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WFBL: An 80-year Retrospective

By Scott Jameson

President Harding's widow had slipped into a coma, Central New Yorkers were digging out from a pre-winter blizzard, and word of the mysterious death of a Columbus, Ohio preacher's wife were front page news on November 18, 1924. But it was a small story tucked away in the local section of The Syracuse Herald that quietly noted the dawn of a new era. The headline read, "Syracuse Air Station Opens on Wednesday." The Salt City was ready to launch its first commercial radio station, WFBL AM.

"Who was on first?"

Before we get to the details of that historic night in 1924, we need to back up a bit to a fuzzy period in the history of Syracuse radio, the two years leading up to WFBL's inaugural broadcast.

Samuel Woodworth, one of the key players in helping to get WFBL off the ground, had been at the radio game for more than two years in a capacity that could arguably be characterized as a hobby. Beginning in April 1922, Woodworth operated a 100 watt transmitter as WLAH in his home on Genesee Parkway in Syracuse. The main goal of his sporadic demonstration broadcasts was to help sell radio receivers. Later that year, Clive Meredith began broadcasting from his estate in Cazenovia at 1330 AM as WMAC, a station which would later become WSYR following the station's relocation to the Hotel Syracuse in 1928.

So, it's fair to say there were other radio rumblings during those years, but we'll defer to official reports in the press at the time that credited WFBL's 1924 debut as the dawn of commercial radio in Central New York.

It was Woodworth who teamed up with operating manager Charles Phillips and the Syracuse Radio Dealers' Association to launch WFBL. Phillips would also act as a salesman, announcer, control room engineer, and general repairman. Lee Bennett of the Syracuse Auto Supply Company and M. W. Burtis were also credited as founders on the station.

High atop the Onondaga Hotel

WFBL's new $20,000 studio, outfitted with the best equipment available at the time, was built in room 1154 on the top floor of the Onondaga Hotel located at the corner of Jefferson and Warren Streets. The Syracuse Radio Dealers Association put up a majority of the initial investment for the equipment including a 100-foot antenna on the roof of the hotel. During the week leading up to the station's official ribbon cutting, tests were made which resulted in reports coming in from as far away as Florida, Manitoba, and the Dakotas, proof that the station was reaching many parts of the country. A letter from Butte, Montana spoke of hearing a "delightful little message from Syracuse, citadel of the Finger Lakes."

The debut of WFBL was significant in that it was the first station in the Syracuse area that could be picked up clearly by inexpensive crystal sets. Up until that point, the only signals available came from distant stations like WOR in Newark, WLS Chicago, and KDKA Pittsburgh. Picking up those longer range signals often required expensive neutrodine sets with five or more tubes costing close to $200 -- a price range that was akin to buying a widescreen plasma television today. It was estimated that there were only about 700 such sets in the city of Syracuse at that time. But with WFBL's signal available to inexpensive crystal sets for under $10, the stage was set for everyone to be able to benefit from the emerging technology.

"A marvelous transition"

The big day, the station's inaugural 100 watt broadcast, occurred on November 19, 1924 at 6:30 p.m. Featured presenters included Syracuse Mayor John Walrath and Chamber of Commerce President Frederick Bruns. Syracuse University Chancellor Charles Flint and Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal publishers Edward O'Hara and Harvey Burrill also spoke about the University's $1,000,000 debt-lifting campaign.

In Bruns' opening comments, he drew parallels between WFBL's debut and the Onondaga Nation, saying, "As I stand here tonight at the official opening of the new broadcasting station in the Hotel Onondaga, Syracuse, my eye wanders for a moment from the microphone before me and through the windows I see the great hills surrounding our city and my mind jumps to but a few generations ago when on these hills the Indian warriors of the tribe of the Onondaga flashed by means of fire and smoke, signals to their allies to distant points. How changed it is now. Signals of that period were generally of war. Tonight a marvelous transition has taken place and the finest in educational thought and the noblest in industrial and commercial information may go forth to the world at large."

