On WBEN’s 90th birthday, the station’s longest-serving announcer is still on the air…

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

WBEN signed on the air September 8, 1930—90 years ago today.

The station’s birthday is important to me because the station has played such an important role in my life as a listener, employee, and now alumni of the station.

I first walked into the station as a 15-year-old intern, and would spend the next five years working my way up through the producer ranks up to what was the highest profile producer job in radio—producer of Buffalo Bills Football with Van Miller and John Murphy. I also met and worked alongside the woman who’d become my wife during those days on Elmwood Avenue.

Five years later, I returned to the station, this time in the newsroom—and over the next decade I worked my way up to news director.

Through all my years in media, I always took special pleasure in being able to share my passion for Buffalo and Buffalo Broadcasting with the listeners of WBEN, and the station’s birthday, I’ve dipped into the archives to share some of the stories I wrote and produced about WBEN and the people we all listened to at 930am.

Steve Cichon- WBEN celebrates 80 years-1
Steve Cichon- WBEN celebrates 80 years-2
Steve Cichon- WBEN at the Aud-1
Steve Cichon- WBEN at the Aud-2
Steve Cichon- WBEN at the Statler-1
Steve Cichon- WBEN at the Statler-2
Steve Cichon- WBEN says Goodbye to Barbara Burns-1
Steve Cichon- WBEN says Goodbye to Barbara Burns-2
Steve Cichon- Brian Meyer inducted into Broadcast Hall of Fame-1
Steve Cichon- Brian Meyer inducted into Broadcast Hall of Fame-2
Steve Cichon- Remembering WBEN on 9/11 ten years later-1
Steve Cichon- Remembering WBEN on 9/11 ten years later-2
Steve Cichon- John Zach celebrates 50 years in Broadcasting-1
Steve Cichon- John Zach celebrates 50 years in Broadcasting-2
Steve Cichon- John Zach covers Martin Luther King-1
Steve Cichon- John Zach covers Martin Luther King-2
Steve Cichon- John Zach lived the Jersey Boys-1
Steve Cichon- John Zach lived the Jersey Boys-2

WBEN’s longest serving announcer

The 90th anniversary of WBEN’s first sign-on brings to mind many of the stable and authoritative voices which have unflappably informed Buffalo over those decades at 930am.

The longest tenured of those voices remains a daily fixture.

From her early days of airborne traffic reporting from the Skyview 930 helicopter to the last two decades as morning drive host, Susan Rose has been a steady, unwavering, and professional voice on WBEN and a clear connection to the great news voices of generations past.

Susan Rose with current co-host Brian Mazurowski

Rose is not your typical “radio star.” She’s never wanted to be. It’s exactly that which makes her a fit in the pantheon of WBEN greats.

“A superb anchor,” wrote Buffalo News critic Anthony Violanti. “Reads the news with journalistic style and skill.”

After graduating from Buffalo State College and starting her radio news career at Lockport’s WLVL, Rose joined WBEN in 1985.

WBEN Newsteam 1988: Brian Meyer, Ed Little, Susan Rose, Tim Wenger, Monica Wilson, Mark Leitner

Her blue-collar approach to journalism combined with 35 years of continuous, daily broadcasting on the station puts her in the same rarified company as past WBEN greats, many of whom she regularly worked with across the decades.

Mark Leitner and Ed Little were WBEN stalwarts and frequent Rose co-anchors through the 80s and 90s.

Rose was hired to join the WBEN news team by legendary news director Jim McLaughlin.

The legendary Lou Douglas was at WBEN for 30 years before retiring, overlapping a couple years with Rose.

After three decades at WKBW, John Zach spent another 18 years at WBEN, including 16 years co-anchoring “Buffalo’s Early News” with Rose.

John Zach & Susan Rose, WBEN, 2002.

While she doesn’t have that booming voice— once considered the most important hallmark of the then all-male radio news profession— Rose’s even and reliable presence has been featured on the station longer than any broadcaster, including Clint Buehlman, who hosted mornings at WBEN for 34 years.

Perhaps that’s part of the secret why Rose’s approach and sound is still as upbeat and fresh as the day she walked through the studio doors 35 years ago.

Rose’s husband, Tim Wenger, was her co-anchor on evening drive news program “Buffalo’s Evening News” in the early 90s.

She doesn’t project her personality into the news. Through her career—rather than stand out in front— she has allowed her writing, editing, news judgement, and steady on-air presence to support the team.

