“Lightning in a bottle”.
It is that catchphrase that many insiders and observers have used to describe the cultural phenomenon that was the Dearborn, Michigan radio station known as WKNR Keener 13. During its all too brief eight and a half year run, that unlikely, 5000 watt AM powerhouse set a standard of excellence within the medium that has never been equaled.
WKNR began its remarkable legacy in the wake of the inevitable makeover of radio station WKMH, which until 1963 had occupied the 1310 position on the AM band. Interestingly enough, during its final months as WKMH, the station fulfilled its respective niche quite well. A significant part of its appeal was in the fact that WKMH served as the flagship station for the broadcasts of the Detroit Tigers American League baseball team.
Between 1956 and 1960, the Tigers were owned in part by the station’s owner and one time Program Director, Frederick August “Fred” Knorr II. WKMH concurrently offered its audience a healthy variety of music, news and dialogue. From such early favorites as Fred Fisher and Bob Cordell to such latter day dynamic air personalities as Dave “Sangoo” Prince, and veteran actor Robin Henry Seymour, WKMH was a hallmark of both excellence and consistency.
It was perhaps that latter attribute - consistency - that in part prompted the brainstorming sessions which transformed the suburban Detroit AM outlet into what arguably remains the greatest radio station of all time. For while WKMH in 1962 and 1963 was a tightly run and superbly executed mixture of Tigers baseball, strong personalities and the rich and diverse music of the day, it ultimately was but one of several equally impacting stations in the area that were programmed in like manner.
Amongst those other stations was the Oakland County-based WJBK. Having finally found their niche at 1500 AM (following several shifts in frequency on the AM dial since initially signing on the air in nearby Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1925), WJBK had been a long established voice for the rock and roll contingent.
To wit, up until 1957, WJBK had featured the celebrated Kemal Asem “Casey” Kasem among its vaunted air staff. However, by 1963, Kasem had gone on to a position with KRLA in Pasadena, California. He ultimately guaranteed his legacy as host of the syndicated American Top Forty program.
In December 1959, WJBK’s very existence had been threatened by the travesty of justice known as the Payola scandal, which resulted in the abrupt departures of such longtime favorite air personalities as Tom Clay, Dale Young and Don MacLeod. The station nonetheless persevered along the same format lines until mid-1964, aided and abetted by such world class on air talent as Marc Avery, Clark Reid, Robert E. Lee, Bob Edgington, Robin “Jack The Bellboy” Walker and weekend man Bob Layne.
Until the very end, WJBK continued to publish a weekly chart that featured the top sixty singles, on a visual template that was an apparent inspiration for the department store chains Shoppers Fair and E.J. Korvette’s in creating their own weekly music surveys. The station changed formats and call letters in December 1969, and spent most of the 1970s championing country music as WDEE. The 1500 frequency is today held by Gospel station WLQV, which features the syndicated broadcasts of such highly respected evangelists and ministers as John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, Charles Stanley, Tony Evans and David Jeremiah.
In turn, the Southfield-based WXYZ at 1270 AM also boasted a wealth of air personalities that more than held their own. Under the guidance of General Manager Chuck Fritz (who took over that role in 1963), WXYZ at that point was the front runner, with such world class radio legends as Lee Alan, Joel Sebastian and Don Zee on board. WXYZ maintained a keen advantage in that respect through their involvement with the Walled Lake Casino (at which the station regularly hosted hugely successful record hops and live concert appearances), as well as their affiliate Club 1270 television program.
WXYZ continued to publish its own weekly music surveys until 26 December 1966. The following week, it also changed formats in favor of the middle of the road approach.
Running a distant third amongst them at the time was CKLW on 800 AM in neighboring Windsor, Ontario. Although by decade’s end, the 50,000 watt, clear channel CKLW would pretty much dominate the North American radio market in the wake of its adaptation of the controversial Drake format, in 1963 it remained a small but ambitious and worthy player amongst that quartet of stations.
Sadly, Fred Knorr had died suddenly at age 47 on 26 December 1960, in a hotel accident while vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Upon Knorr’s untimely passing, his widow, Nellie Knorr assumed the ownership of WKMH. Nellie Knorr saw to it that the station’s ongoing operations remained relatively consistent with the template established by her late husband.
Enter consultant Mike Joseph, who believed that with a bit of refinement, WKMH could become the predominant station amongst the four. Although she had a few initial reservations (including the proposal to change the station’s call letters), Nellie Knorr was ultimately on board with the plan.
While WXYZ, WJBK, CKLW and WKMH all excelled in their respective endeavors, Joseph reasoned that a bit of fine tuning in key areas would be an integral step in making the difference. One of those key areas was in the station’s air talent itself.
Given that all four stations boasted world class veterans on their respective rosters, the logical progression would be to take it a step further by bringing on board strong personalities who could not only be as integral a component of the overall entertainment as the music itself, but who also had backgrounds in either programming or station management. The radio equivalent of the five-tool player, to be certain. Yet interestingly enough, such was not necessarily a readily available commodity, even in that talent-rich era.
Curiously, it was decided to retain only Robin Seymour for the 9:00AM-12:00PM slot from the existing WKMH air staff and start again from scratch. With Dave Prince ultimately headed for WXYZ as a result (and with Frank Maruca overseeing Program Director responsibilities), WKMH then assembled for its great transformation a second to none collection of air talent that also included the great Mort Crowley (a veteran of such powerhouses as Chicago’s WLS and Los Angeles’ KHJ) on morning drive, James “Jim Sanders” Beasley in the noon until 3:00PM slot, Gary “Woolyburger” Stevens from 3:00 until 7:00PM, programming mastermind Bob Green in the coveted 7:00PM until midnight slot and Bill Phillips holding down the midnight through 5:00AM shift.
While all concerned steadfastly maintain that the resultant “lightning in a bottle” was not the byproduct of any sort of predetermined mission statement, by the Autumn of 1963, virtually all of the components essential to produce such results were nonetheless at hand. In what Bob Green later referred to as “intelligent flexibility”, each member of the new broadcast team was given the creative autonomy to bring into the proceedings that which had established their legacies in their respective earlier radio experiences.
Put another way, Crowley, Seymour, Sanders, Stevens, Green and Phillips were each called upon to become as much a part of the continuity as the music itself. In other words, not only were the superb selection of records that the station played considered entertainment, but so was the on air input of the staff.
In a manner not unlike that pioneered by Steve Allen and carried forward by Jack Paar and the great Johnny Carson on NBC television’s long running Tonight Show, the station’s new air staff was expected to bring forth unwaveringly the attributes of humor, creative banter, insight, empathy and personality. The intent was that their efforts would captivate and retain a given listener as much as would a new release from a given recording artist.
To be certain, such a consistently high level of productivity was a lot to ask of anyone in that capacity. It is a testimony to the capabilities of the station’s inaugural air staff that all concerned more than lived up to those expectations. Some did so with the assistance of on air sidekicks (such as Stevens’ Woolyburger personality). Others simply drew from their natural wit, wisdom and discernment. Nonetheless, it was apparent from the onset that the elements for capturing that lightning in a bottle were well in place.
