Monday, March 12, 2012

Mr. Lucky

I've always said I've been luckier than I deserved.  You'll hear that phrase a lot in a couple weeks, when I have a few blogs dedicated to the 20th anniversary of "The Great Implosion" in downtown Scranton.

Today, a little more history.

I lucked on to a part time job at WARM in April 1981.  It wasn't much-- just keeping an eye on the controls while the religion and public affairs shows ran on the weekend overnight shift.  A friend who already worked there reccommended me for the job.  I passed the interview.  It appeared the number one requirement was a willingness to work weekend overnights for very little money.  Nonetheless, it was a foot in the door, and I was thrilled to have the job.

WARM was number one when I arrived, but it was slipping badly.  FM was coming on strong.  The station was tired and stale.  A couple years after I started, WARM changed program directors.  In came Bill Kimble, a Sunbury native, who last worked at the legendary WHAM in Rochester, NY.

Bill saw the talk radio revolution coming to AM radio, and he added some talk to the station's line up.  He took some of the jocks and paired them up to take phone calls, and read newsy little features.  Some of the pairings worked.  Most didn't.  There was a mix and match thing going on for a while.  The audience never knew who they would hear and when, outside of Harry West in the morning.   It was talk for the sake of talk, not talk because you had something important to say.   It was all wrong.  A few of the guys left for other stations, and I don't blame them.  It was a difficult atmosphere.  I will give Kimble credit for NOT cleaning house.  He could have fired everyone and started over.

Bill loved Larry King.  At the time, King was doing an overnight call in show, and it was the "hot" property of the time.  Another station in town had the rights to the show, which was distributed by a network called the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Let me divert a bit.  At one time, Mutual was THE radio network.  It had a strong line up of shows and newscasts.  By the early 80's, Mutual was owned by Amway and it was a wreck, bordering on unlistenable.  Larry King was the only thing Mutual had going for it.

To pry Larry King away from the other station in town, WARM and Kimble agreed to air a lot of Mutual's features, plus network newscasts at the top and bottom of the hour.  Part of WARM's legendary strength was its news department.  The audience tuned in for live and local.  When they got non local and network, they started tuning out.  Eventually, a lot of the Mutual stuff was dropped, but the damage was done.

Kimble was right in instituting some changes at WARM.  Change should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Kimble pushed for too much, too fast.  Listenership wasn't the only thing that declined.  The station lost some good employees.  Morale was shot.  Kimble was replaced after two years.  Two long years.  There was a decent revovery in the late 80's, under a program director named John Hancock, but the glory days were never to return.

After leaving WARM, Kimble had a very successful 14 year run at WPEN in Philadelphia.

Bill Kimble died last week.  He was 81. 

Bill Kimble was a nice man, and was blessed with a great voice.  We disagreed on  lot of things, but he was always willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.  That's rare in a boss.   Bill Kimble had the onions to come and make changes to a legendary, albeit sleepy radio station.   He made many positive contributions to broadcasting, and my sympathy to his family and friends.

I thought about Bill a lot after his passing.  It came down to this barometer.  If we ran in to each other, would I offer a handshake of friendship?  Would I enjoy bumping in to him?  Yes. Yes, I would.  There are some former bosses who wouldn't receive the privilege, and I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

One of my favorite Bill Kimble stories goes like this--a Phillies game was rained out one evening, and I re-scheduled all the commercials that were supposed to run in Phillies game into regular programming.  I saved the station a few bucks that night.  Bill left me a nice note.  The next night, I was walking in to the building in Avoca as Bill was leaving.  I thanked him for the nice note.  Bill replied "Any time, Brian."  I let it go, not getting angry or upset.  It was just Bill being Bill.

As for WARM, it had a succession of programmers.  I left in 1991, and after I departed, there was a sad parade of formats and owners.  You now need a microscope to find it in the ratings.  WARM was never going to pull the numbers it had in the 60's and 70's, but I will always believe there's a lot of wasted potential here.