Some said they felt like crying. One suggested the staff play Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job And Shove It." Most just wanted to say goodbye and thank you.
That was the reaction yesterday of WCAO-AM (600) listeners to the station's plans to change its format from country to black gospel and fire its seven-person on-air staff, led by local radio institution Johnny Dark.
"The phones have been going crazy," said Mr. Dark during his last on-air shift yesterday afternoon.
In the smooth baritone voice that has graced the station for the past 30 years, the last nine with a country format, he honored some final song requests and traded a few memories, took condolences from distraught listeners and offered consolation in return.
Mr. Dark maintained his composure until the end of his shift at 6 p.m., when he read a poem he had written about the meaning of friendship.
"For the last 30 years I have attempted to be that and I think the people who have performed here have attempted to be that too," he said. "It's been a very emotional time. Thank you for letting me be a part of your life."
Come Monday, WCAO will begin airing the likes of Shirley Caesar and the Winans -- as well as continuing its menu of live sports broadcasts. And the 57-year-old Mr. Dark, who began working there in 1961 when it was a rock and roll powerhouse, will be working the telephone, looking for a new job.
"With the economy the way it is, I don't know what the future holds in store for me," he said in an interview earlier in the day. But the man who introduced the Beatles on the stage of the Baltimore Civic Center more than a quarter of a century ago, added, "I've been something in the past and I'd like to be something in the future."
WCAO is changing formats because of the erosion of its audience to country station WPOC-FM (93.1) and the fit between black gospel and the urban contemporary format of its sister station, WXYV-FM (V-103), said Roy Deutschman, vice president and general manager of both stations.
The stations are owned by Atlanta-based Summit Broadcasting, which owns 11 outlets in six cities, two of which have black gospel formats.
In the most recent radio ratings, WCAO had a 1.0 share of area listeners ages 12 and over, compared to a country-format peak of 4.4 in the mid-1980s. Each share point equals 3,600 listeners per quarter hour.
WCAO will honor its commitments to broadcast the games of the Washington Redskins, Washington Capitals and Baltimore Blast, as well as some Loyola College basketball games, but will "probably not" renew them all when they expire at the end of the current seasons, Mr. Deutschman said.
"Hoops," a basketball talk show by Stan The Fan Charles, will begin as scheduled Monday night at 10 p.m., he added.
In addition to Mr. Dark, other on-air personalities to lose their jobs include Robert C. Allen, Brenda Bissett and Ron Matz.
Mr. Dark said the change from country to gospel was more traumatic than the WCAO's switch from Top 40 to country in September 1982. "There were no pink slips then," he said. "They wanted the staff to remain. Only the music changed."
He said that at the time he "didn't know if I wanted to [broadcast] country music" but said after nine years, "I now have a passion for country music."
WCAO's new format will debut at 5 a.m. Monday with a show hosted by Mary Clayburn, who will continue to host her "Melodies of Inspiration" show on V-103 Sunday mornings.
In its new incarnation, WCAO will compete with WBGR-AM (860) and WWIN-AM (1400). WCAO's format change leaves WPOC as Baltimore's only country station.