With a change of call letters from WKMH to WKNR (which was in part an acknowledgement of station owner Nellie Knorr’s last name), the brand new WKNR Keener 13 made its debut on 31 October 1963. And despite almost having its momentum derailed a mere three weeks into its existence with the horrendous assassination of beloved American President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on Friday 22 November 1963, WKNR rose to the occasion, rode out the tragedy and continued its ascent. Within an unprecedented ninety days of signing on the air, WKNR had risen from an ambitious upstart to a solid number one in the ratings.
To help increase awareness in the area, WKNR on 07 November 1963 released the inaugural edition of the WKNR Music Guide. That essential weekly listing was readily available at such sympathetic outlets as Dearborn Music, Ross Music, Foxhole Records and Harmony House, as well as such record-friendly department store chains as Arlans, Topps, Shoppers Fair, E.J. Korvette, Hudson’s, Crowley’s and Spartan.
With the Kingsmen’s landmark first generation garage rock interpretation of Richard Berry’s Louie, Louie in the number one position, that premier edition of the WKNR Music Guide featured thirty-one singles (plus a bonus Key Song Of The Week) that more than reflected the rich diversity that was in music in abundance at the time. They included Lenny Welch’s rendition of Paul Gayten’s Since I Fell For You, the Dynamics’ monster classic R&B stomper Misery, Jeanne Paule “The Singing Nun” Deckers’ Gospel/folk rock hybrid Dominique, Wilbert Harrison’s blues rocking Near To You, Lou Rawls’ like minded interpretation of the great John D. Loudermilk’s Tobacco Road, Tommy Roe’s hard rocking Everybody, Neil Sedaka’s high drama opus Bad Girl, Dion DiMucci’s tour de force rendition of the Drifters’ Drip Drop, the Galens’ eerie Baby I Do Love You, Vickie Carroll’s engaging The Girl You Left Behind and an early preview of the forthcoming British Invasion with the charismatic duet, the Caravelles’ harmony-rich and echo laden cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry.
In addition to facing a very early struggle for recognition and the paradigm shift in the public mood in the wake of the Kennedy tragedy, WKNR within its first ninety days also experienced a degree of unprecedented in house reorganizing that would seemingly have put an effective end to its remarkable ascent to the forefront. In the early weeks of 1964, with the British Invasion providing a much needed diversion, and with its new audience rallying to their cause accordingly, WKNR found itself in some respects overwhelmed by its newfound success.
Monkees lead guitarist Robert Michael Nesmith, who in the 1970s founded the acclaimed Pacific Arts record label, once remarked that he was fairly well prepared to handle a level of success that found his label’s albums selling in the area of ten thousand copies. Concurrently, he expressed concern that if one of Pacific Arts’ new releases should happen to sell closer to one million copies, he would find himself ill equipped at that juncture to deal with such a level of success.
By that same token, the meteoric rise of WKNR had tested the stamina and endurance of its air staff beyond expectations. As a result, Jim Sanders left in early 1964 to pursue new ventures.
And in one of the most infamous accounts of unplanned transition in the history of the medium, morning man Mort Crowley found his patience stretched to the limit in the wake of having to deal with regularly interrupted and/or failing phone lines at the station, due in part to enormously high call volume. Finding only one phone line in operation upon reporting for his shift that fateful morning, Crowley resigned on the air after launching into an extensive tirade about the telephone company being a monopoly.
“The octopus has struck again”, Crowley said during his tense final two hours on WKNR.
“People are living in fear today. This isn’t the way it should be. I’ve gotta hand it to those guys who dumped tea in the Boston Harbor.”
Hailed by many as a hero for his stand against the perceived establishment, Crowley went on to fruitful tenures at radio stations in Saint Louis, Missouri and Denver, Colorado. Sadly, he passed away in 1995.
With this sudden dual vacancy thrust upon them at the worst possible time, it was incumbent upon both Nellie Knorr and Frank Maruca to take decisive and immediate action. Enter jazz aficionado and aspiring actor, Jerry Goodwin. Also blessed with a background in Religious Studies at University Of Detroit Mercy, Goodwin had come to Maruca’s attention through Bob Green.
However, prior commitments had prevented Goodwin from making such a move for a few weeks. Yet Maruca’s need was both immediate and urgent. So in turn, Maruca reached out to Frank Sweeney, with whom he had previously worked in Ohio. Having already established a formidable reputation of his own as Swingin’ Sweeney, Frank Sweeney readily accepted Maruca’s offer, and in early 1964 he succeeded Mort Crowley in the morning slot at Keener 13.
From that point forward, there was pretty much no stopping WKNR. Blessed with a quick wit and irresistible personality that fit in impeccably with his new environment, Swingin’ Sweeney and his Keener 13 colleagues charged full speed ahead into the remarkable and highly transitional year of 1964. In the process, WKNR earned numerous accolades as the best and most impacting radio station in all of North America.
As 1964 progressed, WKNR also found itself in the groundbreaking and enviable position of being one of two radio stations that served as ad hoc testing grounds nationwide for what is termed the “breaking” of a new single. That is, WKNR would add on the average a half dozen or so new releases to its weekly WKNR Music Guide, based in part upon input from the station’s fiercely loyal listener base.
More often than not, once a given release had proven itself at WKNR, it would go on to acceptance and airplay at other like minded stations across the continent. That often meant that a given record could run its course on WKNR in May and June, but would not garner any widespread attention elsewhere until July or August.
This of course underscored the necessity of having an extraordinarily gifted and perceptive individual overseeing the Music Director position. That responsibility at WKNR ultimately fell to none other than Frank Sweeney. As he details accordingly with characteristic and endearing self-depreciation in the following account, Sweeney sought out only the cream of the crop in terms of new releases. To do so required a highly acute sense of discernment at a time when the percentage of world class quality musical material was at an all time high.
In addition to a given record’s aesthetic appeal, the primary criteria for inclusion on the WKNR Music Guide was that a given release was to be comprised of material that both resonated with the station’s audience and that which was proven to be in demand from various record retailers. As such, throughout 1964, WKNR boasted one of the most richly diverse playlists in all of music.
While revisionist history would suggest that the so-called British Invasion had pretty much dominated music throughout that year, a careful study of the weekly WKNR Music Guides from 1964 more than underscores the fact that such was not the case at the nationally influential Keener 13. Granted, such British Invasion greats as the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Bobby Shafto, the Dave Clark Five, Dusty Springfield, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Manfred Mann, the Bachelors and Chad and Jeremy all made their mark decisively at Keener 13 throughout the year.
But theirs was just one of many musical movements that factored into the richly diverse thirty-two singles and four albums that graced the WKNR Music Guide. Each week saw the addition of new releases by such influential and respected artists as the Pixies Three, the Beach Boys, the Crampton Sisters, David Box, Rick Nelson, Lee Rodgers, Jan and Dean, Rita Pavone, Jerry Vale, Jamie Coe, the Monarchs, Chuck Berry, the Reflections, the Mustangs, Roger Miller, the Orlons, Nat King Cole and numerous others.
WKNR wrapped up its unprecedentedly successful 1964 with the release of the first of four volumes of compilation albums that were comprised of classic singles by such artists as Bobby Rydell, Sandy Nelson, Jerry Butler, Bobby Day, the Skyliners and Ritchie Valens. Also featuring station jingles and spoken introductions by the Keener Key Men Of Music, that first volume became a huge regional success, with proceeds from sales donated to the ALSAC charity, which works in tandem with Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital. As a testimony to their ongoing impact in the genre, all four volumes of the Keenergold album series were reissued onto CD by the Forever II label, with each release featuring a generous helping of duly inspired bonus tracks.
