Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, listeners of Buffalo radio saw only two real options for popular music when it came to tuning-in their AM dials. Those two options came in the form of WKBW and WYSL. Those two stations ruled the airwaves of Western New York, and as a result became staples in the history of Buffalo radio. The latter of the two, WYSL, was touted as the “underdog” throughout the era, broadcasting at 1400 AM and directly competing with WKBW, a station that had almost five hundred times the signal strength. Operating with state of the art equipment, however, WYSL only needed to broadcast to Buffalo and the surrounding area of WNY to quickly make a name for itself. Referred to as “Whistle,” and “The Rock of Buffalo,” the station delivered “Top 40 Hits” of the time to a demanding and soon satisfied audience that was looking for a different edge than the more mainstream WKBW. Broadcasting at only 1000 watts in the day – 250 watts at night, and using both low-paid and un-paid teen disc jockeys, WYSL should not have been able to remain such a competitor for so long. This proved to be a testament to the stature and popularity the station was able to hold in Buffalo, for as long as it did. And, though their objective was clear – providing top 40 hits with a fresher approach and younger personalities – the path taken to get to that point was anything but clear.
In 1957, John Kluge purchased WXRA Radio at 1080 on the dial, changed the call sign to WINE and moved the studio and transmitter from its Kenmore location to a more centralized location on LaSalle Avenue, in of Buffalo.
It was in 1960 that Gordon McLendon took control of the station and purchased WINE radio from Kluge, with the intention of creating a fresh sound in a Buffalo market. It was no simple task bringing the station to popularity, but was something McLendon had dealt with before. His purchasing of a chain of radio stations spanned across the United States and began with one of the nation’s most recognized stations, KLIF in Dallas. McLendon’s radio group included stations in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Oakland, Louisville, Houston, and San Francisco. Moving farther east, McLendon set up shop in Buffalo, knowing that the city was one of the greatest radio markets in the nation, at the time.
When he came into ownership in 1960, changes occurred almost instantly, and in April of 1960 McLendon had the 1080 AM frequency’s call sign switched from WINE to WYSL. He also changed the format from Top 40 to “Beautiful Music”… only to change it once again a year later, when McLendon sold 1080 AM to Dynamic Broadcasting (which would become WUFO), and bought 1400 AM to broadcast the “new” WYSL, reverting back to the Top 40 format. Moving the operation the 18th floor of the Statler Hotel on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo in the process.
His next move involved hiring several exciting, young radio personalities, many of whom catapulted into media recognition and remain there today. By the mid-1960’s McLendon moved the operation once again, this time to a specially renovated house at 425 Franklin Street in Buffalo. He also hired Jim McLaughlin in an effort to provide an active “News” department at the station, who included Dave Marset, Sheila Murphy, George Redpath, Dave O’Connor and Alan Jennings to name a few, and provided funds to help establish the station as well. With catchy jingles and young, dynamic personalities, McLendon used his experience in the business to see opportunity where few others had, and managed to challenge fierce competitor, WKBW.
It should be noted that the success of the station came as a result of the hard-work and dedication of the young teen deejays that first participated in the “Whistle project.” A method of employment McLendon utilized to keep expenses at a minimum, the owner “hired” several unpaid teenagers to man the mic’s and stir up the airwaves, providing voices and personalities that young adult listeners felt ease in associating with. The “Whistle Jocks” were a group of several teen deejays, many who stayed with WYSL through the ‘60’s and into the early 1970’s. A few of the names you might remember include Dave Shaffer the morning man/PD, Sean Grabowski or “Seanski’ as he referred to himself, Chris Clark, Michael Lee Scott, Bobby Bennett, George Hamberger, Jim Bradley (Jerry Reo), Michael O’Shea, Lee Clayton, Chuck Morgan, Jack Evans, Jack Sheridan, Rufus Coyotee, Hal Martin, and later in the stations tenure Don Berns and Shane just to name a few. WGRZ-TV’s chief weatherman, Kevin O’Connell got his start as a “Whistle” jock, filling various time-slots on the station from 1969-1974, eventually becoming the stations Program Director before moving onto a successful career in several media-related areas.
Buffalo natives will also be familiar with STAR 102.5’s Roger Christian, a radio personality who got his start working weekends and midnight shifts as a ‘Whistle” jock in 1965, and served as the stations music director for a few years, who also pursued a successful career path after leaving WYSL. In a recent interview Christian, spoke highly of his time at WYSL, spending many hours in a small room allotted to teen jocks when the station occupied the 18th floor of the Statler.
Christian went on to say that the atmosphere for the youngsters couldn’t have been better or more welcoming. His one and only meeting with owner Gordon McLendon was on a lengthy elevator ride down in the Statler, in which the radio mogul showed young Christian just “how down to earth he was, and how clearly knowledgeable and in-tune to radio culture and business he was.” Insisting the owner understood the ins-and-outs of a station, from the stand point of both deejays and upper management alike.
Leaving in 1973 to become music director at WGRQ-FM, Christian stated he was influenced greatly by his experiences at WYSL and particularly by then program director, Michael Spears (Hal Martin).
Christian also mentioned that one testament to the easy and fun-loving nature of the station at the time, was when fellow 18th floor members, WPHD, had used WYSL’s newsroom to perform a live broadcast of Jackson Brown in 1970, a rare and precious oddity that would be hard to imagine occurring in today’s radio world.
WYSL spent over a decade challenging the bigger WKBW, and it could be said that the latter would not have achieved the success it reached, if it were not from pressure provided by the much smaller but competitive, WYSL. By the mid-70’s McLendon had sold the station to Howard Broadcasting, and shortly thereafter the station had made a full format switch to FM. Most notably, Howard brought in morning show host Harv Moore, who together with WYSL veteran Bob Taylor became morning show favorites in WNY for nearly a decade before they were pushed out the door during an ownership change in 1989. It was this conversion that saw “Whistle” AM become nothing more than an echo of the past, still cherished to those who remember, yet no longer heard.
In 1989, the station changed its calls to WXBX-AM and became “Rebel Radio” playing alternative rock for year or two before changing to WGKT-AM, for a couple of years. In the mid 1990’s, another call letter change to WWWS-AM, “Solid Gold Soul”, calls and format the station still has today.
Article written by Michael Paasch and Keith Luke