Saturday, January 12, 2008

I Can Kick Higher Than You Can


One of my favorite memories is working for WBBY radio in the mid 70's.

This was really a neat place. But when you're 20 years old and have stars in your eyes, you perception is clouded by all the things it wasn't.

When I arrived in February of 1975, the station was playing a hybrid format of oldies and currents. The station, for a small station had a huge record library. For a number of years, the station had focused on being on oldies station, capitalizing on the stations call letters. WBBY was made to stand for We Bring Back Yesterday.

While I didn't consider WBBY my favorite radio station, I did listen to it often prior to working there. I worked at a county club in the late 60's and early 70's and we had a FM stereo in the pro shop. WBBY was one of the stations we listened to. I remember jocks such as Rick Seiler, Diane Townsley (who I believe was the first female disc jockey in the Columbus market), Denny Irwin, Scott Stevens and Joe Gallagher.

WBBY was ahead of it's time. For an FM station, it was actively programmed at a time when most radio operators had no idea what they were going to do with their FM signals. While superior in over the air quality to AM, FM had yet to really make it's mark. Most owners had no idea what to do with their FM signals. FM radios were not widely found in cars during that time and the programming ranged from religion to elevator music to underground. Nationwide's WNCI had also began to develop a following, but at that time I believe the audience between WBBY and WNCI were probably about the same.

WBBY was owned by Bill Bates. Bates, if I recall had retired from the state of Ohio and had worked on radio systems. He applied for an FM license and received it. Bill built the station brick by brick and the tower piece by piece. He was quite proud of his accomplishment as indeed as he should. That little brick house with the radio tower in the backyard was something to be proud of. Bill often told me that when he built the tower as it inched higher he felt closer to God.

One night on the air, the transmitter died. Since Bill was also our engineer, I gave him a call. He came out to the station and determined the problem was a blown rectifier. We had no spare so Bill began calling around to some of his radio chums. He found one that could be used at a station in Newark. He asked if I wanted to ride with him to that station's transmitter site. And as we drove along the highway, we talked about the radio station.

WBBY had began, according to Bill, to experience some financial problems. Being over 30 years ago, I don't remember specifics other than he was wasn't happy with the sales manager and the midday host who doubled as the morning news anchor.

Adding to his frustration, something in the county government, perhaps a real estate tax evaualtion, had agitated him. I think the stress and pressure of situation caused something to snap. Prior to that conversation, Bill was fairly quiet. Not long after he morphed into the person he would be longer remembered. Wild Bill Bates was born. And Wild Bill did everything he could to live up to the reputation of the name.

Bill went from being a very passive person to this very forward and outspoken individual. He became something of a showman under his own terms.

For a man in his 60's at the time, Bill was still quite agile. One of his prized accomplishments was from a standing position, he could kick a leg up and touch the top of a door frame.

He decided to run for Delaware County Commissioner. Because of his physical capabilities, he ran as the "kicking commissioner". He had business cards made up announcing his candidacy with his name, the fact he was running for commissioner and the tag line "The Kicking Commissioner". On the back was a photo of Bill kicking his leg over his head.

I believe he lost the race by a wide margin, but he non-the-less made the attempt.

He also became interested in the dancing sensation of the time, disco. Anyplace Bill could dance, Bill could be found. He had a panel van with a sheet of plywood over the top and he would climb to the top of the van and dance away. Sometimes scantily clad.

He started a Sunday evening radio show called Wild Bill's disco. He would play disco music and rant on about things that came to mind.

When the Wild Bill portion of his personality took over, his wife Marie decided she had had enough. She wanted to end the marriage.

Also waiting in the wings was a Columbus auto dealer who wanted to own broadcast properties in the worst way. The autodealer bought the former Mrs. Bate's shares she obtained in a divorce settlement and began everything he could to push Wild Bill out the door.

5 comments:

Dynaflo2 said...

Chris,

I was just taking a stroll down memory lane and found your post when I googled WBBY. I started listening to the station around '75 or '76. As I recall, they had pretty much switched completely to jazz at that point. Staffers included Fritz the Night Owl and Zoot Strider.

