Forgotten Pioneer: WBNY-AM
By BOB SKURZEWSKI
It's Buffalo's forgotten pioneer.
On September 24, 1935, Mr. Roy L. Albertson received a construction permit for WBNY radio. The station went on the air on March 4, 1936, assigned to a "shared frequency" of 1370kc. WBNY-AM and WSVS (Seneca Vocational High School) shared "air" time. Later, the FCC, as part of a nationwide frequency reallocation program, moved WBNY-AM and WSVS to 1400kc. The move took place on March 29, 1941. Not long after the change, WSVS applied for a new FM licence and WSVS-AM was deleted. On January 29, 1942, station owner Albertson announced that WBNY would take over the frequency and schedule the programming.
It was also in 1942 that long-time employee Carl Spavento was hired. The early years were a mixture of ethnic programming ranging from Polish, German and Italian. An individual show was called “Waltz Time.” Also on staff was Art Crosson who was a organist. The shows of the day were live presentations and Crosson was on at midday and evenings with organ recitals. The broadcasting in those early days were a reflection of the community, in line with just about what every other station was doing , or had done. Carl Spavento was the staff announcer.
Others on the air were Ralph Hubble doing a sports show. Ralph was on in the late 30’s. Another staff announcer that was destined for greater things was a guy named George Lorenz. His employment lasted a couple of years and he was at the station from about 1943 to 1946. Another show was titled Moods And Music, featuring the Grosvnor Library Of Recording Music. It was classical music hosted by Margaret Mcnara Motts.
The station featured newscasts in the early days. They were considered major and minor news casts. Albertson loved to feature editorials during those casts. Mostly political in nature, Albertson would author the editorials of the day, himself. The station was 1000 watts of power during the day and 250 watts in the evening , enough to blanket the city of Buffalo. It was allowed to broadcast 24 hours a day, yet management chose a 6 a.m. sign on to a midnight sign off. Apparently there was little thought that an audience was available during off hours. La Golindriana “The Swallow” was a favorite tune of Mrs. Albertson, so that became the signature sign off music each evening.
By the mid 40’s to the early 50’s an adult contemporary format was used. The popular tunes of the day were on their play list. This popular programming would continue for almost 10 years. The mornings were set aside for foreign language use. On a given Saturday , from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. the Saturday Night Revue was broadcast with popular music of Dinah Washington , Sinatra, Como, Gene Autry and the like.
Gene Korzelius came on board as the sports director and announcer. Other 1940’s staff members included John Otto, Jack Olgilvie, James Gardner, David Getman and Howard Schellenberg. Each staff member was required to read the news as well as have a music show.
It was in the early 50’s that a major shift in audience appeal was noted. The senior Albertson had suffered from medical problems that sidelined him. The owner’s son, then in his 20’s, took charge of the radio station. He hired Dick Lawrence to become the program director and move the station in another direction. The plan was simple. The Albertson family decided that they wanted to boost the station's ratings with the aim of eventually selling the station. So in the early 50’s, WBNY-AM would become Buffalo, NY’s first consistent rock and roll radio station. While other local were tinkering with segments of a teen format, WBNY made the commitment.
Dick Lawrence set out to hire smooth, fast-talking radio announcers, called disc jockeys. The rock and roll phenomenon was in full swing across the country, and Buffalo was ready. The dj’s style was pleasant to the new teenage audience. The music was new, wild, identifiable, raw, and at first, confusing to most parents. But WBNY had immense teen appeal. Also the station added Percy Faith’s “Till” as their new sign off tune. Other stations, including WKBW, took notice.
Over the years, Lawrence hired talent that the teen audience could identify with. Often fast-talking, always humorous, WBNY presented among others , Mark Edwards , Dick Carr , Don Chrissy, Dan (Daffy Dan) Neaverth, Jerry Stevens, Ron Kingsland, Johnny Van, Art Roberts , Casey Kasem, Don Eurkie, Roger Christian, Jimmie Light, Hal Burns, Frank Stickle, Frank Jaye, Barry Gray, Joey Reynolds, Jack Kelly, Fred Klestine and Lucky Pierre. Henry Brach was hired to do newscasts.
It is evident by the on-air talent that WBNY used over the years , that they made every attempt to appease it’s young audience with a loose format of rock and roll music. Daffy Dan Neaverth would pull off a stunt that required he and the rock and roll band the Tune Rockers, to go up on WBNY’s roof. They were throwing candies off the roof to the fans below. This created a traffic jam, and shut down traffic to Main Street. As the grid lock ended it’s second hour, the police were called. Neaverth blocked access to the roof, jamming the door from the outside. Police banged on the door, demanding to arrest Dan. As cooler heads prevailed, all sides agreed to end the stunt, with only warnings that if the stunt continued, arrests would take place. No penalties were imposed.
On the same day that the AM side went rock 'n' roll, WBNY-FM, which simulcast most of the AM side of broadcasting since 1947, went with its own format. Carl Spavento went over to the FM side as General Manager. In July 1959, WBNY-FM at 92.5 on the dial became WBUF-FM. The format chosen was middle of the road music. Mostly album cuts by the popular artists of the day. Carl would stay with the station until 1978.
Located at 485 Main Street at the corner of Mohawk, WBNY-AM started its climb up the ratings charts. Some of Buffalo’s greatest radio talent came and went from WBNY. It made a great run broadcasting with a solid format, and in 1959, WBNY was sold for at that time the unprecedented amount of one million dollars. Acting General Manager and broker Charles Denny ran the operation for the new owner, until it sold the station to the Gordon McClendon group. In order to complete the deal, a series of events had to take place. WYSL-AM located at 1080 on the AM dial, sold the frequency to WUFO. WYSL moved up to 1400 on the AM dial and eliminated the WBNY call sign. The format was changed to “beautiful music" and stayed that way for several years. In the mid-60’s, WYSL-AM went rock and roll and among their staff , the first popular dj was Dick “Wild Child” Kemp. After that run , many format adjustments and ownership changes followed. “1400 On The Dial” would never be the same.
