Celebrating 50 Years of WEBN-FM

A look back at WEBN’s Golden Age, by its longest-employed employee.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

The year 1967 is currently coming to grips with turning 50, and like many who reach this age, it has grown fat in the middle. Many of 1967’s greatest hits are wedged into June, July, and August: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Six-Day War. Summer of Love. Vietnam protests. Race riots. Having already slogged through the 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th anniversaries of all these things is just another reason millennials are glad to see us fading away. A splendid time is no longer guaranteed for anybody, Mr. Kite included.

Cincinnati carries its own good and bad memories from 1967, though they haven’t been reheated so repeatedly: New Convention Center. Monkees at the Gardens. Race riots. It was a busy year all around, including, ahem, the debut of this very magazine. (Having been relatively modest about our own milestones, we do plan to pop several corks in our next issue.) But another local historical event from the summer of 1967 got little attention at the time: On the afternoon of August 30, from a converted living room in Price Hill, radio station WEBN-FM signed on. Not many people noticed. Only a fraction of homes had FM radios, cars even fewer, and WEBN’s first music format was classical and jazz. Yawn.

I wasn’t there at the creation, but I was lucky enough to get a job during the early years, and stayed until 2012. Out of the countless folks who worked at WEBN during its first half-century, I’m quite confident I hold the record for employee longevity. My 38-year trophy will never be handed off. So whatever the station may have planned for its 50th birthday, and though I now work for a competitor, I feel compelled to speak up for WEBN’s Golden Age.

Cincinnati, you got to witness one of the truly great chapters of American radio history. Most listeners—I say this with confidence because the ratings soared—loved the antics and chemistry of the Dawn Patrol; the Fools Parade every April; the song parodies; the hot air balloon; the TV and billboard campaigns that infuriated just the right people; the fake commercials sharing space with the real ones; the crazy contests; the Payola Weekends. WEBN’s long-time slogan was “A Different Kind of Radio Station.” Nowhere else could you hear things like a years-long ad campaign for Tree Frog Beer—“doesn’t taste like much, but it gets you there faster!” No other station announced the latest technological miracles from the laboratories of Brute Force Cybernetics: the Portable Hole, the Negative Calorie Cookie, a 25th Hour, and the innovative Doctor Drive-Thru. We gave prizes to people who mowed our call letters into their lawns. We introduced Snappy Cicada Pizza and Pete Rosé Wine. Our Album Projects gave dozens of local musicians their first wide exposure.

This is but a fraction of the stuff we did between songs. I’ve left out the raunchier things, which you may remember with fondness, or perhaps outrage. Maybe you even joined some of the organized efforts that pressured advertisers to drop us. The station did lose some clients, which is why I must salute our management. They had our backs. WEBN was willing to lose money as a cost of being who we were. Would your boss do that? Mine did.

I realize I’m describing WEBN in the past tense as if it no longer exists. Because it doesn’t, at least not as the radio station I’m talking about. I don’t mean to denigrate the current WEBN; the station I currently work for also operates in the same stunted world birthed by broadcast deregulation in 1996. For whatever reasons, the countless things that made WEBN special and unique to Cincinnati are now gone, and the only argument might be about how long ago they left. Some would say the changes were intolerable as early as the mid-1970s. (My very first day on the air, a caller complained about the station “going downhill.”) Other listeners turned away years later when the crude humor ratcheted up, or after the creativity had mostly disappeared to make room for more commercials. But we were lucky and blessed for a long time: a homegrown, home-managed, hometown team, hitting home runs out of our own sonic stadium. External forces helped too, coinciding with the rise of rock music, FM radio, and of all those hippies who eventually grew up and slowly blended into the establishment. Much like we did.

Lids can’t be blown off unless they’re first tightly wedged in place. So thanks, all you tight-assed and unknowing supporters out there.

There were many who detested us. Some hated our raucous music, mega-sized personalities, and relentless bad boy antics. Others had once loved the station—even revered it as an alternative universe of disruptive joy—but later came to resent its drift into corporate blandness. WEBN had to weather a double-crossfire of animosity: from those repulsed, and those betrayed. Both hatreds began almost immediately. Only three weeks after signing on as a classical/jazz station, WEBN had its musical purity invaded on Saturday nights by a new show called Jelly Pudding, featuring some kind of horrible noise dubbed “progressive rock.” Imagine refined Cincinnatians on a tranquil Saturday evening in 1967, tuning in to enjoy, say, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata by Vladimir Horowitz, and instead hearing “The Duke of Prunes” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Conversely, imagine hippie stoners at the same moment, thrilled to discover a station playing Zappa, and then waking up to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring the next morning. What the hell was this radio station doing? Who was running it? And who was ruining it?

The person running it was named Frank Wood. After a successful career in law, he’d decided to act out his midlife crisis with a transmitter instead of a Porsche, building his radio station literally from the ground up—a new broadcast tower beside an old house in Price Hill. The person ruining it was also named Frank Wood, also starting his own career in law, but smitten by the new trends in rock. He convinced his dad to let him host Jelly Pudding on Saturday nights for Cincinnati’s budding counterculture.

