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Filed Under: General Nonsense, Pointless Digressions, Politics || By

January 31, 2008 | Link to this story

What Kind of Kids Bring Cyril Hot Dogs?

Category: General Nonsense, Pointless Digressions, Politics || By

In retrospect, signs like that one should have been a tipoff that something was amiss:

The chief forensic investigator for the Allegheny County medical examiner's office once had to go on a hot dog run to Giant Eagle because wieners for a political event for Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's son didn't arrive on time.

Edward Strimlan also told the jury on the opening day of Dr. Wecht's federal criminal trial yesterday that he and other deputy coroners often had to participate in what they called "Wecht details" that were regularly recorded in Allegheny County logbooks.

In response, Wecht's attorneys said, "So what, do you wanna make a federal case out of it? ... Oh, right, sorry."

No wonder Wecht's peeved. The mayor gets to borrow a Homeland Security SUV to ride to a Toby Keith concert, but the feds bust Cyril's chops over a few Sugardale wieners.

Some people say that U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan just relished the chance to grill a prominent Democrat in a hot, juicy trial.

Though a few suspect Wecht of pork-barrel spending, even they admit he'd never send employees on an assignment that wasn't kosher.

OK, I'll stop now.

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January 30, 2008 | Link to this story

Three Thousand Words

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany || By

Things are a little busy right now, so I'm offering up three pictures in lieu of 3,000 words, and wow: I just had a terrible vision of a 3,000-word Bread song.

Remember? Years ago, David Gates and Bread whined, "If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?"

Let's quit before we start discussing Walter Egan ("Magnet and Steel"), Eric Carmen ("All By Myself"), Dan Fogelberg ("Leader of the Band") and Chicago.

Man, that's the soundtrack of my earliest years on Planet Earth. Imagine all of the tiny children, born in the mid-1970s, who grew up listening to nothing but soft rock.

No wonder my generation can't seem to muster any self-determination. We were listening to "Wild World" by Cat Stevens in the womb. If that doesn't rob you of ambition, I don't know what would.

. . .

City-based Blueroof Technologies was the subject of a feature story by Tonia Caruso on WQED-TV's "On Q" newsmagazine.

You may have seen Blueroof's "model cottage," located on Spring Street just off of Walnut Street.

It's a "smart house" designed to showcase technologies that allow senior citizens and the disabled to live in their own homes and remain productive. Many of the devices were designed at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

Besides showcasing "smart house" technology, Blueroof's work includes training high school and college students, health-care workers, and others to install, maintain and design devices that can help seniors remain self sufficient.

Watch the full story here.

And a tip of the Tube City hard-hat to John Bertoty, executive director of Blueroof, for sending along the link.

. . .

John Barna photo

Meanwhile, photographer/historian John Barna sends along these photos of the former St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Alpsville, South Versailles Township.

This tiny parish was established at the end of the Civil War in what was then a bustling railroad and coal mining community. Unless I miss my guess, this also was the parish that future Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. would have attended when he was growing up in Coulter, which adjoins Alpsville.

John Barna photoWhen the mines played out, the population moved away; in 1955, St. Patrick became a "mission church" of St. Denis Parish in Versailles Borough.

By 1993, with population declining across the Mon-Yough area and only a handful of people still attending weekly Mass at St. Patrick's, the church was closed and then sold.

John remembers attending the last service, and says that the building probably seats fewer than 50 people in two rows of pews. It also has a tiny "choir loft" that's more of an elevated platform.

The first St. Patrick's Church on this property burned in 1924, and was replaced by this structure. It's now privately owned by Bigley Family Cemetery Inc., a small North Huntingdon non-profit corporation which also maintains the accompanying graveyard.

According to news reports (none of them appear to be online), the church is in danger of demolition because the cost of upkeep is outstripping the meager income generated by the cemetery.

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January 28, 2008 | Link to this story

It Flows Downstream

Category: Good Government On The March, Cartoons || By

cartoon (c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

Years ago, the Youghiogheny River used to be navigable at least as far as Boston, thanks to a series of locks and dams. You can still see the footings in the summertime, when the water levels get low.

Maybe McKeesport and Versailles should rebuild the dam under the Boston Bridge and keep Elizabeth Township's sewage where it belongs.

. . .

As you know by now, the township has been dumping millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the Yough (pronounced "Yuck") since last year --- 6.3 million gallons on Dec. 16 alone, according to the Post-Gazette.

It's hard to imagine 6.3 million gallons of sewage, so visualize this: Experts say that if you took 6.3 million gallon milk jugs, filled them with sewage, and stacked them on the field at Warrior Stadium, the smell would be appalling.

"We don't understand how someone would not know there is a problem," a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection told the newspaper.

. . .

I'm with her: This isn't accidental, and it isn't an isolated problem. According to the Valley Independent, the DEP and Allegheny County Health Department say that discharges of untreated sewage by Elizabeth Township into the Yough have been happening for more than a year. They've documented 73 separate incidents.

There have been no public health problems reported (yet), and the city's water treatment plant (which draws drinking water from the Yough) has not reported any problems.

But imagine how many people who swim or boat in the Yough during the summer have been drinking that sewage? Maybe you or your family.

This represents gross (and I do mean "gross") negligence by Elizabeth Township's "sanitary" authority, for which people should be fired, en masse, immediately.

Treatment plant supervisor John Pecora and chairman Robert Similo "could not be reached" for comment by the Post-Gazette. Maybe they were busy updating their resumes.

. . .

It's not just happening on wet, rainy days, either, when storm water gets into the sanitary lines and causes them to overflow. It's happening on dry days, which tells even an ignorant layman (like myself) that something is drastically wrong.

Elizabeth Township contracts operation of the plant out to the world's largest operator of municipal water treatment plants, Veolia Water, a French-owned conglomerate. Its parent company reported 10 billion Euros (about $14.8 billion) in revenue in 2006 and earnings of 2.13 Euros per share (about $3.15) in its most recent financial statement.

Apparently, the money they save is returned to investors ... and they pass the urine and feces onto you!

Veolia's website boasts about the benefits of privatizing municipal facilities, including "clean, quality water and improved customer service ... tremendous costs savings and rate stability ... (and) environmental compliance."

This particular case is not a good example of privatization in action. (Or should that be "inaction"?)

. . .

Unfortunately, the people who are going to wind up paying for this are --- quite literally --- homeowners in Elizabeth Township and businesses connected to the sewerage system. The township sanitary authority is going to be liable for thousands --- probably hundreds of thousands --- of dollars in fines.

I expect the authority will wind up suing Veolia. But in the meantime, any legal costs and expenses will be eaten by ratepayers of the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority. Get ready to dig deep, folks.

. . .

If I lived in the township, I'd sure say that something stinks. But the smell is coming from the municipal building, not the river.

Shame on the sanitary authority's board members for ignoring this problem --- and shame on the township's elected commissioners for not conducting better oversight.

The Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority next meets at 7 p.m. Feb. 5. That's next Tuesday. The commissioners meet the day before, at 7 p.m. Both meetings are at the municipal building on Rock Run Road. Residents and taxpayers should be there to ask hard questions and demand hard answers.

There is no excuse for this. None. Period.

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January 25, 2008 | Link to this story

Mon Valley Woolgathering

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany, Pointless Digressions || By

Sometimes it seems like people around the Mon-Yough area eat dumb flakes for breakfast, and go back for second helpings.

Well, maybe we're not dumb. But we have become as docile as sheep.

. . .

Case in point: Robert Winston, former director of Newman-Winston Memorial Chapel on Jenny Lind Street, whose case is in the news again this week. He's accused of keeping the remains of 300 fetuses in his garage on Evans Avenue.

Winston was supposed to cremate the bodies after collecting them from Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland. Instead, prosecutors claim he pocketed the money and didn't perform the work.

His defense attorneys say that Winston has health problems and got into financial trouble, and that the situation spiraled out of control.

. . .

Health problems and financial trouble I can understand. Been there, done that. I made $285 a week gross (and I do mean "gross") at my first job. I've sat there at the end of the month with the light bill in one hand and the gas bill in the other, wondering which one to pay.

But I'd like to think that if I had a stack of infant corpses in my garage that I couldn't afford to cremate, I'd say, "Hey, maybe I better not accept any more dead babies."

I might even call Magee-Womens Hospital and tell them, "You know, I don't think I can handle this contract. Can I get out of this deal?"

Or if I didn't want to create trouble for myself, I might even quietly call one of the other funeral directors around McKeesport and say, "Um, can you help me out?"

