By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
WGR Radio News Minutemen, 1961
“I try to skewer with grace. I love being called a curmudgeon.”
John Otto may have been Buffalo’s greatest curmudgeon. Scholarly and erudite, but with a playful silly streak that kept listeners glued to his “conference call of all interested parties” for nearly 40 years.
He spent the 50s and early 60s doing just about everything imaginable on-air— and doing it superbly, first on WBNY and then on WGR, both radio and TV.
He was a classical music host, radio news anchor, and TV weatherman– but he seemed best in his element once he began hosting talk shows, specifically WGR Radio’s “Expression,” a nightly moonlit program which invited “listeners to telephone spontaneous, unrehearsed opinions” starting in 1962.
Such would be Otto’s gig, more or less, for the next 37 years.
“He’s a good show with his deep, pulpit-shaped voice because his unshakeable confidence forces you take sides,” wrote News Radio Critic Hal Crowther in 1973. “If you agree with him, it’s ‘Give ‘em hell, John,’ but if you’re against him you’re often sorry that there are six or seven miles of night between your fingers and his windpipe.”
“Dracula and I have a lot in common,” Otto told News reporter Mary Ann Lauricella in 1981. “Daylight rather frightens us back into our caves. My metabolism is so attuned to nighttime hours that I’m more comfortable at night, when a velvet cloak is wrapped around the world.”
“He takes delight in practicing conversation as an art,” wrote Lauricella. “He uses a metaphor here, a simile there, perhaps a humorous play on words and weaves them into bright conversational tapestries.”
But Otto preferred self-depreciation to plaudits.
“I’m certainly not modern in anything— from the way I dress to the way I think,” said Otto in 1978, who was still dressing in “outdated narrow ties and straight-legged pants.”
“Weekends, I tend to fall out in customary corduroy slacks and white socks. I even let myself go a day without shaving. It’s a very exciting life I lead,” Buffalo’s congenial co-communicator told News reporter Jane Kwiatkowski in 1986.
His biggest vice, Otto confided nightly to his listeners, was his “regular investment of fortunes at Hamburg or Batavia.” Otto loved the horses, and would announce the winners from the local tracks on his show.
“We have the first three from Batavia Downs,” he’d say, often with commentary on the horse’s name, but sometimes with the hint of disdain in his voice. “It’s the rental of a horse for two minutes to run across the finish line first, and they seldom do,” said Otto of his horsing around.
Catching him in a moment of serious self-reflection, it was clear Otto had loftier goals for his nightly meeting of the minds. “If it works right, it raises the level of community thought and sets people to thinking with some added knowledge they didn’t have before.”
“We want to occupy and engage thoughts and to allow the opportunity for people to have access to a forum they are otherwise denied,” said Otto. “Some people call in who are just passing through and want to say ‘hi’ to the world—to let others know they are alive—a fact sometimes overlooked by the rest of the world.”
Not every caller “wants to unburden himself on the big hot-line issues like Vietnam, Watergate, crime in the streets, drugs, and the rest.” Otto’s often hardboiled entrenchment on those issues easily and often made way for the kind of calls an overnight program attracts.
“We get a lot of older people, lonely people. What they need are some voices in the night. And they have other things on their minds besides the headlines,” said Otto.
“One thing I’ve learned on this show is that many of them have an abiding fascination for marvels. Anything about the supernatural, ESP, UFOs, and experience that can’t be explained—that will get them talking like nothing else.”
For decades, Otto was ol’trusty—the iron horse of radio. Starting in 1955, through his first 30 years in broadcasting, he never missed a day of work—not once called in sick.
John Otto, 1962
However, he landed in the hospital in 1985 with pneumonia. “Forty years of smoking,” he said. The streak was broken and over the next decade and a half, sickness in breathing would slowly take Otto’s life—right before your listenership’s ears.
Eventually, very labored breathing made it difficult for him to get around, and he spent his final year “on the radio, on the telephone” broadcasting from his home. Even in his final days, “John, John, your operator on,” didn’t miss a broadcast. He signed off with his signature “I’ll be with you” on a Friday, went to the hospital on Saturday, and died early Monday. He was 70 when he died in 1999.
Jim Santella’s presence and sensibility blazed the trail for progressive rock radio in Buffalo, starting at WBFO (above), then notably at WGRQ and WUWU. Santella’s on-air presence mellowed in the 90s in a return to WBFO as a blues host and the original co-host of Theater Talk with Anthony Chase. His 2015 book, “Classic Rock, Classic Jock” was itself an instant classic, with an in-depth look back at one of the great eras in Buffalo radio.
This ad from a 1967 Buffalo Hockey Bisons program explained some of the far-out jive coming from America’s youth. It was clearly meant as a joke, but probably actually provided insight to more than one dad, sitting in the gray seats at the Aud, flipping through the program to find a Hershey Bears or Cleveland Barons roster.
Lifelong Lockport resident Hank Nevins has been heard up and down Buffalo’s radio dial for more than 40 years, but his career began overseas.
He volunteered to head to Vietnam the day after he graduated from broadcasting school, and was heard on American Forces Vietnam Network in starting in 1969.
In Southeast Asia, he worked with, among others, Pat Sajak.
Since returning home, Nevins worked as a disc jockey, host, and manager at radio stations in Western New York nearly without pause. Most recently, he’s spent more than a dozen years as the Saturday morning host on WBEN.
Dennis Majewicz was both Mac McGuire and Mike Melody at WNIA in the late 60s. He went onto a long career in broadcast engineering at Ch.4, Empire Sports Network, and now back at 1230am.
The deejay’s names never changed at WNIA, neither did the fact that Richard Maltby’s Midnight Mood would play every night at midnight. To put it mildly, WNIA was a quirky station. The daily noon time Catholic prayers were bookended by rock ‘n’ roll music.
There was also the reminder to be big, be a builder. The minute-long, run-on diatribe was the brainchild of station owner Gordon Brown in reaction to the war protests of the late 60s.
The impression your friends and others have of you is based on what you do– to teach, to create, to accomplish, or to build, whether you dig the trench for the foundation for a building; whether you lay the last brick on its top; whether you work with a pick and shovel or with the tools and machines, or in the office, or sell the products or services of industry; whether you grow, prepare or harvest the very food we eat, whether you are a homebuilder raising, teaching or educating your family or others how to become a builder, no matter what you are or what you do, if you are a builder, you are one to be long remembered.
Those who attempted to destroy the pyramids of Egypt were despised and soon forgotten, those thousands who labored to build them will never be forgotten. Be big, Be a builder.
Muhammad Ali in the WBEN studios with “Viewpoint” host Garfield Hinton.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey makes a Presidential campaign swing through Western New York in 1968, with KB newsman Jim Fagan over his shoulder holding up the microphone. Next to Jim is Buffalo Congressman Thaddeus Dulski. Over Humphrey’s other shoulder is Erie County Democratic Chairman Joe Crangle.
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.
©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon