Tube City Almanac

January 16, 2008

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.

Your Comments are Welcome!

Thanks very much for the hard work you did on all of those radio stories. I think I now have a better understanding of why I can’t pick up the HS football game broadcasts on 1360 in the Scott Twp area on Friday nights.
Bulldog - January 16, 2008

Indeed, thanks so much! Seeing the WIXZ station house in East McKeesport brought back memories of my high school life guarding job just over the hill at the Wilmerding Y! :)
Schultz - January 16, 2008

You missed a vital piece of WIXZ history — in 1988, a young lad from Monroeville interviewed for a sales position there, but turned down the offer for a similar position at WESA in Charleroi. (Again, the lure of FM….)

After three decidedly lackluster months as a radio salesperson, said lad turned in his resignation at WESA to pursue the one element of the job that appealed to him — writing broadcast copy. A second degree and several years later, he was one of dozens let go when WTAE went all sports and decided that a Morning News Producer was unnecessary. And that was the end of a moderately promising career in broadcasting.

Great series, Jason, I really enjoyed it. My older sister was a WIXZ pixie. I listened to the new sound of 13Q, myself.
Bob (URL) - January 16, 2008

What a great run down memory lane. In the early 80’s, I was obsessed with radio. I met Mr. Serena a few times as I worked at a local video store in N. Versailles. I even was on WIXZ for a short time in the mid to late 80’son a Saturday morning talk show that talked about Home Video movies, VCR’s, etc.

I used to go in on the evenings and weekends and do prep for the show and gave me any excuse to hang around. I even ran into Mario Lemieux one day taping some radio spot.

They were fun good days.
Scott - January 17, 2008

Thank you for putting together the information about McKeesport’s radio history. I enjoyed reading about 1360 and the picture of Terry Lee is priceless. I opine that this was your best work to date and I look forward to future installments of the Tube City Almanac. Keep up the good work!
Donn Nemchick - January 17, 2008

Once upon a time, people cared about hometown stations and community service. One can mark the decline of McKeesport from the separation of its assigned radio service from the city it was supposed to serve. (One can mark it from many other things, too, of course, but it is so odd that the company that brought radio back to Westmoreland County’s seat, on WGSM in Greensburg, effectively killed it in the city where that company was born. For McKeesport, it is a tragedy.)
does it matter - January 17, 2008

With whiners like Lynn Cullen who doesn’t take calls unless she agrees with them and then wonders why people don’t call, it isn’t amazing that WPTT is rated as low as it is. Renda should sell the station to someone who would really care! TL’s Night Train and Music For Young Lovers still exists … even if only in our memories
Bob - May 23, 2008

great to see this site. i worked with terry lee for a number of years. no, i wont tell you where he is. anyone that is interested may get in touch with me. thanks for the memories. joey
joey wells - August 02, 2008

A terrific and well-researched look at WIXZ’s final years. I had the unique experience of working there in the late 80’s during the station’s waning days with the country format. It was sad to watch a once-great station lose its role as a community voice. The economics of the industry as a whole made it impossible for anyone — air staff, sales staff, etc — to work there for very long. But, we worked hard and we had fun. RIP, WIXZ.
Gary M - July 14, 2009

This is a wonderful article
Ronald Marcus - May 26, 2010

People, Mckeesport has two radio stations and neither can survive on focusing on strictly McKeesport in this day and age. TL and all these other ideas are wonderful but advertising money does not flow to those ideas any longer, they did when TL and his audience was in their 20’s and 30’s not 60’s and 70’s. Hats off to the people who have kept the stations running this long, many communities across the country have shut off and never returned in the last ten years, both 810 and 1360 have kept their heads up.
Jimmy - October 08, 2011

The WAVL Liberty 910 Apollo Pa. and 1360 WPTT Deal was not completed and has been called off.It is a shame as it would have benefited both signals.
WPTT call letters where changed to WMNY and went to a business/ money format and lasted couple years and they have changed format again and will possibly be changing call letters again.

Nick Markowitz Jr.
Contract Engineer for WAVL
Nick Markowitz Jr. (URL) - April 01, 2012

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