I don't know that I'd wait until I had 300 corpses stacked in a garage on Evans Avenue, grieving families filing lawsuits, and the coroner's office out in the alley with a biohazard team. Sorry, but that's what I call dumb.

. . .

Or, let's take the Tanya Kach case, which is grinding its way through federal court. I'm not inclined to blame the girl for being kidnapped; I'm never inclined to blame the victim. And the fact that the man accused of holding her hostage and abusing her, former school security guard Thomas Hose, has pleaded guilty leads me to believe that he's guilty.

No, I can understand a 14-year-old girl being intimidated into silence. But for 10 years?

At least part of the time, Kach was confined or locked up. At some point, however, prosecutors say Hose allowed her more freedom.

I think I would have been eying the windows in that house. You could kick out the glass or the screen, jump into the yard and make a run for it. Or maybe I would have picked up the telephone, dialed "0," and said, "Hey, could you send a squad car up here?"

We're talking about McKeesport, not the Gobi Desert or even West By-God Virginia. The houses are about five feet apart. It couldn't have been that hard to dash for freedom.

. . .

We seem willing to sit around and let events unfold around us, with our mouths shut, suffering in silence until some crisis happens.

At what point did people in the Mon Valley become so passive? Was it the collapse of the steel industry? Are we permanently psychologically damaged?

There was a time when we walked tall, talked loud, and fought for ourselves. McKeesport's mascot is a tiger. South Allegheny's is a gladiator. West Mifflin's is a "titan."

You have to go all the way down to New Eagle and Finleyville before you find anyone using a wool-bearing ungulate as their mascot --- and even then it's a "ram."

National Works closed in 1987. Duquesne Works closed in 1985. It's way past time we got past the pain.

Let's start acting like tigers or gladiators, not sheep. Maybe then we'll stop getting herded around by companies, crooks and politicians --- and we'll be less likely to get sheared.

. . .

In Other News: The marketing manager of Century III Mall writes a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette to protest reports that the shopping center in West Mifflin is in trouble:

"Century III Mall is lively and well. While we do not directly comment on such speculation, what we can tell you is that it is very much business as usual there. The mall has more than 130 specialty stores and services."

True, that. But it used to have 180 stores. (Simon Property Group, which owns the mall, claims on its website that Century III has "160 stores.")

And a disturbingly large number of the 130 locations still occupied are rented by second-tier tenants --- discounters, off-price retailers and dollar-stores --- or by non-profit services.

I was at Century III twice over the holidays, and I could have taken a nap in some of the aisles without bothering anyone.

Who you gonna believe? Century III's owners, or your lying eyes? Baaaaa. Pass the grass clippings.

. . .

To Do This Weekend: Knit a sweater. Or, head over to Jeannette, where Keynote Cafe, 416 Clay Ave., will host an art show tomorrow for elementary, high school and college students from across Westmoreland County. More than 80 pieces will be on display, and there will be live music. Tickets cost $5 and doors open at 7 p.m. Call (412) 638-5263.

Also out Route 30 (remember, there's "more" in Westmoreland): The Westmoreland County Courthouse marks its centennial celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow. Weather permitting, you'll be allowed to tour the courthouse dome. There will also be an art exhibition, strolling musicians and free refreshments. Call (724) 834-6730. It's easy to get to. Drive to Greensburg and look for the big golden dome. You can't miss it.

And hey, we have a lack of listings from McKeesport this week, so remember to send your events to Tube City Almanac. The address is j togyer at g mail dot com. OK? See yinz crazy kids on Monday.

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January 24, 2008 | Link to this story

A Handbasket Full of Blahjs

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany || By

A few months ago, I heard a local radio preacher railing against the Internet. "Don't read those blogs," he kept saying, but he was pronouncing the "g" like a "j," so it came out "blahj."

"Don't give into modernism and humanism!" he kept saying. "Don't read those blahjs! Read your King James Bible!"

"Blahjs" sound like some sort of Eastern European food that you might buy at International Village. "Can I have a couple of blahjs?" "Sure. With sauerkraut or sour cream?"

Luckily for you, as a Mary-worshiping papist my eternal soul is already condemned, so I scan blahjs for mentions of Our Fair City.

Grab your flame-retardant Rosary, climb into the handbasket, and down we go:

. . .

About-PittsburghPa: Sorry I didn't notice this earlier; apparently there was an all-night dance party called "Linear!!" at The Palisades on Saturday, Dec. 29: "70's style meets intergalactic! With a great lineup of djs and a dance floor that claims to be the biggest in Southwestern Pennsylvania, come dressed up in your finest space age/disco gear and get ready to dance all night!"

Scheduled DJs included Kevin James, Craig Kavasia, "Transender," "DJ Donkey Punch," Mikey Shanley (formerly "DJ Sirius"), Jae Illa and "MC Akira," Dave Breakwell, "Naoko," and "DVS."

Not exactly my style --- I'm happy to listen to my scratchy Fats Domino 45s, thank you --- but it shows that we're not all nostalgia-sodden geriatrics around here. I would have given it a shout-out ahead of time; mea culpa.

. . .

Ride for Skip Viragh: Cyclists from around the country are planning to pedal from McKeesport to Washington, D.C., to raise money for Make-a-Wish Foundation on behalf of the late Skip Viragh, founder of Washington-based Rydex Investments. Over the past three years, they've raised $85,000:

Mark Hornbaker will be joined by George Andrews and Paul Barrett as the riders will ride 320 miles from McKeesport, Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. in four days. The riders will start off on the Great Allegheny Trail the first two days of the ride. On the third day of the ride the riders will start on the C&O Canal Towpath at Cumberland, Maryland and will ride 100 miles. The fourth day of the ride will have the riders start off at mile post 84 on the C&O Canal Towpath.

More details at the Ride for Skip Viragh blog.

. . .

McKeesport: Here's a blog that's full of vintage photos, a few beauty shots of the area, and pictures from recent McKeesport High School reunions.

. . .

Nanowerk: A press release posted here notes that Steel City Products, based along Center Street in the RIDC industrial park, has been named a master distributor for Green Earth Technologies, a company in Menlo Park, Calif., that manufactures cleaners and other products sold through auto parts stores and supermarkets.

. . .

Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog: According to this blog maintained by Dr. Leon Aussprung, a real "Philadelphia lawyer," a local man is suing the VA Medical Center in Oakland for operating on the wrong foot. "No explanation for the medical error has been reported to my knowledge," Aussprung writes. "The patient had no prior problems with his right foot, which was improperly operated on."

Ouch! Reminds me of the morning I pulled into the old Atlantic station on Liberty Way, back when they used to pump your gas, and asked one of the two owners why he was limping. "Did you hurt your foot?" I asked.

I guess I was about the 99th person to say the same thing that day. "No," he snapped, "I've got a toothache but I was afraid no one would mention it."

. . .

Problem Exists Between Chair and Computer: Are you the guy or gal who's been visiting the blog maintained by Andy Cooper, deputy director of TRIPIL in Washington County? Well, 'fess up already.

. . .

Cousin Connect: Here's a "Painter baby" born Jan. 27, 1948 (happy birthday, by the way) who was put up for adoption. This person is currently trying to locate his real family:

The attorney who handled the adoption was Ray A. Liddle, 202 National Bank Bldg., McKeesport, Pa. I've been told by family since the death of both of my adoptive parents that my birth mother's name was Violet Pickens. She was a friend of Anna Williams, a friend of my adoptive father's mother, Rose Brakeall.

I was told that my birth mother had dark hair, fair skin and was tall. Family has also told me that my birth mother was married to a Greek man who did not believe that I was his child and made her give me up for adoption. Pickens would be her maiden name.

Get in touch through the Cousin Connect website if you can help.

. . .

Peak Direction: Here's a relatively new blog about public transit in Western Pennsylvania. As someone who's waited for buses on Lysle Boulevard more than I care to remember, I find this description of the "McKeesport Transportation Center" sadly accurate:

It's a Kiss-And-Ride, meaning that there are spaces for idling cars but not commuters.

It's also a modern look on how Port Authority has failed. It used to be a train station for the PATrain, commuter service between McKeesport and Pittsburgh. More info from a model rail fan here. Now it's a starting place for 15 or so bus lines. I believe there's a driver's lounge on the second floor, since I've seen drivers go up there between routes.

The first floor is obviously a former waiting room and ticket office. Now it's just an empty box that the door sometimes keeps warm. That 2001 article describes a vending machine and fountain that are now gone. It also describes availability of schedules, which is also gone. They can't even use Port Authority owned land to tell people about their services. Oh well.

