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On three separate occasions, we met up with Al Wilson, one time general manager of WABX to recall the infamous ‘ABX revolution. Early 1968 WABX was the radio station set at 99½ on the relatively young FM band about to turn Detroit and the nation on its ear when Century Broadcasting, owned by talented big band musician Howard Grafman made the switch to a “progressive” radio format. Al Wilson was there for most of the wild ride from 1971 until 1983, and he gave us a view through the windshield of the legendary times at WABX. This was the incomparable generation of free-form radio, when the disc jockeys so creatively painted the canvas for the listener.

 

WABX: In the Beginning

 

FM started to become a viable radio source around 1967, prior to that it was primarily for classical music leveraging its enhanced sound quality over AM radio. There were several attempts at “new” formats including an all female “deejay” staff in the early years of WABX; the idea masterminded by local car audio giant Mickey Schorr, then program manager of WABX.

 

The real change came in 1968, when WABX became one of four radio stations in the nation to adopt the free-form progressive radio format. “In 68, there was a cultural revolution starting to happen, and the owners gave a shot to free-form radio”, recalled Wilson. John Small was the original architect used to develop the new format at WABX. Progressive radio was primarily about playing the music that would never be heard on the radio in that day.

 

When Al Wilson arrived as a salesman at WABX, free-form radio pioneer John Detz was running the station. Detz who took the reigns over early in ’68 was of the opinion that the “deejay” should be more involved in the format, constantly interacting with the music community in Detroit at places like the Grande Ballroom. Throughout the late sixties, the format was still in its infancy as more radio stations across the country went after the 18 to 34 age group.

 

Disc jockeys at WABX would play everything from classical, soul, country, blues and of course rock n roll, while throwing in music like Jose Feliciano’s version of the National Anthem or long tracks like In A Gadda Da Vida. WABX, was one of the few that developed a strong rapport with their audience by playing local musicians, providing rare radio exposure to The Stooges, MC5, and SRC.

 

Al Wilson Interview

  

 

“Always loved music since the time I was a kid (9 or 10).” Wilson grew up at a time when music was just starting to get recognized on television. By age fourteen, he was taking the bus to see shows at the Fox Theater, or Ed McKenzie’s Dance Party on Saturday afternoon’s at WJBK and cross the Detroit River to Windsor for Bud Davie's on CKLW television. He also became a sizeable fan of black music radio WJLB, WCHB and listened to the R&B Top 10 on CKLW which was also known as “race” music back then. Wilson later “enamored with the beat scene” frequented places like the “Minor Key” in Detroit, “everyone became beatniks all of a sudden.”

 

Getting Started At WABX

 

“Driving up Woodward Avenue during the summer of ‘67 I distinctly remember hearing Jefferson Airplane on CKLW, thinking that is different music”, said Wilson. It was about that time when radio began to change and a friend suggested he purchase an FM converter, “all I listened to was WABX” after that point. Like many others, he developed a taste for folk music, hanging out in Greenwich Village while working summers in the Catskills of New York and “saw (Bob) Dylan at the Gaslight.”

 

“I never thought of being in the music industry until getting out of college” said Wilson seeing friends working promotional positions for the music industry. Once out of college Wilson taught school for a short time before getting into advertising, which seemed to be more appealing “it was a fun business.” He began in accounting at Young & Rubicam, which is not the typical path to a media buying role, but landed a position when available. Working a media buy for Chrysler, he associated WABX’s young demographic appeal with muscle cars to the station accustomed to selling air time to local head shops. “Long story short, I liked WABX and wound up being close with people at the station in 69 & 70.” Wilson soon after accepted a sales position at WABX, “everybody in the business said are you crazy man.” At that time, CKLW, WXYZ and WKNR were a “big deal” but Wilson followed his heart and said “screw it I’m going to work for them (WABX)”.

 

After a successful year and a half at WABX, part owner Shelley Grafman tapped Al to become General Manager, when John Detz was being moved to a Los Angeles affiliated station KWST in 1973. Grafman simply came to Al and said, “I’m going to have you run the station, and that is how I ended up running it.” Wilson then realized, “I could screw this up real big, real quick” knowing he did not have the same tenure in broadcasting as most that held his position.

