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New Book Looks Back at Cleveland Radio Tales of the 1950s, 60s and 70s

Romanian counts, make-believe ballrooms and alien invasions have all played a part in Cleveland’s radio history. These colorful, bizarre and sometimes tragic moments are the subject of a new book.

In the 1970s, Murray Saul -- a middle-aged salesman at rock station WMMS – would go on the air to kick off the weekend and “Get Down,” featuring tales of his planned debauchery. He and the station he worked for are among the highlights of Mike Olszewski’s new book, “Cleveland Radio Tales.”

"I'll tell you the truth: a lot of the stuff, we just can't print. Because a lot of it was just private. And a lot of the stuff, well, you don't want to know. It's like sausage: you don't want to know what goes into it, you just want the finished product."

Breaking news from Cleveland
Olszewski’s book focuses on a variety of radio formats in Cleveland from the 1950s to the ‘80s. Almost every station back then had a news department. Ray Kozlowski was a news anchor at WGAR-AM in 1964 and was one of the first in the country to break an international story – all because he happened to be chatting with an old friend stationed in Europe with Reuters.

“And the friend from Reuters was saying, ‘what was that? Kruschev’s been deposed?’ And basically repeating everything this other guy was saying. [Ray] was here in Cleveland writing everything down. He just walked on the air and said, ‘Nikita Kruschev has been deposed,’ and Cleveland knew it before Moscow knew it.’”

Olszewski’s book looks back at other moments of radio as a public service, such as the Glenville riots. At the time, soul station WABQ had to sign off each night at sundown. But during the riots, they defied FCC rules to stay on the air with safety updates.

“Every city has its own history. One thing I’ll say about Cleveland: this is the great melting pot. A lot of those cultures and their traditions combined to give us great radio. People will look at the radio and television that we looked at in Cleveland and say, ‘what’s so special about this?’”

The 'Make Believe Ballroom'
Olszewski says there are few existing recordings to explain what made many of the personalities in the book so special, such as Wayne Mack and his “Make Believe Ballroom.”

“But it was so realistic, people used to drive around for hours looking for this crystal ballroom. He just had that magic that held us.”

The same goes for Bill Randle, a DJ who was so popular, station management built him his own full bathroom.

“Bill Randle was the exact opposite of everything you heard about radio. He spoke in a monotone [and] droned on about himself. He would play records on his own that you thought, ‘Why would he play the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after Elvis Presley?’ The thing was, he knew what clicked with Cleveland.”

The book is not just about the eccentricities of professional DJ’s, but also the impact the stations had on everyday life. There’s the story of Jimi Hendrix nearly causing a riot while visiting radio stations. Or tech-savvy students in the mid-1960s building their own pirate radio stations.

Jack Paar v. Orson Welles
There’s also a chapter on Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. The DJ at the Cleveland station carrying the broadcast was a young announcer named Jack Paar. He would eventually go on to host “The Tonight Show.” But that night in 1938, the radio rookie was fielding panicked phone calls. He explained what happened next during an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1986.

“Most of the country believed it. I just couldn’t stand the phone calls anymore. And I said, ‘ladies and gentleman, this is a drama. I think. And we’re checking with New Jersey and please do not phone the station because God, I just can’t handle any more of this!’”

'Whip It' good
Cleveland radio has had more than its share of characters. Take “Count” John Manolesco, for example, who hosted a show on news/talk WERE. Manolesco, who claimed to be a physic from Romania, went so far as to perform a live, on-air exorcism. Again, few tapes of his long-running show exist today. But his most enduring legacy is one that Mike Olszewski himself had a hand in.

“So that was when the song ‘Whip It’ by Devo was out. What we did was – he would just sit down and say, ‘give me the copy,’ and he would read copy for commercials the next day or promotions. He didn’t know what he was reading; he just read it. And he read the lyrics to ‘Whip It.’ We put it to the backing track [and] gave it to a guy to actually play on his show. It caused a sensation. Didn’t tell the Count about it, though. So all of a sudden, somebody calls up the Count’s show at night and says ‘why don’t you take that dirty song you did off the air?’ And he says ‘what song?’ And she told him about it. He called me up, got ‘Whip It,’ put it on the air, and he was convinced he could be a rock and roll star.”

Olszewski and his wife Jan -- who co-authored the book – say they hope documenting these stories ensures that the Count, Bill Randle, Murray Saul and so many others are remembered for their contributions to Cleveland.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.