KB goes KABOOM with FUTURESONIC RADIO!
by Martin Biniasz
Across town at WBNY-AM, the first true Top 40 format in Buffalo was inaugurated in the summer of 1957. Fueled by the notion of carving out a demographic niche among Buffalo teens and very young adults, the little 250-watt station went rock and roll in a bold move that would soon change the local radio landscape forever. The mastermind of the new format was program director Dick Lawrence who with a collection of fast talking jocks, quick colorful jingles and the latest wax, put the management at WKBW on notice.
Station manager Al Anscombe had been studying the modern top40 trends in broadcasting as markets across the country felt the power of the format. A strong WBEN, and impending loss of WKBW’s NBC affiliation combined with WBNY’s success was enough to convince Anscombe to hire Dick Lawrence away from the small station.
Independence Day, July 4th, heralded the arrival in Buffalo of “FutureSonic Radio,” the catch-phrase given to WKBW to its brand new, fast-paced, imaginative music-news-service operation. Soon to be gone was KB’s ethnic, country & western and religious programming as well as George Lorenz who would not conform to a strict top40 play list.
Under the guidance of Dick Lawrence, Director of Programming, Promotions and Publicity for the station, KB made a drastic change in its format by virtually eliminated all previously carried programs, both network and local, and substituting what Lawrence called, “ultra modern broadcasting techniques designed to entertain, inform and serve the greatest majority of the radio audience.”
The Even Newer WKBW was to be top40 “formula radio,” which meant a meticulously planned and programmed 24 hours per day of popular music, strong disc jockey personalities, up-to-the-second news and sports flashes and public service features.
Four disc jockeys, brand new to the Buffalo audience were imported from major markets to from the base for the “even newer” WKBW. Perry Allen, from KTLN in Denver was hired to fill the early morning 6 to 9 AM slot. Russ Syracuse, who came to WKBW from WNDR in Syracuse, was next in the line-up with the 9 to 11 AM and 12 to 2 PM time segments under his care. Art Roberts, formerly with Gordon McClendon and more recently the afternoon man at WCUE, Akron Ohio handled the 2 to 6 PM slot. He is followed by another top flight personality, Dick Biondi, who was most recently with WHOT, Youngstown, Ohio. Each of the new personalities was rated #1 in their respective markets and their reputations for ingenious broadcasting techniques was unmatched in the industry according to Lawrence. Jack Kelly, KB’s all night jock prior to July 4th, was only of the few voices to be carried over to the new format. Kelly, a local talent who joined KB in March of 1958, had a rock solid audience and had a style which could be easily modified to fit into Lawrence’s master plan.
“My initial handshake with the radio station came upon landing in Buffalo,” recalls Perry Allan. “With hope and dreams, I turned on the ever present transistor receiver. What to my wondering ear should appear but a polka, hold everything! Yes, the dial was indeed properly clicked in on 1520.” Program director Dick Lawrence asked Allen to show up to KB prior to the 4th. Lawrence meant the 4th of July; Allen showed up the 4th of May. For my first two months in Buffalo, I nearly lived in Dick Lawrence’s “office”. Baffo’s bar on Main Street.
“Didn’t know a think about KB prior to getting off the plane in Buffalo,” said Perry Allen. “Other, that is, than the fact is was a 50kw NBC affiliate. I was thinking NBC…old, ultra classy posturing. I’d been offered a gig, at the same time, from KLIF in Dallas. It was a McClendon station. 50 kW NBC sounded better to my sadly warped values. KLIF was a marvelously successful station but, I couldn’t have made a better choice. KB and the city of Buffalo played such a special, memorable role in my checkered, disreputable life.
For three weeks prior to July 4th, a teaser campaign was used to stimulate interest in the arrival of “audio activity” when “Future Sonic Radio comes to Buffalo.” Local newspapers carried story after story about the impending “big change” at WKBW.
On July 3rd, 12 beautiful models, all wearing toreador pants and banners proclaiming them to be “Miss KB” toured downtown streets and businesses distributing the station’s new Top 30 tunes sheets and fliers stating, “It’s Hot! Friday, July 4th in Independence Day, and WKBW goes K-Boom!” Over a thousand imitation firecrackers, each containing the “It’s Hot” flier, were mailed to ad agencies, clients and members of the trade press.
