AM fades with silencing of WCAO voices

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At 8:45 Friday morning, with rain falling out of a leaden sky, Johnny Dark's upper lip starts to quiver in spite of itself.

"I'm OK," he says, but then his eyes start to betray him, and he removes his glasses and dabs at them with a handkerchief.

"First time I've been teary-eyed," he says, "since yesterday."

"The day is young," somebody says.

But the hour has grown late. Seventy years into WCAO radio's existence, 30 years into Dark's disc jockey run there, the station that once dominated youth-oriented radio as no other station around here ever has -- or probably ever will again -- was bidding adieu on Friday at 60 on the AM dial.

All the current on-air staff has been fired. Tomorrow morning, WCAO becomes all-gospel radio.

On the air now, 10 minutes before nine, 10 minutes before they sign off for the last time, the morning guys Danny Reese and Ron Matz are taking phone calls from listeners who have just heard the news.

"You know why it's raining this morning?" says a lady from Dundalk. "Because people are crying."

Reese is red-eyed. Matz, hand over his microphone, whispers, "This is the toughest show of my life."

He looks around and says he needs a cigarette.

"When was your last one?" somebody asks.

"1971," he says.

They play music on radio stations, but off the air it's strictly a numbers game.

For at least 20 years now, as FM radio's cleaner, stereophonic sound began to dominate the airwaves, the handwriting has been on the wall for the AM stations like WCAO.

In the embryonic days of rock and roll, the mid-50s all through the '60s, WCAO was a powerhouse, a cultural icon, an electronic earth force for a couple of generations of kids cruising the streets in cars, sitting up in their bedrooms late at night, doing homework while the likes of Chuck Berry sang, "Up in the morning and out to school. . ."

The station routinely garnered breathtaking 20 shares in the ratings.

Today, nobody gets 20 shares.

In the latest Arbitron ratings, the Baltimore leader was WBAL. It got an 8.3 share.

WCAO got a 1.

In the good years, Johnny Dark remembers now, his rating were routinely in the 40s and went as high as 63. That's no misprint.

His show was listened to by 63 percent of the nighttime audience, most of them young people, and the other stations divided up the remaining 37 percent.

But the business has spread all over the place now.

In the old days, FM radio was limited. Those who could pick it up found programming that seemed to specialize in the arcane: a history of the Dewey decimal system, that sort of stuff.

Once FM discovered pop music, and car radios started carrying FM, AM radio was never the same.

Today, there are about 40 stations from which Baltimore listeners can choose -- about three-quarters of them FM -- and the numbers for virtually every AM station except the 50,000 watt WBAL have simply drooped over 20 years.

Once, there was WFBR, with Joe Knight ("Your knight of the spinning round table") and later The Flying Dutchman, and later still, the madcap Johnny Walker and Harry Horni, and Commander Jim Morton. Now, WFBR no longer exists.

Once there was WCBM, with its morning mayor Lee Case, its bright voices like Larry Walton and Mike March and the acerbic newsman Eddie Fenton. Now, the station has turned to a combative all-talk format.

Once there was WITH, with Buddy Deane and Jack Gale and long, lean Larry Dean. The station carries pre-rock music now, still plagued by a signal barely louder than a shout after dark. Without the early jocks' comic patter, it barely seems worth the ear strain today.

And once there were WSID and WWIN, where the incomparable Fat Daddy reigned hilariously, along with the legendary Hot Rod and Rockin' Robin.

Things change. In its rock and roll heyday, there were jocks at WCAO named Kirby Scott, Larry Monroe, Alan Field, Paul Rogers. Those names still carry nostalgic images in this town.

In 1982, with listeners drifting to FM, the station gave up the rock format and went to country.

But they kept familiar voices on the air, including Dark and Ron Matz, plus the news and sports guy Bob Bartell and the jock R.C. Allen.

"People are always saying to me, 'I grew up listening to you,' " Dark was saying now.

"It's the finest compliment I can get. Heck, when I started out, I never expected to spend 30 years in one place. Not in this business."

There's the irony of radio: Its voices generally move from place to place, and yet an intimacy is established between voice and listeners. It's not music so much as a constant soundtrack.

Television may come to you in living color, but the best radio has always arrived in living imagination.

"I guess," Ron Matz was saying now, moments after his last sign-off, "it'll hit me Sunday night."

He glanced around the place for a final time.

For the past 25 years, he's gone to bed early so he could arise at 3 a.m. and do his early morning stint.

"Now," he said, smiling wistfully, "it'll be like a whole new world. I can stay up late at night. Maybe, I don't know, till 9 o'clock."

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