 

Changing Directions

 

“At that time, we had gone through the real hippie times, FM began to blossom and they (Century Broadcasting) were making the move at a pivotal point.” Wilson describes the original discussions with the Grafman’s, “we want to keep that hippie image but yet we’ve got to make some money, so I was the guy.” Wilson described the radio format then - “we sat around and voted on the records that would get on the air, no research, If we like it, they will like it”, which his peers cautioned “you guys are nuts." Wilson concedes, "they were right, we were wrong.” Century Broadcasting brought in program director Bob Birch from St Louis, which was the turning point for WABX becoming a “real” radio station. “It was a pretty tumultuous time, I had friends that said do not sell out to these guys” but Wilson also had a wife and family to provide for at home. This Al defines "was the era just prior to the Era of the Dog”.

 

WABX began to realize some “pretty good ratings” admits Wilson, that led to several substantial changes in the air staff. Wilson specifically recalls; “Jerry (Lubin) stayed, Perry was gone, Dixon would have never stayed, Parenteau was gone, Carlisle left, Harvey Ovshinsky already left.”

 

Lubin had hung on for a long time; one of the last of the original members to go because of his loyal listeners, “he could fart on the air and people would still listen to him” said Wilson. Eventually even his ratings began to soften, “The hardest thing I ever had to do in radio was firing (Dennis) Frawley and (Jerry) Lubin”. WABX made progress answering to a corporate structure that “needed to get (ratings) numbers, but it was a tough position to be in for a young guy.”  

 

The irony was although WRIF was more popular in the ratings; WABX was much more profitable, largely attributable to Wilson.

 

Air Aces

 

The Original Air Force

 

 

Caption: “This is the original air staff; they may not have been the most popular, but were known as the “air force”.

 

Jerry Lubin, originally known as Jerry O’Neil on other Top 40 stations throughout the Flint/Lansing area was the longest tenured Air Ace on WABX, a true “music guy that favored blues and rock.

 

Jerry Goodwin left in 1972, moving around for a short period before landing in Boston around ’76, where he retired from radio.

 

Dave Dixon now deceased, remained at WABX until 1974 and eventually ended up on WDET. Probably one of the most infamous disc jockeys from WABX for his love hate relationship with just about everyone. Dixon co-wrote “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” with Birmingham friend, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary.

 

Dennis Frawley, a long time and “very influential” Air Ace, best known as a rhythm & blues guy, now sells real estate in Florida.

 

Tim Powell now deceased, left in 1971 to follow fellow Air Ace Larry Miller at KLOS. Wilson claims he “was the weirdest of all of them; he was on all night and god only knows what happened when he was on the air.”

 

Larry Miller, left in November of 1970 for Los Angeles at KLOS, also known as a real music guy who sided with blues and rock style.

 

Influential Air Aces that followed at WABX were Mark Parenteau, Dan Carlisle, David Perry, and Dick Thyne, Wilson adds “I had a ton of (talented) people who worked for me.”

 

WABX was one of the first to reflect the social climate of the nation in their news with Harvey Ovshinsky (news director), a “radical, left wing, very bright guy” Al recalls. “News was just a diatribe” as he reported, “daily body counts” from the Vietnam War. Ovshinsky owned the anti-establishment magazine Fifth Estate and was later replaced by Cindy Felong another decidedly liberal, left wing, gay rights activist with free arm to do what she wanted with the news.

 

As the format changed, so too did the air staff at WABX, as Aces like Parenteau and Carlisle left making way for newcomers like Ken Calvert (now mornings at WCSX), who was at the station for a long time. “He was a new breed of disc jockey, coming from (the structured) W4 and it was a big deal for us to hire Calvert” says Wilson.

 

Some of the later Air Aces are still on the air in Detroit today; Karen Savelly (WCSX), Al recalls “once took up an entire vacation trying to keep her from jumping ship to (rival) WRIF”, Steve Kostan (WCSX) and Doug Podell (WCSX) who began as an intern at WABX. Lynn Woodeson was once a production director, Doak Breen (WWJ) production guy, who Al states “the best I ever had.” Allan Stagg, Wilson recalls as “one of the craziest guys I knew”, and Steve Dahl were some of the other “late in the day” addition to the air staff at WABX. Dahl has become one of the best known names in all of radio.

