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Remembering when WGBB ruled LI radio

Newsday's Marissa Sarbak takes a look back at

Newsday's Marissa Sarbak takes a look back at the history of  WGBB radio, the Long Island Top 40 station a hit in the 1960s and '70s. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost, John Conrad Williams Jr.; Grant Baldwin. Photo Credit: Dave Vieser

Until he finally sold his company in 2005, Don Ericksen chartered private jets and helicopters out of Republic Airport. He's retired now, living in Holbrook with his wife of 38 years, and a whole lot of memories. Some are still painful, others life-affirming.

Here's one of those, involving a little radio station in Merrick called WGBB.

On Jan. 15, 1970, Capt. Donald G. Ericksen of the 7/1st Air Cavalry was a 22-year-old Huey Cobra pilot who'd flown 25 combat missions in Vietnam, been shot down twice and seen friends and classmates from Merrick's Calhoun High killed, too. His year tour finally over, he was just one more battle-scarred, battle-hardened vet back from an unpopular war, stepping off a plane at JFK. His family was there to meet him.

On the ride home to North Merrick down the Southern State, his father turned on the car radio. The signal crackled, a voice started to speak — here Ericksen paraphrases the old memory — which said, "'This is the Dave Vieser Show and I'm dedicating this to Don Ericksen…'"

"This" would be a Bobby Vinton two-hanky called "Coming Home Soldier" and suddenly "there I was, the real tough helicopter pilot, the captain and I was crying like a little kid," Ericksen recalls. "Just sitting there in the car, and listening to that, knowing I'm home, back in the world …"

The moment was both cathartic and the start of a healing process that would take years, he says.

It's hard now to imagine anyone having a cathartic moment listening to the radio on the Southern State. Most likely, they'd be tuned to Sirius XM, or an iHeartRadio import from New York City. A podcast maybe.

All as indelible or memorable as a coffee break.

RADIO WAS DIFFERENT IN 1970

There were 156 AM stations in the Tri-state area alone, some packed in the city, but many others dividing up their regional listeners the way principalities once divided up Europe. They were intensely local and parochial. Few however, could, match WGBB in the local department. It was Long Island's undisputed radio champ of "local" and had effectively secured itself landmark status in Merrick, along with places like Savall Drugs or Cammanns Pond. Ericksen had indeed come back into the world — WGBB's world.

Housed in an unimposing three-story brick building called "1240 Broadcast Plaza" across from the Merrick train station, the giant letters "W '' "G" "B" B " were stacked vertically above the front entrance in case anyone wondered where headquarters were. No one ever had to.

The station's so-called "Super Six'' jocks worked out of the second floor where passersby or commuters could see them and wave. The Super Six always waved back. Most lived within walking distance of the station. They weren't mere "jocks," you see, but next-door neighbors.

Then, there were the reporters. Some, like Drew Scott — a long, successful TV career followed — were established. Most were still in their teens. Gary Lewi, its aviation reporter, started there while he was still in high school.

"It was," says Scott, "a very heady place to be."

Vieser — known as "The Vieser" to fans — had been spinning top 40 hits since joining up in 1965 right out of Hofstra. He was the best-known of the jocks, but there were many others, like "Bullet" Bob Ottone, Gil David, Don Rosen and morning host Roy Reynolds — "Your Boy Roy" who talked about his kids on the air each morning so obsessively that some fans insisted he was still talking about them like they were kids even after they were grown. There was also Bob Lawrence, longtime host and program director, who would later become the Islanders' play-by-play announcer.

One of those "Super Six," Al Case, was revered by colleagues. Case didn't just host his own show, but also invented stuff — important stuff like something called an "organ reverb," which made WGBB's DJ's sound like they were broadcasting from inside a vast vault, It was a dramatic effect or at least more dramatic than what the New York DJs had.

A WEAK SIGNAL

As handy as Case was, he could do nothing about the station's signal. No one could. It went out as a 1000 watts in the day but just 250 watts after the sun went down. It could barely make its way past Hempstead at night, though oddly enough, skipped across the water all the way to Asbury Park and Long Branch, New Jersey, where it was popular too.

Vieser — now 76, but barely out of his teens when he got to GBB — is now living outside Charlotte, North Carolina. His voice still has the familiar inflections of the genial jock who cued up songs and dedications over a 12-year run that ended in 1976. He has plenty of memories of his own. Some have to do with that lousy signal.

