WEBR signed on the air in 1924, broadcasting live from the backroom of the Howell Electric Company at the corner of Niagara and Franklin Streets in Buffalo. The station relocated to various downtown sites before settling in its longtime home at 23 North Street in 1935. Given sequentially issued call letters by the FCC, that station developed the slogan, “We Extend Buffalo’s Regards.”
WEBR and its staff enjoyed several “firsts” and triumphs. Among them were the adventure stories written by program director Fran Striker in the late 1920s. He developed stories with a western theme and sold the scrips to other radio stations across the country. The hero in his story… The Lone Ranger.
In 1931, WEBR employed 27 staffers, plus the studio orchestra conducted by Joe Armbruster and the WEBR Players. Programming was elaborately produced with some dramatic productions having as many as three weeks of rehearsals before hitting the airwaves. When the station did a remote broadcast from another location, not only did this require a “travelling studio,” but the station’s transmitter tower (some 300-feet tall) needed to be moved to the location as well.
Standard equipment in the 1930’s WEBR studio included two pianos, draperies to help absorb sound, and microphones which only had a three-to six month life expectancy. The radio station’s music library contained thousands of 78s and over 6,000 copies of sheet music. The broadcast day included programs like the Catalino String Entertainers, The Oriental Philosopher and Behind the Headlines, a drama based on current events. Buffalo based airplane maker Curtiss Wright sponsored “Sky Boat,” a mystical “flight into the region of lost music” every Monday night.
In 1936, the station was sold to The Buffalo Evening News, and become affiliated with the Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).A host of network stars including Dinah Shore, Walter Winchell, Jack Armstrong and “The Quiz Kids” were featured on WEBR’s program schedule. Six years later in 1942 The News sold WEBR to competitor Buffalo Courier-Express. In 1944 it affiliated with the Mutual Broadcasting System. After the War, WEBR changed dial position from 1340 to 970 AM.
During the 1940s and 1950’s WEBR hosted a powerhouse roster of talent that included Jack Eno, Ed Tucholka, Cy Buckley, Bernie Sandler and Al Meltzer. Teenagers growing up in postwar Buffalo undoubtedly listened to “Hi-Teen” on WEBR. The show, believed to be the model for Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” first went on the air in 1946. Early guests included Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Les Paul and Mary Ford. After a few locations including Kleinhans Music Hall and the Elks Club on Delaware Avenue, the show would settle on the Dellwood Ballroom at Main and Utica. Early WEBR “Hop Kings” Danny McBride and Ed Little were later joined by “Lucky” Pierre Gonneau.
Little was also known for his landmark broadcasts from Harry Altman’s Town Casino which he conducted nightly. WEBR also started a long running tradition of jazz programming with Carroll Hardy’s “Jazz Central” and the legendary Joe Rico.
In 1959 Jack Sharpe took to the air with one of the nation’s first trafficopter. Sharpe transformed traffic reporting into a broadcast news staple with such colorful phrases as the “Humboldt Hourglass” and “gapers’ block.” WEBR’s use of the helicopter triggered many other TV and radio stations, here and elsewhere to use airborne means to cover news on a regular basis. WEBR aired a series of jingles during the 50s and 60s called “The Sound of the City.” So popular were the jingles that a 45 rpm record was produced for the public. For a brief period in the early 1960s the station also experimented with a format which encouraged listeners to “Sing-A-Long” with distributed song books. It was also during the 1960s that 970 AM was joined by a sister FM station, WEBR-FM (June 6, 1960).