However, by early 1965, history had repeated itself at WKNR. Within the first few months of the year, Gary Stevens was gone, having been recruited by WMCA in New York City. Weary of the midnight shift, Bill Phillips also departed initially for WERB in neighboring Garden City, Michigan, while concurrently doing remote broadcasts at the Montgomery Ward department store in the Wonderland Mall in Livonia, Michigan. Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell very briefly interned as an assistant to Phillips at those Wonderland remotes.
In turn, Robin Seymour answered the call of television, and found himself as the host of the enormously successful and immeasurably influential Swingin’ Time show on CKLW television in Windsor, Ontario. During its 1965 - 1968 run, Swingin’ Time was enormously influential in nurturing and developing the careers of such essential area talent as the Rationals, Kris Peterson, the Lazy Eggs, the Camel Drivers, Gino Washington, Terry Knight and the Pack, Tony Clarke, the Cherry Slush, the Unrelated Segments, the Wanted, Tim Tam and the Turn-Ons, the Parliaments, the Tidal Waves, Bob Seger and the Last Heard, the Underdogs, the Bossmen and many, many others.
Sadly, in a moment that subsequently caused him no small amount of regret, Swingin’ Sweeney followed suit, thereby depriving Keener 13 of its beloved and highly charismatic morning man. He persevered in radio elsewhere for a season, and eventually founded his own firm, The Sweeney Group. He ultimately went on to serve as Chief Operating Officer of the Miss Universe pageant, based in New York City.
When the dust had settled and the restructuring was complete, WKNR miraculously persevered with a second to none lineup that included Ted Clark from 9:00AM to 12:00PM, Jerry Goodwin from 12:00PM to 3:00PM, Bob Green from 3:00 until 7:00PM, Robert “Scott Regen” Bernstein (formerly known as Rock Robbins) taking on the 7:00PM to 10:00PM slot, J. Michael Wilson (and his endearing sidekick, Rodney the Wonder Rodent) tackling 10:00PM until 1:00AM, and Paul Cannon handling overnight duties, with Dick Purtan assuming Frank Sweeney’s former morning shift.
But for that all too glorious one year period in that most crucial stage of the remarkable legacy of the most impacting radio station of all time, Swingin’ Sweeney rose to the occasion and set the bar as high as it could be set for the morning drive position.
As for WKNR, it pressed ahead for the remainder of those all too crucial 1960s. Keener valiantly fought off the challenges brought about in 1968 by CKLW’s adaptation of the controversial Drake format (which that year lured away both Dick Purtan and Scott Regen for a season, with J. Michael Wilson going on to a successful tenure with CHUM in Toronto, Ontario), as well as the rather mean spirited backlash brought about by the so-called FM “underground” stations, resulting in the AM/FM wars that effectively served to polarize both factions and plunge mainstream rock and roll into a protracted aesthetic slump.
Sadly, despite its best efforts, and without compromise to its mission statement throughout, WKNR finally signed off in April 1972. An emotional Pat Saint John was at the microphone, bidding farewell to radio’s all time greatest success story with a final spin of the highly appropriate, Pete Seeger-penned and Ecclesiastes 3-inspired, November 1965 Byrds single, Turn, Turn, Turn.
At that point, 1310 AM briefly became WNIC-AM, switching to a middle of the road format in the process. In an inevitable admission of their haste, the station returned to the Keener 13 template in the late 1970s as WWKR (as the WKNR call letters had been appropriated elsewhere in the interim).
1310 AM eventually became talk station WDTW and signed off of the air for a brief season on 31 December 2012. Meanwhile, WKNR’s rich legacy is chronicled regularly on the superb and essential tribute site, www.keener13.com, which is overseen by Scott Westerman and Steve Schram.
As a testimony to their collective genius, charisma and camaraderie, many of the WKNR alumni have remained in close contact since the station’s demise. And while various Keener 13 veterans have participated in occasional on air reunions sponsored by other southeastern Michigan radio outlets, in 2014 a new development occurred that could only be attributed to answered prayer.
That spring, Jerry Goodwin contacted Blitz Magazine with the extraordinary news that a number of the WKNR alumni were planning a dinner reunion at the Redeye Grill near Carnegie Hall in New York City, with Blitz Magazine being among the few invited guests. After no small amount of planning and strategizing on the part of all concerned, the Keener reunion at last took place over the weekend of 13 - 15 June that year.
“We are trying to keep it intimate”, said Goodwin at the time, in the wake of overwhelmingly favorable response to the news.
The reunion ultimately brought together Goodwin, along with Bob Green, Robin Seymour, Gary Stevens, Jim “Robin Stone” Kerr, Pat Saint John, Scott Regen, and of course Frank Sweeney. Also on board were newsmen Jim Brooker and John Meagher, as well as various family members and special guests.
Sadly, various circumstances beyond our control precluded Blitz Magazine’s attendance at that reunion. However, the occasion did open the door for the project at hand. Several weeks after that reunion, Blitz spoke at length with Frank Sweeney from his New York City home about the WKNR legacy.
Some months after the fact, Blitz Magazine now finds itself at the relatively more celebratory place of commemorating its fortieth anniversary. As has been chronicled in Blitz regularly throughout the past four decades, the most singularly impacting influence on the mission statement and direction of this publication has been the legacy created by the aforementioned team of visionaries that brought WKNR Keener 13 to life.
As such, it seemed far more appropriate to reschedule the publication of this landmark and historic dialogue with one of WKNR’s most respected Key Men in order to be in conjunction with our anniversary celebration.
With his relentlessly upbeat Swingin’ Sweeney persona intact, Frank Sweeney herein shares with Blitz Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell the behind the scenes story of the beloved radio station that irrevocably changed not just music, but the broadcast media and the entertainment industry in general for the better.
BLITZ: As was the case with your colleagues, you brought quite a bit of radio experience to the table when you came on board at WKNR.
SWEENEY: I started in radio in 1953 in Laconia, New Hampshire at WLNH. Then I worked in Mississippi. I worked in Toledo, Ohio twice and I worked in Youngstown, Ohio twice. I was at WHOT in Youngstown.
Let me tell you how I got the name “Swingin’”, because it wasn’t my choice! I was up in Maine. I was the Program Director at WLAM in Lewiston. Five thousand watts, good station. But it’s at the end of the earth! I had just gotten married. And I thought, “Am I ever gonna get out of here?”
A fellow named Myron Jones was vacationing with his wife in the state of Maine. He said to his wife, “You know what, Mabel?”, or whatever her name was! “When we have an opening, we’re going to get in touch with this young man. I like the way he sounds!”
In January of 1959, I got a letter saying, “My name is Myron Jones. I own two radio stations and I am willing to offer you afternoon drive on WHOT in Youngstown, Ohio.” He offered me a hundred and fifty dollars a week. In 1959! I thought I had died and gone to heaven!!