Amen, amen, amen. The Almanac is already on record as saying the Lysle Boulevard parking garage should be taken over by Port Authority as a "park-and-ride" center.

As for the bus depot on Lysle, heaven forbid that Port Authority actually put a timetable rack there, or maybe a coffee shop. (Couldn't that space be rented out for a convenience store?) Heck, someone might actually want to take the bus, instead of being forced to take the bus.

. . .

Digital Library Center Blog: And finally, a librarian at the University of Florida notes that wartime employee records from U.S. Steel's National Works are available through Pitt's website. She suggests they could be incorporated into a virtual reality game:

Augment or alternative reality games combine the digital and the physical to create innovative and interactive games. Notable examples could include geocaching games, and games where players decode information on websites to find information on other websites, call or email the "decrypted" phone numbers or email addresses, or any one of many other activities based on the information learned from the digital site. The real play of ARGs comes through in the back-and-forth from digital to non-digital and in the gaming communities these types of games create. While I'm familiar with ARGs from game studies, it seems like some library and archival materials almost invoke the concept with as oddities that seem to need to be used in some way.

The card almost calls out to be used in a game that requires additional research, making it perfect fodder or inspiration for an ARG.

I'm not so sure I want my grandma or grandpa impersonated in a role-playing game on the Internet. On the other hand, designing the scenarios might be interesting: "Work back-to-back eight-hour shifts. Shower in locker room, pack work clothes into Balsamo's bag. Stop at tavern for an Imp and an Iron."

. . .

Got any blahjs about the Mon-Yough area that I've missed? Point 'em out in the comments.

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January 22, 2008 | Link to this story

Only from the (Closed) Mind of Minolta

Category: Pointless Digressions || By

Above you see a few samples from a lifetime (er, "so far," I hope) of camera-collecting. That's not all of the cameras, but all of this "stuff" has been used at one point or another over the past 12 years to produce content at Tube City Online.

Well, OK, not the Kodak Duaflex in the upper right, and while I do use one of the Polaroids on occasion, the Canon QL-17 and AE-1 in the foreground have been used for 90 percent of the images.

But you get the picture (pun intended). This has been primarily a film-based operation, until today. I'm tippy-toeing into the digital age.

Thanks to eBay, I finally own a digital camera.

"Welcome to 1999," I can hear you say. "Next you'll get a Touch-Tone phone."

Wise guy. I have a Touch-Tone phone. It's color TV I'm waiting for. (They don't have the bugs out yet.)

. . .

Finances, rather than nostalgia, prevented me from taking the plunge earlier. I got a break, however, because Minolta has exited the camera business, orphaning its well-received dImage line of digital cameras and making them dirt-cheap on the used market.

Shipping the 3.2-megapixel Minolta E323 almost cost more than the camera; when I went to Office Depot to get a USB cable for it, the salesman helpfully suggested I just buy a memory card and a portable flash-drive instead. "The drives are only $9," he said, "but the cable will be worth more than the camera."

Hearing that Minolta (actually, "Konica Minolta" --- the two merged in 2003) had left the camera business was kind of a stunner; I'll bet you didn't even notice it happened.

That's the whole problem. No one noticed that Konica and Minolta were in the digital camera business, let alone that they had left the business; during its last full year with a camera division, the merged company lost 8,700 million yen on cameras and supplies, which is equivalent to ... um ...

( ... carry the one ... )

Well, a lot of money. (OK, about $82 million U.S. at the present rate of exchange.)

. . .

Anyway, in the photography world, Minolta was once one of the big players, along with Canon and Nikon. And I'm sure the idea that a Japanese camera company was losing money is kind of sick joke to the ghosts of George Eastman, Edwin Land, and all of the employees laid off from Keystone, Ansco and the other defunct American camera companies in Chapter 11 heaven.

By the way, how technology do change: the Minolta E323 takes up less space and weighs less than my GE light meter, visible in the bottom center of the first photo.

Not having a digital camera has kept me from shooting some things for the Almanac, because I either have to kill an entire 24-shot roll of 35-mm film, or monkey with one of the Polaroid cameras. The Polaroids aren't actually that bad, but they're terrible for action photography and they're lousy in cold weather, unless you want to walk around with a picture in your armpit, counting to 90.

. . .

I decided to go cheap on my initial foray into digital camera ownership because I'm still not convinced I want to abandon my film cameras. Not yet. Besides the fact that I like taking pictures with them, film is still cheap.

More importantly to me, pictures and negatives are easy to store, and they never become "obsolete."

I've got 3.5-inch floppies from 10 years ago on which I archived early versions of this website. They're completely useless now; some of my older homemade CD-ROMs are already crapping out; and digital prints fade faster than a college radio station.

I don't really want to take the chance that 20 years from now, some priceless photo will be impossible to retrieve. For now, anything I want to keep is going to be shot on film.

So ignore Tube City Online's business manager, over there on the right, trying to flog my cameras. They're not for sale.

Besides, as my friend Dan says, when I die, my entire collection of cameras, radios and other fine, gently-used antiques will be sold at auction.

Dan thinks my estate sale should fetch upwards of $5.

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January 21, 2008 | Link to this story

Cluttered Thoughts from an Empty Mind

Category: History || By

These are just a few random observations, but I can prove that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist:

. . .

Mention the year "1968" and almost instantly, a highlights reel starts to roll in people's brains (probably set to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower").

Needless to say, we're not out of January yet, but get ready for dozens of "40th anniversary" pieces on the civil-rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

. . .

Local oldies disc jockey and rector the Rev. Charlie Appel, former pastor of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Liberty Borough, told me years ago that PIttsburgh had comparatively fewer riots after King's assassination than other Northern cities of its size.

Appel contends that's due in part to the fact that white and black Pittsburghers shared so much of their music.

Unlike other cities, where there were exclusively "black" radio stations and "white" radio stations, in Pittsburgh, suburban DJs like Porky Chedwick, Bob Livorio, Zeke Jackson and McKeesport's Terry Lee were spinning soul and R&B long before the music crossed into the mainstream. Whites and blacks also mingled at record hops and nightclubs; don't forget that one of the most popular nightspots of the 1960s was Walt Harper's Attic.

. . .

Of course, one of the record producers who discovered and popularized many of the early R&B pioneers --- including Lloyd Price, Sam Cooke and "Little Richard" Penniman --- was Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records, who was raised in McKeesport.

Rupe told me that he discovered R&B music by sneaking behind black churches in the Third Ward on Sundays and listening to the songs coming from the open windows.

I'm not saying that conditions here were idyllic; far from it. As noted elsewhere on Tube City Online, the "good ol' days" in McKeesport weren't always so good for African-Americans.

. . .

Anyway, if this Almanac is a little bit disjointed, forgive me; my mental energies Sunday night went to completing this week's installment of the "Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix" at Pittsburgh Radio & TV Online.

It recalls another anniversary we'll be celebrating this year: the 45th anniversary of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

. . .

The most famous part of that march nearly didn't happen. Organizers weren't sure they wanted Dr. King to talk, because they were afraid that he'd dominate the day's events.

So they pushed his remarks to the end of the program in hopes that the TV crews would go home, then told King that he could only speak for four minutes.

He went on to deliver perhaps the most famous televised address of all time.

Besides shaping public opinion on what became the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the March on Washington also changed the future of the TV news business.

Read all about it here.

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January 17, 2008 | Link to this story

Bad Car-ma

Category: The Blacktop Jungle || By

Would you get mad at your spouse if they got a skin blemish? Of course you wouldn't.

And only a real jerk would dump their spouse because they got cancer. (And yes, I'm looking at you, Newt Gingrich.)

Well, I'm not married to her, but my sleek, gray Mercury is starting to show her age.

No, not crow's feet or liver spots --- it's the dreaded tinworm. I noticed a little paint blister on the driver's side front fender at Christmastime and decided I'd better investigate. What looked like a tiny spot of surface rust apparently goes straight through the other side.

. . .

I applied some emergency salve to soothe the lesions (a little rustproofing and some primer) but surgery is going to be necessary in the spring.

And this, friends, is what happens when you live in a state that dumps tons of salt on the roads every time a single flake lets fly. Do you know that in some northern climes and parts of Canada they limit the amount of salt on the roads? 'Struth. They actually learn to drive in the snow, and use sand and cinders to improve traction.

Besides rusting cars, salt also helps to ruin pavement. I know it's hard to feel any sympathy for PennDOT, but look at it from their point of view: We cry and moan if there's 1/16th of an inch of snow on the ground, so they dump a truckload of salt. That pokes a hole through their budget.

