“Armstrong’s Curse”

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CHAPTER FORTY

ARMSTRONG’S CURSE

WMRP was an AM/FM religious “combo” owned by the Methodist Radio Parish, hence the “Merp” call-letters. Simulcasting programs of a spiritual, inspirational and uplifting nature to the Flint community, its audience was negligible. We used to say that you could broadcast anything at all on “Merp” in complete confidence.

General Sales Manager Don Mayle had left WTAC to purchase his own AM day-time station in Bay City, WXOX (“The Ox”) , and was doing exceedingly well playing Country music, even though operating with limited broadcast hours. His partner in the venture was a gentleman named John W. Nogaj, who had sold radio time for many years in Flint and hosted a weekly polka show on WTRX and later WTAC. Johnny also had a Polish band which played wedding receptions, birthday parties and even an occasional bar mitzvah.

FM radio had been perfected in 1933, but had been relegated by common consensus within the industry primarily to public radio facilities, including many college stations. The background offers excellent testimony to the many wonders of American free enterprise.

“Frequency Modulation” technology had been developed by Edwin Howard Armstrong. Armstrong was asked by David Sarnoff, Chief Executive  Officer of the Radio Corporation of America (which also owned the National Broadcasting Company), to craft a system which would eliminate static from AM (“Amplitude Modulation”) transmission. After years of experimentation, Mr. Armstrong’s achievements with FM went far beyond Sarnoff’s wildest hopes or expectations. Although somewhat limited in reach compared with AM signals, the quality of sound reproduction was vastly superior to AM. It was like night and day. RCA and NBC had made incredible investment into AM transmitters, receivers and radio stations. Sarnoff was enormously impressed by Armstrong’s remarkable achievement with FM.  He ordered the project shelved. Why screw yourself for the public good?

Armstrong decided to forge ahead on his own. He built thousands of FM receivers and had plans for several dozen transmitting sources. He had the future on his side.

After Armstrong had manufactured his receivers according to Federal Radio Commission guildelines, Sarnoff put on the heat in Washington and the Commission changed their approved FM frequencies. Oops. Sorry. Armstrong’s new radio receivers couldn’t even pick up static. He eventually went out of business and commited suicide, plunging to death from the thirteenth floor of a very tall building. I am certain, in his final seconds before terminal impact, he uttered a lasting curse against Amplitude Modulation and all stations so processed.

My own experiences with FM had been extremely limited, not counting watching television. Sarnoff had made sure that television sound was processed by Frequency Modulation when RCA starting building TV stations and receivers from scratch following World War Two.  He knew a good thing when he heard it.

When I was in elementary school, the teachers used to turn on WAER-FM, the Syracuse University station, for educational programs such as “Mr. Tooth Needs His Brush” or “Watching for Ringworm” and other enlightening fare. When I was working at WNDR, a friend asked me to fill-in a few days at WONO-FM. The station was housed in an old downtown building and played nothing but Classical Music. They would program a solid fifty-five minutes of music,  then break for a five minute newscast, read as ponderously as possible. It was all quite serious. I played a few Buddy Holly tunes in the middle of a “Classic Sweep” and no one called. I think I was the only one listening and on studio headphones at that.  When I briefly worked at WFBL in Syracuse, my show was simulcast on an FM transmitter hidden in a closet. I didn’t even know it was there. The station later turned-in their FM broadcasting license rather than pay for the power to operate on what they considered a secret channel. No one ever paid FM any real attention in Flint as a potentially viable commercial entity until Johnny Nogaj came along.

Johnny talked a group of Flint investors into buying “Merp”. The day-time AM at 1570 would play “Country” and the call-letters were changed to WCZN, “Your Country Cousin”. The FM call-letters, in hopes of creating listenership confusion due to CKLW’s earlier success, became WWCK.

Pat Clawson, later CNN correspondent and Washington Bureau Editor for Radio and Records magazine, was a sixteen year-old Junior at Clio High School who used to jokingly ask his favorite teachers to sign student pass forms he had marked “Assigned to Smoke Hash”. They thought Pat was quite the comedian.  Pat would then proceed to his car in the parking lot and fire-up. He was very interested in radio and had started hanging around WTAC with my permission. I was particularly struck by his obvious intelligence and awesome lack of humility.

Pat was getting into “investigative reporting” even then, although he called it “snooping around”. One day he furiously pounded on my office door. He had discovered, through typically devious means, that Johnny Nogaj was buying WMRP AM/FM and was taking the FM ROCK!  No Shit?? What’s more, WTAC’s Afternoon Personality, Bill Gibson, had been hired as Program Director! WHAT?? Gibson, who had noticed Pat’s entrance and was quietly eavesdropping on the conversation, flung-opened my door and offered contradiction.