 

The Empowerment of the Disc Jockey

 

“It was just the evolution of the time that mirrored the audience; they would have paid us to work there.” Most or all had broadcasting backgrounds, having come from traditional top 40 radio this became “a whole new medium for them to do whatever they want”. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”, “egos were huge, but we had a good time”.

 

“It does not live on today”, says Wilson when asked about the current radio environment.

 

He spoke about Howard Stern, “Howard Stern is an enigma, there is nobody who can aspire and train themselves to become a Howard Stern.” The story as Al Wilson tells it, “he had relatives (in Detroit) that we were friends with; when he was here (in Detroit) he just was not that good.” WABX at the time had Steve Dahl on the air broadcasting from Chicago, “we happened to go to a party on the Friday that Dahl had quit.” “Howard had heard about it and said we should talk, I’ve got to get out of W4 its going to be a country station.” Coaxed by his wife to consider Stern as a replacement, Wilson responded “he sucks” and continues to defend his decision, “he did while he was here (in Detroit).” Today Wilson says “He (Stern) can do what he wants, and there is nobody else in radio today that can do that”.

 

The Wildest of Times

 

“The office was different, to say the least, there were no average days at WABX”, as Wilson goes on to tell “it reflected the times.” The first office located on the 33rd floor of the David Stott building was shared by a Dentist and Lawyers, with the WABX offices and studio set up in different suites. “The David Stott days were real wild, suffice it to say we had a please smoke policy.” WABX later moved from the Stott Building downtown to 8 Mile Road and Coolidge (Oak Park), which over time turned into a regular radio station. “But it always remained pretty loose and different from the others.”

 

THE ERA OF THE DOG

 

“Everybody’s got a slick commercial, we needed something” that was the evolution of the station and the Era of the Dog. "The more interesting parts were prior to that time, although it was always a pretty crazy radio station until sold (by Century Broadcasting) in 1982", recalls Wilson.

 

Merchandising



The call letters took on different designs over the years and “the best merchandising piece WABX had was the bumper sticker”, another popular item was the first WABX T shirts featuring an airplane.  


 
The Creation of the Dog

 

“The dog came about (through) our station in San Francisco, we all got together with Victor Moscoso (Grateful Dead artist) ” remembers Wilson. Under pressure from ownership admonitions “we gotta have something”, Wilson replied, “we’re ABX, we’re cool, we’re fine” and their response “cool does not work these days.” So in a series of meetings with Moscoso and a group head to keep the contingent under control they went through the manual task of developing the Dog. Al states “it was probably one of the more memorable things we did, I almost lost my job on account of it, because I thought what a hokey bunch of ****.”

 

IN STUDIO APPEARANCES 

 

“In studio appearances by bands were important because not only were they live (on the air); they were talking to a disc jockey, would sell records, and meet a lot of kids.”

 

“We had memorable visits by just about every band that came through Detroitespecially during the Grande (Ballroom) Days.” Some of the frequent visitors to WABX included Iggy Pop, J Geils Band “our house band”, Fleetwood Mac, Glen Frey (Eagles), and Journey. Kiss was also up a number of times, and on one Saturday morning when Al’s daughter happened to be in the studio, they showed up without their makeup. “That’s what we did, it was an entire community and that (music) was our social life, it was not like work.”

 

A controversial artist crossover incident occurred involving Ted Nugent and Patti Smith; "we used to separate the artists coming into the studio on the same day and would create a gap of time in between them, because some artists did not get along with each other. Ted Nugent did not like Patti Smith, and she did not like him; Smith walked into the studio while Jerry Lubin was on the air with Nugent, and Nugent made several expletive comments of Smith, heard on the radio by listeners.”

 

The Promotions

 

As a music community leader, WABX became well known for their promotions. “We did a series of 99 cent shows at Ford auditorium with a number of acts who went on to become huge like Heart, Thin Lizzy, Firefly, and we paid them nothing, we did not pay their room and board or anything, plus part of the deal was to come to the studio.”

 

The infamous WABX Kite Fly’s on Belle Isle were “Be-In’s” that featured local performers, "we had the cops out there a lot, we got way more people than we thought we would have, and there was a lot of dope around. We were actively involved in the Free John Sinclair Concert in Ann Arbor and WABX also did a lot a lot of showcases with Bruce Springsteen before he was well known.”

  

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