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.)
I was there …manning the phone-in request lines and counting petition names for the High School Spirit contest.
Hell of a good promotion in those days..I think Belle Vernon won the contest and the Grass Roots played at the high school having the most names.
mark (hitbound) - March 30, 2008
thanks for the memories. i worked for terry for a number of years. i spent alot of nights in the old wmck. skip smith and i also played the tunes at the “night train”. would love to hear from anyone that was there. yours in music…...... joey
joe wells - April 26, 2008
The real story of WMCK is one of missed opportunities. The story goes that the night signal, the bane of much trouble, would have been much better had the original engineering not ‘cheaped out’ and aligned the towers to “magnetic north” instead as correctly to “true” north. In Western Pennsylvania, that works out to about a seven degree difference. Because of the misalignment of the towers, the signal had to be “electronically rotated,” with the result being part of the bad night signal. ...Also, the station was not originally 5,000 watts AM. It was originally only 1,000 watts. The 5,000 watt transmitter was installed in the the transmitter shack in the spot which had been occupied by the FM transmitter. Apparently, the retail merchant owners of the facility didn’t think a couple of hundred dollars in 1958 to expand the building was a good investment, and sent back the 104.9 FM licnese to the FCC, rather than make room for the new 5KW AM day transmitter by expanding the building. SMART MOVE! Within 15 years, the FM licnese that these ‘boneheads’—over refusal to invest a couple of hundred dollars—- gave back to the FCC, was worth millions. Is it any wonder that their retail establishments would eventually fail? ....One “Mighty 1360” that deserves note was the 1958-59 attempt at serious top-40 formula radio. Somehow, the retail oafs who owned WMCK managed to hire legendary radio programer Dick Lawrence, who’d been the creative force behind WKBW in Buffalo, NY among other stations. Lawrence ordered a “Futuresonic” jingle package from Texas,and ran tight playlist with a 24-hour operation staffed by a professional lineup of on-air talent: Pat Haley, an old vaudavillian, ex Army Ranger and former KDKA program manager, who’d been with the station from the start did mornings. Pat was followed by Jim White, who later worked at KDKA, and finally retired as a ‘legend,’ from KMOX in St Louis. White was followed by Jay Morton, who later would gain considerable recognition as a broadcast talent, programer and station manager. Morton was followed by Lou Janis, who eventually moved to KQV. Janis was followed by Bill Lynch, whose evening battles Porky Chedwick back and forth on the air were well known. Finally, midnight to 6 A.M shift, belonged to “Nightwatch, The Mechanical Monster.” Nightwatch, also known by staff members as “Sam Seaburg,” was an automated jukebox that was operated from the transmitter. There was a turntable and tape player for the engineer on duty to ‘plug in’ spots and jingles. The station sounded exciting, new, bright and really good! Unfortunately, the retail store owners never really liked the idea, and didn’t support it long enough for success. The demise of “Mighty 1360” was followed by WPQR-(“Western Pennsylvania Quality Radio”)—-The name was a misnomer; quality it was not! Following the “quality that wasn’t” period, in the mid 1960’s, the station GM, Pete Stanton, hired Terry Lee to appeal to teens in the evening. This was quite successful. Meanwhile,the rest of the day, the eventually took on an upbeat middle of the road type of music format. The station did one more “Might 1360” attempt in 1967 when Jay Morton, who’d returned as program director, once again made a good deal of noise with Top-40. Morton sneaked into New York, and quietly had a Top-40 jingle package recorded. Without advance warning, he sprung the format on KQV on a friday afternoon in March of 1967. It included “the more music crusade double play,” which was played hourly over KQV’s news at :55. It also featured short, hard=hitting news at just past :15 and :45 after the hour. There was a “Triple Treat,” three hits with no interuption that was played over KQV’s news at :25. Morton himself, acted as a ‘lead-in’ to Terry Lee with an absolutely zaney and outrageous show that was getting attention. Ownership, however this time, wouldn’t spend money to stay on 24 hours, and apparetnly wouldn’t spend a dime in new studio equipment. Once at Again, the retail merchant owners couldn’t fathom the potential. KQV, however, did notice, and responded by putting a filter mike voiced “Groovey QV” over it’s records. With 1360 and 1410 AM KQV literally beside one another on the dial, it might difficult to be able to know to which station one was actually listening. Morton’s plan almost worked. As KQV cranked up the reverb, edited songs to make them shorter, (to play more music) shortened news and screamed louder—an obvious attempt to keep it’s teen audience from defecting to WMCK—-Morton’s plan was to ‘soften’ slightly, during August. By September, KQV would be screaming louder than ever—-to keep their kids— who by then would be back in school,and unable to listen. This would have left WMCK with adults during the day—who made—and spent—the money! There would still be Terry Lee—with the Morton lead-in— in the evening to attract a teen audience. It was not to be; Morotn and GM Pete Stanton had an apparenty falling out, and the station reverted to what it had been: MOR day, with Terry Lee at in the evening. ....Anyway, it was likely the brief 1967 foray into Top-40 radio at WMCK that probably attracted the attention of the Westchester folks. .....‘Just some thoughts of what might have been.
Seymour Czowznofskei, Incognito - October 04, 2009
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