“Don’t pay any attention to this kid!”

Respecting his elder, sixteen year-old Patrick Clawson offered immediate retort in booming baritone.

“Gibson, go fuck yourself.”

It didn’t take long to verify Pat’s information and immediately terminate Mr. Gibson, who had hoped to buy a few weeks more time before giving notice. WWCK-FM hit the air the last week of August ’71. Several Detroit FM’s had gone “rock” a bit earlier with mixed results. Listening to Bob Seger at 105.5 in high-frequency stereo made me increasingly uneasy. A lot of folks I knew were buying FM converters for their cars. Maybe they were trying to check-out “Mr. Tooth.” We’d have to see.

September First was our last “Wild Wednesday” of the season at Sherwood Forest and Chuck Berry closed the show. He invited me on stage and I jumped around with him during the performance finale. I can’t dance, but it was a close approximation. He closed the show with his famous “Duck Walk”. Later, we proceeded to a friend’s house with several close acquaintances and smoked a few joints. I just listened to his stories. Who wouldn’t? I was on the air at 5 a.m. and he co-hosted the first hour. All we played were Chuck Berry hits. He made it to the Flint airport for a 6:20 flight.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” by Rod Stewart was the #1 album on WTAC in October.  We were playing the title cut every two hours.

On November 20th, WTAC exclusively introduced the new Led Zeppelin “Four Symbols” album in the Midwest.  “Misty Mountain Hop” was initially my favorite cut.

The Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving,  I presented a “double-header” at The Saginaw Auditorium. Friday night was a touring production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. It successfully sold over four thousand tickets. I had played the original album Christmas Eve at Midnight on WTAC for the last several years. On Saturday, we staged the world premiere of Alice Cooper’s new “Killer” show.  It had sold-out within hours of our first announcement two weeks earlier.

Alice was now a “Monster Act” and preparations for the “Killer Tour” had been months in planning. Alice’s manager, Mr. Gordon, wanted to use Saginaw as a kick-off to work-out any production problems before hitting Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. I was delighted to act as promoter for the “test-run”. With major funding from Warner Brothers Records, the theatrics were now even beyond Broadway quality. At the end of the set, Alice was seized by eight mad monks, chained and whipped, and then hung from gallows. The crowd went wild. He came back to life and encored wearing top- hat and tails, singing “No More Mister Nice Guy”. The cheering continued for ten full minutes after he left the stage. Shep was happy. Everything had worked with ease and efficiency. The big cities were about to be blitzed.

On Saturday night, December 25th, Brownsville Station and The Plain Brown Wrapper performed Christmas honors at Sherwood Forest.  New Year’s Eve saw Frijid Pink and The Woolies on stage. Alice was playing Madison Square Garden. Ed Boyce didn’t need to worry about his balls.

The Fall ’71 PULSE came out in early February ’72. I was on the air when it arrived, so Charlie Speights brought it right into the studio. WTAC had dropped five full points in Flint to an 11.4% audience share, while upstart WWCK-FM had come out of nowhere to register a 6.1% total. Between 7 p.m. and Midnight, WWCK actually beat WTAC 10.9% to 10.7%. Jesus Christ Superstar, they only had one tower to our four! What the fuck? Charlie was not as alarmed as I.

“Relax!”, he commanded. “Maybe it’s just a novelty factor!”

That’s what they’d  said about railroads, televison and indoor plumbing.

As usual, Charlie was right. Temporarily.

WWCK-FM  had vast technical superiority to WTAC, but Johnny Nojag wasn’t a programmer and Bill Gibson soon left for WRIF-FM, owned by ABC in Detroit. The initial surge had been more a harbinger than permanent beachhead. The scales wouldn’t be tipped forever until a few more years had passed. Yet, WWCK-FM was there and had to be factored into every formatic equation. Moreover, they were running five or six minutes of commercials per hour to our fifteen or sixteen.

We reduced our hourly “load level” to ten minutes and drove-up the rates. We convinced local advertising agencies that we had the history and would not regard the use of WWCK as an act of friendship. In the finest radio tradition, we used threats, promises and intimidation with clients. Music rotations were tighted even more and select rock album-cuts were worked into overall programming with increased frequency. Contesting was increased with bigger money pay-offs. The WTAC “Underground” was extended until 5 a.m. with increased musical depth for all-night listeners. We controlled the local live rock market and used this leverage to the fullest. We borrowed time in staving-off the inevitable.

2 Responses to ““Armstrong’s Curse””

  1. linda woodhall Says:

    is johnny nogaj still alive,and if so where and what is he doing now ? ty linda

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