A specially written and produced “KB Preview Party” was broadcast from 12 Noon to 2 PM on Friday, July 4th. It presented, in capsule from, a regular “broadcast day,” on the “even newer” KB. Each of the new disc jockeys showcased in a nearly wrapped music package, surrounded with all the happy excitement the station’s new sound was to feature.
“Having the good fortune of working with top talent I knew that the station was headed for the top. The first day was awesome,” remembers Art Roberts. “KB was a hit from day one.”
At 3 PM in the huge Central Park Plaza, several thousand persons of all ages turned out in pouring rain to greet WKBW’s brand new disc jockeys who put on a free star-studded stage show. Faron Young, Capitol Records star, flew in to Buffalo from Nashville; The Pony Tails drove up from Cleveland; The Four Dates and Fabian of Chancellor Records flew in from Philadelphia; and the local recording group, The Tune Rockers, performed on the roof of one of the stores in the plaza.
Over 600 imitation firecrackers were distributed to the audience, each one containing either movie passes, Elvis Presley dog tag jewelry, gift certificates for free records, ball point pens, cigarette lighters, pocket notebooks and checks valued at $1.52 or $15.20.
Back at the studio, KB was broadcasting the details of the first of several promotional stunts designed to create immediate interest in the new format. Listeners were asked to search for the “WKBW $200 Mystery Telephone Number,” a number chosen from the Buffalo directory. Clues were given each hour and the first person to dial the mystery number was to receive the cash price. The result was a frenzy in which people called each other asking, “Is this the WKBW $200 mystery telephone number?”
Later during KB’s first month under the FutureSonic format, another promotional stunt which meet with tremendous interest and success was the “KB Beach Buddy, KB Beach Beauty” contest. Listeners were urged to apply adhesive tape to their backs in the form of the station call letters and asked to allow themselves to tan in the sun. At the end of one month of this promotion, six winners were chosen for originality and clarity of the design created. Cash prized ranged from $25 to $100. Spot surveys taken over the first weekend of the new operation found literally hundreds of persons dotting beaches and back yards with “WKBW” large and white on their backs, arms and legs.
The new format included a large amount of public interest information and services. With the blessing of the police commissioner and the traffic safety director of the city, KB announcers, during peak driving hours, made public the location of police radar unit and urged motorists to slow down and drive safely. In addition, a WKBW Community Bulletin Board was featured on all disc jockeys shifts which highlighted activities of local churches, schools and civic organizations. The new KB also introduced a service unique to the market with meteorologist Louis Allen. Allen sent in daily predictions of weather conditions which were used in conjunction with U.S. Weather Bureau forecast.
Dick Lawrence came to Buffalo with almost 14 years of broadcasting experience under his belt in May, 1957, from Omaha, Nebraska where he was News Director of Todd Storz’ KOWH. As program director of WBNY, he shot the 250 watter from near obscurity into first place on both the Pulse and Hooper surveys. Born in Boston, educated in suburban Philadelphia, Lawrence considered Washington, D.C. his home. In the Nation’s Capital, he sat on the Board of Directors of AFTRA, was a staff announcer for WPIK and WWDC, and a freelance television performer. In addition to his duties with WKBW, he owned an artist-management firm, a music publishing company and was associated with the Mike Conner Publicity-Promotion office which was headquartered in Beverly Hills. The energetic Lawrence formed the National Association of Independent Program Directors while at KB.
“Dick was a genius,” said Dick Biondi, “He walked around with two shoulder holsters. Each of the holsters held a transistor radio — one to our station — and one to WBNY.”
Using ultra modern production methods, ambition and his own fertile idea factory, Lawrence accomplished what many considered would be almost impossible…the duplication of his successful methods of operation that were still being used with effect on another WBNY. The answer laid in an even newer, more modern, up-to-date “formula,” which according to Lawrence responded to the wide-spread, “major” appeal necessary in the highly competitive broadcasting industry of 1958.