(PennDOT spends $179 million per year for winter maintenance, and that's not counting all of the townships, boroughs, cities and counties that maintain their own roads.)

Of course, the melted snow and salt runs down into the cracks in the pavement, where the water eventually freezes and causes the pavement to buckle. And then we drive to a state where they don't salt roads in the wintertime, and we complain because their roads are so much nicer (and their taxes are lower) than Pennsylvania's.

That's leaving aside the public health impact of all that salt, which (according to a 2005 report in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science) has helped lead to an increase in hypertension and high blood pressure. It leeches into the groundwater and finds its way into crops, you see.

And if you're a hunter, you might be interested to know that road salt makes deer, bears and other animals sick. Basically, they consume so much salt they get drunk.

I'm just sayin' that perhaps we don't need so much salt on the roads, that's all.

. . .

Anyway, at about the time I was picking rusty scabs off of my car, it turns out that the guy I bought her from is leaving the new-car business. Community Motors in Canonsburg was the last remaining dealer that only handled Mercury vehicles. Every other Mercury dealer handles at least one other Ford Motor Company product, usually Lincolns.

In December, according to Automotive News and the Observer-Reporter, "Mercury Joe" Mastrangioli voluntarily returned the dealership's Mercury franchise.

Some pundits are calling this evidence that Ford plans to discontinue the Mercury brand altogether. Well, maybe, but Mercury's the only line of vehicles Ford makes that's attracting young women into showrooms.

I tend to think Community Motors was a special case. Community Motors was the last of a breed in more ways than one. The showroom held a grand total of two cars; when I bought my car, Mastrangioli's wife wrote up the paperwork by hand, with carbon paper. Mastrangioli's 92-year-old mother worked in the office until recently. They almost got wiped out by a flood in 2004, and recovered.

Mastrangioli notes that the 57-year-old dealership, like all small, family-owned new car dealerships, was under pressure to sell or consolidate with a bigger firm.

. . .

Car companies don't want to deal with neighborhood stores that sell only a few dozen cars a month --- they want "superstores" like Cochran or Kenny Ross, preferably with multiple locations. Even the independent, mid-sized dealerships on the way out.

Competition from bigger dealerships, combined with slow new-car sales, led Mastrangioli to give up his franchise.

(By the way: A reliable source tells me that the Ford agency in Monongahela --- larger than Community Motors, but about the same age --- might give up the new car business soon, too. You read it here, first.)

Community Motors will stay in business selling used cars and doing repairs, which is probably more profitable than selling new cars anyway. If you have a car and you live around Canonsburg, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them.

. . .

Incidentally, a couple of years ago, I wanted to do a story on "Mercury Joe," since he was the sole Mercury-only dealer in the world. None of the car-collector magazines were interested, and neither was One of America's Great Newspapers.

Of course, when Mastrangioli dropped the franchise, then he became news. Honestly, I still don't understand journalism.

. . .

I'll probably check Community Motors when it comes time to retire this beast, which I hope doesn't come right away. When I get the fender fixed, maybe I'll seize the opportunity to have the whole car painted. I did that with my '89 Mercury --- $300 at Earl Scheib under the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge, and it looked like a new car.

Well, until some drunken idiot hit me head-on a week later.

Remember, Earl Scheib will paint any car for $99.95. Sometimes they even remember to roll up the windows. No, they did a good job for me, but that store has since closed. Maybe I'll see if Mercury Joe will paint cars, too.

. . .

Which reminds me --- my AAA membership is expiring, and I'm not in the mood to throw another $60 at them. Has anyone tried the "Better World Club," which advertises on "Car Talk"?

They promote themselves as an "environmentally friendly" alternative to AAA --- the big auto club has a history of lobbying against things like public transportation and pollution controls.

To be honest, I'm not exactly "Mr. Environment," but AAA's track record, combined with the cost of their memberships and the desire to support an underdog makes me wonder if I should take a flyer on Better World; they claim to deal with all of the same repair shops and towing places that AAA uses.

Unfortunately, they won't come out and fix rust. Then again, neither will AAA --- or "Mercury Joe" Mastrangioli, for that matter.

Hey, there's a thought. Maybe he should start an auto club. I'd join, wouldn't you?

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January 16, 2008 | Link to this story

From Irreverence to Irrelevance

Category: History, Local Businesses, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

(Third of three articles about McKeesport's two radio stations. Part 1 was about WEDO, and Part 2 covered the early days of WMCK/WIXZ.)

A generation of McKeesporters who came of age in the late 1960s fondly remember McKeesport's WIXZ (1360) as the fun, free-wheeling, slightly scruffier pop-music alternative to Pittsburgh's KQV (1410).

But around the country --- at least in radio circles --- WIXZ is remembered as the station that fired Rush Limbaugh from his first radio job.

That's right. The voice of the conservative revolution of the 1990s and the man who helped save AM talk radio couldn't hold a gig in McKeesport.

. . .

For about 18 months during WIXZ's brief but memorable existence as one of Pittsburgh's top radio stations, Rush "Rusty" Limbaugh III hosted WIXZ's morning show. He was 20 --- not yet old enough to legally drink in Pennsylvania.

Limbaugh was fresh out of tiny Cape Girardeau, Mo., where during high school he DJ'ed at KGMO radio. (His father owned part of the station.)

He had just dropped out of South Eastern Missouri University and was casting about for something to do when a disc jockey friend called from Pittsburgh. WIXZ was hiring. Was Limbaugh interested?

Was he kidding? Limbaugh accepted immediately, packed his things into his blue, 1969 Pontiac LeMans, and drove to McKeesport in February.

. . .

Limbaugh biographer Paul D. Colford is blunt about WIXZ's status. He calls it "a revolving door of talent." No doubt the famously low pay in small-market radio didn't entice many people to hang around.

The surroundings couldn't have helped, either. In approximately 1970, WIXZ moved from the Elks Temple (it later burned in McKeesport's so-called "Famous fire" of 1976) to an office building at the corner of Long Run Road and Walnut Street.

The nearest neighbors were the coal-tailings pile of the old Hubbard Mine, the Zayre Department Store in Olympia Shopping Center, and Winky's, across the street. When steam from the PB&S Chemical Co. plant didn't obscure the view, you could make out the four radio towers across the river in Lincoln Borough.

It wasn't exactly the "showcase studio" used by Pittsburgh's biggest and most successful music station, KQV (1410), and its sister station, WDVE-FM (102.5). Nor did WIXZ's owners, the Westchester Corp., have the resources of KQV's parent company, ABC.

. . .

Nevertheless, WIXZ gave KQV a good run for its money. It had Terry Lee Trunzo, nightclub operator, concert organizer, inveterate self-promoter and de facto leader of the Mon Valley's teen scene. It had a lock on local high school sports coverage. It had a free-wheeling, boisterous sound, and was small enough to move quickly and outflank KQV.

And for a while, it had Limbaugh (using the air name "Jeff Christie") in morning drive, who delighted in saying outrageous things and pulling outrageous stunts. A tape exists, for example. of Limbaugh calling Duquesne Light and asking the operator how much it would cost to run service to his backyard.

He wants to add a few lights, he says. When the operator inquires how many, Limbaugh innocently explains that he had just moved to McKeesport from down South, and he wants to be able to get a suntan outside in the winter. The operator solemnly calculates the monthly electric bill --- hundreds of dollars --- while Limbaugh plays along, deadpan.

According to Colford's 1993 book, The Rush Limbaugh Story, WIXZ had a "traffic 'copter" for a few months --- the imaginary invention of Limbaugh and Penn State McKeesport student Rick Toretti, an intern in the WIXZ newsroom. The roar of the motor was a sound-effects record, and when they tired of the joke, they "crashed" the helicopter with a horrific on-air cacophony.

. . .

Limbaugh was already pushing 300 pounds, and already developing his conservative views, according to Colford. But neither his appearance or his politics got him canned. Instead, he couldn't get along with the program director; the final straw came when Limbaugh was ordered to stop playing the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" so often.

"I loved the song, and I violated the music rotation by playing it every day," Limbaugh remembered years later. KQV snapped him up. He wound up replacing KQV evening disc jockey Jim Quinn, who became a conservative talk show host of his own renown a quarter-century later.

In the end, it wasn't the constant changes in DJs that killed WIXZ. It was the arrival of a new Top 40 competitor determined to dethrone KQV. Cecil "Cec" Heftel, a politician and radio programmer from Hawaii, purchased Pittsburgh's somnolent WJAS (1320) and turned it into WKTQ, or "13Q," an even faster-paced music station.