So we packed up the furniture, shipped it across the country, got in the car and made the drive to Erie, Pennsylvania to meet him and his wife for dinner, before we went down to Youngstown. We had dinner, and they were very cordial folks. But this guy was going to be my boss! So I was being careful and respectful. He said, “You’re going to love it there. We are already running promotions on the air. We’re going to call you Sweeney with the Beanie!”
And I said, “Oh, dear God.” But my wife, my wonderful Petunia, she said, “I think we’re gonna call you Swingin’ Sweeney!”
When we left, I said to my wife, “There’s no way I’m gonna do that. When I go on the air, I’m just going to say, ‘This is Frank Sweeney’ ”.
When I got there, I was doing afternoon drive. WHOT was the hot station in town. And guess what? The kids grabbed a hold of Swingin’ Sweeney! They would call and ask for Swingin’. I would do a record hop and they would say, “Hey, Swingin’!” So if you get enough people calling you a horse, buy a saddle!
That’s how Swingin’ Sweeney came to be. And do you know whom I replaced at WHOT? Dick Biondi! He went to Buffalo first, and then he went to Chicago. They LOVED Dick Biondi! I spent the first six months doing record hops, and all I heard was, “Have you heard from Dick? How is Dick doing?” And I thought, “What am I, a potted plant??” They weren’t being disrespectful to me. They just liked him that well.
Then I went from there to KYW. And that’s where I met Frank Maruca for the first time. I had a lovely two year swing at KYW, but I didn’t get my contract renewed. That’s what happens in this business. So I thought, “Where will I go?”
So I went to Youngstown at WKBN, which was a competitor of WHOT. I did the Mike Joseph format. So I was very familiar with it. I knew what Mike did and how he did it. So when Frank Maruca called and said, “Come to Keener”, it made sense. I had worked the format, and Frank and I had worked together. So the whole thing fell into place.
Gary was already there. Gary understood that you just raised h—– in the afternoon. And he did it beautifully! Bobby Green did the best production I’ve ever seen. Jerry Goodwin had a beautiful, mellow sound from noon to three.
Robin Seymour was Robin Seymour. He was the guy from the other era. Everybody liked him anyway! And I did Swingin’ Sweeney, whatever that was. That’s what we put together. It was a captivating sound. They liked us, and we liked them.
BLITZ: The basic story of the origins of WKNR Keener 13 are fairly well known and documented. But there are some aspects of that story that need to be filled in accordingly.
SWEENEY: I wrote a bit of it on Facebook, and called it Once Upon A Time. I’ll elaborate on it. It was almost written in sound bytes, because the audience doesn’t hold still for long!
As you know, there was a radio station called WKMH that was owned by a man named Fred Knorr. I think he had some partners, but he was the primary owner. He, amongst other people in the late 1950s and early 1960s, realized that radio needed something done. They didn’t know quite what, but it needed something.
Are you aware of how that man died? It’s a bizarre story. He was vacationing in Florida. He slipped and fell in the bathtub while the shower was on and got third degree burns. By the time they got him, he was too far gone and died.
So his widow, Nellie Knorr decided to go ahead with it. They owned three stations in Michigan. I can’t remember the other two now. But the “K” in the call letters was an acknowledgement of the name Knorr. They hired a man named Mike Joseph. He had some success programming stations elsewhere. I had worked with him at WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio, among other places. He was quite a character. Quite frankly, a man without humor. But he worked very hard.
They brought him in. He did all the research, and he decided that the station should change its call letters to WKNR, and it would then be called Keener.
Initially, Mrs. Knorr resisted changing the call letters. But then it was pointed out to her by Mike Joseph that we were still retaining the “K”. And with the “N” and the “R”, it was practically her full name. “Oh my goodness, you’re right”, she said. “Do it!” The first person they hired was Frank Maruca.
BLITZ: As Program Director.
SWEENEY: Right. A lovely man. A gentle man. But he knew how to handle talent! Are you a baseball fan?
BLITZ: Very much so, especially the Los Angeles Dodgers.
SWEENEY: And I’m a Yankees fan! You had one of our greatest players managing your team in Joe Torre.
Anyway, the reason that I mentioned baseball is because Frank Maruca was famous for being able to handle talent the same way. They put Frank Maruca in charge of hiring talent. They wanted young guys. The only holdover (from WKMH) was Robin Seymour. I don’t know why they held him, but they did.
Frank and I had worked together at KYW in Cleveland in 1960. I was in Youngstown at WKBN. “Ks” followed me all over my broadcast career, apparently!
I got a call from Frank, and he said, “Listen. Mike Joseph has just programmed this, and you know him. And you and I have worked together. How would you like to come in and do noon to three for me?” I said, “I’d love it!” So he made the right offer, I accepted it and I headed up.
This is a funny story. In the meantime, Jerry Goodwin had worked with Bob Green. And Bob Green was telling Frank Maruca, “You ought to hire my buddy, Jerry Goodwin, because he’s good, too.” So they decided that they were going to hire Jerry. But they didn’t know where they were going to put him!
I got to Keener, and Mort Crowley had gone nuts! He took off on the phone company and they had to let him go.
BLITZ: But that happened a few months later, in 1964.
SWEENEY: The station had just started, but he went off on a complete rant. So they let him go. I got to Keener in the last days of January 1964. Frank Maruca said, “I know you’re tired and you were going to work from noon until three. But we don’t have a morning man. So I’m going to ask you to do the morning show instead.”
Like a fool, I said, “Yeah.” But I shouldn’t have. I’m a pretty good talent, but I don’t get up early! Anyway, I took it.
On the other hand, Jerry Goodwin was going to do the morning show. But he got there two weeks after I did! Maruca had to plug a hole really fast. So he ended up doing noon to three, and I ended up doing the morning show.
BLITZ: Did Jerry Goodwin not replace Jim Sanders? Jim had one of those slots originally.
SWEENEY: He may have, yeah. He possibly did. But that was the slot I was supposed to get.
Jerry and I just found this out while talking to each other about a month ago, just from bantering back and forth. He didn’t know it, and I never knew it!
Anyway, Gary Stevens had come on board. I can’t recall if he was already there. All of this happened between the first of November 1963 and the first of February 1964. That’s how quickly the staff all came together.
BLITZ: Bob Green has subsequently stated that the staff was recruited to come together under the premise of what he refers to as “intelligent flexibility”.
SWEENEY: He called it that later, but not before. You can attribute intelligent flexibility to Bobby Green.
BLITZ: The concept suggested in part that each individual came from a more studied background. In other words, experience perhaps as a Program Director or at some other level of management. Each was supposedly given creative autonomy within the parameters of the format. How would you define it?
SWEENEY: That’s not quite true. I was a Program Director when I got there, and I became Music Director there. I think Bobby was the Production Director.
What Bob is talking about, and he is absolutely correct, is that it evolved. In other words, we were not brought together to make this happen. We came together, and it DID happen!
BLITZ: The sum total was greater than the parts.
SWEENEY: Yeah. We worked! But it wasn’t decided that this intelligent flexibility was the premise that we then executed. That was the result of what we did!
Gary Stevens is one of the smartest men I have ever met. You know his career after radio. Three of us - Gary Stevens, Bob Green and myself - all chose to be businessmen and form our own businesses later on in life. We didn’t stay strictly with radio or behind the microphone.
BLITZ: Although that experience was an asset.
