Jazz will sign off


Sale of WNOP radio stops almost 50 years of jive

        The Jazz Ark was abandoned years ago. Old Undies has passed away.
        And on New Year's Eve, all that jazz will end on tiny WNOP-AM (740).
        For the first time in 40 years, this jive town won't have an all-jazz station. What a shame.
        In the 1970s and 1980s, WNOP-AM rocked and rolled unlike any station. It couldn't help it. The studios were inside three huge oil tanks floating on the Ohio River.

        Radio Free Newport, they called it.

        Free as in free spirits. Free as in few sponsors. Even then, the daytime jazz station wasn't making any money, which is why Al Vontz III has sold it to Sacred Heart Radio. A religious format starts Jan. 1, a week before America goes Jazz crazy over Ken Burns' new PBS miniseries.

        For four decades, WNOP-AM marched to the beat of a different drummer — often Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa or Louie Bellson.

        Jazz giants like Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman would stop by when playing gigs in town.

        Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and McCoy Tyner chatted with Oscar Treadwell from the old Monmouth Street storefront studio.

        “Just about anybody who was anybody (in jazz) back in the '60s came on,” recalls Walt Harrell, a 20-year off-and-on 'NOP veteran under the name of Bunky Tadwell, Sam Jessup and his real name.
Format began in '61
        The jazz-and-comedy format was started in 1961, when Dick Pike returned to the station owned by former Campbell County Sheriff Jim Lang and his wife. They started the station in 1948.

        “They said I could do anything I wanted,” he says. And he did.

        He hired the hippest staff in town: Leo (Old Undies) Underhill, Ray Scott, Ty Williams, Jack Clements, Dee Felice and Mr. Treadwell.

        “Count Basie said there was no jazz station in the country like WNOP-AM, and he was right,” Mr. Harrell says.

        Word of WNOP-AM spread to Variety, Billboard, Downbeat, Broadcasting and Cashbox magazines. If only the station had done as well in local listeners' ratings diaries.

        “In '61 and '62, we probably had the highest ratings. We were in the one's, instead of a fraction,” Mr. Pike says. “It never made money, to my knowledge.”

        But WNOP made people tap their toes, and laugh out loud.

        The “bubble machine,” a dilapidated tape player, was loaded with one-liners from comedy albums by Jonathan Winters, Shelly Berman, Hudson & Landry, Lenny Bruce and others.

        Andy Griffith's “Buddy, have a drink!” could slip onto the airwaves any time — after songs, during newscasts, or in the middle of commercials for the Cabooze liquor store.

        Mr. Berman was so grateful to WNOP-AM for promoting his comedy records that he recorded about a dozen station identification announcements explaining what the call letters stood for:

        • Where Nonsense Occasionally Prevails.
        • We Never Offend Porcupines.
        • Who Needs Our Problems?
        • [We nauseate old policemen.]
Budget “cruise”

        In 1972, jazz lover Al Vontz II of Heidelberg Distributing bought the 1,000-watt daytime station. When his Newport landlord tripled the rent, he moved the station into a trio of oil drums next to the Central Bridge.

        “At that time you had to broadcast in the city of license, so my father said, "I'll get as far away from the city as I can,' ” says Al Vontz III, his son and CEO of Heidelberg.

        WNOP-AM was a Tristate watermark for 16 years, until they gave up the ship in 1989.

        Max Warner, Bob Nave, Chris Wagner and Val Coleman played records inside the Ark on spring-mounted turntables with weighted (4 grams) arms. The bouncing waves weren't a problem, but “you could wear the grooves out pretty quick in a record if you played it a lot,” says Mr. Nave, who hosts The Bop Connection 5-6 p.m. Sundays on WVXU-FM (91.7).

        When runaway barges careened down the Ohio River, Mr. Nave and Ray Scott did play-by-play. When the river froze in 1977, Mr. Harrell described the hundreds of people (and several motorists) crossing the river.

        You never knew who would wander in. Local filmmaker Bob Gerding once walked in with his client, WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson. Mr. Harrell recalls the TV producer saying, “If I had seen this place first, this is where we would have put WKRP!”
Few, but loyal, listeners

        In the past two decades, WNOP-AM bounced through several locations before moving into the “Jazz Mansion” at 2516 Spring Grove Ave., Camp Washington. Loyal listeners endured a variety of changes as Mr. Vontz searched for profitable programming. Geoff Nimmo introduced fusion music in 1984. After the Gulf War, the station switched to CNN Headline News.

        “We were trying to cut our losses,” Mr. Vontz says. “Frankly, I couldn't listen to five minutes of that (CNN) myself.”

        He brought back the jazz, but it could never attract a big audience. WNOP-AM seldom had enough listeners to make the quarterly Arbitron ratings.

        “We knew, because of WNOP-AM, that some artists sold more jazz music in Cincinnati than what they did in other cities,” Mr. Vontz laments. “It was very frustrating. We put it (selling) off for as long as we could.” 
FM no guarantee

        Mr. Pike says he urged the Langs in the 1960s to get an FM signal, which has better quality for music. Since 1954, the Langs had owned the license for a Newport TV station to be called WNOP-TV (Channel 74). Long after they sold the license, it was finally built as WXIX-TV (Channel 19) in 1968.

        But being on FM would be no guarantee of success. Xavier's WVXU-FM canceled its jazz shows in 1998 due to lack of financial support. Owners of WVAE-FM (“The Wave”) dropped “smooth jazz” in 1999 for “jammin' oldies.”

        “I don't understand it. There are nice jazz stations in Cleveland and Columbus. Why can't we have one here?” asks jazz fan Pat Scharf of Western Hills.

        “WNOP-AM is truly a treasure that we're losing,” says Dr. Joseph Hamad, a Kenwood physician who plays the station in his office.
Stopping the music
        In recent years, WNOP-AM returned to its roots as “Real Jazz 740” under General Manager Mark Stevens, a Green Township kid who liked to hang out at old 'NOP in the early 1960s.

        Mr. Stevens expanded WNOP-AM to 24-hours in 1998, though the 37-watt night signal barely reaches I-275. He tried to buy the station this fall when he heard Mr. Vontz was selling. More than 2,000 people signed petitions to keep the jazz station.

        “For a station that nobody ever listened to, or ever heard of, we did OK,” says Mr. Stevens, who is organizing a Dec. 27 wake for jazz fans at the 20th Century in Oakley.

        Mr. Stevens is exploring resurrecting WNOP-AM on the Internet or on another station. “A broker is actively looking for a frequency for us,” he says.

        For now, they stop the music on New Year's Eve. (“Buddy, have a drink!”)

        “I understand that Mr. Vontz is doing this, not because he wants to, but for economic and business reasons he had to do it,” Mr. Nave says. “But I feel like I did when we lost the Albee Theatre. We're losing an institution, a landmark.”

        And all that jazz.    



Wednesday, December 20, 2000, John Kiesewetter is TV/radio critic for The Enquirer.