It’s even fair to say Rose avoids the spotlight— but it’s also fair to say when crisis strikes in Buffalo, there aren’t many voices on the airwaves today which bring credibility and calm like hers can.

A recent WBEN bio said “it was always her dream job to work for the number one news station in Buffalo.”

She’s taken it one step further to personify it.

Clint Buehlman sings about winter’s slick roads on classic Buffalo radio

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

In 1973, Clint Buehlman was celebrating 30 years of hosting the morning show on WBEN. His program had more listeners than the next three stations’ morning shows combined. More than 300,000 people tuned in to “your AM-MC” during the course of the week.

WBEN morning man Clint Buehlman at the piano in 1973.

“Dependability,” explained Buehly, was the reason for his 40 years of success on morning radio on WGR and then WBEN.

And from the 1930s through the 1970s, if it was snowing in Buffalo on any given morning, you could depend on tuning around your dial to find “Yours Truly, Buehly” sitting at the piano, singing his song about driving in winter weather.

“Leave for work a little early cause the roads are kind of slick,

and even though your brakes are good you’ll find you can’t stop quick.

“When you step upon that peddle and your car begins to skid,

just remember this advice and you’ll be glad you did.”

It was winter weather that helped end the Clint Buehlman era on Buffalo radio. During the Blizzard of ’77, listeners came to rely on the more modern sound of Danny Neaverth on WKBW, and less on the dated sound of Buehlman’s show on WBEN.

In March 1977, Buehlman turned 65, and WBEN management took it as an opportunity to force him to retire.

Clint Buehlman, at the piano, 1950s.

The women of early TV in Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re looking at the women who were the first to make their presence felt in what has traditionally been the male-dominated broadcasting industry.

Today– the women who were the first to grace Buffalo television screens.

Television came to Buffalo with Channel 4 in 1948, and the only women prominently featured in the ceremonial sign on of the station were the chorus girls from the Town Casino.

The Town Casino chorus girls were the only women featured on Channel 4’s sign-on in 1948.

Some of the pioneering women in Buffalo TV were the same women who pioneered in Buffalo radio.

Sally Work was called “the dean of women commentators” by the Buffalo Evening News. She’d already been on the radio for 15 years by the time she took her act to the new medium of TV. When Channel 2 signed on, Helen Neville took her radio act to TV as well.

Sally Work, left, and Mildred Miller, right, judge a doll contest in 1954.

Of course, there were those who made their first mark in TV as well.

Starting in 1952, a beloved and strong woman made her debut on Channel 4.

Viewers watched Mildred Miller and her husband Bill cook and interview celebrities for 20 years on “Meet the Millers.

Mildred and Bill Miller.

Doris Jones was first seen as a commercial model on Channel 4 when she was still in high school. She’d eventually host a women’s show on Channel 7, and become Buffalo’s first female staff announcer and weathercaster on Channel 2.

Paula Drew was the spokesperson for Niagara Frontier’s dairy farmers, and as Buffalo’s milk maid, she did weather forecasts wrapped around milk commercials. She was later the voice of Tops Friendly Markets.

While Paula Drew was at Tops, it was Joey at Super Duper in the 70s and 80s.

Super Duper’s Joey Heinz.

The story of how Jim Kelly hated Buffalo before he loved it

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s tough to imagine Buffalo without Jim Kelly… but if he would have had it his way at the beginning of his professional career, he never would have become a Buffalo Bill.

Today, two decades after taking his last snap, Kelly remains one of Buffalo’s most beloved personalities and one of Western New York’s biggest backers.

He was one of us in the pocket. His on-field grit reflects what we hope we see in ourselves individually and as a community.

The Buffalo News headline blares “Fandemonium,” the phrase coined by Bills play-by-play man Van Miller, describing Bills fans pouring onto the field and taking down the goalposts after the Jim Kelly-led Bills clinched their first division title in recent memory. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Our admiration for him was forged as we watched him blow into his hands in Rich Stadium cold– and seemed to enjoy it.

Kelly and those great Bills teams embraced the cold and the snow and made it a part of their physical and mental advantage over the rest of the AFC during the greatest ride Buffalo sports fans have ever known.

Jim Kelly visits the Aud Club shortly after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1983.  (Buffalo Stories archives)

Fresh out of college, though, Kelly had another path to greatness planned. It was lined with palm trees and beautiful people, not snowbanks and Zubaz.