SWEENEY: Yeah, absolutely! I’ve said this before. When you are in the midst of something, you don’t realize what you’re in the midst of. Keener was really one of the greatest social experiments that I’ve seen. They captivated that market. They captivated us.
We really did catch lightning in a bottle. But when we were doing it, we didn’t know it. It’s when you look back that you think, “Son of a gun! Look what we accomplished!”
I think part of that is shown in the fact that we have all maintained contact with each other over the years. Bobby Green and Pat Saint John have always maintained some sort of contact. Bob and Scott Regen were very close. Gary Stevens and I maintained a relationship.
You would swear that Jerry Goodwin and I were best buddies now! That wasn’t always the case. But we have become fast friends over the years and through Facebook.
It was a wonderful time. So what Bob was saying was that intelligent flexibility wasn’t the mantra, but it became the mantra.
BLITZ: From the perspective of someone who listened to Keener, there were two things that the station did that no other station appeared to be doing at the time. Number one was that the music was considerably different than it was at other stations. WKNR may have printed a weekly Keener Music Guide featuring thirty-one singles, a Key Song Of The Week, plus a top three albums and a Key LP Of The Week. But if someone felt led to throw in a B-side, an album cut or a personal favorite, they did so.
SWEENEY: That happened later. But that was not the story initially.
BLITZ: Well, consider the earliest WKNR charts. If you believe what the mainstream media maintains, they will tell you that the British Invasion dominated 1964, and all that was heard that year were bands like the Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Animals and the like.
However, the WKNR charts in 1964 still regularly featured artists like Rick Nelson, Chuck Berry, the Ventures, Chuck Jackson and Roy Orbison. There were also great independent releases by groups like the Sanshers, the Crampton Sisters, the Exports and the Mustangs.
SWEENEY: Whoa, now hold on a minute! Slow down!! Those were on the list, and that was the list from which we played.
BLITZ: Exactly! But the difference is that you were the only ones playing them!!
SWEENEY: Well, I was the Music Director. I know what went on those lists. I was the guy who put them there!
BLITZ: And congratulations! You had discernment above the norm.
SWEENEY: Well, I’m not saying that for any reason beyond that we dug deep. We simply did not take three stores’ word as to what was going on. I cannot tell you how many stores I called. Too, I cannot tell you how many that I had to disregard, because I knew they were being paid off.
BLITZ: The WKNR charts featured a lot of independent records in 1963 and 1964. There were the usual releases from major labels like Capitol, Motown, Decca, Cameo and Columbia. But there were also singles on independent labels like Kweek, Son-Bert and Enterprise. You gave fair representation to both sides of the coin.
SWEENEY: My job was to get the best music on the air. We had sources. And those sources said, “There is stuff happening here!”
Let me back up for a moment. I was in the pageant industry for a long time. If you were a judge in a pageant, and I asked you to pick the top fifteen or top twenty contestants, you could pick half of them very easily. But then when you get to the lower numbers, it becomes a crap shoot.
The same thing happens when you pick music. How does anybody know what the top thirty-one songs are, or what the top forty songs are? You don’t know! You could say record sales, sure. But record sales don’t go that deep. After you get down from number twenty to number thirty-one, you have to listen to what people are telling you. People in the industry. Record people. I’m talking about retailers, selling them. They are saying, “Kids are coming in, asking for this and that.”
And you had a lot of aggressive record promotion people saying, “Hey! Listen to this!!”
You might be going a bit too deep, I don’t know. And I don’t think anybody else knows. It was the right thing to do. There was a song called Flying Blue Angels (George Johnny and the Pilots, Coed Records CO-555). It was a huge hit in one city, Cleveland. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know! But I recall playing Flying Blue Angels when it was a big hit. It never played anywhere else. Who knew?
There were many guys who went from one market to another. Let’s say they were very big in Houston. But they moved to New York, and they died! Or they are very big in Pittsburgh, but they went to Chicago and died. Whatever their act was, one market loved it and the other one didn’t. The same thing was true of the music, too.
BLITZ: In that respect, WKNR was more astute than others. For example, Keener made a hit out of 442 Glenwood Avenue by the Pixies Three. Today, it is widely regarded as the classic that it is. But at the time of its release, it was mostly just a regional hit. You picked it, while others did not.
On the other hand, in 1963 and 1964, there were simply so many great records coming out that something great was bound to get lost in the shuffle. One example of a record that was huge nationally although Keener missed the boat on it was Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want To Be With You. It didn’t even chart on WKNR. The same analogy applies to Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five. That single only charted for one week on WKNR, yet it was a substantial national hit.
SWEENEY: Yet we still don’t know how many copies it sold to warrant that. Numbers get inflated constantly. If we weren’t playing the right music, then the public wasn’t going to be listening to us.
A lot of it was just hard work. And please, I’m not putting any glory on myself. Whoever followed me did the exact same thing. The reason all of that stuff was on there is because it WAS popular!
BLITZ: And that’s the point. It worked. If you take the mainstream revisionist history perspective, they will tell you that those records didn’t happen. But it did, as anyone who was there can attest.
SWEENEY: The standard deal for any station, anywhere was that if you wanted to put a music list together, this is what you did. It’s what I did in a lot of markets. You called up a half dozen record stores and you said, “Hey baby, what records are you selling this week? Tell me!”
I knew what promo guys were feeding them stuff. I also knew that there were other shops selling what we called R&B. I knew a lot of people that I could trust, who said, “People have been coming in and asking for this.”
And that’s where we went with it. It wasn’t by accident. The guys on the air were playing off of the thirty-one. They weren’t playing anything but the thirty-one. But some of the stuff that you would hear off of the thirty-one were records that you wouldn’t hear on some other station. I hope that makes sense!
BLITZ: It does, and there is an adjunct to that which underscores how Keener was in the forefront of that approach. For example, records that you added in April 1964 would not be added in most other markets until May or June. In other words, you were ahead of the curve.
SWEENEY: That could be. But remember, you also had Motown. Motown made the audience better consumers! Not intentionally, but that’s what happened.
BLITZ: Indeed there was Motown, but in greater Detroit, there was a wealth of other labels like Ric-Tic, Golden World, D-Town and Enterprise that added to it.
SWEENEY: That might be. But I must tell you something. As a broadcaster, my primary responsibility was to deliver an audience, so that a sales department could sell commercials. My primary responsibility was not to make hit records. That only happened as a sidebar issue.
I’ve heard a lot of guys talk about, “Oh, I broke this record and that record.” But that wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing! We were employees of a radio station. Our job was to deliver ears, or eardrums, if you will. Today it’s to deliver eyeballs. Newspapers were the same way. The idea was so this business could sell commercials! Being Music Director was a thankless job.
BLITZ: There was a difference, though. The commercials, rather than just something used to fill air time, actually for the most part resonated with the audience.
SWEENEY: I’ll tell you whom you credit with that: Bobby Green. He is a production genius. He is the guy who made an awful lot of commercials sound better than they should. He was the absolute soul of Keener, and he knew exactly how to hit a chord.
The boss was paying you to be entertaining. The boss was paying you to have an audience that would listen to you. Admittedly, what you did was to showcase the music. But your job wasn’t to break the hit. It really wasn’t. But some guys had a hard time understanding that.