. . .

WIXZ still had its lousy 1,000-watt nighttime signal, which limited its reach to McKeesport and vicinity between sunset and sunrise. The arrival of a better-funded station with a more powerful, Pittsburgh-based signal on "13Q" squeezed WIXZ out of competition.

WIXZ added more oldies to attract more adult listeners; when that didn't work, it dumped rock music altogether and in March 1974 became a "beautiful music" station.

It had a new owner, too --- Tony Renda, an Indiana County native and ex-Marine who parlayed a job as a salesman for Pittsburgh's WIIC-TV (11) into partial ownership of a radio station in East Liverpool, Ohio.

. . .

In 1976, Renda relocated the station from Long Run Road to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Route 30 in East McKeesport, to get it as close as possible to the Parkway East, and Pittsburgh.

(At the time, FCC rules required that radio studios be located in the cities to which the stations were licensed, and East McKeesport wouldn't have qualified for WIXZ. According to rumors --- if they're true, the statute of limitations has long since expired --- a crafty attorney fooled Washington by moving one comma on the paperwork, changing the station's address from "500 Lincoln Highway, East McKeesport" to "500 Lincoln Highway East, McKeesport.")

For a while, starting in the late 1970s and early '80s, WIXZ aired country music. (Billboards reading "CHEW WIXZ 1360" proliferated.) Bob Prince hosted a talk show after being fired from Pirates broadcasts; horror-movie host and WIIC weatherman "Chilly Billy" Cardille had one as well.

On weekends, part-time DJs took to the air to play polkas and 1950s and '60s oldies, including many of the same "Pittsburgh dusties" that Terry Lee had spun as current records.

. . .

But the station's biggest franchise remained high school sports --- especially football. A "game of the week" on Friday nights, combined with hookups to every gridiron contest of interest around the Mon Valley, made WIXZ the dominant local sports authority. When NASCAR became more popular, live coverage of auto racing arrived at WIXZ.

Renda sold the station to one of his salesmen, Alan Serena, when he got the chance to purchase WJAS and WSHH-FM (99.7), then repurchased it a few years later when changes to FCC rules allowed the same person to own more than one AM station in the same market.

But as music listeners sought the clearer sound of FM, WIXZ's country programming faded. The arrival of two new FM country music stations in Pittsburgh in 1994 nailed the coffin tight; in March 1995, WIXZ became "Prime Sports Radio" 1360, carrying syndicated and local sports talk shows, including one hosted by Post-Gazette sports columnist Bruce Keidan. (The weekend polka and oldies shows remained.)

. . .

But the McKeesport connection was growing more tenuous. A new tower within the city of Pittsburgh gave the station's 5,000-watt daytime signal better coverage of the Golden Triangle. (FCC rules forced the nighttime, 1,000-watt signal to remain in Lincoln Borough.)

In 1996, WIXZ's studios moved to Green Tree along with WJAS and WSHH, and the East McKeesport building was torn down two years later for construction of a new Eckerd drug store.

The sports format remained in place for less than two years, when 1360 got squeezed out again by the big guys. Ironically enough, ABC was involved --- the arrival of the company's ESPN all-sports radio format on Pittsburgh's former WTAE (1250) spelled the end for what was then billed as "SportsRadio 1360."

WIXZ picked up several talk shows from WTAE, and grabbed the "WPTT" call letters recently abandoned by TV channel 22, formerly based in Monroeville.

. . .

About the only link to "the old days" is George Almasi's Polka Revue, which still airs Sunday mornings on 1360, strangely sandwiched between syndicated talk-show hosts George Noory and Mike Gallagher.

You can still hear high school football on 1360, but it isn't produced by the station any more. It comes from MSA Sports, a regional network funded by Pittsburgh's Management Science Associates Inc.

Only the once-hourly station ID --- "WPTT, McKeesport-Pittsburgh" --- hints of 1360's heritage as WMCK.

A diminishing number of people hear it; still hampered by that lousy nighttime signal, and somewhat neglected as the poor cousin of Renda's more popular Pittsburgh stations, WPTT is among the market's lowest-rated outlets. In the ratings that came out this week, 1360 managed only 0.8 percent of the listening audience.

. . .

Some day, the sole remaining McKeesport connection might be gone. Renda Broadcasting recently asked the FCC for permission to change WPTT's city of license from "McKeesport" to "Mount Lebanon," and to swap its 1360 frequency with an AM station on 910 in Apollo, Westmoreland County.

The deal hasn't yet been completed. If it is, it will leave WEDO (810) as McKeesport's only radio voice, and a part-time one at that.

As for Renda's company, which began in McKeesport at 1360, it now encompasses 25 radio stations stretching from Florida to Oklahoma; founder Tony Renda has collected a slew of accolades, including "Entrepreneur of the Year" awards from Pitt's business school and the financial accounting firm Ernst & Young. Last year, Pittsburgh broadcasters honored him with a "lifetime achievement award." (From tiny acorns, etc.)

For now, you can still see the red, blinking beacons of the old WMCK/WIXZ towers every night from the parking lot of Olympia Shopping Center.

And maybe somewhere out in the ether, thousands of light-years away, they're still hearing commercials for Cox's and Eger Ford, Terry Lee's "Music for Young Lovers," "Jeff Christie," "The Gunner" and hundreds of Mon-Yough high school football games.

And if a little green man ever lands his flying saucer on Walnut Street and says, "I'm a WIXZ Pixie!" ... well, don't say I didn't warn you.

. . .

Acknowledgements: In addition to my own research, I'm deeply indebted to three web publishers:

  • Dick Ruby's "World of Radio" website helped me track down a number of dates in WIXZ history. Unfortunately, it's now defunct, but you can see what it used to look like at Internet Archive.

  • Jeff Roteman has exhaustively chronicled Pittsburgh radio of the 1960s and '70s, with particular emphasis on KQV and WTAE, at his Radioville website.

  • Last but not least, Randy McDaniels has collected many photos, recordings and items of memorabilia at his WIXZ Memories website.

And, Pittsburghers interested in radio and TV nostalgia should make sure to check out the aptly-named Pittsburgh Radio Nostalgia message board.

Thank you all --- your corrections and comments are welcome.

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January 15, 2008 | Link to this story

Mighty 1360

Category: History, Local Businesses, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

(Part two of a three-part series about McKeesport's radio stations.)

It sure wasn't "Camelot." Not with its bargain-basement studios and miserably low pay.

But for "one, brief shining moment," McKeesport's other radio station was one of the top-rated in the Pittsburgh region.

These days, the "Mighty 1360" barely acknowledges Our Fair City at all, except for the FCC-required "legal ID" at the beginning of each hour: "WPTT, McKeesport-Pittsburgh."

. . .

It wasn't always that way. As the FCC prepared to lift its wartime ban on new radio station licenses, two competing McKeesport factions applied for allocations.

The effort to get the 1360 kHz allocation was led by one of the city's greatest boosters, Robert M. "Mr. Robert" Cox, owner of Cox's Department Stores. With a group of other prominent local businessmen, including real-estate agent William Buck, grocer James Balsamo and Ken Paxton of the G.C. Murphy Co., Cox formed the Mon-Yough Broadcasting Co. in 1945, and a year or two later, the company was granted a license for "WMCK" --- the call letters were short, of course, for "McKeesport."

Few people in those days owned an FM radio; the FM band was then a wasteland of elevator and background music. The FCC, which was trying to encourage development of FM, asked WMCK to take a license for 104.9 mHz FM as well.

. . .

WMCK's main AM frequency was granted a license for 5,000 watts of daytime power --- enough to cover most of Western Pennsylvania. But because the station had to share 1360 with other stations at night, and because AM signals bounce around the atmosphere, WMCK would have to reduce its power to 1,000 watts at sunset and make its signal "directional" so that it wouldn't travel so far.

That directional signal would play havoc with future attempts to expand 1360's audience. But in 1947, when McKeesport's population topped 50,000 and TV hadn't yet arrived in Pittsburgh, the lack of a big nighttime signal wasn't a problem.

To pull the signal in at night, four towers were erected in Lincoln Borough, near the Lincoln School. One was slightly taller; that tower held the antenna of WMCK-FM until the late 1950s, when Mon-Yough Broadcasting decided the 104.9 license was a waste of money and gave it back to the FCC.

The studios were located in the Elks Temple on Market Street in McKeesport, and WMCK went on the air with a mix of "good music" (mostly pop standards) and local sports broadcasts.

