WAPE (AM), 690 kHz, Jacksonville, Florida, was a Top 40 radio station with a powerful signal, covering a large area along the East Coast of the United States, during daylight hours. Its 690 kHz 50-kW daytime/25-kW nighttime frequency is now occupied by WOKV, owned by Cox Radio.
The station, known as The Big Ape, debuted March 1, 1958 with 25,000 watts, operating sunrise to sunset only. WAPE’s almost unequaled daytime coverage area was a result of several factors... the frequency (AM stations on lower frequencies cover far more territory than those on higher frequencies during the day), the location of the tower near the coast (AM signals travel much greater distances over salt water than over land), and the power. The result was a station with strong coverage from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Charleston, South Carolina, and a very audible signal from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In the mid '60s, WAPE further solidified its position by increasing daytime power to 50,000 watts and began broadcasting 24 hours a day.
Brennan Broadcasting overview
WAPE was owned by Brennan Broadcasting, a group behind three other high-powered stations in Alabama and Tennessee. These included WVOK, Birmingham (50,000 watts, daytime only and also on 690), WBAM, Montgomery (50,000 watts, daytime only on 740, known as Big Bam, now 10,000 watt WMSP) and Chattanooga’s WFLI, located at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, (originally 10,000 watts, later 50,000 watts on 1070, known as "JET-FLI" - pronounced as "Jet-Fly"). The Brennan brothers included Bill Brennan, who, to a great extent oversaw the stations from a business end while providing major contributions from a technical perspective, Program Director Dan Brennan (also a strong air talent in his own right) and engineer Cyril Brennan. Partner Billy Benns, Jr., a man with strong engineering skills, was an important part of this team, as well. While the Brennans were mostly responsible for WAPE, WVOK and WBAM, Benns was more responsible for the overall operation of WFLI (the only station among the group that operated both day and night, from the outset). The Brennans actually built the tower sections for both WVOK and WAPE’s 500-foot (150 m) towers and for WBAM’s 750-foot (230 m) tower. They also designed and built the transmitters and created the very contemporary building designs of the WAPE, WBAM and WFLI studio buildings.
The Brennan transmitters (two of which were water-cooled from fountains near their outside swimming pools) were capable of transmitting a rich, full sound that almost jumped out of the radio and was much louder in weak signal areas than other stations with similar power. Billy Benns, Jr. did the complicated engineering work required to design the WFLI “nighttime pattern” (allowing the station to operate after sunset on a congested dial position). This approach, in which members of a tight-knit team handled design, technical and programming details, required extensive and wide-ranging knowledge plus a major hands-on commitment. This was very unusual in radio, even at that more entrepreneurial time.
Late 1960s WAPE afternoon personality John Ferree recalls, “I knew that Big Ape had a swimming pool, but I was astounded when I drove up and found much more than the usual utilitarian spaces that most stations occupied. This place was built for radio and it was obvious that it was built by someone who had some class. There was a parking lot on the left (facing the building) of the pool. To enter the station, you walked up onto the apron of the pool, and along a curved canopied walkway to the large glass doors. The right side of the building was a curved arc of white stone with tropical landscaping.
The pool was an organically shaped structure that narrowed where it passed under the long glass front wall into the beautifully laid flagstone floor of a large lobby. The pool had a high diving board and a separate low diving board. The framework for the metal canopy and the diving boards was of bent steel tubing painted sky blue. Impressive!
The lobby of the building was paneled in real wood… no cheap panelling for the Brennans, finished in a medium dark natural stain. Upon entering the lobby through the glass doors, to the right (around the shallow end of the pool) was a large glass window with the disc jockey looking out from over the control board. To the left of the control room window, there was a glass door that provided access to the transmitter room. Passing through that door, you saw the transmitter in front of you, the transmitter control console to your left, and another glass door (this one into the control room) on your right. About halfway down the long paneled lobby wall was a door into the production room. The offices were straight ahead of you when you entered the building. They were also behind a glass wall. Everything was open and airy.
The transmitter and control boards were all custom made… not just the internal electronics but also the visible surfaces… made of grooved gold anodized aluminum. I had never seen a board with sliding pots before [pots are potentiometers… volume control “buttons” or faders, on a sliding scale used to control loudness of songs, commercials, etc. In those days, pots were usually a round knob, turned with the wrist.] The control board started at desk height, with the sliding pots right at your fingertips, then curved up and away from you with the VU [volume] meters and toggle switches [to turn pots off and on] mounted higher on the board. The jocks were surrounded by glass with views outside to the pool, into the lobby, and into the transmitter room. The entire front of the transmitter was of the gold anodized aluminum with glass portals looking into the huge tubes.
