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The Journal Gazette

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Producer Michael McIntyre, left, and radio host Charly Butcher prepare for a segment of the WOWO 1190 AM morning news. WOWO recently celebrated 90 years on the air with a banquet and 21/2-hour broadcast.

  • File WOWO’s Chris Roberts

  • Courtesy Chris Roberts on air.

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette McIntyre tends to the sound mixing board during a broadcast.

  • File WOWO’s Bob Sievers

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Fort Wayne's Morning News radio host Charly Butcher, left, and Sports Director Jim Shovlin prepare to deliver a 30-second sports news segment during the WOWO 1190 AM morning broadcast on Wednesday.

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Butcher delivers the morning news to listeners during a recent WOWO broadcast.

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Fort Wayne's Morning News radio host Charly Butcher speaks into the microphone during the WOWO 1190 AM morning broadcast on Wednesday.

  • Courtesy Bob Sievers

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 7:03 am

WOWO's rich 90-year history

Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette

She is 90 years old, and still going strong.

In her time, she has described too many wars and told us of too many tragedies that made us weep. She was young when the stock market crashed in ’29. She informed us that Pearl Harbor was attacked, and told of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and less than five years later, those of his brother, Bobby, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was there that awful Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001.

But she has also been kind, and fun, and sometimes, a bit silly; a literal source of around the clock entertainment. Not only has she made us laugh, she had us dancing and singing across generations. These days, she makes us think.

Through her Penny Pitch charity that began in 1948, she has fed the hungry and clothed the needy. She’s been a constant companion, ranging from a wake-up call to a goodnight kiss. 

While she has had several suitors, and has frequently changed addresses, and even undergone some drastic identity transformations, she has provided memorable careers for scores of sons and daughters while gathering millions of followers.

"We used to call her the Grand Old Lady," says former news director Dugan Fry in a recorded tribute to WOWO radio. "The Grand Old Lady of radio."

Even though she’s not as loud and powerful as she was 40 or 50 years ago (but who is?), WOWO radio, AM-1190, FM-107.5, the Grand Old Lady, recently held a 90th birthday party with a banquet that, in typical radio style, included a 21/2-hour retrospective broadcast.

"I don’t have any immediate plans of re-airing it," says program director Ryan Wrecker, who hosted the special. "We are going to make it available to the public. It’s just not available yet. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us about it. It’s been a popular special for us."

Her official birthday is listed as March 31, 1925, when she first went on the air with 500 watts, enough to power a small window air conditioner. As for the WOWO name, it’s not an acronym for anything or anyone. There is no significance to the call letters. The first "W" is mandatory to any broadcast station east of the Mississippi River ("K" is to the west), and "O" was chosen simply because it was easy to say. So if the first "WO" sounded fine, then why not a second?

"There have kind of been three eras to that radio station," says Chris Roberts, former disc jockey (1973-95), who owns stations AM-1220 WERT and FM-99.7 WKSD in Van Wert, Ohio. "There was the initial era, where things came off of the network, or they came from the studio. They certainly weren’t records. … Then it went into the era of the records and the DJs, and that was my era. And then it went into the era of talk radio, which is what most of those big 50,000-watt radio stations have done."

Twenty years ago, WOWO converted to its current news/talk format. Despite the change, the station holds the No. 1 position in the market for listeners 12-plus in the recent Eastlan ratings survey.

"It’s still sort of a byword of radio in this entire market – WOWO," says Fort Wayne Komets broadcaster Bob Chase, who, like the station he has been with for 63 years, will turn 90 on Friday. "Over the years, when you look at the people who really influenced the station, you look at Jay Gould, you look at Bob Sievers, you look at the old-timers there who were so much a part of everybody’s household; Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers … "

Chase, who remains the station’s iconic link between today and thousands of yesterdays, easily recalls the names of other WOWO legends with whom he shared studio space. Gould and Sievers were the folksy tandem that dominated their "Little Red Barn" morning time slot from the late 1930s into the 1980s, when Gould died in 1984 and Sievers retired later that year.

From the broadcast commemorating WOWO’s history, Sievers recalls a special moment.

"Six fifteen (a.m.) I always had a song of inspiration; our hymn of the day," Sievers begins a story about a letter he had received from a mother. "She said, ‘My son has just recorded two hymns. If you could use one of them on the air, it would be so grateful.’ On one side was the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and the other side was the hymn, ‘Softly and Tenderly.’ And so I thought, well, he does a pretty good job of that. So I had this 12-year-old boy singing ‘How Great Thou Art.’ But the mother’s letter meant nothing to me, so I threw the letter in the wastebasket.

"But the record was good enough that I put it in my mailbox, and about every two weeks for about three months, I would take it out and have this 12-year-old boy singing ‘How Great Thou Art.’

"When it was over with, the mother called me again. ‘Bob, we’re so grateful to you for helping our son get exposed on the air. We don’t know how we’ll ever pay you back, but thank you so much.’ Nice, long letter. Again, I’ve helped dozens of young people get started in radio, so I threw that letter away. I decided the satisfaction was making them happy.

"Five years later, I get a telephone call from the neighbor of hers, saying, ‘Bob, I’m five years late in thanking you in helping our little neighborhood boy down the street get exposed on the air, to give him his first air exposure. He is just now beginning to make a name for himself.’

"And the letter I threw away was a letter from none other from the mother of Elvis Presley. He was first on the air on WOWO singing ‘How Great Thou Art.’ "

Several years later, when Presley visited Fort Wayne for a concert, Presley confided to Bob Chase that he listened to WOWO as a boy in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Because the station was required to reduce its power in 1994 because a contract agreement, WOWO is no longer the "50,000-watt blowtorch" whose nighttime signal covered the Eastern seaboard, and occasionally beyond.

In the retrospective broadcast, Chris Roberts tells the story of WOWO’s impressive reach.

"One day I get a call from a guy," Roberts says. "He calls me and says, ‘I’m in a phone booth in Los Angeles.’ … And the guy says, ‘I’m listening to you in L.A. on my car radio.’ And I said, ‘Not possible.’ I thought, ‘Well, somebody forgot to change the (evening directional) pattern.’ … That could happen. And I thought, ‘Ah, we’re gonna be in trouble here.’ So I look to see, and the pattern had already been changed. No, it’s not that. So I’m thinking we’ve got to be going all the way around the world to get there."

Roberts explains that he gets the number of the phone booth, then immediately calls the listener in Los Angeles.  

"He answers the phone," Roberts says. "He says, ‘I’m tellin’ ya, I’m here. I’m at a phone booth in L.A. and it’s coming in like … ’  You can hear it. It’s in the car radio next to the phone booth. So it was, indeed, going around the world to get there."

The station’s first home was above the Main Auto store at 213 W. Main St. In need of larger studios, WOWO moved to Harrison Street in 1937. From there it moved to the Gaskins Building at 128 W. Washington Blvd. in 1952, then moved again to the Central Building at 203 W. Wayne St. in 1977. Today, WOWO resides at 2915 Maples Road on the south edge of town.

But in spite of her moves, format changes and the passing of her founding fathers and the other men and women who kept her active within the community, radio’s Grand Old Lady might have received her crowning glory two years ago when WOWO won a Marconi Award when it was named Medium Market Station of the Year from the National Association of Broadcasters.

"It was a different station from anybody else," says Chase, who deserves the final word. "We weren’t always No. 1 in the city of Fort Wayne. But when it came to the overall territory, we were positively, unbelievably without challenge." 

stwarden@jg.net