Remember, you said, “Keener hired guys with management experience”. Well, I spent more time in management than I did on the air. The idea was to get as big of an audience as you can. And Keener did that!
The other thing is that we all got along with each other. Nobody was really fussing. Little things here and there, but nothing serious. And over the years, I would get a call from Bobby Green, or Jerry Goodwin or Gary Stevens would call. We just got along! We respected each other’s talent.
You set a format, you set a playlist and, if you will, you set some rigid parameters. How you work within those parameters depends upon the personality of the particular talent.
BLITZ: In December 1964, WKNR released the first of four compilation albums that tied in with the ALSAC charity. Each of the four volumes contained a variety of classic singles. Was there not some sort of tie in with that first volume and Art Laboe’s Original Sound label in Hollywood? There is a lot of similarity in the pressing and the packaging of that album and that which Art Laboe was doing with his releases at the time at Original Sound.
SWEENEY: I suspect that was the truth, but I don’t know. I had very little to do with that.
Now you’re going to say, “But you were the Music Director!” But that album was a promotion. So it could very well have been as you said. I don’t recall that I had a lot to do with it.
BLITZ: Yet you presumably had a chance early on to exercise a bit of creative autonomy with that release. According to the credits on the back cover of Volume One, you picked the Jerry Butler cut, He Will Break Your Heart for that collection.
SWEENEY: Do you want me to tell you the truth? That was picked by somebody, but not me. Well, maybe I did pick that one! It was a big song. Anyway, you have to understand how promotion works. Actually, I spoke too soon. I can’t answer that. I don’t know!
BLITZ: Well, then how much input did the air staff have into the creative process of those albums? If you believe the sleeve notes, it said that you picked the Jerry Butler cut, Bill Phillips picked Kissin’ Time by Bobby Rydell, Jerry Goodwin picked Raindrops by Dee Clark, and so forth.
SWEENEY: I’m not sure that they did, but I am not going to tell you that they didn’t. Many times, promotions are key. Frank Maruca was one of the absolute best Promotion Directors I’ve ever seen in broadcasting. He may have done the whole thing himself! I can’t answer it. I don’t really know. It could have been a matter of clearances, or a whole lot of things that put the music there that was on there. I guess what I’m saying is don’t necessarily believe everything you read. Boy, that’s the wrong thing to tell a magazine guy, isn’t it?!
But you know what I’m saying. Things don’t necessarily come out the way that they were said. But we had to have been doing something right, or the audience would not have stayed with us. I have the highest respect for my brothers on the air. But if we were playing the Ink Spots, they wouldn’t be listening to us.
BLITZ: Blitz Magazine would!
SWEENEY: Alright, you would. I got one! But you know what I’m saying. You have to play music that the public wants. And there were records that were only hits in individual markets. You know that very well. For whatever reason, a particular market took to a particular sound.
BLITZ: To that effect, in 1963, 1964 and 1965, Keener routinely played records that were outside of the rock and roll spectrum by artists like Jerry Vale, Dean Martin, Robert Goulet and Georgia Gibbs. The diversity worked! They sounded just fine alongside the other records by the likes of the Dave Clark Five, Earl-Jean, the Crestones, the Exports and J. Frank Wilson.
SWEENEY: It had nothing to do with rock and roll. It had to do with popularity. A good song is a good song. It doesn’t make any difference if it is done by Vic Damone or U2. For that matter, it doesn’t matter if it’s by Willie Nelson or Martina McBride. The point is that we played music that people wanted to listen to, to buy and to hear.
Some of the music that you mentioned were records that sold a lot of copies. Look at how many records that Bobby Vinton sold!
BLITZ: WKNR was consistently good to him. Almost every single that he released was played on Keener.
SWEENEY: True, but I’ll tell you something sad. The new movie, Jersey Boys only came in fourth this week. It’s not a big hit. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be.
BLITZ: There are those who were first hand observers of the Four Seasons’ career who have asserted that the film strays too much from reality.
SWEENEY: The Broadway show was fabulous! But only really young people go to movies. And the Four Seasons don’t mean anything to them.
But yeah, we played more than just rock and roll. We played popular music. That’s what every good station from that era should have done, but they didn’t do it. I mean, WXYZ was a worthy competitor. And CKLW certainly was. I guess that WJR was also, to some degree. Those were good radio stations. They didn’t go just because we went on the air. But they were also big corporate entities, and we weren’t.
You were talking about the big labels and the indies? Well, we at WKNR were the indies. WXYZ was owned by ABC. It was a glorious time. It truly was.
Almost all of us did record hops. And we could tell what the kids were asking for there, too. Any radio station, then or now, could say, “These are the forty most popular records in the country.” But there is no way to prove that! You could do ten or twelve. Beyond that, you’ll find out that the sales are pretty much equal. Number thirty isn’t selling any more than number forty is. It’s true!
BLITZ: Many of the records that were lost in the shuffle at that time have since been hailed as classics.
SWEENEY: You’re saying that some of those records are now hailed as classics. They may be, but they weren’t from the standpoint of sales, necessarily. Indeed, later, people might say, “By God, that was a good sound! I should have listened to it more or appreciated it more”, or whatever.
Keener was of the moment. It was what was going on at that moment. Whoever took over music after I did it did a good job. The Keener Music Guide needed a gimmick. Why Keener 13? Because the dial position was 1310. But on a transistor radio, you couldn’t dial 1310. You dialed thirteen, and you got us!
And why thirty-one singles? Thirty-one was the reverse of thirteen. And why a Keener Key Song Of The Week? Well, why not? It was a chance to make a hit. So in reality, you had thirty-two records, plus the Keener LPs. And the albums had roughly twelve cuts. So you had a great opportunity there to increase your playlist if you wanted to do that.
The only time I was guessing was with the pick hit. The Keener Key Song Of The Week. Other than that, you’re peeling away too many levels of the onion. I just don’t know!
BLITZ: And if a particular classic suited your fancy, you could drop that in occasionally.
SWEENEY: That happened later, but not while I was there. Initially, if it wasn’t on the play list, you didn’t play it.
BLITZ: You were blessed with an air staff that also had a substantial degree of creativity. Many of your colleagues worked with “sidekicks”. For example, Ted Clark used the Stella voice saying, “You said it” from Stan Freberg’s version of Sh-Boom. Gary Stevens had the Woolyburger. Scott Regen also became known as Scotty Burger and featured Mister Gory and Melissa Mulch on his show.
SWEENEY: They were very talented guys for different reasons. I didn’t do gimmicks then. I don’t mind them. But in my opinion, in the morning, you don’t need it. You need to know the time, the temperature, what to wear and what the traffic is like, and sound halfway different doing it. Forgive me if it sounds egotistical, but I relied on my wit. I don’t know what I’m going to say until I say it! The Woolyburger played later in the day to an audience of kids. But in the morning, I was playing to an audience of kids and adults.
I was doing something that was a little bit different. Every morning man does. The guy who really made the morning sound wonderful was the guy who replaced me, Dick Purtan. He was a talent of enormous proportion! And he had two or three guys with him.
BLITZ: Purtan certainly lasted a lot longer in the market than anyone else did. He only retired a couple of years ago.
SWEENEY: Yeah, I know. I stand in respect towards anybody who can hold an audience for years, and he did. And he’s a gentleman, as well.