There really was a hidden door into Brennan’s private quarters. Someone had to show it to me. It was, as I recall, one of the wood panels that was somehow hinged to pivot open if you knew where the key was and how to do it. The door was to the left as you entered the business offices. I went in there briefly once or twice… probably to help carry something, but it was his private quarters and we respected his privacy. The suite, as I recall, was two large rooms, a living room and bedroom, both fully and immaculately furnished and beautifully lighted with indirect fixtures. I don’t recall that the private suite had any windows.”
The early years
Although there were differences in the on-air presentations of each of the Brennan stations, there were more similarities. For many years, none of them used jingles (the short station "songs" played between records, with lyrics such as "77, WABCeeee", "WMCA, Yeah Yeah", "Music Radio, WLS" or "93, KHJ"). Especially prior to the British Invasion, the stations' playlists were quite deep and unorthodox, delving into deeper R&B than most stations while simultaneously playing large percentages of Country crossover (songs that were acceptable to both country and Top 40 listeners).
Air talent was generally more low-key on the Brennan stations than on typical Top 40's, projecting a warm, friendly, “real” attitude, without a lot of hype. Many of them were very good at what they did. They were bigger than life. Colorful word pictures and a sense of shared experience were definitely a part of the equation. Each of these stations was designed to serve a large, and largely rural, area. Typically, they might not be rated #1 in the Metro (the city and the counties closest to the city), but showed strong ratings in the overall area.... Their greatest strength was in the outlying areas. For many listeners, these stations were a musical lifeline... the one radio station that provided a strong signal and played the music they liked.
Although WAPE signed on in the morning and off in the late afternoon with a short, fast-paced Star Spangled Banner, both WVOK and WBAM used a short, fast-paced Dixie. Dan Brennan hosted the pre-recorded "Dan's Dusty Discs" at 4:00 on all the Brennan stations… 30 minutes of oldies, with no commercial interruption. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Mighty 690 carried shorter newscasts and longer weather forecasts than most Top 40's (Leroy Cumbie was News Director, from 1958 until 1970). Dan Brennan was the station’s voice on station “drops”… with phrases like, “Every hour on the hour, the Big Ape scans the Weather Eye”, “Here’s a hit from the past that will always last” and “From the Big Ape Hall of Fame” (this one was always followed by a Country classic). Ken Fuller handled mornings (and served as Program Director) for some time, Jack Mock did mid-days and station star Dino Summerlin held down afternoons. Ken Rogers held down late afternoons (till sign off) during the summer months. Saturday and Sunday afternoons (from 3 to sign off) and was the host of the weekend pool party counting down the current top 40 hits. Other Big Ape alumni from the early years included Ted Jones, Bobby Dee, Bert James, Barry Kryspin, Cliff Hall, Jr., future Sales Manager Jim Atkins and former WBAM personalities Jimmie Adams and Charlie Herman. For years, WAPE had fewer commercials than other stations in the region, although this was certainly not part of the strategic plan.
WAPE featured the notorious and distinct Ape Call, a Tarzan-like yell taken from a 1956 song by Nervous Norvus. The Ape Call identified and branded WAPE more effectively than any radio station's jingles (almost fifty years later, WAPE-FM still uses The Ape Call at the top of almost every hour). Each summer, listeners looked forward to the Big Ape Convention, sometimes called the Big Ape Shower of Stars. These Saturday afternoon concerts featured an incredible lineup of the biggest stars of the day (with much of the lineup duplicated at shows in Birmingham and Montgomery). Another summertime feature of The Big Ape was the weekend pool parties. The pool attracted crowds who often became part of the on-air entertainment. WAPE was a major force in radio for listeners in Savannah, Charleston and Myrtle Beach. The station had billboards along the main north-south highway, US 17 in Georgia and South Carolina, wherever the road ran near the coast. The boards were short and distinctive, a cutout of the Ape holding a sign with the words "WAPE, 690… 500 Miles of Music".
The Big Ape followed its own path. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, radio stations in every format played only beautiful music (elevator music) and many dropped all commercials. Day and night, for three days, there was no rock ‘n roll on the radio, from WPDQ, Jacksonville, WQAM, Miami, WLOF, Orlando, WLCY, Tampa, not even from the New York City and Chicago stations. Big Ape covered it on the news, but stayed “in format” otherwise. The music played on.
Mid 1960s evolution
In 1963(?), WAPE was given permission to increase its daytime signal strength to 50,000 watts. Not long after, they were granted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authority to broadcast at night. As AM signals can carry much greater distances after sunset, WAPE’s nighttime signal was greatly restricted, to avoid interfering with other stations on 690 in the US, Canada and Cuba, as well as stations in Mexico and the Caribbean. The nighttime signal was “directional” to the East, with 10,000 watts from a brand new transmitter location near Baldwin, just west of Jacksonville (the signal was required to be concentrated over the city of Jacksonville, with almost no signal to the north, south or west). This meant much of the loyal fan base was unable to hear the new, more marginal nighttime signal, even in areas as close as Ponte Vedra and Fernandina Beach.
As it turned out, this was a setup for the second stage of the Brennan-era Big Ape. The British Invasion (beginning in 1964) was a time of adjustment for the station, which had successfully built a Country/Pop/Rock 'n Roll coalition (using Rock ‘n Roll and Pop mixed with the “crossover” Country songs popular with rural Southern Rock ‘n Roll fans). This proved increasingly difficult to maintain as time went on, as the late 1960s were much more musically polarized than the first half of the decade. It was obvious that the station was in transition during this period… attempting to maintain what had been a successful formula. Popular on-air staff Dino Summerlin left for Top 40 competitor WPDQ, already #1 in the Metro. Airstaff lineup changes didn’t work out. The Big Ape, which had been the station most willing to flex musical attitude, now sometimes seemed the tamest. Perhaps WAPE was in danger of slipping off the radar, for a time.
Ike Lee, Chief Engineer of WAPE from its inception, was well respected by the Brennans and highly influential in the decision-making process. According to Ike, who died in 1981 and long time News Director Leroy Cumbie, this period resulted in discussions as to the future direction of The Big Ape... with serious consideration given to flipping the station to a Country format. However, that direction was not taken.
The late 1960s
In early 1967, Jim Shirah, who had grown up in Daytona Beach and worked in Daytona and Orlando, was brought in from WIRK, West Palm Beach, to do mid-days. After Jim took the ratings for his show from #16 to # 1 in a single ratings period, Ike Lee recommended to the Brennans that Jim be appointed Program Director and morning host. Shirah, who was 23, had been listening to the Big Ape since it hit the air. He was given complete freedom to put his vision on the radio and assembled a strong and varied lineup. The “In-Men” fronted an audience-driven radio station that successfully incorporated highly diverse elements… maintaining continuity and heritage, while taking on a hipper, late '60s attitude and significantly embracing what could easily have been polarizing rock from The Doors, Cream, Deep Purple and Eric Burdon and the Animals. WAPE took chances on songs like 'I Love You' from The People, 'Mechanical World' from Spirit, 'I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know' from (Al Kooper’s original) Blood, Sweat and Tears and 'I Put A Spell On You' from the Alan Price Set. The Big Ape featured local bands like Mouse and the Boys and (future Allman Brothers Band heavyweight Dickie Betts’) Second Coming.
The music list became The Tuff Thirty (tuff, not to be confused with “tough”, was a popular word at the time, meaning cool). Shirah added high-quality “PAMS” jingles to the station and stepped up the showbiz qualities. As Jim put it, “listening to the Ape then was like listening to 5 different stations. I loved Elvis (still do) and played his stuff. Dale was more into country, so he sneaked in Dolly and Tammy. Alan loved Cream, The Doors and other "head" music of the time, and Honest John loved the Beatles and played lots of their stuff. Ron Wayne liked oldies and local bands, so he leaned on them.” The truth is, Jim knew the heritage and understood the people in the market. The station was coherent... to the listeners.
WAPE featured Jim Shirah from 6 to 9 a.m., Dale Kirby (formerly an assistant engineer), from 9 to noon, Music Director Alan Sands (from WIRK) until 3 and Honest John Ferree (from Daytona’s WMFJ) ‘till 7:00… with Dan Brennan’s "Dan's Dusty Discs" from 4 to 4:30. Ron Wayne (formerly of WPDQ) covered 7 to midnight and Tom Clark (of WLOF, Orlando) handled overnights. When the Big Ape In-Men made an appearance in Waycross or Savannah, they were celebrities. These were heady days for the Big Ape, which soon dominated the Metro, as well as the outlying area. Honest John Ferree recalls three ratings periods in a row in which more than 30% of the listeners were tuned to WAPE. By no means was Jacksonville without serious competition, either… WPDQ always sounded strong. The downside was a dramatic increase in commercials (even in the customized Jacksonville-only version of Dan’s Dusty Discs), plus five-minute newscasts. No doubt, though, The Big Ape was cool again. The ratings were strong throughout the late ‘60s. It looked as if nothing could stop The Big Ape.
The end of an era, however, was just around the corner. Bill Brennan died in a plane crash in 1968. After a time, the Brennan and Benns families divided up the stations, with the Brennans owning WBAM and 50% of WVOK. The Benns family now owned WFLI outright, plus 50% of WVOK. The decision was made to sell WAPE. In April 1970, Stan and Sis Kaplan (owners of WAYS, Charlotte) bought the radio station. The entire airstaff, with the exception of Honest John Ferree, was out. John stayed only a few months. A new phase began for WAPE.
