Sunday, February 14, 2021

Before 97X, There Was WOXR

 

I rise today to add a minor footnote to a story that is itself obscure, so be forewarned. Also NO BOURBON CONTENT.

In 1981, Douglas and Linda Balogh, two Cincinnati advertising executives, bought a 3,000 watt FM radio station in Oxford, Ohio, for $375,000. They changed the call letters to WOXY and it became an alt-rock phenomenon branded as “97X,” whose influence far outstripped its humble size and reach. 

In 2004, the Baloghs sold the station and took their format online, which lasted until 2011. If you want to know more about their story, just search “97X WOXY” for a wealth of resources. 97X WOXY is not to be confused with 97X WLXY, a radio station in western Illinois.

I’m here to do a Paul Harvey and tell you the rest of the story.

The station’s original call letters were WOXR and it was licensed to and located in Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University, a public university with about 17,000 students. Oxford is the quintessential college town. It is about 50 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Like many of the earliest FM stations, WOXR was started in 1959 by an electrical engineer. He had another station in Kokomo, Indiana, where he lived. The story was that he had invented some device, which he also manufactured and sold to the Defense Department, and that’s where he made his money. He was an interesting guy, an Indian immigrant, nice enough but a little crooked and he ran the station on a shoestring. On payday, the station's employees raced each other to the bank because there was a good chance the last checks presented would bounce.

Rick Sellers was my friend, teacher, and fellow radio enthusiast. He was a few years older than me, with a master’s degree from Miami. In about 1972, he was hired by WOXR as station manager and ‘morning man.’ Rick is legally blind but had enough vision to get around Oxford on a bicycle. He could read the teletype printouts from which we got our news and weather, though he had to hold the paper directly against his thick glasses and move it from left to right, imitating the motion of the teletype machine. His disability limited him very little.

Another notable Miami Radio & TV classmate and friend from that era was Rick Ludwin, who went on to fame as a television producer and longtime NBC programming executive, generally credited as being the person who got “Seinfeld” on the air.

The two Ricks were leaders of a group of younger radio enthusiasts that included me. When Sellers got the job at WOXR, we were all anxious to join him there. I got my chance part-time late in 1972, then full-time after I graduated in June of 1973. I was Operations Manager and the early evening DJ. Most of the people who worked there were close friends, so we hung out together most of the time when we weren’t working. We used to joke on the air that we all lived together in a big house at the edge of town, which was true metaphorically if not literally.

At the time, the station was on North College Ave., just north of High Street. Not long after I went to work there we moved to High Street, into the center of the ‘uptown’ commercial area just west of the Miami campus, in the lower level of a commercial building that included a Burger Chef fast food restaurant. 

Like everything at the station, the move was done on a tiny budget. We were, apparently, the first tenants in that space as it was entirely undeveloped. I designed the floor plan and we all participated in the construction up to the limits of our specific skills. I could help with most of the construction but not the electronic stuff, although I did successfully solder a patch panel, of which I was proud. The two mixing consoles were homemade, though not by me. 

The station’s programming was eclectic. Prior to Sellers the station, like its sister in Kokomo, tried unsuccessfully to be the typical small town radio station. Sellers convinced the owner that Miami students were an untapped audience, and he found a couple of local businesses who were willing to buy advertising to reach them. I sold advertising too and we eventually hired a fulltime salesperson. The first person to briefly hold that position was Bob Michelson, a Miami grad from New York who went back to Manhattan to manage syndication for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a steppingstone for most of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

Naturally, WOXR was one of the first stations to carry the show. We also ran Bob's next project, a serialized radio drama based on the Marvel Comics "Fantastic Four" stories. Bill Murray was the voice of Johnny Storm, 'the Human Torch.'

Sellers’ morning show was on the ‘service’ model; lots of local news, weather, and sports; stories and guests of community interest; a limited amount of mostly top 40 and oldies music; and Rick’s very winning personality. The rest of the daytime programming was similar, becoming a little more progressive rock as the day went on. Although there was a program director and a music director, we had pretty much free reign to program our shows as we saw fit.

I came on in the early evening and transitioned into what was a full-on progressive rock format in the later evening and, eventually, overnight. I sometimes took shit from the daytime people for rocking too hard and from the late-night people for not rocking hard enough. I snuck in classical music, jazz, and novelty records, and read poetry and short essays on the air. Some of it was planned in advance, but most of it was spontaneous.

It was a lot of fun. 

Like the people who came along later with 97X, we played the most progressive music being recorded in the rock genre, much of it music that few other stations were playing. The Cincinnati market progressive rock pioneer was WEBN, an FM station started by a wealthy man who thought Cincinnati needed more classical music on the radio. It failed to catch on, so he let his son and daughter play 'their' music at night. Pretty soon, the progressive rock format was making the whole station a commercial success.

Like 97X, WOXR aspired to be more progressive than WEBN. Also like them, we aspired to penetrate the Cincinnati market even though our signal just barely reached that city’s northern suburbs (unless you had a pricey antenna). One of our proudest moments during my tenure was making the Cincinnati ratings book for the first time, albeit with the lowest number needed to qualify for inclusion.

I left the station in June of 1974. I was 22 and afraid that if I stayed in Oxford much longer, I would never leave. That wouldn’t have been a bad life but, at 22, I wanted to see what else I could do. I continued to be close to Rick Sellers and some of the other people there for another year or two, coming back once or twice for the annual Easter holiday “Roll Away the Rock Weekend,” during which we played oldies and station alums like me came back and pulled on-air shifts. Rick left in 1975, eventually buying and running a station in Iowa. WOXR went back to more of a straight Top-40 format until the Baloghs bought it in 1981. They moved the station again and the old High Street space became a pet shop.

When “WKRP in Cincinnati” went on the air in 1978, we fancied that it was based on our little station. We even had a ‘Jennifer,’ an exceptionally attractive receptionist who was nice enough but romantically out-of-reach for her many admirers. 

I like to think that although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 97X, we helped lay the groundwork. We were popular with many local high school kids, some of whom were still around when 97X came along and who recognized the connection, but most of the people who worked there never knew about us or what we did. That’s okay. For me it was a great experience during my formative years and gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I had a few more radio jobs, then transitioned into advertising. The freedom of the WOXR experience may have made it hard for me to work for anyone else. In 1986, I started to freelance and remained self-employed for the rest of my career. 


3 comments:

Cary Dice said...

WOXR was the on air centerpiece of my college life along with WEBN Cincinnati. Loved the fun and creativity when we were in school.

Richard Turner said...

Although I primarily read the blog for the Bourbon content, I must admit I am always impressed with the other occasional snippets around general eephus, and especially the worthwhile historical/experiential pieces such as this one. Thanx for the entertaining interlude, my friend!

Unknown said...

Hi. Thanks for your reflection on WOXR. My family had moved to Cincinnati in the summer of 1973, a ripping experience after my sophomore year at St Viator High School in suburban Chicago. I found WOXR while scanning the airwaves on my analogue stereo unit: a welcome oasis. Thank you for being there. WOXR expanded my musical appreciation that continues to this day. I particularly remember the evenings when entire albums would be played (e.g. Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells). I am in debt to you and your compatriots.
Peace eventually, Ed (now in Columbus OH)