Friday, April 1, 2011

WZUM Gone

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Another of the iconic radio stations of Old Mon's youth has bit the dust; WZUM is officially dead. Actually, it's been a long time a'comin'. WZUM went off the air a year ago last week, and the FCC, after its mandated one-year wait, finally pulled the plug on the silent broadcaster.

The station had a 1000-watt daytime signal/24 watts nighttime that broadcast from Crafton, with its studios located in West Mifflin.

WZUM began in the 1962 as an R&B and top 40 station, run by Pittsburgh polka bandleader and eventual "Steeler Polka" performer Jimmy Pol, who later got control of the station (although some thought he was a National Record Mart front; stations and shops weren't supposed to mix back in the payola era).

You might remember a couple of its personalities: Mad Mike Metro, who jocked there from 1964-72, Bob Mack's "Wax Museum," aired from 1962-64, or a young Terry Lee who spun from the WZUM studios for a brief period between 1963-64.

Hey, do any of these DJs ring a bell: Terry Caywood, "Powerful" Paul Perry, Kit Baron, "Laid Back" Larry Allen, Al Gee, Michael Jon, Bobby Bennett, Jeff Troy or Mark Wallace? WZUM and its stable of jockeys was on everyone's car radio back in the day when AM mattered.

Pol or Perry would broadcast the "Polka Party" in the morning at sunrise. Great way to start the day, hey? It gets better.

Michael Jon was good enough to drop Old Mon a note, and fondly recalls brother jock Larry Allen following the polka wake-up call with a lead-in blast of Led Zeppelin (WZUM was one of the early local players of hard rock.) And you wonder why we graybeards loved AM radio?

During the early seventies, WZUM was a free-form AOR outlet from 10:00 am until sunset, but switched to religious programming under the call letters WPLW in 1974 after its purchase by Robert Hickling.

Following Hickling's death in 1998, it was sold to local broadcaster Mike Horvath and once again became WZUM. The station's airwaves flickered off and on for awhile; Horvath had to get the physical plant up to snuff.

The station returned to the air full time after a major transmitter and studio overhaul. They played eighties hits, and Mad Mike assembled a lineup of vintage DJs for a Sunday "Oldies Blast" live from Pietro's Pizza.

But after Metrovich's death, Horvath gave the blasts from the past 90 days to get out of Dodge; he had given up on local oldies music programming. That might have cost the station its niche in the Pittsburgh market; we'll never know.

He changed the on-air format to traffic reporting, smooth jazz, ethnic music, local sports and talk, but within a year, WZUM was mostly airing religious programming. Relevant Radio bought the station in 2005 and converted it to 24/7 Catholic radio, which lasted until 2009 when Sovereign City took over.

WZUM aired easy listening music in its place and was later floating trial balloons at the Delmarva Educational Association for programming or a possible sale, but it didn't pan out.

The station switched to southern Gospel by May and called itself "The Promise." Sovereign City sold the licensing rights to Virginia-based religious programmer Believe and Achieve Family and Educational Center. It only prolonged the agony by a few more months.

The station ceased operations in March of 2010 when the studio was padlocked for non-payment of rent; in another month, the broadcast towers shut down and all the equipment that could be salvaged was sold to engineer Randy Dietterich.

Its license technically remained active until now, and a couple of well-intentioned but not so well-heeled purchasers tried to revive the station. But after missing several rent payments, Crafton council directed that the three broadcast towers, which were located on leased borough land, be dismantled (they were), and that made any possible license transfer a moot point.

Now the license goes into auction, and the WZUM call letters are probably gone forever from Western Pennsylvania, along with a piece of Old Mon's youth.


Mad Mike does the "Camel Walk" with the PORCC All-Stars

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