Also with the advent of Rock And Roll radio, came the “record hops”. WBNY radio was no different. Lucky Pierre was very popular with the teens of the day, and he hired as his record hop band, a group of youngsters called the “Tune Rockers”. They played just about every Friday with Pierre. He offered them local exposure. This combination made a lot of noise in the Buffalo area. And as Lawrence went over to WKBW, Pierre promoted the band even more. With every passing record hop , the fan response was bigger than the previous event. It was at one of these hops that Dick Lawrence decided to sign the band to his personal management. Their second release got air play at WBNY and the new WKBW. It worked. The support the group got from Lawrence and Pierre gave Buffalo, N.Y., its first registered rock and roll chart hit, climbing well into the top 40. The Green Mosquito became a big hit, and can still be found on compilation releases. The Tune Rockers, in a recent interview acknowledge the importance of Lucky Pierre and his efforts to help.the band succeed.
As a side note, on July 4, 1958, WKBW-AM, after watching the events take place at WBNY changed formats, by going top forty, 24 hours a day. They would actually hire from WBNY, Dick Lawrence, and he would have a free hand to run the operation. The 50,000-watt station would remove most of the ethnic programming, release the popular George “Hound Dog” Lorenz and over time, actually hire most of the current on air staff from WBNY. This happened over a period of time. The first deejay on the air at WKBW in 1958 would be morning man Perry Allen.
The last announcer voice on WBNY-AM was that of Jack Gilmour. The final 24 hours of broadcasting found dead air in between the playing of rock and roll records from the WBNY library. The entire on-air staff was gone, absorbed by WKBW and others in the Buffalo area. Those not picked up, like Mark Edwards would wind up elsewhere. Edwards landed at WSAI in Cincinnati. Lucky Pierre moved on to the west coast and broadcast from KHJ. Pierre is still there today, on weekends at Groove radio. He also did walk on stints on Cheers, Golden Girls and Jay Leno, Married With Children and others. An interesting item is that Casey Kasem, as “ Casey At The Mike", was a wild shouter at WBNY before settling into his more conservative style used on his later, syndicated show. Back then, he went to court to challenge the management of WBNY, only to lose the case. His employment was ended. He jokingly recalled that “it took months to read the judges verdict”.
On the last night of WBNY, Jack Gilmour helped bring down the curtain, while it was on top. He continued broadcasting late into the night. Noticeably absent were the familiar WBNY jingles. Occasional, and FCC-required station id’s were done by Gilmour with statements as “WBNY time, 14 past 8 o'clock ... tomorrow at 7 a.m. beautiful whistle music comes to 1400 on the dial”. Ironically, Henry Brach became a voice of the new WYSL-AM during its first year of a “beautiful music “ format. He would do the news as well as have his own radio show. Sometime in 1962, Brach would go over to WKBW and take his place in their news department.
WKBW with its new Top 30 format was an extension of WBNY in its early days. Using some of the WBNY components with its mixture of familiar deejays and maximum FCC allowed power, KB would face minimal challenges from low power WYSL-AM and from the other end of the dial. WGR had a short-lived rock and roll format before retreating back to its adult contemporary sound.
For many years, after finding its own identity, WKBW would be the dominant radio voice for teenagers and their music. Some of the better know dj’s that got air time on KB read like a broadcasting Who’s Who. A partial list of the on air staff was Perry Allen, Russ “The Moose” Syracuse, Johnny Barrett, Art Roberts, Dick Biondi, “Jungle” Jay Nelson, Jim Taylor, Tom Shannon, Ted Hackett, Bob Diamond, Rod Roddy, Jeff Kaye, Tom Saunders, Gene Nelson, Sandy Beach, Doug James, Joey Reynolds (twice), Fred Klestine, Stan Roberts and Shane. After a bumpy start, Dan Neaverth would take the record for the longest running on air show. The Janitor and Frank Jolly hold the record for the shortest employment at KB. Their tenure was measured in weeks. There also was a early morning show called “The Farm And Home Show”, hosted by Don Keller.
Much later, during a listener shift to FM radio, WKBW would self destruct by simply bad format changes. Also evident was a lack of ample time for any format to take hold. KB even tried an AM Stereo format. The all-powerful KB is now a vast wasteland. Channel 7 was sold and with the decision to keep the WKBW-TV identity, WKBW radio had to change call letters that it had since going on the air. Yet another blow to it’s image. In order to maintain the ever popular “KB” slogan , it became known as WWKB.
AM radio in general was reduced to as many talk shows as the dial could absorb. There was 24 hours of news on one station. That did not make it. An oldies format with local ties failed. The same station, impatient with success, went oldies with a satellite feed and gave up. A business format was used with little success. Ironically, some stations are using ethnic programming to simply reach a audience. And the list went on. The AM dial fell to the dominance of the new FM radio stations. Better sound quality with musical formats being offered for any taste of music. Gone are the great radio station owners, the independents. Gone are the dynamic radio announcers, the disc jockeys. Gone are the great radio jingles, their identities. Maybe it comes with the age of the listener. It’s not the same.
Thanks to Carl Spavento for all the time he gave me, allowing me to relive memories of my favorite radio station and be a kid again. Carl's career from 1942 until his retirement found him at WBNY AM/FM, WBUF-FM, WFXZ-FM and back to WBUF-FM when the call letters returned for a second time. Also to John Zach for making sure my facts are correct and informative.
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