Both Frank Woods used fake names on the air because they wanted to make it seem like WEBN had an actual staff. The truth was much smaller: Frank the Elder was the principal on-air personality, the owner, general manager, music director, and program director, but “officially” he was a DJ named George Gregory, with a program director by the name of Miles Duffy. (Miles was Frank’s dog.)

Frank the Younger called himself Michael Xanadu, and he did things on Jelly Pudding that the dominant Top 40 AM stations would never consider. It wasn’t just that he aired the seven-minute version of “Light My Fire,” or that he favored album tracks over hit singles. He also played obscure rock artists, ones that baby boomers had only read about in Rolling Stone, a brand-new magazine. He also spoke conversationally, disdaining the Top 40 full-bottle-of-Adderall persona. Jelly Pudding’s commercials were different, too: mostly made in-house and irreverently targeted to this new, young audience. The show got the phones ringing, so Frank the Elder soon allowed Frank the Younger to tarnish his radio station on Wednesday nights as well.

Cincinnati’s 50 years of WEBN love/hate had begun. Excited rock fans were thrilled, just as classical/jazz fans started to feel the repulsion and betrayal. Frank the Elder himself abhorred rock music, but couldn’t deny the growth potential. By the end of the ’60s, both Franks had made fateful decisions: the Elder would allow rock to be the principal source of his radio station’s revenue, and the Younger would become WEBN’s manager, program director, and only occasionally its DJ. Eventually, WEBN was playing album rock all day—with an actual employed staff—and classical music was relegated to Sunday mornings.

A number of things fell perfectly into place: rock music filled up more space on the charts, FM radios became standard equipment in cars, advertisers stood in line to reach baby boomers, and, thank God in Heaven, WEBN hired me. My first job was not as a DJ, but as producer of those homemade commercials. Here again is where Frank the Younger understood a vital fact others didn’t: ads and promos are not interruptions. They’re an opportunity to augment a radio station’s persona and image. My job—well established at WEBN before I inherited it—was to be the unnamed 24/7 disc jockey, injecting the station’s personality into commercial breaks.

Most clients understood, and let us have fun. That’s why it was easy, when we started doing the April Fools Parade in 1976, to get clients to play themselves in their own fake ads. That’s why clients let us put up billboards all over town that looked like theirs, but seemed vandalized by a big, ugly, spray-painted “WEBN.” Clients even allowed their TV commercials to look like WEBN had electronically hijacked them. Sorry, Russia, but we beat you by decades. We worked hard and had a blast.

My final day at WEBN was completely unrecognizable from my first. I’d been hired by this pipsqueak of a radio station, owned by a guy whose son was manager and whose daughter (Hi, Robin!) did the morning show. Contrast that with 2012: I worked at the same station, but my employer was now the largest radio corporation in the world. My job, which began with a simple Cincinnati handshake, ended with a 13-page severance document sent from San Antonio, one of dozens presented that day in many cities across the country. I’d long expected to be a casualty of the previous nationwide pink-slip massacres, so it was no surprise. After my non-compete elapsed, I was happy to get back on the air somewhere else.

I have no overblown fantasies about radio’s importance in people’s lives. Like a humidifier, its sound is so constant that people can easily stop hearing it. The push buttons on old radios are merely the grandparents of today’s swipe left. But WEBN, in its prime, meant more to our town than that. Its early years provided an electronic gathering place for a new and growing segment of Cincinnati: the baby boomers who formed a culture apart from their parents in regard to aspirations, politics, and especially music. Even as it later drifted into mainstream programming, the station’s behavior between songs continued to poke its finger in the eye of the proper and starched. Fans laughed harder at our stuff because they knew that in the next car, cubicle, or living room, somebody else was horrified.

Cincinnati’s reputation as an ultra-conservative town has plenty of supporting evidence. We put Larry Flynt in jail. We made “Mapplethorpe” a household name. When porn first made inroads into America’s movie theaters, Cincinnati’s streets remained closed. Is it a paradox that WEBN thrived through all of that? Or might the truth be that the pearl clutching helped make our success so spectacular? Frank the Younger supports that theory, telling me, “I believe in a kind of Newton’s Law of Social Dynamics: For every person in a conservative, repressive, and bored environment, there are an equal and opposite number who are willing to giggle.”

Lids can’t be blown off unless they’re first tightly wedged in place. So thanks, all you tight-assed and unknowing supporters out there.

One final thing about our founder, Frank the Elder: He disliked rock music, but more than anything, he despised Bob Dylan. Just loathed his voice. No one is sure who famously described Dylan’s singing as “the sound of a cow with its leg stuck in a fence,” but it wasn’t Frank Wood—that would have been too much of a compliment. And yet, on the day in 1992 when I had to announce over the WEBN airwaves that Frank the Elder had died, and that the Younger would place some of his father’s ashes inside the first shell of that summer’s fireworks, I tried really hard to think of the most appropriate musical tribute to play for him…and I couldn’t come up with anything better than Dylan’s slow version of “Forever Young.” Maybe somewhere, our founder heard it and felt repulsed. Perhaps betrayed. You’ve got lots of company, Frank. Thanks for everything, and happy birthday.

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