WCBM began 75 years ago

Way Back When

Radio: The station was Baltimore's third. Today, it is the city's last locally owned radio station.

March 20, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On a warm spring night 75 years ago today, March 20, 1924, Baltimoreans carefully tuned their Atwater Kent, Crosley, De Forest or Fada Neutrodyne radios to WCBM Radio, 1370 on the dial, to hear a live broadcast of dance music from the roof of the Chateau Hotel at the northwest corner of Charles Street and North Avenue.

It was the inaugural broadcast of WCBM. The station, now 680 on the AM dial, was established by Charles Schwartz, president of the Oriole Broadcasting Co., which had studios in the Chateau Hotel. It was the third local station to begin broadcasting after WFBR and WCAO, which went on the air in 1922.

Harry R. Shriver, WCBM general manager and longtime Baltimore broadcasting executive, says there are two stories about how WCBM's call letters were chosen. One had something to do with the station's Charles Street location. "Later, a religious broadcaster supposedly used the call letters to proclaim `Where Christ Blesses Multitudes,' " he says.

In 1930, John Elmer, publisher of the Baltimore American and a prominent advertising man, took over the station. At the time, WCBM was badly in debt and there were doubts that the station would survive the growing Depression.

Elmer, who later became president of the Baltimore Broadcasting Corp., owner of WCBM, purchased new equipment, increased the station's advertising revenues and aligned the station first with the Mutual Network, and later the National Broadcasting Company's Blue Network.

"It was a leader in radio news, employing a dozen people to cover news in Maryland. Notable news programs included `The Morning News Journal' with Homer Todd. Helen Todd was heard with `The Woman's Page of the Air' and `Our Town News' broadcast by Carroll Delaney," recalled Shriver.

Newell Albright Warner was the station's religious editor from the late 1940s until 1963 and broadcast an inspirational message to listeners each morning at 7: 55 a.m. Earlier, he was known as "Colonel" Warner and was master of ceremonies of the "Children's Theater of the Air."

In 1940, Homer U. Todd Jr., an announcer for the station, created "Mr. Fortune," a 15-minute morning money giveaway show of which he was host until 1950. Another popular WCBM on-air personality was Charles Roeder, the station's news director, who was known for his colorful ad-lib newscasts.

"Roeder loved to report on local politics and covered the courts. His unique descriptions of indecent exposure cases became high entertainment on the air," recalled Shriver.

Another station veteran who became a Maryland institution was the late Eddie Fenton, a Falstaffian, pipe-smoking figure of a man who spent most of his 40-year career covering politics.

In October 1955, Fenton came to the rescue of WCBM after the airing of "Public Prosecutor," a drama that had been recorded a month earlier. Unknown to station officials, the show featured an old news bulletin about President Eisenhower having a heart attack that had not been erased from the tape.

Midway through the program an announcer reported that Eisenhower was "still in an oxygen tent" and that the president's son, Maj. John Eisenhower, had left Washington for Denver.

At the next break, Fenton was on the air explaining that Ike was fine and that "his condition continues to be satisfactory without complications."

One of Baltimore's first regularly scheduled talk shows made its debut on the station in the early 1950s.

"Talk To Me," a late night call-in show, was the invention of Danny "Two E's If You Please" Sheelds and Charles Roeder. Later talk show hosts included John Stupak and Alan Christian.

For years, "Brasse, Donovan and Fans," a sports call-in show starring former Colts superstars Ordell Brasse and Artie Donovan, aired Monday nights during football season. Colts games were also broadcast over the station.

The late Charlie Eckman, the "single most recognizable broadcast personality in Maryland," was heard three times daily on WCBM from 1965 to 1970. He left when he was named sports director at WFBR.

Joe Knight, who for 16 years was a featured WFBR personality, teamed up in 1972 with WCBM's popular Lee Case, known as the city's "morning mayor," to handle the 5-10 a.m. drive time slot.

Some of the station's other well-known broadcast celebrities included Elane Stein, Joe Knight, Richard Sher, Johnny Contino, Mike March, Larry Walton and Fred Neal.

Over the years, WCBM relocated to Keith's Theater, then, in 1964, to radio and television studios in the 2600 block of North Charles Street vacated when WBAL moved to Television Hill. In 1975, the station built a studio and office building at its transmitter site in Owings Mills.

Later this month, the station, now owned by developer Nicholas B. Mangione and the last Baltimore radio station under local ownership, will move into new studios in the Hilton in Pikesville.

Pub Date: 3/20/99

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