by Mark Scott
This week marks the 40th anniversary of an iconic Buffalo radio station â€“ 97 Rock. On February 10, 1975, WGRQ 96.9FM dropped its top 40 format and launched album rock Q-FM-97. This past weekend, 97 Rock celebrated the anniversary with a weekend of tunes from the mid â€˜70s and reminisces from old staffers about Q-FM.
While 97 Rock perfected the format, we all remember that WYSL 103.3FM actually created â€œprogressiveâ€ radio in the late 1960s. I would tune in from time to time. But I was in high school. And like many kids of my generation, my favorite stations were WKBW and WYSL-AM. I enjoyed the high energy of top 40 radio. When I arrived as a freshman at St. Bonaventure University in the fall of 1973, I did a morning show on the campus carrier current station patterned after one of my favorite KB jocks, Don Berns.
But during the summer of 1974, Don left KB to join 103.3FM, which was then branded as WPhD. I followed him. My musical tastes were evolving, too. I had just purchased my first FM receiver and speaker set. It was the first year of Summerfest at the Stadium, featuring Eric Clapton, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, the Doobie Brothers and Chicago. I was all in to album rock radio. When I returned for my fall semester, I traded in the morning top 40 show for a late night album rock program. Then, the plug was pulled! The call letters at 103.3 changed back to WYSL-FM with a format of top 40 music.
During either the Thanksgiving or semester break in late 1974, there was a move on to change WBUF at 92.9FM from a beautiful music format to progressive rock. I called a phone number to find out how I could help make this happen. Bob Allen (remember him?) actually came to my house and dropped off a roll of white wallpaper. I was to go to the Thruway Mall and get people to sign the wallpaper, which would then be presented as a scroll to WBUFâ€™s owners. Bob was envisioning thousands of signatures from people clamoring for a progressive station. Well, I was less than successful at getting people going about their holiday shopping to sign my wallpaper. I ended up with maybe a dozen signatures, mostly from family. When Bob picked up my scroll, I was embarrassed. Maybe the other people he had doing this were more successful because a couple of weeks later, a progressive format was launched at WBUF. Now, 92.9 has enough of a signal to reach Olean. So, I was able to tune it in inside my St. Bonaventure dorm room. As I recall, it was really free-form â€“ a bit too much for my tastes.
So, I was really pleased when a few weeks after that, Q-FM-97 arrived along with some of my favorite former WPhD hosts — Jim Santella and John McGhan. Unlike WBUF, Q-FM-97â€™s signal wasnâ€™t strong enough to reach Olean with a clear sound. So, I had to wait until spring break to sample it. I was hooked! The station was all over what was now called Superfest at the Stadium. (Apparently, Summerfest was trademarked somewhere else and couldnâ€™t be used again.) The three concert season featured such bands as J. Geils, Yes and the Eagles, culminating with the Rolling Stones! (I could tell you some stories about those concerts, but then I would have to kill you or be killed by the people I named in my stories.) When I returned to St. Bonaventure that fall, I was elected station manager of the new 10-watt FM station, WSBU, and I wanted us to sound like Q-FM-97.
So, I wrote John McGhan seeking his advice for programming our station. To my amazement, he responded! I never met him in person, but he will always loom large in my memory because of that. We called our station SBU-FM-88. And much to the chagrin of our student announcers who wanted to do whatever they wanted, we employed as many of Johnâ€™s ideas as we could. After graduation, I became a top 40 DJ at WMNS in Olean before embarking on my news career. But Q-FM-97 was still my station for music when I came back to Buffalo to visit family. My colleague Tim Hill at WMNS lived far enough outside of Olean to successfully pull in Q-FM-97 with a good antenna. On occasion, he would use a timer to start his cassette machine while we were doing our own shows so that he could record the Bearman in the morning. Then, weâ€™d head to his house after work to listen.
By the time I arrived at WBFO in 1981, Q-FM-97 was re-branded as 97 Rock. It was still my go-to rock station until one of the biggest â€œWTFâ€ moments in the history of Buffalo broadcasting. With apologies to anyone reading this who was involved, the bone-headed decision was made in January 1985 to drop 97 Rock and fire the staff. What was Taft management thinking? WRLTâ€™s light rock format was an abysmal failure. Fortunately, when Taft sold WGR and WRLT to Rich Communications, the new owners were smart enough to realize the value of the 97 Rock brand and brought it back in fall 1988. I had taken a hiatus from WBFO in the late â€˜80s and was working with Danny McBride at his ad agency. I remember my friend Mike McKay telling me about a huge project he was working on. He crossed the border each day to Fort Erie where the Riches had a temporary office to work on this â€œproject.â€ Despite my prodding, Mike held his tongue. It was only later that I learned he and others were working on plans to bring back 97 Rock. The Riches staged an elaborate launch party at the Tralf. You may remember that the light rock was dropped on a Friday, and all we heard throughout the following weekend were construction sounds with an announcer saying something along the lines that a new radio station was being built.
Iâ€™ll admit I donâ€™t listen to 97 Rock as much as I did when I was younger. My musical preferences are more in the jazz and classical veins now. But when I want to rock out on a summerâ€™s day with the car windows wide open, I hit 96.9, and itâ€™s good to know the station is still there after 40 years. I really enjoyed hearing Jim Santella, Irv Goldfarb and others from the Q-FM-97 era share their stories this past weekend. I will say I was thrilled back in 1992 when I got a call from Jim Santella at WBFO pitching a weekly theater segment that became â€œTheater Talk.â€ Today, I count Jim as a friend. Age has caught up with this icon of the radio. But when I do see him with his stylish cap and sun glasses, he looks as cool as when he was spinning records on Q-FM-97.
So, to everyone at 97 Rock â€“ Norton and the gang, JP, Carl Russo, Slick Tom, John Hager and Anita West â€“ happy anniversary! And keep on rockinâ€™!