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‘The Wrath of the Buzzard’: New podcast examines the impact of legendary radio station WMMS

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 6/21/2022 Troy L. Smith,
Cleveland morning drive Ed (Flash) Ferenc and Jeff Kinzbach, both 24 at the time, at WMMS during the station's glory days. © James A. Hatch/ Cleveland morning drive Ed (Flash) Ferenc and Jeff Kinzbach, both 24 at the time, at WMMS during the station's glory days.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – If you love radio or music in general, and you live in Ohio, it won’t take long to hear about WMMS. The Cleveland radio station became a force in the music industry in the 1970s.

That was the case for Columbus resident Vince Tornero, president and executive producer of production company Wessler Media, the enterprise behind a new podcast series focused on WMMS.

“I love radio,” says Tornero, who used to work as an on-air talent and producer for iHeartMedia. “It was and still is my first career love, and still connects with a deeper part of my being and taps into something that gives me a deeper purpose on this planet.”

Through Wessler Media, Tornero launched “PROHFILES,” a podcast that explores the backstories behind the people, places and events in Ohio. Last year’s season of “PROHFILES” focused on subjects ranging from Cedar Point and the Columbus Crew to the Athens Lunatic Asylum and Cincinnati restaurateur Jeff Ruby.

This year, Tornero and his producer Kevin Skubak, an avid classic rock fan, channeled their love of radio and music into a logical subject matter – WMMS.

“Kevin said, if we’re going to do a Cleveland story, we might as well do the entire thing on WMMS,” recalls Tornero. “We wanted to put people deeper into the station through theater of the mind. It’s truly going to make people feel like they’re listening to the station again.”

Wessler Media released the first two episodes for “PROHFILES: The Wrath of the Buzzard” [Listen HERE] earlier this month. At six episodes and five hours, “The Wrath of the Buzzard” makes its case as the definitive recounting of WMMS’ rich history.

“Vince and his team have really gone out of their way with this podcast to interview the people who were responsible for WMMS becoming a success,” says John Gorman, who served as program manager at the station. “It was a team of people that really made that station happen. So, I’m very pleased with what I’ve heard so far because I’m learning things as it goes along.”

When it comes to Northeast Ohio music history and the rise of rock and roll as a mainstream radio platform in the 1970s, the impact of “100.7 WMMS: The Buzzard” is immeasurable. Under Gorman’s leadership, the station became one of the most influential in the country, helping launch the careers of everyone from David Bowie and Roxy Music to Bruce Springsteen and Rush.

“The Wrath of the Buzzard” begins with Gorman and Denny Sanders, both of whom began their radio careers in the Boston market and would take jobs at WMMS in the early 1970s. With Gorman as program director and Sanders handling creative, WMMS would become a ratings juggernaut in Cleveland.

“The Wrath of the Buzzard” keeps the focus on the personalities. There’s Billy Bass, the man who first put David Bowie on the airwaves leading to Ziggy Stardust’s first concert in the U.S. at Cleveland’s Music Hall in 1972. There’s Donna Halper, the music director that brought Rush to the attention of the station and helped the band earn its deal with Mercury Records.

There’s Ed “Flash” Ferenc and Jeff Kinzbach, co-hosts of WMMS’ “Jeff and Flash Show,” which became one of the most popular radio shows in the country. There’s David Spero, who joined WMMS at 19 and would go on to become the station’s key interviewer for rock bands, helping break Humble Pie and introduce Bruce Springsteen’s music to top WMMS disc jockey Kid Leo.

The list goes on and on. Tornero conducted 18 interviews in total. His interview with Gorman lasted four hours alone.

“I think we did make this definitive,” says Tornero. “Denny Sanders told us this is the definitive WMMS documentary because of the involvement of previous staff. This wouldn’t be what it is without the involvement of people like Denny Sanders, John Gorman, Billy Bass and everyone else who was involved.”

Another key aspect of “The Wrath of the Buzzard” is the inclusion of more than 30 hours of original station audio. The sounds of everything from disc jockey’s mic breaks to promotional ads transports the listener back to the glory days of WMMS.

Books have been written about Cleveland radio history and WMMS, including Gorman’s own “The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio.” But to actually hear the chemistry between “Jeff and Flash,” Bass’ late-night charisma, Kid Leo introducing national acts during WMMS-sponsored concerts and popular personality Murray Saul captivating a livewire audience is a game-changer.

“I wrote a book about my time with WMMS, but that’s just my point of view,” Gorman admits. “I knew the history of the station. But I think hearing it from other people who were there really makes a difference.”

“The Wrath of the Buzzard” not only focuses on the early days of WMMS. It dives into the station’s legendary WMMS Coffee Break Concerts at the Agora, which featured everyone from U2 and John Mellencamp to Lou Reed and Peter Frampton. It also assesses the station’s role in bringing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to Cleveland and the contentious local radio wars that helped drive WMMS to the top of the ratings.

“What surprised me the most about the story of WMMS is the fact that the staff was so deeply committed to the success of this radio station,” says Tornero. “It was a station that was the physical embodiment of the heart of soul of Cleveland at that time. They didn’t want to beat their competition, they wanted to nuke them. It was a no holds barred to make that station successful.”

And, of course, there’s the decline. The final episode of “The Wrath of the Buzzard” revisits “The Howard Stern Show” entering and taking over the Cleveland market.

In 1994, Stern held a party in Cleveland as a “funeral” for his competitors (including WMMS), which led to WMMS engineer William Alford snipping the broadcast wire for Stern’s feed. Alford was arrested and station management would later plead guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges.

Nationwide Communications bought WMMS and it became part of Clear Channel/iHeart Media’s portfolio in 1999. “The Wrath of the Buzzard” serves as a reminder of the power of radio and how a group of people came together in Cleveland to change the industry nearly 50 years ago.

“We wanted to celebrate this station that deserves every second of the five hours and six episodes this podcast lasts,” says Tornero. “It was such a privilege to listen to these stories of what I believe is the most iconic station in America. Radio is magical and when you study the story of WMMS, it is a story that I don’t think could happen anywhere else.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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