Chapter Five

Top 40 1955-1967

The success of television changed network radio forever. Evenings became TV prime time, while radio continued to hold morning audience. During the day, TV offered game shows and televised versions of several long-running radio soap operas. The radio versions could not compete. NBC dropped a number of its soap operas between 1949 and 1955, including The Goldbergs in 1949, Ethel and Albert in 1950, and Lorenzo Jones and Just Plain Bill in 1955 (O'Donnell, 1997 pp. 27-28). WEBC had a new station manager, Robert Rich, who decided to drop NBC in 1955 and broadcast all-music on the new 560 frequency. Rich was hopping on the bandwagon of the hottest, then-new, radio programming trend, Top 40, while KDAL and WDSM continued with the dying networks (Latto, 1997).

Todd Storz and Bill Stewart are generally credited with starting the Top 40 format in 1955 at KOWH in Omaha after hearing bar patrons playing the same songs over and over on a jukebox. The name, Top 40, comes from the restricted playlist of 40 top-selling singles or songs. Playing roughly 13 to 15 songs per hour, a station would repeat the cycle every three hours or so, depending on the commercial load and other non-music elements in the show. The Top 40 format was revolutionary. Stations switching to Top 40 were earning top ratings immediately all across the country (Keith, 1987, p. 59). As one of the first Top 40 stations, WEBC played the popular artists of the day, such as Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Nat King Cole, at first. However, popular music was changing and as rock 'n roll dominated the charts, the term, Top 40, became synonymous with the new sound (ibid.).

As Top 40 grew in popularity, a new term entered the language, disc jockey--- shortened to D.J. or deejay--- for the announcer who shuttled the platters on and off his turntable in the studio. There had been disc jockeys for years but the Top 40 disc jockeys developed a public following in a different fashion that did the more staid announcers of the past. Catchy air-names were used, including WEBC's Lance "Tac" Hammer (Fabulous Forty Survey) and Dave Duluth (Nifty Fifty chart, 1961). To increase the visibility of WEBC's deejays, a glass-walled on-air studio was built on the roof of the WEBC Building, 4 stories above Superior Street. It was called the WEBC Traffic Tower. The listening public could see, and wave to, the deejay. The deejay, for his part, shivered in the cold and sweltered in the summer sun in the greenhouse-like box on the roof (Latto, 1997). Also on the rooftop was a mast with the WEBC Weather Beacon, a light that could be color-coded to the forecast. The announcer would point out that the Weather Beacon was flashing red or a steady yellow--- whichever indicated what the forecast predicted. If they knew the code, passers-by could get a forecast at a glance, and at the same time, a reminder that WEBC was providing the service (R. Johnson, 1997).

The engineers, who were always on duty at the Parkland transmitter site, fared better. FCC rules required an engineer to be on duty any time the station operated and WEBC ran around the clock (Meys, 1997). Transmitter readings were logged every half hour to ensure legal operation. The vacuum tubes in every piece of gear would change parameters as they aged and, sooner or later, every tube would fail and need replacement. Twice daily, a trek to the base of each of the three towers was needed to read a meter mounted there as the directional pattern was changed by the engineer. Inoperative equipment would be brought to the site so the engineer on duty could repair it. Otherwise, WEBC engineers had a pretty soft life (ibid.). The building was meticulously maintained. Occasionally, deejays would operate from the studio facility at Parkland (Gottschald, 1997) but, in general, the announcing and engineering staffs kept separate lives. Engineer Bill Meys says he doesn't recall ever setting foot in the Duluth studios (1997). Later in the 1960's, a nightly religious broadcast called The World Tomorrow with Garner "Ted" Armstrong would be aired from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. by the Parkland engineer, giving the Duluth deejay a break. The engineers kept the studio in good shape as a result (ibid.). The existence of a broadcast studio at the transmitter site proved valuable later.

WDSM made a stab at the rock format in 1957 with a so-called "Nifty Fifty" and kept it up for two years (Latto, 1997). WEBC held off the WDSM challenge and expanded the playlist to a Nifty Fifty of its own, but the real competition was television. Mimicking TV, WEBC called itself "Channel 56" and "Color Channel 56" (Nifty Fifty Chart, 1961). Overall, TV advertising was growing and radio no longer generated big revenues. Mary Bridges Smith (1997) says that the Comptroller at the Evening Telegram pushed for the sale of WEBC while the price was right. Her father didn't want to sell but as a minority stockholder, Walter Bridges had no choice. He lacked the money to buy it himself. In other cities such as Hibbing and Virginia, there was no hometown television and the Murphy company would keep its stations, but in Duluth/Superior, TV was cutting into the advertising pool, reducing profits and threatening to lower the value of the station. A group of investors from West Virginia, ridiculed locally as "The Hillbillies" (Latto, 1997), and led by a man named George Clinton, bought WEBC in 1958 for $250,000, a considerable sum at the time (ibid). The Walter Bridges/Morgan Murphy era of WEBC had ended.

