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Some WVOK History by Russell Wells

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Some WVOK History by Russell Wells
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SOME BACKGROUND ON WVOK-AM 690

by Russell Wells

 

WVOK - flagship station of the Brennan chain - signed on the air in 1947 at 690 on the dial, and soon became Alabama’s first 50,000-watt radio station (WAPI 1070 wouldn’t boost its power to 50 kW until 1958, and WYDE 850 did so around 1970).

 

On the staff from day one was a young gentleman who was lured from WAPI, then THE major radio station in Birmingham ("The Voice of Alabama"), and hosted such programs as Hi, Neighbor Time and various “hoedown” programs throughout the schedule.  That gentleman’s name was Joe Rumore.  Joe would become the man who personified WVOK over the next 35+ years with his one-of-a-kind program, and an on-air delivery nobody who heard it would ever forget.

 

His brother, Duke, was also a famous radio legend in Birmingham, helping revitalize WSGN in 1955 with the city’s first top-40 format ... which WVOK would later adopt. 

 

For a number of years, Joe and Duke were top-40 DJs.on archrival stations.  But never at the same time; the two brothers refused to work airshifts directly competing with one another.

 

From the onset WVOK distinguished itself from the rest of the Birmingham radio pack with programming which appealed not so much to the metro Birmingham population as to the outlying areas of northern and central Alabama, where the 50,000 watt monster blowtorch could easily be heard.

 

Because of WVOK's advantage of power, plus being at the lower end of the AM dial (where stations have greater coverage), it was a beacon of entertainment to many a rural dweller.  Several of the Birmingham stations, such as WSGN and WBRC, did have good coverage areas ... but it was WVOK that came in loud, clear and strong.  It could be heard in locations as far away as Troy, Alabama ... Tupelo, Mississippi ... and even outlying areas of Atlanta, Georgia!

 

WVOK began to embrace rock & roll music in the late 1950s, even as the station continued targeting rural listeners -- after all, among those ruralites were lots of teenagers, and they too enjoyed the new rock & roll music.  Yet, older listeners were turned off by this new music, this "noise."  How would WVOK keep its appeal to a wide audience -- young AND old?

 

They would use a guy named Rumore, THAT'S how!   Joe Rumore's morning show had a solid, unbeatable appeal.  The adults loved him, and his homespun approach to radio.  Commercial advertisers loved him -- in that more innocent, less cynical age, listeners would actually TAKE Joe Rumore's advice as gospel ... when Joe Rumore said Yellow Label Syrup or Mothers’ Best Flour was good, people believed it!   While much of the rest of WVOK's schedule was contemporary-oriented, Rumore mixed in a good number of oldies and even some non-rock “adult” hits alongside the rock ‘n’ roll product.  This was mass-appeal radio at its best.

 

In the early 1960s, one could easily form a mental picture of a rural home outside of, say, Jasper, Alabama.  It's breakfast time, the Philco table radio (with the art-deco chassis) is tuned to WVOK and Joe Rumore, Dad is sitting at the table reading the Jasper Daily Mountain Eagle, Mom is cooking bacon and eggs.  Mom and Dad are getting the information they need, while they roll their eyes and grumble when Rumore slips in a Ricky Nelson record.  The kids roll their eyes at Rumore -- they think he's corny as all get-out -- but he still plays their favorite Ricky Nelson record.  It's the perfect compromise that kept families harmonious ... and kept WVOK very, very successful.  Sure, some of the more urbane teens, when alone, would nudge the thumbwheel tuner of their transistor radios slightly leftward, to 610 ... but the slick, well-produced sound of WSGN with their bells & whistles common to top-40 stations in the 1960s grated on many a parents’ nerve back then.  WVOK was the compromise.  It was very savvy of the Brennans -- they knew better than to compete with WSGN on their own turf, so they made their own playing field.

 

WVOK's studios, transmitter and tower were located on The Bessemer Super Highway (in the pre-interstate days, the main SW-NE drag through town).  And, since this was a Brennan station, there HAD to be a nice attraction on the outside.  WVOK had a fountain, located out front of the building and easily visible from the highway.  It was this location which distinguished The Mighty 690 from its urbane competitor at 610 on the dial: accessibility.  The comparison of WVOK's one-story building on a main highway, to WSGN's downtown homes (especially the many years spent in the penthouse atop what at the time was the tallest building in Birmingham), underscore the whole attitude of the stations.  To get to WSGN, you had to park downtown, go up the elevator 25 stories to the first penthouse floor.  There were several layers standing between you and anything resembling an on-air personality.  But drop by WVOK, and you just might see Joe Rumore or Don Keith pop out into the lobby ... and they always had time to talk to guests.  WSGN was always hurried and frantic, the epitome of big-city radio ... WVOK was big-city in operation, but small-town in its attitude!   A popular feature of WVOK, it seemed, was the tradition of mentioning the name(s) and hometown(s) of guests on air.  

