On Friday afternoon December 21, 2007, a legend hung up his headphones and turned off his mic for the last time.
WLW radio afternoon host Gary Burbank retired after many years in radio, 27 of them at WLW radio in Cincinnati.
I've not been a regular daily listener to Gary for many years. I think they spoiled his show when they attempted to syndicate it in the 90's. They homogenized it to make it a national show, and his wicked sense of humor for things local and identifiable to Cincinnati and the general region were lost. For me it lost something magical.
Another blow came when producer and sidekick Doc Wolfe left the show the first time. They riffed off each other in a way that few teams can do. Their work together was marriage made in radio heaven. Even when Doc returned, that initial magic was gone. It just wasn't quite the same.
But thankfully, my thoughts didn't represent the personal likes or dislikes of Cincinnati radio listeners. Gary was a brilliant on air winner in the Queen City. He was consistently a ratings leader in Cincinnati and had a strong regional listenership due to WLW's blow torch signal.
And while not a regular listener to his daily show, I did keep up with some of his characters, wit and bits on his Weekly Rear View show that aired until recently on local station WTVN. The show was a few hours of the best of his bits from the week before.
Living in the Columbus area, about 120 miles from Cincinnati, we were blessed to have a strong signal from WLW. When Gary arrived at WLW, I was splitting my listening between local station WTVN and WLW.
At the time, WLW was a laid back full service station. Gary was hired to replace James Francis Patrick O'Neill. O'Neill was a very popular but predictable host. While I'm not sure why JFPO left WLW, Gary was the host hired to replace him. I wasn't impressed.
Not only was O'Neill predictable but was also a gentlemanly on air figure. From the old school of radio. His radio bits, while cute, didn't have the depth, bite or personality that Gary brought. From his ongoing spoof of soap opera "As the Stomach Turns" to detective Bentley Brussell Sprout and his sidekick Bacon, JFPO weaved together a morning show of music, local and NBC news, Lt. Jim Stanley traffic sports and his periodic bits.
When Gary came to town, he turned the heat up on the morning show. Not being one to recognize radio genius, I thought Burbank as a replacement for JFPO was a train wreck. Maybe the contrast between Burbank and O'Neill was too sharp. To me it just didn't feel right.
I sort of felt vindicated in my thoughts about Gary when about 2 years later, Gary was moved to afternoons. In the radio world, the morning drive spot is the jewel time period. I viewed the move to afternoons as a slap to Gary and it probably meant he would not be at the station much longer.
Boy was I wrong.
Gary flourished in the afternoon. WLW was going through a metamorphosis and Gary quickly became a centerpiece of that change. His characters and bits were allowed to come alive in afternoon drive. They just felt better in the afternoon rather than mornings. And I quickly became a fan.
I can't remember if the characters were in his morning show, but afternoons were filled with Gilbert Gnarley, spoofs of Cincinnati television news hosts Al Schottlekotte and Norma Rashid (referred to as Al Waddlebody and Normer), the seasonal soap opera like spoof of the Cincinnati Bengals "All My Bengals" and of course Earl Pitts. Gary even lifted "Pat" the spokeslady for Purex in the 80's and used her sappy "Yes" for many shows. Many more came and went through the years.
By 1984, Gary was not only a Cincinnati legendary radio host, but his listenership was growing regionally. I remember standing line at the Pizza Villa in Delaware listening to others in line talking about Burbank and his show. Columbus radio didn't have the bits and humor that Gary brought to the airwaves. And Gary's show had people talking. Even the Columbus Dispatch did an article on his show about that time.
Through the years, Gary's show quit playing music and became three hours of original humor. I simply can't fathom the amount of time and effort it took to put together that many hours of live humor. Even when Gary originally moved to afternoons, his then 4 hour show would repeat many of the bits. A bit that aired during the 2 o'clock hour would likely repeat during the 4 o'clock hour as the audience turned over.
I missed Friday's live version of the show. Thankfully it has been podcast and I've managed to listen to the closing hour.
Gary, a tip of the hat and a genuine thanks. Radio will never be the same.