It took a couple of turns in the road to get him here.

Jim Kelly was drafted by the Bills out of Miami three years before he made Rich Stadium his home.

There were plenty of very good quarterbacks available in the 1983 NFL Entry Draft. Three of them, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Baltimore Colts made Elway the top pick—but he quickly refused to play for team. It made for an interesting draft day for Kelly, as he recounted to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010.

“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

The Bills picked Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with the 12th pick. Watching on TV in his parents’ living room, Kelly celebrated not being picked by Buffalo.

“I remember jumping up out of my seat and I hit my mother who was sitting on the right arm of the recliner and I knocked her right off the chair. I felt so bad, I quick picked her up off the floor and I’m apologizing, ‘Sorry mom I’m just glad I’m not going to play for Buffalo.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

But the Bills also had the 14th pick in the first round. With that pick, they took the Miami quarterback.

“I couldn’t believe it. Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”

-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010

One of those immediate conversations was with WBEN Radio’s Stan Barron. You can listen to that conversation below.

The polite young quarterback impressed one of the old salts of Buffalo sports by saying all the right things, though his heart clearly wasn’t in it– because he had an alternative.

The United States Football League was founded in 1982. The original idea was to capitalize on the country’s growing love of professional football by playing games in the spring and summer during the NFL’s off-season. The league wasn’t going head-to-head with games, but they were going head-to-head in trying to sign talent.

Kelly’s agents worked out a deal with the Bills, and then took two weeks to meet with USFL teams.  Bills interim General Manager Pat McGroder was unabashedly optimistic.

“They (Kelly’s agents) said we’ve got a hell of a chance of getting him,” McGroder told reporters as USFL brass wined and dined Kelly and crew.

The Bills were taken by surprise when Larry Felser wrote in The Buffalo News that Kelly would sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers “for an enormous sum of money.”

“There are risks in doing what I’m doing, but I made up my mind,” Kelly said. “Everybody has to take a risk once in his life. But I’m happy I did it and I won’t regret it.”

The folks at One Bills Drive were upset that the team was never given a chance to meet or beat the offer from the upstart league.

“We considered three different offers that they threw at us, and they were very happy with the offer we made to them,” McGroder told reporters after Kelly signed the five-year, $3.5 million deal . “I want the fans to know it was not the Buffalo Bills who let them down.”

“It was very cold in Buffalo.”

-Jim Kelly to reporters in Houston

When he signed, Kelly told reporters in Houston that he was never pleased with what the Bills were offering and that part of his decision to join the Gamblers was that he liked the people in their organization better than he did those with the Bills.

When Kelly’s signing was announced in Houston, his agent, Greg Lustig said, “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America. The opportunities just aren’t there. I understand Joe Cribbs made under $500 in personal appearances there in the last three years.”

Associated Press, June 11, 1983

The Bills moved on, but the woeful play of the quarterbacks on the roster and a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 meant Kelly was never far from the thoughts of anyone connected with the Bills.

Joe Ferguson played quarterback for the Bills in 1983, and part of 1984, until Joe Dufek took the starting job.  Bruce Mathison was on the roster at quarterback, too. The Bills also brought in veteran Vince Ferragamo in 1985. The day Ferragamo became a Bill, he was asked about Kelly.

“I think you definitely look at that with suspicion,” Ferragamo said of the possibility of Kelly coming to the Bills. “There’s nothing concrete behind that and your approach to the game can’t be decided on the fact of what happens a year from now.”

The Bills thought of Kelly with hope, but Kelly’s thoughts of Buffalo weren’t happy ones.

“There are a lot of off-the-field endorsements I can get here (in Houston) that I couldn’t get in Buffalo. Plus I could come right in and play and make a name for myself and not have to sit behind Joe Ferguson for three years playing in the snow in Buffalo.”

Jim Kelly, a year into his USFL contract, 1984

Kelly was enjoying his time in Houston– setting league passing records and driving a brand new Corvette every few weeks in a deal with a local Chevy dealer– but the future of the upstart USFL was becoming cloudy.

So with a murky prognosis for the league and the team that Kelly played for, the quarterback’s stance softened somewhat, saying that while the Bills weren’t his top choice of NFL teams,  he’d “play for them if necessary and give his best.”

In a 1985 article, Vic Carucci writes in The Buffalo News that Houston Gamblers quarterback Jim Kelly wasn’t as vehemently anti-Buffalo as he had been since the 1983 NFL draft. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

It still wasn’t a homerun. As late as February, 1986, Kelly was still openly hostile to playing in Buffalo.