In the 1960s, as a sop to the teen audience, a young disc jockey named Terry Lee Trunzo was hired for the overnight shift to play rock 'n roll. He'd soon become the face of the teen music scene for most of the Mon Valley.

. . .

For a brief period of time around 1965, Mon-Yough Broadcasting changed 1360's format to all "beautiful music" under the call letters "WPQR" (for "Western Pennsylvania's Quality Radio"), but the slogan wasn't fooling anyone --- 1360 was a McKeesport station, especially after local sunset, and the call letters eventually reverted to WMCK.

By the late 1960s, "Mr. Robert" and the other investors were looking to get out of Mon-Yough Broadcasting; either they were tiring of the radio station, or they needed to focus their attention on their businesses. Cox's, for instance, was rapidly growing and now had outlets in North Huntingdon, Monroeville, Washington and Charleroi.

According to legend, Cox made at least one attempt to sell WMCK to Trunzo. Whatever the truth, the station was sold in 1969 to a Cleveland company called Westchester Corp.

And that's where the story gets interesting.

. . .

Westchester was created in 1964 by Bob Weiss, Norman Wain and Joe Zingale, three salesmen from Cleveland's big pop music station, WHK, who quit their jobs to purchase a station in Westchester County, New York. A year later, they purchased Cleveland's WDOK (1260) and changed the call letters to "WIXY," pronounced "Wick-Zee."

They copied the successful Top 40 rock format at WHK, but cut back on DJ talk and commercial interruptions. A series of promotional coups --- like sponsoring the Beatles' visit to Cleveland in 1966 --- soon made WIXY a force to be reckoned with.

Wain and Weiss were well-qualified to shake up stagnant 1360 in McKeesport, and they did. In January 1969, they lured away the sales manager of Pittsburgh's Number 1 hit music station, KQV (1410), and after a month of planning, the new sound of the old WMCK was ready.

. . .

WIXZ hit the air on Feb. 27, 1969, and at first, McKeesport didn't know what to make of it. As the last strains of "Houston" by Dean Martin faded away on 1360, on came the sound of clattering machinery. It was the recorded sound of a computer sorting punchcards.

"I am Segue, your computerized disc jockey," droned a robotic voice. "This is the new 'Wick-zee' 1360, WIXZ McKeesport. You are listening to the sound of automated radio. I am the world's only perfect radio announcer ... I have no moving parts. I can never make a mistake. I have taken over your radio dial at 1360." (Hear it at Jeff Roteman's KQV website.)

And on came "Papa Oom Mow Mow" by The Rivingtons. Hour after hour, it continued. "Segue the Computer" would announce a "super oldie" by Pat Boone or The Beatles, and invariably play "Papa Oom Mow Mow" instead.

When the "stunt" finally ended and a real, live DJ came on, he sounded only slightly more sane. It was outrageous Dick "Wilde Childe" Kemp, imported from WIXY in Cleveland, screaming over the intros to the records.

. . .

The music was loud, fast and bright, and so was Kemp. The format had changed, as had the airstaff; the only DJ kept from WMCK was Terry Lee, who introduced his new colleagues to the public during his dance-party show, "Come Alive," on Pittsburgh's WIIC-TV (11).

Suddenly, WIXZ was everywhere, with contests, concerts, promotions and giveaways.

The upstart from McKeesport was a real aggravation to KQV, the dominant rock and pop music station in Western Pennsylvania for more than a decade.

A few stations had tried to compete with KQV, but had serious limitations; either they were "daytimers" like WEEP (1080) that were forced to go off the air at local sunset, or they were stodgy and "adult-oriented," like KDKA (1020).

By the late '60s, KQV commanded a whopping 35 percent of the young adult audience, and many of their parents were listening, too; any station that wanted to program rock music in the Pittsburgh area was fighting for KQV's leftovers.

. . .

Who did these crummy amateurs think they were, broadcasting from McKeesport (which wasn't exactly a bastion of pop culture)? And what was Westchester Corp. doing, trying to challenge broadcasting giant ABC, which owned KQV?

Nevertheless, WIXZ gave the big boys a lot of trouble ... for a little while, anyway.

. . .

(Tomorrow: The thrilling (?) conclusion.)

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January 14, 2008 | Link to this story

Up and Down the Dial

Category: History, Local Businesses, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

I'll wager not many McKeesporters know this, but there are two AM radio licenses allocated to Our Fair City --- WEDO (810) and WPTT (1360). Both originally signed on the air just after World War II, when hundreds of new commercial radio licenses were awarded by the FCC.

Of the two, WEDO arguably does more for the Mon-Yough area, while WPTT has a larger measurable audience.

Today, Tube City Almanac looks at WEDO, which comes first in McKeesport both alphabetically and numerically.

. . .
WEDO is one of a shrinking class of "daytimers," North American AM radio stations forced to sign off at local sunset. AM radio stations broadcast at long wavelengths and low frequencies on the dial --- thousands of cycles per second ("kiloHertz"), versus millions of cycles per second ("megaHertz") for FM stations. That causes AM signals to bounce off the atmosphere at night and travel hundreds or thousands of miles.

To limit interference, U.S. and Canadian broadcast officials require many stations to cut their transmitting power at night and clear the frequencies for older, more powerful stations. In WEDO's case, it clears the 810 channel for Schenectady, N.Y.'s 50,000-watt WGY.

(And in case you're wondering how Schenectady, population 60,000, rates a 50,000-watt, "clear channel" radio station, well, in the 1920s it was the headquarters of General Electric, which owned WGY. Then as now, it's not what you know, it's who you know.)

In the 1950s, WEDO was the training ground for a lot of great Pittsburgh broadcasters, including Adam Lynch and Al McDowell. Later in the decade, it picked up Pittsburgh's CBS Radio affiliation, carrying the network's ever-diminishing schedule until the bitter end --- 1972, when Arthur Godfrey's daily talk show ended.

For a brief time in the 1970s, WEDO carried a mix of Top 40 hits and "oldies," but its daytimer status meant that for at least half the year, it didn't have a morning show or anyone in afternoon drive.

. . .

Since the 1980s, WEDO has carried a mix of ethnic programs and paid talk shows. Indeed, for a while it had trademarked the phrase, "Your Station of Nations." At any given time of day, you might hear Polish polkas, Slovak chardas, German waltzes, or Italian pop. Or you might tune in and hear an alternative medical practitioner dispensing health advice, or a Catholic priest discussing theology.

Most of WEDO's shows are "brokered" by the hosts --- they buy the time from the station, and then sell commercials or solicit donations to cover their expenses. Any excess money is profit for the host; any deficits must be made up out of their own pockets, or they lose their time slot. In an era where giant monopolies own most radio and TV stations, WEDO remains independently owned by a Florida woman, Judith Baron.

During most of its history, WEDO's studios were Downtown, first on Fifth Avenue near the present location of the Senior Care Plaza, then on Locust Street, and finally in the Midtown Plaza Mall. It's now based in White Oak's Rainbow Village Shopping Center, in an office building next to the old Rainbow Theatres (now a Dollar General store). The transmitter is on Foster Road in North Versailles Township.

. . .

Almost all of WEDO's programs are produced by Mon-Yough area residents, so you can't fault the station for not carrying local content.

Of course, you might say that not many people want to hear polkas or health talk, but someone does, and that's a niche WEDO's hosts fill. WEDO's shows are real do-it-yourself citizen media, years before anyone had heard of the Internet or had a "blog," and if the programs sometimes sound a little bit "quaint" technically, well, most of the hosts are not professional broadcasters by trade.

From time to time, WEDO covers local events, and has aired things like debates between the candidates for mayor of McKeesport, or interviews from International Village. If the station isn't well known in the city and suburbs, chalk that up to limited resources, a limited broadcast schedule, and the difficulty of operating a stand-alone AM station when 80 percent of the audience has moved to FM.

Perhaps the current WEDO show that's most likely to attract a "mass audience" is the oldies block hosted by "Big Ray" Edwards from 2 to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. (Another program with "mass appeal" is the daily Catholic Mass, which airs at 8 a.m., ha ha ha.)

. . .

No, WEDO doesn't stream its signal over the Internet, but it is available on a wireless device anywhere in the 412 area code.

In fact, WEDO receivers cost only a few dollars at any store, run for several days on flashlight batteries, provide instant access without buffering delays, and can be carried anywhere. They're called "radios."

So, this week, flip the "band" switch over to "AM" (you haven't done that in a while, have you?) and try tuning down to 810 once in a while. You might be surprised what you hear.

. . .

