By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
Known as Mr. Warmth, Bill Masters had feet planted in two different worlds. He hosted middays on WBEN through the 60s and 70s, but “understood” what was going on elsewhere in the culture and on the radio dial—He was one of the guys at the Babcock Boys’ Club with Danny Neaverth and Joey Reynolds.
Maybe he’d say something outrageous, but it was hard to notice, blending in with the calm, homespun, aw shucks delivery that made him a great fit on WBEN.
“He was known for his acerbic wit, rebellious stands and wild, unpredictable personality,” wrote News reporter Anthony Violanti in 1989.
But Masters’ world fell apart in 1975 when he suffered a nervous breakdown. Losing his high-profile WBEN job and his family, Masters would spend the next couple decades bouncing between radio jobs and the welfare rolls.
“Radio is a terrible f—— business,” Masters told Violanti. “When you are a radio personality, every day of your life you give your pound of flesh. Sometimes, you never get it back.”
Frank Benny was Buffalo radio’s “master of the one-liners.” He could fire them off as fast as Carson.
But that’s not necessarily what people think of when they hear his name.
Frank Benny’s story was called “the most outstanding comeback in the history of Buffalo broadcasting” by News critic Gary Deeb. Nearly half a century later, that record appears to be intact.
Benny was a constant on Buffalo radio dials for 25 years. His voice and style were smooth and sonorous. He quickly became Buffalo’s definitive warm, friendly announcer upon coming to WGR Radio in 1965. By 1968, he was a regular on Ch.2 as well, first on the sports desk, and then for nearly a decade as the station’s main weather anchor at 6 and 11.
By 1970, he was one of Buffalo’s most in-demand announcers. He told The News he was generally working on about four hours of sleep. His day started as WGR Radio’s morning man, then he hosted WGR-TV’s Bowling for Dollars and Payday Playhouse 4 o’clock movie, and he did the weather forecasts on Ch.2. He was the NBA Buffalo Braves’ first PA announcer in the 1970-71 season.
In five years at WGR, he became one of Buffalo’s most popular media personalities. That was helpful in identifying him the day he robbed a bank on his way home from the radio station in June 1971.
A holdup of the Homestead Savings and Loan at the corner of Main and Chateau Terrace in Snyder netted $503 for a man wearing a stocking over his head and brandishing a (later-found-to-be toy) gun.
Minutes later, Amherst Police were arresting Benny at gunpoint in the driveway of his Williamsville home.
Frank Benny, Ch.2 sports, late 60s
The case was a local sensation. Management at WGR and at least three other stations ordered that the on-air staff not make any snide remarks or jokes at Benny’s expense.
One notable exception was Ch.7, where the 6 p.m. “Eyewitness News Reel” featured the title card “Forecast: Cloudy” for the otherwise-straight Benny story. At 11, the title was changed to “Under the Weather.”
The disc jockey, TV weather man and father of two was charged with third-degree robbery and was tried in a non-jury trial. The prosecution rested when Benny’s attorney agreed to the facts of the case — that the announcer had indeed stuck-up the bank — but that he was innocent of the charges in the “poorly planned, ludicrous robbery” because he was temporarily insane.
Four psychiatrists testified that Benny was “not in sufficient possession of his faculties at the time of the holdup.” A Buffalo General psychiatrist who had examined Benny said that the temporary mental illness was caused by extreme and prolonged stress.
First, Benny was a central figure in a protracted labor strike at WGR AM-FM-TV. Eighty members of NABET, the union representing nearly all the operations personnel and announcers at WGR, spent nine months on strike. About 10 — including Benny — crossed picket lines to continue to work. Station management provided Benny an armed guard after rocks were thrown through the windows of his home and his family was threatened.
Benny’s family was also threatened the very morning of the robbery. He’d racked up thousands of dollars of gambling debts, and the bookmakers were calling in their markers — or else.
In October 1971, the judge found Benny not guilty by reason of mental disease, and he was ordered to spend two weeks at Buffalo State Hospital.
Frank Benny in the WGR Radio studio.
Then, in December, within six months of the robbery, Benny was back on WGR Radio and TV. Having been found not guilty, and “on a wave of public sympathy,” management thought it was the right thing to do.
“A lot of people have told me that it takes guts to do this, to go back on the air,” Benny told The News during his first week back at WGR. “But to me, it’s not a courageous thing. It’s a simple case of going back to what I know.”
That’s not to say that Benny wasn’t thankful.
“It’s hard to fathom that people can be that nice,” Benny told News critic Deeb. “It’s nice to know people can be forgiven.”
All told, Benny spent 19 years at WGR, walking away from the station in 1985. For a year-and-a-half, he was the morning man at WYRK Radio, before finishing out the ’80s as a weekend staffer at WBEN.
No matter what his personal life sounded like, he always sounded like Frank Benny on the radio. After leaving WBEN Radio in 1989, Benny left for Florida, where he was on the radio for 16 years — until he died in 2005 at age 67.
Frank Benny congratulates a WGR Hi-Lo Loser-Winner.
Two completely different looking AM Radio airstaffs of the late 60s. WBEN’s Christmas carolers are Bill Masters, John Corbett, Clint Buehlman, Ken Philips, Gene Kelly, and Al Fox. Van Miller, Stan Barron, Jack Ogilvie, and John Luther.
WYSL’s air staff was not quite as clean-cut. Standing outside the station’s 425 Franklin Street studios are Jack Evans, Roger Christian, Jack Sheridan, Michael O’Shea (Howard Lapidis), and Jim Bradley (Jerry Reo). Kneeling: Rufus Coyote (Lee Poole), Kevin O’Connell, Mike Butts, and George Hamberger.
From the back of the WYSL XXI Boss Oldies album, with Beethoven wearing sunglasses on the cover. Second from the left, Gary Byrd, went onto a ground breaking career in New York City.
Bishop Timon grad George Hamberger and Bennett grad Kevin O’Connell both enjoyed long careers in broadcasting. Hamberger was WGR’s morning man in the 80s. O’Connell worked at Ch.4 before heading to Los Angeles for the early 80s. He spent 25 years as Ch.2’s main weather anchor.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
The full text of the book is now online.
The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York.
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