William Knickerbocker, assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and registrar at the State College of Forestry was named the station's first program director and official announcer. It was Kinckerbocker's task to come up with WFBL's daily program schedule, which, by today's standards of wall-to-wall programming would be considered paltry. Each day at 12:30, 6:30, and 10:30 the station would air hour-long "programs of music, song, and speech." The schedule for the station's first Saturday broadcast included an hour from harmonica player R. Y. Jones, the Syracuse vs. Colgate football game at Archbold Stadium, and an hour of live music from the Onondaga String Sextet.

Why the call sign WFBL? Unlike WSYR's call letters which are clearly tied to Syracuse, WFBL was assigned to the station by the Federal Communications Commission during an era in which call letters were being doled out sequentially. WFBL was licensed the same week as WFBJ, Collegeville, MD; WFBK, Hanover, NH; and WFBM, Indianapolis, IN. In later years, WFBL would turn that moniker into slogans like "When Feeling Blue, Listen", "We Feature Better Listening", and "First Broadcast License."

Joining forces with CBS

After two years on the air, WFBL teamed up with WGY Schenectady, WHAM Rochester, and WMAK Buffalo to form the first New York State radio network. A year later, around the time WFBL increased its original power from 100 watts to 1,000 watts, it became one of the 16 founding stations of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). CBS debuted on September 18, 1927 with a list of affiliates that included the now legendary stations WMAQ Chicago, WCAU Philadelphia, WOWO Fort Wayne, KMOX St. Louis, and the network's flagship station, WOR in Newark where the network's first control room was said to be in the men's room.

During the late 1920s, WFBL bounced around the dial a bit, moving from its initial frequency at 1190 AM to 1160 AM and then to 1360 AM. The station finally landed at 1390 AM thanks to a reallocation of the AM band space which required many of the stations in the upper dial positions to make a 30 kHz shift. That expansion to 1600 kHz made room for 10 additional clear channel and regional signals.

In 1931, WFBL's power was increased to 2,500 watts during the day and 1,000 watts at night and a brand new transmitter went into service in Collamer. The studios, which remained in the Onondaga Hotel, were also upgraded at that time.

In 1932, Samuel Cook, Oscar Soule, and Robert Soule took over controlling interest of the company while founder Samuel Woodworth stayed on as vice president and general manager.

By 1934, the station had installed a new 404-foot vertical antenna at Collamer which, for some time, was the tallest structure in Onondaga County. With the new tower and antenna came a boost in power to 5,000 watts, which the station has stayed at ever since.

Jack Cleary, who went to work for WFBL in 1947 as a studio and field engineer for $190 a month, remembers the studios: "The control console and audio racks were Western Electric equipment, custom built, all industrial black. The music library was a file of 16 inch World transcription discs and two turntables. Two studios plus a small recording studio. Entering from the 11th floor hallway was like coming into a living room. Rugs on the floor, leather sofa and chairs, large monitor speaker, low, pleasant lighting."

Saying goodbye to the Onondaga

After 17 years atop the Onondaga Hotel, the station purchased what would become the WFBL Building at 433 South Warren Street and remodeled the third floor for use as executive and commercial office space. Seven years later, in 1948, the station's studios moved from the Onondaga Hotel to the Warren Street building. WFBL's studios moved yet again a decade later to near the station's transmitting tower on Collamer Road in East Syracuse.

Programming during the mid 1940s consisted primarily of network shows provided by CBS, including The Arthur Godfrey Show, The Inner Sanctum, and the radio version of the soap opera The Guiding Light. In addition, local news, sports, and some music were broadcast.

That decade also saw the radio debut of a Central New York broadcast legend. The year was 1942. As the U.S. involvement in World War II was heating up, a little known 15-year-old Solvay high school dropout joined WFBL as a staff announcer. Ron Curtis later moved on to WHEN radio where he hosted a program called The Record Room. Curtis made the transition to television in 1967 where, during his 34 years at Channel 5 WHEN/WTVH, he would become one of Syracuse's most revered journalists.