(Tomorrow: The long, winding history of the 1360 spot in McKeesport)

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January 10, 2008 | Link to this story

Wake Me Nov. 5

Category: Politics || By

I saw my first "Ron Paul for President" sign in the Mon Valley the other day.

Made of plywood and lettered with spray paint and hardware-store stencils, it's been plunked down on the corner of Buttermilk Hollow and Thompson Run roads in West Mifflin.

"NO MORE IRS, CFR," it says, "RON PAUL 2008." I'm not sure, but it's about a half-mile from the house that sports the "NO KIDS NO SCHOOL TAXES" sign, so perhaps the same person erected it.

I'm assuming "CFR" refers to the "Council on Foreign Relations," not the "Code of Federal Regulations," but I suppose it could be "campaign finance reform" or the "Canadian Finals Rodeo."

. . .

Whenever I hear Ron Paul speak, he sounds perfectly reasonable and rational at first (calling the Patriot Act, for instance, "constitutionally offensive," or arguing that the Iraq war was a massive foreign policy blunder), and I find myself nodding my head in agreement.

Then he uncorks some truly whack-job statement that brings me back to Earth.

For instance, Rep. Paul, who's a favorite of "alternative medicine" practitioners, wants to stop the FDA and FTC from regulating vitamins and dietary supplements and their advertising. (Think about that the next time you give your kid a Flintstones vitamin.)

Or take Dr. Paul's insistence (please!) that the Civil War was a bad idea, and that slavery should have been "gradually" phased out.

. . .

So I'm sure glad that Maria from 2 Political Junkies wrote this takedown of the politician-physician. It saves me a lot of trouble.

I want to like Ron Paul. But I'm reminded of Barry Goldwater's campaign slogan --- "In your heart, you know he's right" --- and LBJ's rejoinder: "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

As a friend of mine puts it: "I'd like Ron Paul better if I didn't keep seeing his bumper stickers next to ones that say 'DUMP ISRAEL' and 'GET US OUT OF THE U.N.'"

(And actually, I kind of admire Barry Goldwater, and not just because of this.)

. . .

A complete libertarian philosophy is wonderful in principle, except that I like the FDA regulating my food, and I like NHTSA telling me my car's not a death-trap, and I like the EPA ensuring that my water and air are reasonably clean.

We can argue about the merits of individual regulation, and "how much regulation is too much," but personally, I'd rather pay taxes to support the FDIC and SEC than "pays my money and takes my chances" with unregulated banks and stockbrokers. Wouldn't you?

. . .

The presidential candidate I like best so far is apparently planning to drop out --- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. He combines excellent federal government experience (as U.S. Secretary of Energy) with foreign-policy experience (as a special presidential emissary) and executive leadership (as a governor since 2002).

And he's funny. I remember hearing him interviewed by NPR in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, and at times I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

It would be nice to have a president who's a wit; we haven't had one since Reagan, or maybe Kennedy, and most of their material was crafted by their speech writers.

Alas, the governor can't help the fact that he looks like an unmade bed.

He's a little schlumpy, and bears an unfortunate resemblance to another very funny man, Lou Costello. In the last Democratic debate, I kept waiting for him to jam a hat down over his eyes and say, "I'm a ba-a-a-a-ad boy."

. . .

Happily, there seems to be a bunch of good candidates on both tickets. Even Mike Huckabee isn't completely objectionable, although I sure wouldn't vote for him. (Which is fine with Huckabee, since I'm a heathen Mary-worshipper.)

But Ron Paul? Sorry. I don't care if he is "a Green Tree native," and I don't care how vocal his grass-roots supporters are. That doesn't convince me at all. Every cause --- no matter how stupid --- has a few passionate grass-roots supporters.

OK, maybe not the Wal-Mart in North Huntingdon. But just about everything else.

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January 09, 2008 | Link to this story

News You May Have Missed

Category: Mon Valley Miscellany, Our Far-Flung National Correspondents, Politics || By

This isn't local, but I love this story (and a tip o' the Tube City hard hat to Nancy Nall):

An armed and bullying motorist found he picked on the wrong driver Saturday when he was subdued by a retired St. Tammany Parish sheriff's deputy, according to Slidell Police.

Armed only with a walking cane and quick reflexes, Richard Singletary, 73, fought off a gun-wielding motorist who had been driving aggressively and threatening him as he drove on Old Spanish Trail in Slidell ...

Singletary, who retired as a Sheriff's Office lieutenant in 1987 after more than 26 years with the department, uses a cane because he has two bad knees and a heart problem, Foltz said.
(New Orleans Times-Picayune)

Two bad knees and a heart problem, and he still whupped the other guy, who was packing a .357 Magnum. They build 'em tough in Loosiana, they do.

. . .

The Inevitable Mon-Yough Area Connection, Part I: Whenever a scandal breaks, I cross my fingers and mumble, "Please don't have a connection to the Mon-Yough area, please don't have a connection to the Mon-Yough area."

You heard about the female gym teacher at Moon Area High School who's accused of having sex with a 14-year-old male student? She's from Scott Township. I was really hoping we dodged a bullet, but no, because according to Bobbi Mercandante of the Beaver County Times, her husband is coach of the men's basketball team at Penn State Greater Allegheny.

. . .

The Inevitable Mon-Yough Area Connection, Part II: The boyfriend of the poor woman whose body was found in a trash bin in Charleroi is now the prime suspect in her murder. Yeah, he's from McKeesport, according to Scott Beveridge in the Observer-Reporter. Oh, and she's from West Mifflin. And she was related to the woman whose remains were found over a hillside in Clairton a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Jen Reeger of the Tribune-Review reports that the victim in the Charleroi slaying was charged with assault by Clairton police on the very day her body was found; she allegedly was found by police kicking her boyfriend, who was passed out in the street, apparently from an heroin overdose.

As we wrote this Almanac, the cops were looking for 28-year-old Joseph Natale, who is on parole from a September 2006 drug arrest in Clairton. If you have any information, call the Charleroi police at (724) 483-8010 or state police at the Belle Vernon barracks at (724) 929-6262.

. . .

Sing along with Tom Lehrer: "Oh, yes indeed, the people there are just plain folks, in my home town ..."

. . .

Meanwhile: Woodland Hills School District Superintendent Ros Wilson has announced her retirement. Her decision to step down comes after complaints that the school district was too slow to respond to discipline problems at the high school in Churchill, and at Junior High West in Swissvale.

Those complaints were fanned into white-hot heat by KDKA-TV "investigative" "reporter" Marty Griffin, who hammered Wilson relentlessly on his daily KDKA radio talk show for weeks at a time in November and December.

Griffin, you'll recall, also hectored a Ben Avon church pastor over his purchases of (legal) pornography at the dirty bookstore near the Mansfield Bridge (note the inevitable Mon Valley connection!) until the man killed himself in a Mercer County motel room.

Do you think Marty actually attaches the scalps to his belt?

Or does he just stamp a skull-and-crossbones on the side of a KDKA mobile unit, like the Red Baron?

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January 08, 2008 | Link to this story

A Shot and a Beer

Category: Cartoons, Local Businesses, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

Cartoon (c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Almanac

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January 07, 2008 | Link to this story

Race Against Time

Category: General Nonsense, Mon Valley Miscellany || By

A friend and Alert Reader from the Turtle Creek area emailed me last week in disbelief.

He was doing some research on "the Valley" when he ran across the above map of what used to be "Patton Township" --- present-day Monroeville.

It seems to be company-owned housing for African-American employees of Wilmerding's Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

The area illustrated is across from the entrance of Good Shepherd Cemetery, which is quite a walk from the WABCO plant, in what was then a very rural area. (Talk about segregation!)

The map is from 1928 --- four generations ago.

"The word they actually used had worse connotations," said my friend. "I didn't think that s--- happened here. Not so overtly, anyway."

. . .

Well, I can remember my grandfather telling me that in McKeesport before the Great Depression, African-Americans weren't allowed to use the sidewalks Downtown. If they did, the cops would hassle them.

In the 1920s --- or so I was told --- when black diners were served at one of the city's main restaurants, the busboy would bring a garbage can to their table when they finished eating and smash their plates into it, to demonstrate that they weren't welcome to return.

On an updated version of that Patton Township map from 1948, the "Negro" section still exists, but the word "Reservation" has been scratched out. That means African-American WABCO employees were still being segregated from the rest of Wilmerding in the 1940s.

That's three generations ago.

. . .

Speaking of McKeesport restaurants, if you were a kid in the '40s and '50s, you probably remember the swank second-floor dining-room at G.C. Murphy Co.'s "Store No. 1" on Fifth Avenue.