Tonawanda News. (Buffalo Stories archives)

And month before signing with the Bills, Sports Illustrated started a feature article on the Houston Gamblers quarterback with “Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play…”

Kelly was likely leaving Texas one way or another. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The article went on to describe the close knit Kelly clan that Buffalonians of the ’80s and ’90s remember well– the quarterback’s parents and brothers who eventually seemed to fit right in here despite their Pennsylvania accents.

During the summer of 1986, the USFL was embroiled in lawsuits and court cases. Play was suspended for the league, and on paper, Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the Donald Trump-owned, Doug Flutie-quarterbacked New Jersey Generals.

The future was up in the air. USFL team mergers could have been haulted. The USFL could have been forced to fold. The USFL could have merged with the NFL.

Kelly talked about all of these possibilities in SI.  It didn’t leave Bills fans hopeful.

”I’d like to play for the Raiders. I’d like to live in California,” Kelly says. ”But what I’d really like to do is play for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and just kick ass.”

Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds, if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion dollars. ”Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he says. ”I’d get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”

-Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1986

About a month after the article hit mailboxes in Western New York and around the country,  Jim Kelly was a Buffalo Bill and the NFL’s highest paid player.

After years of denying Buffalo, Machine Gun Kelly took over the city in August, 1986. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“I’m being paid to play football, and that’s what I want to do,” Kelly told the Associated Press as the USFL stalemate seemed indefinite during the summer of 1986. Kelly and the Bills started the wheels in motion to make that happen.

In mid-August, Bills General Manager Bill Polian received written permission from Donald Trump– whose team owned Kelly’s rights in the USFL– to negotiate a deal with the quarterback. Kelly sat with Ralph Wilson in a suite during the Bills first preseason game against the Oilers in Houston.

In the following days, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract. The approximately $1.5 million per year pushed Kelly’s salary past Joe Montana’s $1.3 million, making the new Bills quarterback the NFL’s richest player.

Jim Kelly takes a call from Gov. Mario Cuomo as he signs a deal to become the NFL’s highest paid player. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“What we’re really interested in is rebuilding this franchise to respectability,” Bills owner Ralph Wilson said at the time of the signing. But it was bigger than that for Buffalo.

Jim Kelly’s deciding join the Bills might have been Buffalo’s biggest event of the 1980s. It was a Buffalo prodigal son story if there ever was one. Jim Kelly spent three years sniping at Buffalo and taking shots at our weather– but a switch was flipped when he climbed off a private plane into a limousine and got a police escort down the 33– with fans waving and cheering at overpasses– to sign the contract that would make him not just a million-dollar arm, but our million dollar arm.

As Bill Polian looks on, Jim Kelly signs autographs along Buffalo’s waterfront just after signing a contract with the Bills. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Kelly took a break from signing autographs in the lobby of a downtown hotel to officially sign that contract in a spot only blocks from where a billboard sponsored by Bethlehem Steel employees famously asked  “the last person leaving Buffalo to turn out the light.”

It hadn’t even been ten years since that billboard had come and gone, but things had grown worse. The steel plant had closed and the Bills had just played two 2-14 seasons in a row.

It was bleak being a Buffalonian.

The signing definitely made Buffalonians hold their heads a little higher. Bills General Manager Bill Polian spelled it out at that first press conference.

“The fact that Jim is sitting here to my left is an enduring monument to Ralph Wilson’s commitment to building a winner for the city of  Buffalo,” said Polian.

Jimbo’s arrival rekindled an almost extinguished sense of civic pride and brought a measure of  hometown hope to Buffalo, and the feeling is mutual. Kelly has called signing with the Bills “the best decision of his life.”

Three decades removed,  its tough to imagine what Buffalo would have been without his presence.

 

Elvis Presley’s death: Ch 4 Buffalo at WBEN Radio 8/17/77

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

From the Buffalo Stories archives: WBEN Radio paid music tribute to Elvis Presley in the hours following his death on August 17, 1977.

Speaking from WBEN Radio’s Studio A at 2077 Elmwood Avenue was then 93/WBEN DJ Chris Tyler. This piece appeared on WBEN-TV Channel 4 (now WIVB-TV.)

I garbage picked this and dozens of other tapes and films during a basement clean out at Channel 4 when I was a producer at the station in the late 90s.