 

Oh, let's get back to the fountain for a moment.  It wasn't purely decorative.  Like other Brennan sister stations - WBAM's fishing pond in Montgomery, and WAPE's swimming pool in Jacksonville - that fountain at WVOK had a PURPOSE ... as a reservoir of cooling water for the giant Brennan-built 50,000-watt transmitter, which in those days generated massive amounts of heat.  The Brennan transmitters, all homemade, were water-cooled!

 

Few airchecks of WVOK are known to exist.  The earliest I’ve found is a brief clip dated March 19, 1967.  Oral history given me says that WVOK's presentation was extremely bare-bones ... no jingles, no reverb, and especially no frenzied screaming newscasts!   By 1967 they were running a basic acapella jingle package from Pepper ... "W-V-O-K, hall of faaaammmmmmme..."  Very basic.

 

One curious thing about WVOK was the lack of an aural gimmick -- WBAM had the "cannon blast", WAPE had the "ape call" and WFLI in Chattanooga had the "jet 'FLI'"   The closest thing WVOK could claim might be its playing of “Dixie” as a music bed under the announcer’s sign off at sunset.  In Montgomery, WBAM also played the same recording of “Dixie” at sunset each day.

 

The earliest memories this writer has of WVOK go back to the 1969-70 period.  By then, the Brennans were more into competing on the same level as the other top-40 stations.  Brennan even bought a PAMS package for both WVOK and WBAM in 1971, Series #40 ("The Changes").  Along with PAMS Series #40 was a short song that PAMS produced for WVOK and WBAM ... “Happy Day”, which became a signature song for Joe Rumore.   45-RPM singles of “Happy Day” were even pressed and distributed to listeners.

 

In the 1970s, WVOK was still doing old-style 'family radio' in the late mornings with Joe Rumore, but also had star talent in the way of Don Keith (morning drive), Johnny Davis (early afternoon) and the great Dan Brennan, who did late afternoons and hosted the famous “Dan’s Dusty Discs” oldies program (also distributed to the other sister stations).  WVOK’s music mix stuck my ears as a bit more bubblegummy than that heard on WSGN or WERC.

 

WVOK played the pop hits until the end of 1976, when the first of several major changes on the Birmingham radio dial began.  That Summer, WVOK was running promos for the upcoming "WVOK-FM, with 100,000-watts in stereo."  And WVOK-FM — “K-99” — hit the air, bringing with it Birmingham’s first fulltime album rock station.

 

At the same time, WVOK-AM changed its format from top-40 to country, taking on Countrypolitan WYDE, enjoying more than 10 years of success in that format.  And Joe Rumore was finally in his element.  I suspect Joe was ill-at-ease playing what passed for contemporary music in the mid ‘70s.  With WVOK’s change to country, both Rumore brothers -- Joe and Duke -- were now playing country music for WVOK and WYDE, respectively.

 

In 1979, the Brennans made the decision to sell WVOK-AM to a broadcasting concern out of Nashville.  WVOK-FM was retained by Brennan, and changed its calls to WRKK.

 

WVOK kept going as a country station, and Joe Rumore also managed to unseat WYDE, which for over 15 years was THE country station in Birmingham.  WYDE in 1982 went back into rock & roll to become an oldies station.  And Joe Rumore called it a day in 1984, leaving WVOK without its signature voice. 

 

In 1985, WVOK gradually eased its music mix over to oldies, where it would spend the rest of the 1980s.  WVOK's oldies presentation in the 1985-86 period incorporated many elements of the original “Mighty 690”, including reverb, and some of their old jingles.  Plus, by 1985, WVOK erected a directional antenna array which allowed them to begin fulltime operation ... at sunset, instead of playing "Dixie", they just powered down.  But it was quite a change -- from 50,000 watts to less than 250!  But at least WVOK was able to be on the air 24 hours a day.

 

Soon the live jocks gave way to Satellite Music Network's "Pure Gold" format, with Alabama football and other sports broadcasts gradually filling up the schedule.  Then, in the early 1990s, the owners of WVOK changed the format to all-sports, and the call letters to WJOX.

 

Incidentally, a Talledega broadcaster, upon knowing of the WVOK calls becoming available, snapped them up for his station.  Today, the call letters WVOK are used for a small AM/FM station in Oxford, Alabama.  

Thanks to Mr. Russell Wells for providing this information.