I also remember Wild Bill from personal encounters with him. I DJ'd at the Sarene Lounge and he would come in from time to time wearing a bright green T-shirt with something or other printed on it and a pair of snug red silk-acetate gym shorts. He would get on the dance floor and go bats and it was amazing. All the hottest girls in the club would surround him and dance with him and treat him like a sex symbol!

My impression was that he had been committed and released at one point or other because he used to like to say something like, "I may act crazy, but I'm sane and I got the papers to prove it!" He was a hoot.

I also remember the story about how the station lost its license to broadcast. When Wild Bill was forced out, the FCC wanted the new owner to be closely involved with the day to day operations of the station. Dick promised he would do just that. When the FCC checked up on him, he swore he was at the station when his gas reciepts said he was at his dealership in Marietta. Apparently this sort of thing happened a number of times, so they yanked his license and he either couldn't or wouldn't find a buyer. I was listening to the station when they went off the air on December 31st. I forget which year. '88, '90, somewhere in there. Even though they were still a jazz format, I think their final song was a semi-discoized version of Auld Lang Syne. I was sorry to see them go.

I have never bought a car or done any business with Dick partly because of what he did to BBY. I have met him on several occasions and in my opinion, his name is appropriate.

By the way, did you know that in Doonesbury, the college radio station was called WBBY? I saw the letters drawn on the studio window in one or two of the strips.

Thanks for your reminisence about the station and about Wild Bill!

JDFM

marion dj943_959 said...

Hi Chris! Thanks for posting the history of WBBY. Your post brought back alot of memories for me. When I was a kid, I rode my bicycle fromthe northend of Columbus(Forest park area near Tamarack Circle) to Sunbury and WBBY.I was in 6th grade at this time. I remember when Robb Case did the overnight shift when BBY decided to broadcast 24 hrs. He used to talk to listeners on the air. Mark Litton used to be on the air prior to Robb(7-midnight) I would call in on Friday or Saturday nights.Robb put me on the air and asked if I had any girlfriends. At the time I told him I had "2". He jokingly asked if he could have one of them. I quipped back "They're not your type" He thanked me for calling and as he ended the call, he quipped "What do you mean they're not my type"?? As I recall, you were there too. I occasionally listened to Wild Bill's Disco show. The music was decent at the time, but BOY could HE ramble!! LOL!! Today, I work in radio, for Clear Channel(WMRN in Marion) Thanks for posting. By the way, if you get a chance, could you possibly post history of 3WJ? Also, would you happen to know what now occupies the former WBBY studio and offices? I drive by there 3 times a week when I do my part time cleaning route. Thanks again!! - John

Chris Johnston. said...

Hi John: I don't have a lot of history on 3WJ. I'll search through my archives and post what I have.

I still am in touch with Mark Litton. I'll share this with him.

There is nothing currently in the old WBBY building. I stopped by this past spring and looked through the windows. The interior was empty. Sadly, the roof is leaking and the interior walls were covered with mold. One of the floors had standing water. My guess is someday the building will be coming down. I also noticed the tower had already been removed. As you may have notices, the site is being used by celluar companies for cell towers.

Anonymous said...

I remember WBBY, Wild Bill, and Robb Case well, I use to call in, probably in 1976 or so, to his all night talk show regularly.
My ex wife one time came home all excited one day to tell me about this old man she met that was a hoot. She told me about how cool he was and how crazy he acted. He had given her some WBBY promo stuff of some kind, a pen or button or something with the station info on it, and that was a prized possession of hers for a while, might still be for all I know.
I also followed in the media Wild Bills struggle with keeping the station, and some of the stuff I read use to piss me off, I felt bad for a guy his age that had to fight to keep control of something he built from nothing into something.
When I get to heaven one of the people I want to meet and spend some time with is that crazy old man that impressed my ex wife.

Also, I have often wondered if Robb Case from WBBY is the same Robb Case that worked with one of the TV stations and bought a radio station.

Chris Johnston. said...

Yes, that was the same Robb Case.