| The year was 1989. I was working at a Top 40 station in Baltimore, MD. I heard that a guy in Erie, PA. was looking for a Program Director to start a new station he'd bought. I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge and I really wanted the opportunity to build a station from the "ground up". Little did I know how factual that phrase was going to become.
I sent my resume to Rick Rambaldo. He called me the next day and asked if I'd like to interview for the job. SURE!
We made the arrangements and I flew to Erie. Rick picked me up at the airport. I was kind of surprised because I figured he'd have someone on his staff meet me. I had no idea that I was about to become his "staff". The only other person in the building was a lady by the name of "T.J.". She was the receptionist, bookkeeper, future Traffic Manager and all-around "girl Friday".
When we arrived at the station, it was out in the middle of nowhere next to some railroad tracks with LOUD trains. We walked in the building and there were no walls...nothing but 2x4's! What had I gotten myself into?????
Rick is a GREAT salesman! By the end of the interview, he could have told me Walt Disney is in cryogenic freeze under the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" exhibit at Disney World and I've have gone and looked for him.
Back to Baltimore to turn in my notice, gather my things and head for Erie. When I arrived, I'd forgotten that no walls meant no bathroom. I guess being "out in the middle of nowhere" had mixed blessings! If you had to pee, you had the world's biggest bathroom right outside the front door! Anything other than that...allow for 5 minutes travel time to McDonalds to use their facilities!
After a few days of getting acclimated, it was time to get down to work. Then a thought struck me. Rick and I had never discussed what format the station was going to do. Since I was coming from a Top 40 background, I simply assumed (and you know what assume does) that it would be a Top 40 station.
I spoke with Rick and did my best to steer the conversation in the direction of talking about the new station's format. WHAT WERE WE GONNA PLAY?????
We discussed it, took a look at the available audience and saw there was a large audience between ages 25 and 45 that really didn't have a station they could call their own. This was the hole! This was NOT the Top 40 crowd. How would we fill that hole? Classic Rock!
Classic Rock????? I had never done that format in my life. I never even listened to it. I knew NOTHING about it and I was scared!
We sat down with a friend of Rick's from WMMS in Cleveland and talked about what to play and came up with a basic playlist. Next question was how was the station going to be presented? I sought advice from a friend I had worked with for several years in radio and now owned a radio research company. His advice was to present it like a Top 40 station. Not all the hype but, the "showmanship", enthusiasm and "theatre of the mind" that makes up the Top 40 presentation. Well, being in that format my whole career, I knew how to do that!
Next, I needed to hire some air talent. Since it was a brand new station, we didn't really have a large budget for talent. That pretty much meant that I was going to have to hire local people. Trouble was that most of them were working at other stations and were not willing to leave their current job and take a chance on this new station starting up from nothing.
I was finally able to find one guy from Ashtabula; Kevin August. I had my midday person (10am-3pm). Then a friend of mine called. He had just become "employment-challenged"...PERFECT! I had Dave Sharp for afternoons (3pm-7pm).
The target on-air date was fast approaching and I couldn't find anyone to do nights or overnights. OK...we'll just have board operators play music and drop in pre-recorded voice tracks to identify the station. And that's exactly what we did.
Cut...fade to black...It's 11:59 AM on June 22, 1989 and we're just wrapping up a whole hour of playing The Rolling Stones "It's Only Rock & Roll" (after playing 3 months of nothing but songs by The Beatles). I've got what I want to say written down. Music's ready. We're as close to ready as we're ever going to get. [Listen to the First Rocket Sign On.]
Rick and T.J.'s husband are out in the parking lot with a portable radio/tape recorder ready to record what's about to happen. Geez...I wish I knew if there was anyone other than them listening! We had purposely NOT promoted exactly what day and time we were going to launch the station so we could have time to work out any last minute "bugs" and the only way to know if there were going to be any was to actually go on the air.
After my on-air "welcome speech" (all of about one minute), our first song was "Old Time Rock & Roll" by Bob Seger. Following that, every song during the first hour had "rock & roll" in it (except "Rocket Man" by Elton John). A foreshadowing of what was to be.