If you were a white kid, that is. Because black kids weren't allowed upstairs. They had to eat at the lunch counter downstairs. That persisted until the mid 1950s.

The mid-1950s, you'll recall, is also when Kennywood closed its swimming pool for fear that they would have to "integrate." Park management mumbled excuses about the filtration system leaking.

Sure. Yet it couldn't have been leaking too badly, because Kennywood temporarily used the pool for a "boat ride" feature. It eventually reopened to black and white swimmers.

That was just about two generations ago.

. . .

In their 1996 documentary "Struggles in Steel," Tony Buba and Ray Henderson show how many African-Americans were lured North in the 1920s by promises of better-paying jobs and freedom from subsistence farming.

But they were also imported by steel mills and other factories (like the "Air Brake") to help break labor unions run by white, European immigrants. No one told the African-American workers that, of course. They found out the hard way.

The resentments lasted a long time. Black steelworkers were confined to low-paying laborer positions and didn't get better-paying skilled-trades jobs until the 1970s.

That was about one generation ago.

. . .

Over the holidays, I attended several parties with family and friends.

More than once I heard someone uncork a ripe opinion or nasty joke about one ethnic group or another, and how they're ruining their neighborhood or their country, and blah blah blah.

That's my generation.

What did I do? I gritted my teeth and said nothing.

And that's called "cowardice."

. . .

My mother taught me better. She always speaks up whenever someone tosses out an ignorant racial or ethnic opinion.

Today's her birthday. It's also a new year. In honor of both, I'm going to start speaking up whenever someone starts in about "those people" --- whether they be white, black, Asian, Hispanic.

It's a small start. But maybe you want to make it your resolution, too.

Oh, and try not to feel too superior to "hicks" and "hillbillies" down South. The Mon Valley's record on race relations is pretty poor.

Sure, we don't have "Negro reservations" in Monroeville any more. But it wasn't that long ago. And we still have a hell of a long way to go.

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January 03, 2008 | Link to this story

15 Percent of Squat

Category: Alleged Journalism, General Nonsense || By

Now that the holidays are finally over (well, not if you're Russian Orthodox) I feel free to vent about something that bugs me.

What's the deal with holiday tipping?

Every December, newspapers run stories (usually syndicated features) [1, 2] advising how much you should offer as a "Christmas tip" for people like the letter carrier, trash hauler, bus driver, newspaper carrier, etc.

Look, I happen to think I'm pretty good tipper to waitresses, bartenders and people like my barber. (Believe me, that last guy has to work for his $8. Cutting my hair is like trying to arrange the weeds in a sidewalk.)

But I draw the line at tipping the mailman, for cripes' sake. God bless him, because he's got a difficult, tiring job that also carries some risk of injury. But it's also job for which he's well-paid, and there's no particular artistry or skill required to stick letters in a box.

Ditto for the guys who pick up my garbage. I'm grateful for them, but they always throw the cans in my neighbor's yard, and sometimes they leave the lids in the street. (Last winter, the borough's snowplow ran them over and flattened them.) I'm supposed to tip for that?

I might be willing to tip my newspaper carrier if he or she was a student. My newspaper is delivered by a guy who flings them out the car window.

If I'm going to tip them, why don't I tip Equitable Gas? I use their service every day. "Hey, here's $10, thanks for not blowing my house up." Or I could drive around until I see the sewerage department's truck and hand them $20: "I know you guys take a lot of crap. Get it? Ha ha ha!"

Nope. It may mark me as an insensitive clod, but I ain't tippin' the garbageman.

. . .

I Wish I Wrote This, Part 1: "So please, please, please, all you sports teams out there, stop with the throwback uniforms. I live in Pittsburgh, OK? Everyday in Pittsburgh is throwback day. If there's one thing we don't need, it's more throwback." --- Anthony, from Tunesmith & Anthony

. . .

I Wish I Wrote This, Part 2:: James Lileks on attending the funeral of a relative he'd never met. Starts a little slow and meanders a bit, but I felt like I needed a stiff drink (or a good cry) at the end.

. . .

Great Moments in Journalism: For heartless, penny-pinching, humorlessness, and needlessly-cruel personnel practices that would shame the Russian Army, it's hard to beat management at a newspaper or radio station.

I wrote last month about the Cincinnati Post. The last edition came out Monday.

So what were Scripps-Howard's instructions to the staff for the last day?

  • Don't bring any alcohol. (Yes, we're kicking you out the door, but don't bring a bottle of wine or champagne to ease the pain.)

  • We're not forwarding your email.

  • Don't bother coming in after Monday, because we're throwing your personal effects in the dumpster.

  • We're not allowing other reporters in the building (you know, because you might say bad things about the place to which you devoted five or 10 or 20 years of your life).

  • And finally: You can take home a maximum of six extra copies of the newspaper (costing Scripps-Howard a whopping three bucks)

At one newspaper where I worked, we used to joke that personnel memos should end with the phrase, "and the beatings will continue until the morale improves." But Scripps has really outdone itself.

Scripps' motto is "Give light, and the people will find their own way." They even used to have a giant lighthouse on top of the Pittsburgh Press Building.

I have a better logo for them. It's a fist extending one finger. Guess which one.

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January 01, 2008 | Link to this story

You've Got Questions, They've Got Cell Phones

Category: General Nonsense || By

It was a little quiet around here last week (too quiet, as they say in the cowboy movies).

The reason (besides plain old laziness) was simple. I've seen the server logs for, and traffic plummets on weekends and during holidays. (It's not exactly the most popular website in the world anyway.)

That tells me, by the way, that a lot of you are reading The Almanac at work. Just wait'll I tell your boss.

But I've been around, and I hope your Christmas and New Year's were pleasant.

. . .

Remember recently when I ranted a bit about locally owned businesses that ignore their customers? Allow me to vent my spleen at a national business that does the same thing.

My brother has a birthday, and I had two great, can't-miss ideas for presents. He's become a hockey fan in the last couple of years, so my first idea was to snag a couple of tickets to a Penguins game for him and his buddies.

Ha ha ha! Did I and Ticketmaster have a nice chuckle over that one. For the remainder of the season, they have almost nothing available except for $40 "standing-room only" tickets. And even then they can't guarantee you won't have an obstructed view.

. . .

Basically, if you buy any Pens tickets from Ticketmaster right now, you're paying $40 for the right to visit the Mellon Arena.

That's some racket they've got. Have I mentioned lately that your tax money is financing a new arena? I can't wait to see what ticket prices are in the new joint.

Yeah, I could have dealt with one of those ticket brokers that advertises in the back of the newspaper classifieds, or as I call them, "thieves." Look, I love my brother, but I wasn't planning to declare bankruptcy in 2008.

. . .

My second idea for a present was ... well, I'm not going to say, exactly. But what I wanted to buy him is sold by a large, publicly-traded national chain, and the description of the product is in the chain's name.

I visited a few of the bigger Mon Valley outlets of this national chain, and looked for the product that's in its name. They didn't have any.

I finally asked a clerk, "Where are the (products in the name of the store)?"

. . .

The clerk said: "Oh, we sold out at Christmas. Would you like to buy a (completely different product) instead?"

"No," I said. "Are you getting any more (products in the name of the store)?"

"I dunno," he said, "but you can order one from our website."

"Do you only carry one variety of (products in the name of the store) now?" I asked.

"We carry a couple of different ones on the website," he said, "but we only carry one model in the store now."

. . .

Picture this scenario: You go into Pizza Hut and order a pizza.

"We're out of pizza," the waitress says. "Would you like spaghetti?"

"No, I want pizza," you say. "This is Pizza Hut."

"We sold out of pizza," she says. "But you can go to our website and order a pizza, and they'll ship it to you."

Look, I don't like Pizza Hut's pizza that much. If I have to look somewhere else for a pizza, I'll get a better one, and I sure won't waste my time with Pizza Hut any more.

. . .

That's why my brother is going to get his birthday present a little bit late, and I hope he understands.

I wound up ordering a better (product in the name of the large national chain) from one of the large, national chain's competitors ... an independent retailer called Universal Radio in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

And --- by the way --- Universal is a locally owned business. (They're "local" to Central Ohio, that's all.)

I've bought from Universal before, and if you have a gadget buff in your family who might like a nice AM/FM portable, or a digital shortwave set, or something similar, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them.

And as far as Radio Shack goes, they can kiss my Hungarian butt in 2008.

. . .

You, on the other hand, have my very sincerest wishes for a safe, happy and prosperous New Year.

I have some big plans for and The Almanac this year, so stay tuned.

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