"There was just no way we could compete with the big Top 40 stations back in the day, so the management, to their credit, said 'let's do local!'," he says. "You know — we'll still play the hits, the right music and we'll do all the bells and whistles. We got the reverb and a good solid news department too. We'll do it the right way, but let's do local as much as we can, and that's where we focused.

"That's what really made the station a success," he says. "Everybody ate it up because they'd never had anything like that before."

LI's FIRST STATION

WGBB signed on the air December, 15, 1924, as Long Island's first radio station, broadcasting from a garage at 215 Bedell Street in Freeport. The owner was Harry H.. Carman, whose family ran a grocery store in Rockville Centre. Carman wanted nothing to do with produce.

Carman long boasted that "WGBB'' stood for "Where Good Broadcasting Begins," but that may have been a whopper. According to a 2015 history of New York radio, "The Airwaves of New York, " by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze, the call letters "were the next entry on the Commerce Department's alphabetical list of assigned" ones. The call letters — in other words — meant nothing.

This history describes Carman as a "devoted but parsimonious owner [who] was known to work airshifts himself, using more than one voice in an attempt to give the impression of a larger announcing staff."

His on-air programs apparently were devoted to whatever he could get his hands on for free. There was a show about the Freeport chapter of the Girl Scouts, another given over to Tony Lane and his Air Lane Trio (they'd eventually become popular).

Carman was smart — he'd get Freeport hometown superstar Guy Lombardo, the big band leader, to perform — but he was still cheap. WGBB's signal was 100 watts yet but when Carman had a chance to upgrade to 250 watts, he declined. Too expensive.

Only after Carman's death in 1955 and subsequent sale (to Edward Fitzgerald Jr., owner of WGSM in Huntington) did it finally become a 250-watt station. WGBB was the last of the 100 watts, according to that "New York Radio" history.

In 1965, a York, Pa.-based company called Susquehanna Radio Broadcasting bought WGBB. Susquehanna meant business. It relocated the studios from Freeport to the Merrick train station and went on a hiring spree. "Our job," recalls Wes Richards — who worked there as both DJ and newsroom manager before leaving for New York to work at NBC News — "was to make [listeners] happy and keep them happy. We worked very hard at that."

Reporters were hired, too, almost all of them men. There were rare female reporters, including a future New York TV legend, News 12's Carol Silva, who says the prevailing "attitude was, 'we work here, we live here, we get it."

NYC? NOT

Insularity could go to extremes, and in time, WGBB created the AM radio version of a biosphere. It was walled off from much of Suffolk (that signal) but especially from New York City.

Vieser says he was told never to "talk about New York City. It was if New York didn't really exist."

Another WGBB DJ and (briefly) reporter, Ted David — who went on to become a charter anchor at CNBC — says that if they "played the song by the Ad Libs, 'The Boy from New York City,' they weren't even allowed to say the title."

KEEPING IT LOCAL

The station devised lots of other gimmicks to keep listeners happily ensconced in their local radio biosphere. Vieser's dedication hotline became so popular that at least on one occasion it crashed the local Bell telephone interchange. Most requests, says Vieser, came from high school students who were listening while attempting to do their homework. They'd dedicate a song to their school, friend, or team but mostly just wanted to hear their name read on the air.

A dozen or so dedications a week went out to soldiers returning from Vietnam, or about to leave. Some were taped and sent to Long Islanders serving 10,000 miles away.

Live dedications were tricky, says Vieser. If one was going out to a soldier, he had to make certain the lead-in song wasn't something like "What Are You Fighting For" (Phil Ochs) or "Eve of Destruction" (Barry McGuire).

"It was important for me, whether reading them live or handling them on the phone, to make sure that if it was [handled] seriously. You had to be real careful because there was very serious stuff going on."

There were other gimmicks that bonded listeners to Broadcast Plaza. The best-known was something called the WGBB "car box" — sort of a mini-trash can — that listeners were told to put in their car's rear window. If they were spotted by a GBB employee, they'd win a prize. Car boxes started appearing in rear windows all over Long Island.

Then, there was "Pet Patrol:" If your dog or cat went missing, a call to the WGBB hotline ensured immediate action. An alert went out over the air and — one now easily imagines — listeners from Baldwin to Long Beach reflexively looked out their kitchen windows. Vieser says hundreds of wayward pets were reunited with their owners over the years.