Audio Flashback: WBEN Newsweek, 1978

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With the recent passing of Doug Smith, I was reminded of a piece of audio in the Buffalo Stories archives where he was featured as the Courier-Express Film Critic.

The recording is a half-hour feature called “Newsweek,” and was a collection of highlights from WBEN’s “Newsday at Noon.” This particular edition was from what sounds like the last week of 1978.

Doug is being interviewed by Lou Douglas, who also interviews Erie County Legislator William Pauly, Episcopal Bishop Harold Robinson, and Peggy Speranza of the Feingold Association.

The host of the half-hour is newsman Jim McLaughlin, and there is also a Stan Barron sports editorial at the 15:10 mark,

When I started working at WBEN in the early 1990s, running the pre-taped Newsweek– by then hosted by Tim Wenger– very early Sunday morning was one of my first jobs in radio.

 

Buffalo in the ’30s: FDR campaigns in front of City Hall

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Only weeks before he was to be elected to his second term as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Buffalo to dedicate the city’s new federal building on Niagara Square.

FDR-in-BFLO206-ww
President Franklin Roosevelt addresses the crowd at Niagara Square, Oct. 17, 1936. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Oct. 17, 1936, Buffalo visit was Roosevelt’s first as president — although he had visited Buffalo countless times during his four years as New York’s governor. The courthouse was a federally funded New Deal project and was designed primarily by Buffalo architect E.B. Green.

The Depression was on the mind of the president and the thousands who turned out around Western New York to greet him and his train as he spoke in Buffalo and in Niagara Falls.

Buffalo News archives

“I need not compare the Buffalo of today with the Buffalo as I saw it the last time I was here,” Roosevelt said in Niagara Square. “You will recall, I am sure, those years when I had the privilege of being the chief executive of this state. Already in 1930 the problems of unemployment and depression had become severe and you will recall also that it was in 1931 that I, as governor, called the Legislature of the State of New York into special session to provide relief for the distressed unemployed of the state and New York was the first state in the Union to definitely accept the responsibilities of seeing to it that as far as the state’s resources could prevent it, none of its citizens who wished to work would starve.”

The ceremony took place in front of the building which has been known as the Michael J. Dillon Courthouse since 1986. Federal offices started to move from Niagara Square to the former Thaddeus J. Dulski Federal Building (now the Avant) in the late 1960s. The remaining federal courtrooms moved across Niagara Square to the Robert Jackson Courthouse in 2012.

The president’s dedication was carried on radio stations WKBW, WBEN and WBNY.

This print was backwards in The News archives, and has appeared backwards in print at least twice through the years. Here it appears with the proper orientationwith the Statler Hotel to his left, and the new courthouse out of frame to the right.
This print was backwards in The News archives, and has appeared backwards in print at least twice through the years. Here it appears with the proper orientation—with the Statler Hotel to his left, and the new courthouse out of frame to the right.

This brief clip was not from Roosevelt’s Buffalo speech, but it was typical of his talks throughout the 1936 campaign.

Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo at 10:30 p.m. the night before his speech, and left at 11:33 a.m. after the downtown Buffalo dedication and a speech at Hyde Park Stadium in Niagara Falls. The president slept in his special railcar, “The Pioneer,” as it sat on the tracks of the New York Central terminal, surrounded by 25 New York Central Railroad Police.

The day after the president’s visit, an interesting side note about the campaign was the subject of an editorial in the Courier-Express, discussing the media presence of President Roosevelt and his opponent, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.

It is not late for the Democratic organization to show its fine sense of sportsmanship in campaign tactics. Hitherto it has pitted the perfect radio voice of Mr. Roosevelt against the more limited oratorical personality of Mr. Landon, proving Mr. Roosevelt a far superior air attraction than the less unctuous Kansas governor. If the election were to be decided on mere rhetorical counts, the Chanticleer of Democracy undoubtedly would have the edge.

Mr. Landon, however, is really a rather nice looking man with a smile of his own, not overwhelmingly ingratiating, of course, like Mr. Roosevelt’s but still fairly easy on the eyes. The impression is that Mr. Landon, who does not broadcast as well as Mr. Roosevelt, might perhaps screen as well.

These considerations have reference to the campaign movie recently made at Hyde Park House, featuring the Lord High Chief Executive in a story designed to show a typical day at his home. The cameras ground, the sound trucks maneuvered, Franklin the Fair flashed smiles as he sat at his desk — in a word, politics went Hollywood. No release date was set for the attraction at the movies but it certainly should be billed soon now.