Bob Rich left to be station manager at WDSM AM/TV, working for the Ridder family which owned the Duluth Herald and Duluth News-Tribune. He would later buy the TV station himself. In 1959, Rich dumped WDSM's Nifty Fifty and instituted "The New Design For '59" (ibid.), leaving WEBC alone again in the Top 40 field. One of the old WDSM Nifty Fifty deejays, Lew Latto, went to work for WEBC. He recalls that while commercials and news sound bites were recorded and edited on magnetic tape, the finished product was transferred to ET, or Electrical Transcription for airplay. These were essentially the same kind of made-on-site phonograph records used by Earl Henton in the '40s. The station needed a technology update, but "The Hillbillies" and their chief engineer, V. I. Brooks, were unwilling. After just over two years of Clinton group ownership, WEBC was sold again in 1961, for a half-million dollars. "The Hillbillies" had doubled their investment and weren't a laughing matter any longer. The new buyer was a broadcaster himself, William Quarton of WMT in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Quarton brought in the man who would bring WEBC up to date technically, Don Rose (ibid.).

Known as "Doctor" Don Rose on the air, the "DR" coming from his initials (R. Johnson, 1997), Rose had the transcription cutter pulled into a corner of the production room and brought in Duluth's first cartridge tape machines. Made by Collins, a company also based in Iowa, the carts (as they were called) used magnetic tape ingeniously configured in a continuous loop that allowed automatic cuing. They were convenient, rugged, sounded great, and were the latest thing. Rose also demanded better frequency response from the telephone lines connecting the Duluth studios with Parkland, from 8000 cycles to 15,000. Though AM transmission doesn't allow broadcast all the way up to 15,000 cycles of fidelity, the change made a difference. WEBC sounded better. Rose also closed the Traffic Tower (Latto, 1997).

Lew Latto left WEBC as Don Rose arrived and Latto would attempt to unseat WEBC's dominance in Top 40 radio on two occasions a decade apart. The first was in 1964 when the five-year-old WQMN changed format. As mentioned above, WQMN began in 1959, operating at WEBC's old frequency of 1320 kc. It had been only marginally successful using what would become FM radio's first formatic success, easy listening or so-called Beautiful Music. On AM it didn't fly. In 1964, Latto and Tac Hammer were brought in, the call letters were changed to WAKX, said aloud as "wax", and the format changed to Top 40. The deejay's microphone line ran through a mechanical reverberation device to give an extra touch of excitement to the sound. For a time it worked but there was a major drawback; WAKX was a daytime-only station. In Duluth/Superior, daytimers signed off at 4:15 p.m. in December and January. As the days got shorter, somebody at WEBC sent the Big Wax Good Guys--- as they called themselves--- a short letter saying, "Bye bye, boys." (Latto, 1997). Latto's first battle with WEBC ended in a loss as WAKX changed format to MOR or Middle-Of-the-Road in 1967. Once again WEBC had beaten back an assault. In the mid-'70s Latto's WAKX would re-join the fight with a new technological weapon: FM, which by then was proving Bridges and Murphy to be correct after all. It is a superior broadcast system.

In the newsroom, WEBC had suffered a bit after the defections of Henton and others to television in 1953. KDAL in particular had a big following in the morning, with newscaster Dick Anthony and morning announcer Hunter Como locking up as much as 65 to 70 percent of the audience (Gottschald, 1997). They had a TV station in the company, KDAL-TV, and the TV and radio newsrooms complemented each other. WEBC News Director Glenn Maxham, and later Dick Gottschald, set out to topple Anthony and Como in the late '50s and WEBC began a run at KDAL news. A Golden Age of radio news in Duluth/Superior began.

Duluth still had two commercial TV stations, one NBC and one CBS, with programs from the fledgling ABC Network split between them. The market was allowed another TV signal by the F.C.C., on channel 10. Prompted by thoughts of equipping a news department that could handle channel 10 TV news as well as WEBC radio, the ownership spent plenty of money. Gottschald had a staff of four. One, Mike Berman, would go on to work for Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale. Another was Stewart Stronach. Stronach specialized in investigative pieces and commentary. His feature, Reporter's Notebook, was very popular. WEBC had Motorola tube-type two-way radios installed in Gottschald's car, in an English Thems station wagon, and in a Chevrolet Nomad vehicle "complete with a bunch of antennas and a gumball on the roof." (Gottschald, 1997). The vehicles had police radio receivers so the reporter could make a quick response to accidents and fires. Occasionally, a WEBC report from a fire would include a description of the arrival of the fire trucks when the reporter had beaten them to the call (R. Johnson, 1997).