Snow school closures were huge too. There was no other way to find out if your school was closed after a storm, so jocks read the names: All of them, one after another, and then all over again. If a school for some reason had not closed, invariably there'd be a kid who would call pretending to be the school principal.

Vieser, mimicking the prank he heard dozens of times: " …'this is Principal So-and-So and we're closed too….'"

Oh, yeah? said the jock who was wise-to-the-ways-of-kids. "What's your school identification code…?"

Click.

In the summer, WGBB turned its attention to the beach, or occasionally to its own "pool" on the roof of Broadcast Plaza. On one particularly hot day, the AC broken, morning drive host Steve Andrews — his real name is Steve Matela — got the idea of telling listeners he was broadcasting from the WGBB pool on the roof of Broadcast Plaza. There was no pool, but at least it made him feel a little cooler. He tracked the sounds of kids laughing, and people jumping in and splashing.

Matela's "pool" went on to become a regular feature and for some listeners, a puzzling one too. "People were convinced there was a pool here somewhere and would drive by looking for it, " he now recalls. He saw commuters on the train platform crane their necks, too, hoping for just one telltale splash.

LOCAL NEWS WAS CRUCIAL

The newsroom was where WGBB also distinguished itself — "an amazing newsroom," says Silva. WGBB hired over a dozen reporters at a time, to cover everything from hurricanes to fender-benders on Sunrise Highway. Their frequent dispatches went out over something impressively called "the Long Island News Network."

Pay of course was rock-bottom — a legacy of Carman's renowned parsimony — and reporters didn't last long. Nevertheless, the alumni roll-call is still impressive: Besides Silva and Scott, there was Bill Whitney, Frank Settipani, Christopher Glenn and John Bohannon — also longtime host of WRHU/88.7 FM's "The Jazz Cafe'' — who became CBS Network Radio stars. WGBB reporter Bill Stoller had a distinguished career at ABC News Network. Juliet Papa and Mitch Lebe ended up (among other places) at 1010/WINS. Bettina Gregory had a long run at ABC's "World News Tonight."

Some reporters and hosts went into politics. David Levy became the 4th District's representative in Congress in the early '90s. Vieser himself left to eventually become a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta. "To be honest," he admits, "the WGBB pay was the reason."

There were also unusual — indeed almost inconceivable — careers that were launched at Broadcast Plaza. One was Phil Dusenberry, the advertising executive behind dozens of famous campaigns (including the 1984 Pepsi ad during which Michael Jackson's hair caught fire.)

Joseph Dougherty, executive producer of "Pretty Little Liars," got his start here too, writing ad copy. He left after three years to become a producer on ABC's "thirtysomething."

The Westbury native — who says some of the episodes he wrote for "thirtysomething" were directly inspired by WGBB — recalls that the station was "modest, friendly and … what's the positive way of saying 'skin of the teeth'?"

THE END OF AN ERA

Indeed, WGBB had begun its inexorable decline by the early '80s although former reporter Gary Lewi says "it had already begun to slip away" by the time he left in the late '70s to become a spokesman for Sen. Al D'Amato. One reason was the rise of FM, the other broadcast deregulation which no longer required radio stations to air news or other community affairs programming.

What began to slip away was that local identity.

Paul Fleishman, who recently retired as Newsday's vice president of public affairs, but ran WGBB and a group of other Long Island radio stations in the '90s, says "this little radio station had a fully staffed news department, with fifteen minutes of news every hour, as well as a customized traffic report. In the pre-Internet days, there was no way to get all that, except on WGBB."

By the '90s, however, both the internet and News 12 had arrived.

The darkest day, in fact, was in 1988, when 17 people were laid off. WGBB was then relegated to a rebroadcast of WBAB's signal. But a modest revival began in 1999: Called WGBB once again, the station devoted most of the broadcast day to a Chinese-language network, and lots of brokered programming. The studios at 1240 Broadcast Plaza are long gone, and the station now operates out of a less-memorable locale in Merrick.

Meanwhile, one of its most devoted fans from the old days — Don Ericksen — admits that he stopped listening decades ago.

Nonetheless, he's still grateful. "It sure helped my PTSD as the years went by," he says.

Listening to "The Vieser" and all those other jocks "absolutely helped," he insists. "It sure did."

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