'Buzzard' Sings Glory of Radio Station's Heyday For several generations, one of the hottest radio towns in the nation was Cleveland. And one of the hottest stations was WMMS, known as "the Buzzard." John Gorman, its former program director, has just published a memoir about the station.
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'Buzzard' Sings Glory of Radio Station's Heyday

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'Buzzard' Sings Glory of Radio Station's Heyday

'Buzzard' Sings Glory of Radio Station's Heyday

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From television to radio and a new memoir. John Gorman has written a personal history of one radio station, WMMS in Cleveland used to be the hottest station in one of the hottest radio towns in the country. WMMS was known as The Buzzard. And as program director, Gorman made The Buzzard soared back in the '70s and early '80s.

From member station WKSU, Vivian Goodman reports.

VIVIAN GOODMAN: It all started in Cleveland with the legendary Alan Freed.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. ALAN FREED (Radio host): Hello, Moondoggers. How are you all. This is Allan Freed, the king of the Moondoggers, and welcome again to another of your favorite Blues, Rhythm and Jazz rock and roll parties.

GOODMAN: Freed's show started rocking Cleveland the minute it went on the air in 1951. Michael Shevski(ph) was just a kid then. Today, he's a radio news reporter. He remembers when Cleveland was the nation's eighth biggest city. Then the steel mills started shutting down.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEVSKI (Radio news reporter): And it was almost a dead rust belt city by '70 or '71. The one thing that young Cleveland had to grab onto was music. They had great radio, great music. And that's all we had to hang onto, because the sports teams weren't doing anything and the political scene was just so divisive that people just gave up on the city, except for radio.

GOODMAN: In 1968, the Federal Communications Commission decreed that co-owned AM and FM stations in the same market had to have separate formats. At first, FM was just an afterthought. Then the Big Three automakers started putting receivers in cars. The conditions were right for Boston programmer John Gorman to make the move to Cleveland in 1973. Gorman assembled a crew of college radio DJs and turned them loose on 100.7 FM.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. HUEY LEWIS (Singer): Hi, everybody, this Huey Lewis and you're listening to my personal friend Kid Leo on WMMS.

GOODMAN: In his memoir, John Gorman recalls driving through the city listening to Bob Dylan.

(Soundbite of song, "Desolation Row")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.

GOODMAN: And that's how Gorman came up with the station's logo - a wild-eyed turkey-vulture with a Mohawk and an attitude.

Mr. JOHN GORMAN (Former program director, WMMS): And it's just like, well, what else do you expect to see flying over a dying city?

GOODMAN: The popular t-shirt at the time read, Cleveland, you've got to be Tough. Once The Buzzard swooped in its image was everywhere. But Gorman says it took a while for advertisers to catch on.

Mr. GORMAN: Leather shops and cool clothing stores and record stores, those were the only clients who would advertise on the station. Our sales department could not get into the major agencies. There were agencies in Cleveland that didn't even want them sitting in the lobby because they had longer hair and were slightly different and all that. And, you know, these are very conservative times. We're talking about 1973 going into '74. And, you know, we're considered somewhat radical, actually very radical.

GOODMAN: The ad sales soared when the ratings did.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOODMAN: August 9, 1978, Bruce Springsteen gives a free show at the Cleveland Agora sponsored by WMMS.

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Musician): I'd like to thank Cleveland for supporting us like this is one of the first towns on the scene.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN; We got - when we first came here we got some respect.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOODMAN: Steven Van Zandt was playing in Springsteen's E Street band at the time.

Mr. STEVEN VAN ZANDT (Musician; Former member of E Street Band): People would say to us, you know, what's your favorite town? What's your favorite rock and roll town? And we'd say Cleveland. And the people thought we weren't kidding, you know. It'd be like laugh line. But we weren't kidding.

GOODMAN: He wasn't alone. Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter says before leaving on its first American tour, the British band thought it would find the hippest sense on the coast.

Mr. IAN HUNTER (Mott the Hoople): But then when you got here, New York was quite - I found it rather backward musically and we also found L.A. rather backwards musically. And when we got to Cleveland, we found they were picking up on people like Bowie and Roxy Music and ourselves long before the coasts.

(Soundbite of music)

MOTT THE HOOPLE (Band): (Singing) Cleveland Rocks. Cleveland Rocks. Cleveland Rocks.

Mr. STEVE POPOVICH (Former employee, Epic Records): They broke Mott the Hoople.

GOODMAN: Steve Popovich was doing A&R for Epic Records back then, and he says WMMS was a station where he could test news bands.

Mr. POPOVICH: Every label at that time, any project that was to the left, and I'd sit, what John was doing at MMS, He'd put it out, and the city of Cleveland (unintelligible) people responded the next day at retail, you knew you had something that would work everywhere.

(Soudnbite of music)

Ms. MARTI JONES (Musician): (Singing) He was a boy down the street with a soul (unintelligible). A boy with a beat and blue eyes just for me.

GOODMAN: Long before Marti Jones released her debut LP in 1985, she listened to The Buzzard growing up in northeast Ohio and says it was a big influence.

Ms. JONES: Huge. I remember listening every morning when I got up before school. And sometimes I would go to the record store, which would be the Quonset Hut in Canton, sometimes looking for records that they didn't even have yet. And it was so impressive that, you know, we got the heads up on them from WMMS that we'd have to wait until they came out.

GOODMAN: Jones is back in the Cleveland area and raising a family with her husband producer Don Dixon. They're often in a recording studio with Heartland rocker Michael Stanley, now a classic rock DJ in his hometown, he says his station can't even come close to the audience WMMS had.

Mr. MICHAEL STANLEY (Classic rock DJ): Last book we pulled in like an eighth share and everyone was giddy with excitement. And I think at one point MMS had something like a 33-share or something like that, which is inconceivable. It's like every dogs were listening. Everybody was listening.

(Soudnbite of laughter)

GOODMAN: Steven Van Zandt is a DJ, too, now on Sirius satellite radio. He just wishes the old WMMS was still around.

Mr. VAN ZANDT: We'd go in there whenever we were in town and just start playing records with whoever the DJ was on duty at that moment. I mean, it was completely informal. This was the height of the rock era and the rock era ended.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: Today, WMMS is owned by Clear Channel and The Buzzard has been grounded.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of music)

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