In 1958, plans were underway for a huge, all-encompassing youth group, which was to be headquartered at the station. Its aim was to set a high moral standard for Buffalo youth and safe driving pledges, something that would be attractive to advertisers afraid that the new sounds would promote juvenile delinquency. Awards were made to area teenagers who performed special service to their community or fellow teenagers through school or other activities. The “club” included a weekly newsletter and discounts from KB advertisers.
The changes at the station went far deeper than programming and promotion. Two crack time salesmen and a commercial manger where hired to insure that “FutureSonic” was profitable, Don Bannister and Warren Potash filled the sales office and Tony Rocco, well know in Buffalo advertising circles at the time became the sales manger. According to Al Anscombe, GM at the time, advertisers who associated with the traditional format were given to option of continuing their schedules free of charge through the “Future Sonic” change with many renewing at greater levels a month into the new sound. Station management gave each of the new disc jockeys a membership in the Junior Chamber of Commerce and several other civic organizations in-order increase their visibility not only to listeners but to business and civic leaders who would supply KB with needed advertising dollars.
As the popularity of the station grew during 1958 and 1959, the promotion became more intense. In 1959, Clint Churchill Jr, son of the founder, was given the job of promotion’s manager. Clint Jr, an admirer of Top 40 pioneer Gordon McClendon, utilized many of McClendon’s tricks in the first years of Futuresonic Radio. First, Clint ran the “Hidden Bankbook” contest were a book with a deposit slip of $5000 was hidden in a remote area pasted inside a sewer pipe. No one could ever find it until the station gave an easy clue on the air. Well, a week into the contest, a kid playing in the area, finds the bankbook, and his parents claim the prize. The un-climatic ending did not discourage Clint and he immediately ran a “Find the Missing Car Key” contest. Listeners were told to ask everyone they saw if they had the missing key for a Thunderbird that was sitting in a downtown dealership’s window, and all you needed to do was find the key and start the motor. A week into the contest, a lady slid into the car, took out her old Ford key, and fired up the T-Bird. Poor Clint, foiled again.
“My proudest promotional moment was when the audience voted me “KB King,” recalls Art Roberts. ” I had promised a free “Kings Ball” rock and roll concert if I won, and also promised the person with the longest list of votes that I would carry their books to school every day for a week. The Kings Ball was the easy part, we had over a thousand people outside that the fire marshal would not let in. The young lady who won lived 100 miles from Buffalo. Gotta be careful what you say on a 50,000 WATT radio station.”
In the latter part of the’50s…John Barrett and Perry Allen evolved a “call letter-napping.” “Someone, as established in the promo spots, had stolen one of our ‘Ws,” recalls Allen. “All outside as well as on air references confined station identification to …KBW. The gauntlet was tossed to the audience, “Find the individual concerned and win a swimming pool.” Clues lead to the ultimate uncovering of the culprit who had in his possession a letter “W.”
During the same era, Johnny Barrett and Perry Allen as a stunt “fired” Dick Biondi on the air for playing an “unauthorized” Elvis record. For a period of time, Dick just “disappeared” from public view. He spent a lot of time at the apartment occupied by Allen and his wife. Much of the time he simply hid in the Old Cathedral. The listening audience was, of course, outraged. We offered a “reward” to the listener who could first find Dick and return him to KB. Biondi lost weight skulking about. The promotion worked.
Biondi, known by many as the “Wild Itralian” had a legendary temper. “I once threw an ashtray at Gene Taylor. I also ripped a phone off the wall and threw it at Mike Joseph in Buffalo — missing him by a hair. If you ever read this Mike — I’m sorry I missed — I could have improved your looks.” I say that affectionately — Mike is a genius in radio programming.”
Dick lasted on the staff for two years before getting fired. “One night I got mad at my boss who had just come home from his honeymoon. His wife was having a pajama party. It was sort of weird — a woman coming home from her honeymoon and on the first night she’s has a pajama party? She had kicked him out, and he came over (to the radio station). The guy was a bug. When he left I told somebody: “My boss is going to the movies, and if you see him going down Main Street, he’s got a gray Chevy Impala convertible … throw stones at him. Somebody must have heard it — and threw a stone right through the windshield. The next day I was fired.”