Again, nobody sat down and said, “We’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that”, because we were too busy doing it! Fifty years later, we can look back and say, “By God, we were good!” And we were!! But it was a team.
You said, “How would you make commercials more interesting?” Well, they were local commercials, because the national commercials were delivered to us. Bob Green was the one who made them sound better, along with the contests and all of the fun.
Speaking of fun, I was a godfather because of it. You talked about liberties. Yeah, we could talk, as long as we didn’t talk too long!
Anyway, I was on the air one day. I said something about, “It’s amazing, but I’ve never been a godfather.”
So I got off of the air, and a guy called. He said, “Hey, Swingin’. This is so and so. We heard you say that you have never been a godfather.” I said, “That’s right.”
Then he said, “My wife is pregnant.” I thought it was a paternity suit for a minute! But he said, “Listen, my wife and I talked it over. When our baby is born, we would like for you to be the godfather.”
Then he called back and said, “Oh, I forgot. You’ve got to be a Catholic.” And I said, “Yeah, I am. Don’t worry about it.” On a particular Sunday, I went to the church and held the baby, or whatever it was that godparents do. And I was a godfather! And that kid is now fifty years old, or fifty-one.
BLITZ: That’s exactly the kind of impact that Keener had. Bob Green experienced a similar situation when he mentioned pizza on the air. Within minutes, dozens of pizzas began arriving at the station’s Michigan Avenue studios..
SWEENEY: Well, sure. Exactly! We had a blizzard. I can’t remember exactly how bad it was. It was during the winter of 1964, into 1965. I left home and got into work early. I was on the air from five in the morning until noon, because nobody could get in. A lady called me up and she said, “Please remind everybody to throw crumbs out, because the birds can’t find anything to eat!” That prompted me to say, “How would you like to be a six inch bird in a twelve inch snowstorm??”
It was silly stuff like that. I had a wonderful time. I wish it weren’t in the morning. I would have liked another shift, not five o’clock in the morning. That was brutal, at least for me. I’m just not a get up early kind of guy.
BLITZ: In the early months of 1965, there was a significant shake up in the air staff at WKNR. Suddenly, Bill Phillips was gone. Gary Stevens was recruited to be one of the Good Guys at WMCA in New York. And you were also gone. And then in came Ted Clark, Scott Regen and eventually J. Michael Wilson. Why such a shake up, especially since everything was going so well?
SWEENEY: For a couple of reasons. Gary got a better deal. He got a chance to come here. Disc jockeys are like baseball players. They don’t have very long lives. There aren’t many sixty year old disc jockeys around. So when they get a chance to move up, they take it.
I should not have left as abruptly as I did. That’s my fault. I’m not going to go into a lot of details, but that’s my fault that I did. I think Bill Phillips just got tired of working overnight and said, “I just don’t want to do this anymore!”
The guy that replaced me, Dick Purtan, was a wonderful talent! He did a better job on the mornings than I did. Change is not uncommon on a lot of stations. We have a news anchor here on the NBC station who was on the CBS station in Los Angeles, Sibila Vargas. She had become a big power for CBS. Then NBC called up and said, “Get her out of our hair, will you??”
That’s how television does it. In some radio cases, but not all, that deal was coming from some corporate parent. For example, they said, “Let’s get Gary Stevens out here. He’s too strong. Let’s move him.” And they do it by having another station make him an offer. He had a lovely offer here in New York, and Gary is a very talented man. A very smart man, who ended up being a station broker. That’s how he earned his living many years after Keener. He was brokering the sales of radio stations, until clear channel came in and destroyed everything.
That happens all the time in television. The reason NBC let Jay Leno go and put Jimmy Fallon in is because they figured they could get more eyeballs that way. And it looks like they’re right, so far. I find it a little shallow myself. But the reason they put him in there was because they were going after a particular demographic. NBC will tell you, and I at least give them credit for being candid. They want the eighteen to forty-nine demo. If you’re over forty-nine, they couldn’t care less.
NBC doesn’t even care if I own a TV. But if I were eighteen to forty-nine, they would buy one for me! And that’s why CBS isn’t sad that David Letterman is retiring. They want a younger face there, again for demographic reasons.
BLITZ: NBC tried that several years ago with Conan O’Brien, and we all know how that worked out for them.
SWEENEY: It didn’t work. But the thing is, it is working for Jimmy Fallon. His numbers are holding up. Would I rather watch Jay Leno? You bet! I find myself going over from Jimmy Fallon to David Letterman.
BLITZ: So where did you find yourself in your immediate post-Keener years?
SWEENEY: I held another couple of programming jobs. A man named Lew Dickey hired me to be the Program Director at WOHO in Toledo. The Lew Dickey I’m talking about has since died. He was the father of the Lew Dickey who is president of Cumulus. I was at WOHO for about two years.
One day, Lew called me in and said, “I’ve got a friend of mine who is in serious trouble down in Wheeling, West Virginia. I want you to go down there and help him.”
I said, “I don’t want to go.” But he said, “I want you to go, and if you don’t go, I’ll fire you!”
WKWK radio had been hit with a payola investigation. Their license had been held up. They needed somebody to go in and run it.
BLITZ: A payola investigation at that late date? That was something that was far more common around 1959.
SWEENEY: What happened in the ’50s is when you first heard about it. They really pilloried some guys because of it. But then they put some laws on the books, and every now and then there would be a payola investigation.
So I went to Wheeling, West Virginia for one year to become the Operations Manager for the radio station with a friend of mine named Gene Johnson. Gene and I were best friends before, anyway. He said, “You run this radio station entirely. It’s your responsibility. I’ll do sales.”
I said, “Fine.” And it worked! It worked, it worked, it worked!! We made a success out of it. So much so that he, I and a third fellow bought a station in Wheeling, WNEU. That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. The market was over-saturated. There were too many stations.
Then I went into the beauty pageant business! I was running state pageants. I got a call that said, “Come to New York and be Senior Vice-President”, and I did! I was vice-president of Miss Universe, Incorporated. Miss Universe is a person, but it’s also a company. That’s what got me to New York. I came here in 1978.
I also started my own business. I had a pageant of my own, called Miss Teen all American. In 1985, we had a young kid from Ohio win the pageant and become Miss Teen All American. You might have heard of her. Her name was Halle Berry!
You know, time takes its measure. I am eighty-one years old. But on Keener, I was thirty-one years old and I could beat the world! I could go all night and do record hops, and then stay on the air. That was the worst mistake I ever made. I didn’t have the discipline that I should have had. That resulted in my leaving early. I should have had more discipline. You learn from those things.
BLITZ: That brings us into the present, and into the June 2014 Keener reunion in New York.
SWEENEY: We had a wonderful time! It was a glorious night, and it was everything that you might expect it to be. I had to do most of the arrangements. I was sitting there thinking, “What could go wrong?” But nothing went wrong! Everybody who said that they were going to show, showed up. It was glorious!
I’ll give you the back story on the reunion. Jerry Goodwin and I had been talking to each other. At one time, we were not close. But over the years, all of that dissipated. I am originally from Boston, which is where he lives. I was going to go up there with my brother for some family stuff. But my back was acting up, and that didn’t happen.