The early to late 1970s 690 WAPE continued to dominate the Jacksonville airwaves with Program Director Bill Burkett, 690 WAPE lineup included (Mornings), Larry Dixon (Dixon and Nixon) with Alan Moore Morning News, (Middays) Tom Murphy, (Afternoons) Cleveland Wheeler (Nights) King Kong Kirby, Weekend air-shifts included Nick Sommers (Nick Sommers Productions) Don Gatlin and many more up and coming Broadcast Legends, In 1975, The Greaseman Joined 690 WAPE as morning anchor replacing Larry Dixon as morning host,
- Fletcher, Dorothy: "Radio station WAPE provided soundtrack for growing up in Jacksonville" Florida Times-Union, April 23, 2009
- Personal interviews with former Chief Engineer Ike Lee (1980/1981)
- Personal interviews with former Program Director Jim Shirah (2006)
- Personal interview with John Ferree (2006)
- Personal interviews with Brennan station historian Steve Farrington (2000–2004)
- Paul Christensen, attorney at broadcast.net Monday, November 21, 2005 08:30:28 CST
- Engineer Wayne Woolard at inreach.com Monday, July 24, 2006, 20:22:46
- firstname.lastname@example.org (Attorney Paul Christensen, Esq.) Friday, April 18, 2003, 20:43:11
- Tom B. Jones, III (CPBE CBNT) Montgomery, Alabama. Tuesday, September 24, 2002 17:06 and David P. Reaves, III TransLanTech Sound, LLC Wednesday, September 25, 2002 02:29:29 CDT
- Frank Giardina, Citadel Birmingham Wednesday, September 25, 2002 07:37:46 CDT
- Tom B. Jones, III (CPBE CBNT) Montgomery, Alabama Wednesday, September 25, 2003 17:02:15 CDT
- Dot Records story crediting Red Blanchard as source of the "Ape Call" on Nervous Norvus (Bill Drake)'s record, 'Ape Call' (Dot 15485)
- reelradio.com info from Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Mary Jo McTammany, 8-20-97 (on-line edit.); other material from stories on 9-24-97 and 6-27-98. Thanks also to Russell Wells and John Long, Repository: WAPE, 1972 Comment section... some are fanciful
- reelradio.com comments... some are fanciful
- reelradio.com comments... some are fanciful
- WAPE AM 690 Facebook Fan Page
- Photographs of original WAPE studio, swimming pool and transmitter
- Photo of 1964 ticket to see The Beatles (presented by WAPE), audio of early Big Ape, photo of Jack Mock, etc.
- August 24, 1959 Time magazine article on WAPE
- September 14, 1959 Time magazine letters section response to WAPE article (starts about halfway down the page)]
- Reelradio.com info from Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Mary Jo McTammany, 8-20-97 (on-line edit.); other material from stories on 9-24-97 and 6-27-98. Thanks also to Russell Wells and John Long, Repository: WAPE, 1972 Reelradio.com exhibit comments... warning: some comments are fanciful
- Reelradio.com discussion group comments (many on early WAPE years). warning: some comments are fanciful
- Reelradio.com discussion group comments on early WAPE years warning: some comments are fanciful]
- 1963 WAPE "aircheck" (recording of program) with Dino Summerlin music edited out. Subscription required
- Engineer Tom B. Jones, III of Montgomery, Alabama with important technical specifics (transmitters/towers) and information on division of property among Brennan/Benns families following death of Bill Brennan]
- Technical article by Engineer Paul Christensen on WAPE transmitter/tower(s)
- Detail on technical information regarding WAPE's facility, bandwidth, transmitter, signal, etc.
- Technical article by Wayne Woollard on tower site specifics
- Technical information and details on Ike Lee
- Engineer Tom B. Jones, III and David P. Reaves on technical details
- Frank Giardina of Citadel Birmingham on technical details
- 2002 Interview with Pete Rowland of popular late-60s local group Mouse and the Boys... includes WAPE mentions
- Articles on WVOK/WBAM outdoor shows (often the same lineups as the Big Ape Convention or Big Ape Shower of Stars)... starts a little way down the page
- Technical profile of former sister-station WVOK, Birmingham... with Brennan/WAPE info
- WVOK, Birmingham Tribute site... contains pictures, airchecks, etc. (including Dan Brennan)
- Original WAPE transmitter schematic (copied from a blueprint at WFLI). On a 36" wide presentation the print is a reverse of the original. This was a patented Weldon version of the Doherty circuit using grounded grid finals... from Stanley Adams
- Information on the Brennans' only TV station, WSLA, Channel 8, Selma, AL