The competition grows

By 1947, the Syracuse radio market had expanded to include five AM stations: WSYR 570, WAGE 620, WNDR 1260, and WOLF 1490 in addition to WFBL. 1947 also was the year that WFBL added an FM frequency at 8,500 watts and installed an antenna and FM transmitter on Pompey Hill.

By the mid 1960s, with seven AM and five FM stations, the Syracuse radio dial was slowly filling up. WAGE had become WHEN, and WSEN debuted as the first full-time country station north of the Mason Dixon line. And as WFBL marked its 40-year anniversary, Charlie Phillips was still on-board as the senior salesman, more than four decades after witnessing the station's inaugural broadcast.

In 1963, the station dropped its CBS network affiliation and joined ABC, home of national names like Paul Harvey and Edward P. Morgan.

WFBL didn't become a 24-hour station until 1965 when 'The Night Mayor', 28-year-old Bob Carolin, took on the task of entertaining Central New York through the wee hours of the morning. The rest of the schedule in that year included 'The Morning Mayor', Dave Mann, who had been doing mornings for seven years, news director Art Peterson, Ted Downes on middays, 10-year radio veteran Dave Barker on afternoon drive, and Larry Colavita from 8-11. Colavita's nightly sign off made way for Syracuse's only call-in talk show at the time, The Opinion Show with Corney O'Leary.

Bob Carolin would come in at 11:30 and spend the first hour working the phones for O'Leary while also serving as the butt of many of his insults. Surviving each night on his famous jelly sandwiches (which he called "nectar from the gods"), Carolin had several regulars who helped him get through his six hour shift. There was Sophie, the cleaning lady who worked in a bikini, Little Yen, in charge of the WFBL gong, and Ivan the Terrible whose sole job was to give Bob a whack whenever he fell asleep. His overnight competitors were WNDR's Norm Davis and WOLF's Bob Casey. Carolin later moved up into station management, eventually landing at WHEN/WRRB.

FM begins to take hold

Prior to the late '70s, the FM dial catered mostly to those who opted for life in the slow lane. Easy listening, elevator, and classical music dominated the band, while top 40 and news-talk stations occupied much of the AM dial and the top spots in the ratings. In 1979, 570 WSYR and 62 WHEN ranked first and second in the market with a 14.1 and 13.8 share respectively. The leading FM stations (WNTQ at #3 and WEZG at #4) were both airing beautiful music, and country-formatted WSEN was in fifth place thanks to its AM/FM combo.

But changes were a brewin'. 95X (WAQX) had been on the air for a year and had reached sixth place with its album rock format netting a 5.2 rating. With the soon-to-be-now-famous 95X/94Rock showdown still a couple of years away, 94 Rock was playing mellow rock but not making much of a dent in the ratings.

While the impending AM/FM shift was gaining speed, other format changes were happening on the FM side. WKFM 104.7 FM was playing rock out of Fulton and Roy Park's classical-formatted station WONO flipped to easy listening. That decision raised the ire of The Friends of WONO who petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to force Park to switch the station back to classical. Park never looked back.

Mike Joseph brings 'Hot Hits' to Syracuse

With the flavor of the FM band slowly changing, WFBL took one last energetic shot at the top with a new format. On May 21, 1979, as the newly branded 'Fire 14', WFBL shifted its aim away from WHEN and more toward WOLF. By featuring a highly structured and tightly programmed format called 'Hot Hits', which was the brainchild of national industry consultant Mike Joseph, WFBL hoped to be the market's next big thing. Joseph's vision -- the first of its kind in radio -- called for a high energy presentation limited to only current hits in heavy, heavy rotation with some sort of station imaging between each and every song. While chatter was kept to a bare minimum, that didn't mean jocks had to check their jokes at the door. The on-air staff was encouraged to inject quick slices of personality while keeping any rambling to a minimum. At the time, the Hot Hits approach, which aired mostly on CBS owned and operated stations, had proven to be quite successful at stations like WBBM-FM Chicago, WCAU-FM Philadelphia, and WTIC-FM Hartford. Syracuse was a rare example of Joseph's format on the AM dial.

