Its call letters may be gone, but the spirit of radio station WFBR remains, thanks to a few hundred alumni and a fondly remembered format known as "Mad Radio 13."
"It was personality radio," recalls longtime WFBR general manager Harry Shriver, who's one of the driving forces for a station reunion slated for 7: 30 p.m. Saturday at Chesley Hall, 6908 Belair Road. "We had a lot of personalities on the air who were interesting, including Johnny Walker, Charlie Eckman on sports, Tom Marr in the newsroom, Commander Jim Morton at nights."
Walker may well have been Baltimore's dominant radio personality during the 1970s, a bad boy of radio whose shtick paved the way for people like Don Imus and Howard Stern. Walker was equally lauded and reviled, and seemed to love it. His "single-entendre" jokes skirted the boundaries of good taste; his "Little News of the Morning" poked relentless fun at local celebrities (not all of whom found Walker to their taste; he was once sued by a TV anchorman for joking about him on the air); his 1974 marriage drew 15,000 people to Hopkins Plaza.
Unfortunately, Walker -- who retired in 1987 at age 39 -- may be one of the few WFBR alumni not to show Saturday. He's living "in the wilds of West Virginia" and has been sent notices about the reunion, Shriver says, but not heard from.
Still, the list of those who've promised to show up is impressive, and growing: Johnny Contino, Joe Knight (who's coming from Fort Myers, Fla.), Mike March, Wayne Gruehn, Ron Matz, Tom Marr, John Patti, Stan Charles. Organizers are expecting around 100 former employees.
"Only two people we've contacted have not been interested," says Shriver. "And that's pretty impressive, given that the only thing we had to work from was a bunch of in-house telephone directories from 1978 through 1988. But when we'd contact one person, we'd ask them if they knew anyone else."
WFBR's history dates back to 1922, when it debuted on the air at AM-1270, with call letters WEAR. That same year, it became the first station to broadcast a presidential address, Shriver says, when it put Warren G. Harding on the air during an appearance at Fort McHenry.
In 1924, the station was bought by the Fifth Regiment Officers' Association, which changed the call letters to WFBR -- for World's First Broadcasting Regiment -- and aired entertainment programming from the 5th Regiment Armory. WFBR, which was moved to AM-1300 in the 1930s, also produced radio's first "man-on-the-street" interviews (Henry Hickman did the interviewing) and quiz show. In 1974, it became the first AM station in the United States to broadcast in stereo.
It also was the first radio home of Arthur Godfrey, who debuted on the station in 1929.
Shriver, now a co-owner of WWLG-AM (1360), doesn't go back quite that far; he started at the station in 1956. But he was part of a show that would become a local institution.
"Conference Call" first hit the airwaves in 1962, debuting during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the daily discussion of news and local issues would remain on the air 26 years. Shriver, who served as WFBR's general manager from 1970 to 1988, was an original panel member, as were news director Lou Corbin, Ted Beinart and moderator Bill Jaeger.
"The panel had the freedom to say anything they wanted to," Shriver remembers, "and many times they did, to the consternation and embarrassment of management. But it was fun."
WFBR's popularity probably peaked when it began broadcasting Oriole games in 1979, the same year that saw the birth of "Orioles Magic," turning the O's from a team into an institution.
Not coincidentally, the station's fortunes faded rapidly in 1987, when Oriole broadcasts moved to WCBM. The station reverted to an all-talk format, but the magic was clearly gone. Infinity Broadcasting bought the station the next year; today, it operates under the call letters WJFK-AM (1300).
"It was a particularly good time," Shriver, 64, says of his years at WFBR, years he looks forward to revisiting Saturday. "All that's over now. Radio's changed; it's no longer fun. It's too corporate, too timid. Basically, the only thing that matters is the bottom line."
Saturday's reunion is open to all former employees of WFBR and their guests. Tickets are $30 (today is the deadline for buying them). For information, telephone Mary Pfeiffer at 410-661-4770.
Help for jazz
Jazz lovers may want to consider putting their money where their ears are this week, by helping WEAA-FM (88.9) during its annual pledge drive.
"Memberfest '97" will run daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., June 19-22. The Morgan State University station, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, counts on listeners for a substantial portion of its operating budget. Other money comes from the school and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Moving film on Father's Day
Showtime wishes everyone a Happy Father's Day with "In His Father's Shoes," a moving, if sometimes simplistic, look at a boy who comes to grips with his father's death by literally stepping into his dad's shoes.
It helps the boy's understanding that the shoes are actually time machines that transport him back to 1962, where he's mistaken for his father as a young high school student. With his father's otherworldly guidance -- at one point, he literally pushes his son across the dance floor -- he not only learns what it was like for his dad, but helps build a rapprochement between the older man and his father.
Louis Gossett Jr. plays both the father and the grandfather, and as usual, he's fine, giving both men a quiet dignity, even though they're two very different people. The father, who is dying of cancer as the film opens, loves his children and is never afraid to show it. The grandfather loves his children no less, but pretty much keeps that information hidden within.
He also has gone through life with a king-sized chip on his shoulder, angry at the opportunities he was never provided as a black man growing up in the '30s and '40s, raising a family in the '50's and '60s. And he's resentful of how easy his children seem to have it, and how little they seem to value the changing times.
Robert Ri'chard does a nice job as the son, Clay, who uses the shoes to put back together a family that had drifted apart. Although he sometimes tries too hard to act enthusiastic, Ri'chard's agony over the death of his father, and his wonder over the shoes' power, seems genuine.
"In His Father's Shoes" premieres at 8 tonight on Showtime.
'Zoh Show' at market
Zoh Hieronimus is hitting the road.
Thursday, "The Zoh Show" will broadcast live from Big Jim's Deli at the Cross Street Market. Stop by for free refreshments and the chance to become part of the discussion (you never quite know what Zoh will be talking about next).
"The Zoh Show" airs weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on WCBM-AM (680).
Pub Date: 6/15/97