Then last summer (2013), Bobby Green went up there. He got together with Jerry Goodwin. Then Greenie called me and said, “It was great! We sat in a bar and spoke for six hours!! It’s too bad we can’t just get together and have a reunion.”
And I said, “I agree with you, it’s too bad.” And then Jerry said, “Yeah, that’s too bad.” But then we all chimed in and said, “Let’s do it!!”
So the three of us put our heads together and said, “Okay, where do we go?” We couldn’t go back to Detroit, since none of us were from Detroit, anyway. Bobby’s in Houston. A couple of the guys live in North Carolina, and a couple of us live here in New York.
We said that if we want to make it a success, the real way to do it was to have the wives come along. We wanted to do some shopping. And when you say shopping, you mean New York! So Bobby took a bunch of phone numbers, I took a bunch of phone numbers, and we called people.
Robin Seymour said, “Sign me up! I’ll do it!!” Gary Stevens said, “I’ll be there!!”
So we picked the date of the second weekend in June. There were twenty people at the reunion. Look at Steve Schram’s photos of it. We tried to re-created the famous cake cutting scene.
BLITZ: That would have been the first anniversary photo, from November 1964. The only thing is that Pat Saint John was with you in that re-creation, which was a bit of artistic license!
SWEENEY: Well, somebody had to take Bill Phillips’ place. I don’t know what happened to him. It’s like he fell off of the earth. We put out the word that we were looking for him. We tried Facebook. We tried Twitter. But we could not find him!
Jerry has been doing a lot of theatre. He just got a part, and I’m very happy for him. Bobby is still doing what he’s been doing. Gary is pretty much retired, as I am. I think Robin is, too. I don’t think the three of us are producing anything.
BLITZ: Robin Seymour pretty much cemented his legacy after Keener by hosting Swingin’ Time for several years.
SWEENEY: Oh yeah! But did you know that Robin Seymour played the Lone Ranger’s nephew? The Lone Ranger was a production of WXYZ in Detroit. And when he was young, Robin played the Lone Ranger’s nephew. He naturally became The Green Hornet. But that’s another story for another time.
BLITZ: You had a great cross section of WKNR alumni at the reunion, from the very beginning well into the transitional years, including Scott Regen.
SWEENEY: There were even a couple who were there after Scottie’s time, including Jim Kerr and Pat Saint John. Jim is twenty years younger than I am. He had to have been a baby when he was there!
They were there through the last throes of Keener. What a gentleman he is! I had not met Jim before. Nor had I met Pat Saint John. I didn’t know two of the newsmen, either, John Meagher and Jim Brooker. So it was great for me to meet them. The other guys, of course I knew.
There were nine talents represented there. The six original guys, plus Scottie, Pat Saint John and Jim Kerr. There were two newsmen there, Jim Brooker and John Meagher. They all had their wives with them, although Gary did not and Pat Saint John didn’t. Everybody else did. My lady broke her back getting stuff done for that weekend!
BLITZ: It is not at all difficult to picture a collection of talent of that magnitude, whether they are retired or not, getting together and, even by accident if not by design, coming up with some more great ideas for projects. Did that happen?
SWEENEY: Not that I’m aware of. I’ve got a few years on you. When you hit around seventy years of age, that’s when you start saying, “I don’t care very much!”
I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that you just don’t get quite as involved. As near as I can figure out, we are all living nice lives. I’ve got a lovely lady. I met Robin’s wife, and she’s lovely. Bobby Green’s wife is just a super lady! I didn’t meet Jerry Goodwin’s wife, but his daughter, Robin is terrific! She was my dinner companion.
Those are the lives we are living now. We aren’t going to re-invent radio. It’s out of our hands, anyway. The guys at Clear Channel and Cumulus think they know everything. I won’t argue with them, unless they want to pay me!
BLITZ: There are those who have long inferred that the beginning of the end of radio actually started with two developments in the late 1960s. Number one was the rise of the Drake format. Number two was the rise of the so-called free form FM station.
SWEENEY: You’re probably right. When CKLW went really strong around 1968 or 1969, weren’t they Drake?
BLITZ: They were the epitome of Drake.
SWEENEY: Then yes. I think that was the beginning. In fact, I was talking to my lady, Stephanie about that last night. With Drake, you didn’t need a talent anymore. You needed a board operator. You didn’t need Sweeney’s wit. You didn’t need Bobby Green’s great understanding of promotion. You didn’t need Jerry Goodwin’s laid back, funny one-liners. You didn’t need Gary Stevens screamin’ around and jumpin’ around. It was all mechanical. So therefore, you didn’t need these guys.
All you needed were athletic board operators. In other words, they took out the art and went strictly with the science. Hey, wait a minute. I just gave you a great line! They took out the art and simply went with the science.
BLITZ: That’s brilliant! Indeed, with Drake, all you needed was time, temp and calls.
SWEENEY: They took out guys who were basically entertainers. And that’s what disc jockeys were: entertainers. They didn’t need us! Occasionally you will find those who are still working. Jim Kerr was Robin Stone on Keener. What a beautiful voice that man has! And he’s still working in this market. He has worked here for forty years. He is amazing.
BLITZ: To that effect, Scott Regen was a hero to many when he was doing 7:00 to 10:00PM on Keener. He was the epitome of personality. But when he went to CKLW in 1968, it was the same voice. But they neutered him.
SWEENEY: Yes. That’s where it went. Corporate made some decisions and that was it. Things changed.
I don’t think you could bring back a Keener. I really don’t. There are too many different ways that people get information and entertainment today. Keener was perfect for what it was. But it wouldn’t be perfect for now, simply because the public’s taste is different.
But fifty years ago, who would have believed that you could carry around a little device that was a small computer, a telephone and a camera, all in one? Nobody would have believed that! But that’s what we have. That’s how we get our information now, and it’s different.
I’m going to sound old now, but things don’t last very long. Whether it’s a love affair, a movie, a radio station or a baseball team, they have their era and then they’re gone. They can be reborn, of course.
I’m not surprised that Keener was a success. But I’m surprised at how much of a success it was. And I’m also not surprised that it faded away. It happened at all of the stations that I worked at, and there were many. None of them are the power house now that they were then.
And yet you keep doing Blitz, and you’ve got a fortieth anniversary coming up. God bless you for that!
BLITZ: Keener’s moment in the spotlight was perhaps not unlike that of legendary musicians like Hank Williams, Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran. They made brilliant music in the brief time that each one of them had. But had they all lived, would they have remained as productive into the 1970s and beyond?
SWEENEY: I don’t know! I doubt it. They were of their era. I was good then, too. But am I good now? I don’t know. It’s a totally different day. The audience is demanding totally different kinds of entertainment and information. They spend their time differently. I could do almost anything in today’s day and age, but texting is a pain in the neck! I would rather talk than write.
I did pageants up until about three or four years ago, and then frankly, I’d had it. Now I just want to sit by the side of the road and watch the world go by! I’ve had an interesting and colorful life, doing the things that I wanted to do. I wanted to be an announcer on the radio ever since I was a little kid. And I was! I wanted to run things, and I did. I was Program Director for about four different radio stations and Music Director for Keener. Finally, I was the Chief Operating Officer for Miss Universe. I’ve had a good life. I have no complaints!