The staff in place for the kickoff of Fire 14 included program director and morning man Dave Laird, news director Jerry Morgan, music director and midday jock Rob Stewart, Bob (Brown) Reynolds on afternoon drive, Todd Parker from 6-10 p.m., Don Rossi from 10 p.m. - 1 a.m., and 20-year-old Jack Lee on overnights.

The choice of 'Fire 14' as the station's new name was indicative of an emerging trend in the industry. Up until that point, most stations had relied primarily on their call letters as a means of identification and imaging. Fire 14 had the advantage of containing a constant reminder of the station's dial position.

In addition to cranking out the hits, Fire 14 aimed for a highly localized sound with geographical mentions during each break. It seemed the station was everywhere with appearances at most firemen's field days and any parade they could make it to. Weekly printings of the 'Hot Hits Survey' were dropped off at area stores. And while the format was designed to be a vehicle for mass appeal in terms of demographics, the teen audience became key to the station's success. To help cater to the teen crowd, a High School Hotline was set up with updates on what was going on at area schools, and in its first summer, WFBL saluted every area high school graduate in the area on the air, by name.

The flame burns out

But for all its hype, energy, and chatter, Fire 14 lasted only a year and a half before WFBL flipped formats to beautiful music. And in the years that followed, the audience for rock and top 40 radio slowly drifted over to the FM band as stations like Y94FM, 93Q, and 95X began to take hold. There were a few holdouts, like 570 WSYR, which managed to hold their own in the ratings wars, but WHEN, WNDR, WOLF, and WFBL slowly faded.

While Joseph's approach to top 40 radio had a short run on WFBL, it has had a lasting impact on the radio industry. Many of his programming ideas are still a part of CHR stations 25 years later. Former Hot 107-9 (WWHT) program director Jason Kidd, who grew up in Baltimore listening to Hot Hits on WMAR-FM, was captivated by the format's large sound. The use of reverb, which for some of today's program directors is considered to be a dated sound, was something that Kidd felt worked for Hot 107-9 during his tenure in Syracuse during the late '90s.

In 1984, WFBL was purchased by Wilkes-Schwartz, owner of WKFM 104.7 in Fulton. Nine years later, in October 1993, they sold the station to Crawford Broadcasting who changed its format to religious programming. At that time, Crawford sold the WFBL call letters and the station's adult standards format to Buckley Broadcasting which then flipped their 1050 AM frequency from a simulcast of WSEN to WFBL's adult standards. WFBL at 1050 lasted for nine years with Dave Smith as weekday morning host and satellite programming providing the balance of the days' schedule.

In 2002, Buckley switched WFBL 1050 AM to news-talk and became Talk Radio 1050, adding a local morning news show produced by Metro Networks and syndicated talk shows including The Dolans, Dr. Joy Browne, and Bill O'Reilly.

Back home at 1390

In 2003, Buckley purchased 1390 AM WDCW for $1.2 million and moved the WFBL call letters and news-talk format from 1050 AM to the much stronger signal at 1390. The station hired Bill Colley from 570 WSYR to host a new morning show with sports director Bob McElligot, also from WSYR, and struck a deal with Time Warner Cable's News 10 Now to provide hourly news and weather updates throughout the day. The station also expanded its offerings of high profile syndicated shows including Laura Ingraham and Sean Hanity.

Eight decades ago, WFBL and WSYR were the only games in town. Today, WFBL is once again aimed squarely at WSYR, as it vies for a share of the Central New York news-talk audience.

Its been a long road for WFBL since that first broadcast from the Onondaga Hotel when the head of the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce spoke of radio offering "the finest in educational thought and the noblest in industrial and commercial information."

What will the next 80 years bring? Time will tell...

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Editor's note: Special thanks to Steve Auyer for his publication More Than Just Sound, Early AM Broadcasting in Syracuse, NY, Pam Davis and Bob Mitchell for photos and station history, Steve McVie's tribute to the 'Hot Hits' format at www.stevemcvie.com, and Steve Medicis of www.cnymedia.com for station timeline information.

March 11, 2004

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