At 1pm, Dave Sharp took over. Shortly after that, someone (I forget who) dragged us all into the conference room to see "something" on T.V. It was a report on Channel 35 during their regular newscast of the launch of Rocket 101 complete with audio. I guess someone WAS listening or it was a REAL slow news day! Amazingly, it was covered by all of the local TV stations except one; our competitor's TV station...WJET. Ah, well. That was understandable and you can't win them all.
We signed on right in the middle of when ratings were being done in Erie by a new company called Scarborough. The Arbitron equivalent was just starting. We didn't know (at least I didn't) that, according to Scarborough, we were the number one station in Erie within two weeks. That was really cool!
After the sign on, it seemed everyone wanted to come to work at Rocket 101. I hired Steve "I love Yo! MTV Raps Today" Bohen to do morning news and "shports" (the way he pronounced "sports"). Kevin "The Captain" August stayed on middays and Dave "The Afternoon Dude" Sharp was still on afternoons. Paul "The Glove" Spinley was hired to do nights and Amy "The Famous Amos" Huffman to do overnights. Shortly after that, we added Natalie "Natski The Haski" "Heavy Metal" Massing on the morning show. She probably has 18 more nicknames by now; one for every year.
One thing we were very careful of. We NEVER used the phrase "Classic Rock" on the air; it was taboo! Why? Before the station ever signed on, we knew that the Classic Rock format would only take us so far. Sometime down the road, we'd have to evolve into a full AOR (Album Oriented Rock) format that included current music. It was important that we didn't label ourselves as Classic Rock because when the time came to include current music, we could still truthfully say that we had never lied to the listeners. As a matter of fact, we were very careful never to make ANY claims we couldn't back up. BTW, that's why we used the phrase "The Rock Of Erie". We knew that for as long as we existed, we'd be a rock station; but not necessarily all Classic Rock.
I think the strangest thing that happened to me while at Rocket 101 (and, believe me, a LOT of strange things happened there) was when we decided to get involved in promoting the North East Jaycees Haunted Chamber at Halloween.
I used to do a "bit" a couple of times a week (at most) called the "Toe Monster". He's the monster that lives under your bed and bites your toes when you stick them out from under the covers. Anyway, we had this piece of electronic gear that could change your voice (or any other sound for that matter) in any way you wished. I used it to do the voice of the Toe Monster. It was a real deep, growly kind of voice. So, basically, I had a 2-3 minute conversation with myself doing both sides of the conversation. The Toe Monster allowed me to say things that I couldn't as myself. He was bold, brash, sassy and usually VERY suggestive.
The Jaycees asked the station staff and their families to come and be their "test victims" the night before they opened the Haunted Chamber so they could work out any problems. I went through the whole Haunted Chamber with the President of the Jaycees. When we came to the last room, I was shocked! There was some guy in a black robe, bent low and hammering the floor telling people to be careful of their toes because...are you ready for this?...HE WAS THE TOE MONSTER! I just started laughing and the President of the Jaycees asked the guy under the robe if he knew who I was and why I was laughing. Of course, he didn't. The President told him that I was the real Toe Monster. He pulled off the robe, shook my hand and asked for my autograph. You'd have thought Elvis came back from the dead! The guy was in shock; he'd come face-to-face with the Toe Monster! Naturally, this made me laugh even more.
Again, this was a "bit" I did at most, a couple of times a week and here these people had made a whole room around it. Maybe these people were listening a little too closely! I'm glad I didn't to a "bit" about God...oh...wait...I did. We had Accu-God weather every morning where God told me what the weather would be for that day. He also told me everything (in excruciating detail) that I had ever done wrong. Steve (Bohen) used the same electronic gear I used for the Toe Monster to do the voice of God.
At any rate, I could go on with a lot more stories about the early days of Rocket 101. The Rocket Car, Dave Sharp having his car repossessed while he was on the air, Paul Spinley having an accident not even 30 seconds after telling me what a great driver he was in snow, why the thread in the screws in every electrical socket in the building all pointed straight up and down, etc. Suffice it to say, it was probably the most fun I had at any radio station I've ever worked for (and I've been at a LOT of them) and I wouldn't have missed to for the world.
I hope Rocket 101 is still flying high and I wish them continued success in the next 20 years. And, to the listeners, never doubt that you matter. You're ALL that matters!