The morning DJ in the early to mid 1960s was Al Meltzer. He was replaced in 1967 by Bill Kimble, who later went on to WHAM in Rochester. Mid Mornings and mid afternoons were originally hosted by Bill Masters and then by Jerry Glenn. Jack Horohoe followed in that time slot in 1969 and continued on through 1972. The afternoon drive host was Carroll Hardy. When he left WEBR to become a local rep for Atlantic records, PD Jack Eno succeeded Hardy on air. Hardy was killed in a motorcycle accident in the early 1970s. The late Mary Brady was the music librarian and Margaret Russ was the secretary to station manger David Leopold. In the newsroom, Jack Sharpe held the title of news director in addition to his traffic reporting role. The news staff consisted of John McKay, George Black, Ron Arnold, Ken Ruof and Roger Blackwell (who went on to a career in Buffalo politics) . The sports announcers were Charlie Bailey and later Joe Alto. Herb Flemming started at the station as an engineer, but later was promoted to production manager.
In 1973, the Courier Express sold WEBR-AM to a group of local investors headed by Bill McKibben (Queen City Broadcasting) but retained WEBR-FM which was renamed WBCE-FM (Bflo Courier Express). Under the new leadership WEBR-AM changed from its easy listening format and became one of the first in the city to offer “oldies.” On-air talent included future weatherman Kevin O’ Connell, Possum Riley, Loren Owens, Al Wallack and Perry Allen. Allen had the distinction of being the first morning man at WKBW radio when the station went Top40 in 1958. The Courier then sold the FM frequency to Queen City, which introduced the call letters WREZ-FM with an easy listening format.
In 1975, the Western New York Public Broadcasting Associating purchased WEBR along with WREZ-FM. In 1976, WEBR became the country’s first public all-news station. WREZ was renamed WNED-FM in 1977 and went on the air as a classical music station.
WEBR-AM became an award winning news powerhouse which gained great accolades with its in depth coverage of the Blizzard of ‘77. Newsradio 970’s aggressive news gathering heated up the competition and forced other AM station in the city to beef up their coverage.
In 1978 WEBR became the nation’s top-rated public radio station. From the 70s through the early 90s, a full service news department was staffed by the likes of Jerry Fedell, Kevin Gordon, Leon Thomas, Jack Mahl, Scott Brown, John Gill, Mike St. Peter, Mike Allen, Teresa Beaton, and Jim Ranney. Dave Kerner, Sam Anson and Pete Weber made up the core of the WEBR sports department. On weekends the popular “At Your Service” how-to program was hosted by Andy Thomas, Bruce Allen and Dave Debo.
Although officially an “All News Station” after 8PM WEBR continued its jazz tradition with the sounds of “Jazz in the Nighttime” with host Al Wallack. “Nighttime” featurds live performances from rooms like the Tralfamadore Cafe, Blue Note and the Statler Hotel. Wallack was also joined by other jazz jocks Prez Freeland, Jim Santella, George Beck, Bill Besecker, John Werick.
After federal government funding cutbacks for public broadcasting stations in the early 1990s, WEBR’s local news operations were substantially streamlined and its call letters were changed to WNED-AM . WNED’s on-air schedule consisted of nationally distributed programs from NPR, Public Radio International and American Public Media, plus hourly updates of local news. The station also presented frequent one-hour specials such as political debates and interviews with news-makers.
In March 2012, WNYPBA purchased WBFO, 88.7FM from the University at Buffalo. The station’s staffs were combined, and WBFO’s programming was simulcast on AM 970 before the AM signal was sold to Crawford Broadcasting eight months later. On Friday, November 30, 2012, WBFO’s News Director Emeritus Mark Scott was at the controls for the final broadcast of AM 970 under WNYPBA ownership. He played the “Sound of the City” jingle one last time and paid tribute to all of the WEBR staffers who graced the airwaves of AM 970 for 88 years. The frequency went dark at midnight and remained so for one month until Crawford returned AM 970 to the air with a simulcast of the religious programming from WDCX, 99.5FM.
Sadly, the longtime home of WEBR at 23 North Street was allowed to deteriorate after being vacant for many years. There were plans by a developer to convert the building into housing, serving the nearby Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus. But on July 8, 2014, a lightning strike created a huge hole in the building. Two days later, the building was demolished.