What box-office following both candidates may have, if both are offered on their visual merits to the movie fans, could only be conjectured; but at least Mr. Roosevelt’s undisputed radio advantage over Mr. Landon might thus be cut down in the interest of good emotional sportsmanship.

Buffalo in the ’40s: Clint Buehlman & Buffalo Bob Smith

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

They were two of Buffalo’s favorite up-and-coming announcers and emcees during the 1930s on the Buffalo Broadcasting Corp.’s WGR Radio.

When The Buffalo Evening News wanted to wrestle away WGR’s top rating for its own station, WBEN, it was Clinton Buehlman (left) and Smilin’ Bob Smith (right) they hired.

Buehly and Smith, along with Johnny Eisenberger (who was later better known as Forgetful the Elf), were lifelong friends who grew up together on Buffalo’s East Side. When they were brought to WBEN from WGR in 1943, Buehlman hosted the early morning show and Smith did mid-mornings.

In between their own programs, they co-hosted “Early Date at Hengerer’s,” live from the downtown department store.

Early Date at Hengerer's, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Early Date” at Hengerer’s, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

While Buehlman’s pace was fast and his persona was slapstick, Smilin’ Bob was more laidback and homespun. He caught the ear of NBC executives in New York City looking to build a team for the network’s Big Apple flagship station.

Bob Smith, WBEN. Buffalo News archives

Bob Smith, WBEN. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Shortly after Smith left WBEN for the New York’s WEAF Radio in 1946, longtime News and Courier-Express radio critic Jim Trantor wrote:

“Buffalo’s Smilin’ Bob Smith, who’s become one of NBC’s  fair-haired  boys  on the  New York scene … is going great guns at the head of a television show for youngsters down there and looks to have just about the rosiest future imaginable.”

The show, of course, was Howdy Doody, and Smith was destined to become one of the great early stars of television.

Tom Connolly: Great Friend, mentor, broadcaster

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – For those who just knew Tom Connolly as the guy who said, “it’s midnight,” every night, seven nights a week for almost 25 years, its difficult to introduce you to the man. He was as unique as his voice– unequivocally one of a kind.

tomconnolly
We both knew it was part goof, but mostly tribute. I put up a page on my Buffalo radio and TV history website about Tom Connolly.  He’s a shadowy figure who lurks just beyond the outer edges of radio….  He’s been around at Buffalo’s top radio station for parts of three decades, where he always prefers the soft glow of the moon to the harshness of the sunlight (and all that it brings.) Tom Connolly is the man with the answer to the question what time it is…. So long as the time is MIDNIGHT, I wrote in 2006. When I asked to take a photo for this page, but suggested I take the photo from behind, “to maintain his shadowy anonymity,” he got that look in his eyes and loved it.

We’ve all seen some movie or TV show where a kid goes to the dumpy basement closet to hang out with the school janitor– a world-weary and gruff, yet kind and brilliant guy, who gives great advice and does his sometimes rotten job like clockwork.

Overnights in radio are a lot like a dumpy basement… And while Tom was no janitor, he just did his work– and a lot of stuff that he’d do just because he thought someone should– quietly with no expectation of appreciation or praise.  He was like radio’s counterculture guidance counselor.

He loved and cared for each one of us kids who went through the station, and encouraged us to make our own role there, because no one else was going to do it for us.

The first time I was ever on the air at WBEN was with Tom’s guidance– make that his insistence. On a Sunday morning shift in 1994, the news guy never showed up.

It was with his passionate, insistent, and unmistakably Connollyesque advice that I began my on air career in radio.

What many people outside of radio might not realize, is that Tom worked overnights, seven days a week. For decades.

Again, that started in part because Tom cared about me personally.  There was a time when I was working 3-11 Saturday evening, then was back Sunday morning at 5. At this point, Tom had Saturday nights off– his one night off every week.

The guy who was supposed to work the overnight shift while I’d go sleep on the station couch for six hours didn’t show up two weeks in a row. Being a naive high school kid, I never told anyone… Until one day I let it it slip to Tom. He was already angry that “the man” was taking advantage of my eagerness to work by putting me on such a schedule.