Besides such live reports from the scene via two-way radios, WEBC's reporters used taped sound bites, recorded and edited on two models of reel-to-reel recorders that veteran broadcasters still remember fondly. There was a portable 3-M Wollensack recorder for field use and a rack-mounted Magnecord PT-6 for editing. The rugged, metal-cased Wollensack's only drawback may have been that it needed AC power, so WEBC had a battery-powered recorder also; one that used a now-defunct metal cassette system. Gottschald remembers it as unreliable (1997). The Magnecord PT-6 had huge tape heads, mounted face up for ease in editing, allowing reporters to edit right down to single words. The ambulance-chasing tactics using the latest technology paid off. WEBC beat KDAL in the morning ratings (ibid.). The news preeminence was not to last, however. In 1966, Duluth's third commercial TV station, WDIO-TV, went on the air. WEBC was not involved in the new TV station, which had owners from Minnesota's Iron Range, and the best of the WEBC news reporters left. Dick Gottschald went to Channel 10 as news director and brought Stronach with him. Without a TV station, or the promise of one, to support the large news staff, WEBC management didn't have the same commitment to news. WEBC's news department would never again be as large (R. Johnson, 1997).

WEBC's ownership changed several times in the '60s. WMT sold to Red Owl Stores, a grocery chain, which in turn was ordered to sell all radio stations that it owned to settle an anti-trust investigation. Red Owl had reportedly been accused of requiring an advertising buy on its company-owned radio stations to ensure favorable shelf placement for product lines in the Red Owl grocery stores (Latto, 1997). Red Owl brought in an aggressive manager named D. J. Leary. Don Rose, who had been accustomed to a free hand with programming, was faced with Leary's micro-managing style and left. Succeeding Rose was a deejay he had hired in 1965, Dave Gordon (Gordon, 1997).

Working most of his seven years with the station as the WEBC morning deejay, Dave Gordon carried WEBC through the remainder of its time as unchallenged Top 40 leader. He arrived when the radio station still occupied the second floor of the WEBC Building. The cavernous 26 by 40-foot studio A, now the WEBC control room, housed a deejay console with carts machines and three turntables, a news table across the room, and lots of open space. The transcription cutter languished in a corner of the production room, formerly Studio B, with its 12-foot ceiling. WEBC was in transition, with 1960's technology rattling around in spacious 1930's quarters. It was all to come to an end in a single night.

It happened the evening of July 15, 1967. The second floor of the WEBC Building caught fire. The blaze was reported at 11:09 p.m. on that Friday night and it burned until 3 the following morning. The deejay on duty, whose name is now forgotten, escaped without injury and the rest of the WEBC Building was unoccupied so there were no injuries. Fire fighters broke a second floor window and allowed WEBC Office Manager Gaill Keeble to retrieve a few business records but little else in equipment or other inventory survived. The fire damage was extensive, though confined to the radio station on the second floor, and exceeded $50,000. Smoke and water damage occurred to the rest of the structure. The control room out at the Parkland transmitter building was pressed into full-time service until a new home could be found (Damage To WEBC Building, 1967).

In the space of just nine years, from 1958 to 1967, WEBC had seen drastic changes occur. Three decades of Walter Bridges' management had ended, the Top 40 format lowered the average age of WEBC listeners, aggressive news reporting had flared briefly and died out, and the WEBC Building's tenure as a downtown Duluth landmark ceased after 30 years.

Works Cited

Damage To WEBC Building May Exceed $50,000 (1967, July 16). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Fire Disasters clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

Fabulous Forty Survey. (Circa 1962). Photocopy of the cover with announcer photos and names. WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Gordon, D. (1997, April 8). Telephone interview on audio cassette.

Gottschald, R. (1997, April 2). Telephone interview on audio cassette.

Johnson, R. (1997). Personal recollection. Audio cassette.

Keith, M. (1987). Radio Programming, Consultancy and Formatics. Boston: Focal Press.

Latto, L. (1997, April 3). Telephone interview on audio cassette.

Meys, W. (1997, February 13). Interview on audio cassette.

Nifty Fifty Chart. (1961, January 21). WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

O'Donnell, R. Soaps Brought Tears and Smiles. (1997, April 2). Radio World. pp. 27-28.