an audience legally. At the same time, Children’s Broadcasting had someone who would work for free to keep their remaining stations operating while they looked for buyers. “Beat Radio” obviously ceased to exist once all the stations were sold.
That year – 1998 – is mostly a blur. By then, I had a few other major projects already underway including a syndication facility only a mile from WCAR.
Children’s Broadcasting would continue to fight Disney in the courtroom.
It was clear that Christopher Dahl, Children’s President, was the inspiration for the Radio Disney format, but in running his business, Mr. Dahl had made some poor choices in my opinion, on the stations he chose to affiliate.
The format was a hard sell, so the solution was to BUY stations in cities he chose to affiliate. That was how he acquired WCAR – our station. I call it “our” station because that’s the way it felt for many of those years.
While McGraw literally worked her way up at the station starting originally while still a high school student, I started a little differently. I began hosting a show for WCAR called “Radio Vault” in 1988. Having developed a relationship with the General Manager, about a year and a half later, I became their Chief Engineer.
I replaced Chris Arnaut who stayed only briefly having replaced Mike Numerick. Mike had been with WCAR for several years, replacing Don Oswalt. Mike went to WXYT, and Chris went to WKSG-FM. I stayed with WCAR through December of 1998. At that time, I assumed the Chief Engineer position for the four Cumulus stations in Ann Arbor and one in Monroe, Michigan.
And that’s not all --
During my stay at WCAR, a severe storm took down one of our nighttime towers. Replacing that tower and actually coaxing it into working properly took a full year of work and compilation of data to be submitted to the FCC. This was greatly complicated by cellular structures that were being erected within walking distance WCAR’s tower site. Most of the actual “grunt work” under which WCAR was re-licensed was done either by me personally or a crew under my direction. This eventually involved measuring literally hundreds of locations in the Detroit area to prove the station was operating according to its license…and repeating it all over again when the cellular construction contaminated my work!
In a separate adventure, to further reduce operating costs, I obtained proper FAA approval and re-licensing from the FCC to allow WCAR to extinguish (as in permanently turn off) three of its six nighttime towers lights. Up until then, six towers had been required to be lit since 1979. If you drive by the site today, the same three towers (out of ten) are the same ones designated by me that are lit at night.
From the WCAR years, there are many stories like these and many accomplishments. It was not a perfect place, but it was a great place to call “home” for so many of those years with a staff that felt like a family. The best part was those friendships and the very diverse range of people I worked with whom are the very lifeblood of any great radio station.
WCAR is still in operation today with the same call letters. It is now programmed by Michigan Catholic Radio.