But Tom had no love for the character who skipped out on that shift. The next week, Tom was working Saturday night — the start of his 23 year run of overnights every night. He also insisted that I forgo that soiled couch in the station basement and drive 45 minutes home for some real sleep. More than once that sound sleep ended abruptly with a phone call from the station.

“Tom here.”

“Sorry Tom, I’m on my way.”

“No problem.”

And he meant no problem. For five years, Tom relived me from “running the board” as the technical producer and operator of the station in the early 90s.

Most nights he’d walk in, fresh from Tops next door, with his arms filled with bizarro overnight snacks. The menu would change through the years, but early on it was a half-gallon of Tops Vim One skim milk, which he’d drink straight from the carton to wash down a bag of oyster crackers and a pound of M&Ms.

Often a minute or two “late,” he’d simply say, “Good evening. Vacate.”

In those years he wouldn’t take official vacation days or any time off– he’d ask me to cover for him, with the same request once a year, several years running.

“If it’s ok, I may be a few minutes late tonight,” he’d say— and I then knew what was coming next. “Weird Al Yankovic is performing in concert tonight, and I’d like to attend.”

The gratitude he’d show when you did him a small favor was as if it had been served on a golden platter.

Maybe a bit more mellowed, Tom was the same cat when I came back to WBEN after several years away.

No longer a (young) punk and having some radio management experience under my belt, I had an even greater appreciation for Connolly (which is nearly universally how we’ve always referred to him.)

He taught young people not only the craft of radio, but the reward in the drudgery of work just for the sake of your own pride in getting it done. He was the cool upper classman who knew all the tricks and was willing to share.

For decades, Tom would send home board ops and news people on Christmas… And work double duty for 36 straight hours so the people at the bottom of the totem poll could spend time with their families.

After his daily nine hours at Entercom, contributing to the success of WBEN, WGR, Star and Kiss’ morning show in his typical unheralded fashion, rarely receiving the credit or thanks he deserved, he’d head to his first radio love, WBNY, and work for free on a fantastic music show– again, acting as mentor and funky uncle to generations of Buff State broadcasting students.

If one was trying to be sensitive, one would say Tom was unique. He was unique enough to be comfortable with weird. Mostly a good weird. Mostly a weird like, “Who works that hard?” Or “Who helps people he barely knows like that?” Or “Who just does his job, seven days a week, always superior with no questions asked?”

Tom was one of the people who made working in radio different, exciting, and so much better than any other terrible, terribly-paying job on the planet. His work ethic, his weirdness, and his love and support for all of us will be greatly and forever missed.

Stars make “radio” for those who listen. Guys like Tom make radio for those who make radio.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Now pitching for the Bisons, Larry King (and Mike Billoni)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In some cynical Western New York circles, when the announced crowd seems to be a bit higher than the actual attendance figure, someone is bound to ask, “Did Mike Billoni do the counting?”

Buffalo News archives

It’s probably not what talk show host Larry King was talking over with Bisons Skipper Rocky Bridges in the dugout, but Billoni’s magic played no small part in the meeting in the first place.

It was Bisons executive Billoni’s marketing and public relations prowess which helped whip Western New York into a baseball frenzy in the late ’80s. Triple-A level ball was back for the first time in 25 years, seats at the brand new Pilot Field were the hottest ticket in town, and the you-could-almost-taste-it hope of Major League Baseball coming to the new ballpark were amplified by the former Courier-Express reporter’s panache for promotion.

Ten-thousand tickets sold within an hour-and-a-half of the first Pilot Field passes going on sale. The nationally televised old timers’ game and the Triple-A All Star game, both seen on ESPN that year, were also sellouts. With 22 sellouts for The Herd in the 1988 season, Buffalo shattered the all-time minor league baseball attendance record with just shy of 1.2 million through the turnstiles in Pilot Field’s first season.

So, when Larry King — whose national radio show had been heard overnights on WBEN in Buffalo for a decade and was becoming more famous for the CNN talk show he’d been hosting since 1985 — came to Buffalo to throw out the opening pitch, it wasn’t good enough that it just be a random Friday night at the ballpark.

Billoni was pitching King’s appearance as the “formal dedication” of Pilot Field on May 19, 1988. That’s not to be confused with the first game, which was played a month earlier, when Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Jim Griffin, and the whole cadre of politicians wanting to claim some credit for the erection of the ballpark showed up to be a part of the ribbon cutting.

There’s no doubt that was alright with Billoni — who three decades later, remains one of Buffalo’s great molders and shapers of public opinion.