Progressive WOWI-FM 1970-75
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Progressive WOWI-FM 1970-75 was an eclectic, influential Norfolk, Virginia based radio station owned and operated by J. Stewart Brinsfield, Jr. (Brinsfield Broadcasting Co) during its Progressive, Free-Form stage that began full-time on May 15, 1971 and ended January 15, 1975 when it was sold and changed formats. The last song played by on-air personality Art Williamson was All Along the Watchtower by Dave Mason. (This article constitutes a separate history of the station, covering the years 1970-75 and does not refer to the current on-air WOWI-FM station)
In 1969, George Kello began his radio career at WRVC (102.9mh). The station originated in 1949 and was located at 2712 Colley Avenue in a non-descript warehouse and later moved (as Progressive WOWI) to 713 Colonial Avenue in the residential Ghent section of Norfolk. At the time, WRVC offered classical music and the Drake Hit Parade ‘70’ during the day while Kello hosted a progressive show called The Sounds of Life at night (9pm to midnight, Mon - Sat). Kello’s nightly intro was “When people force music about truth, loneliness, love, and depression underground, it is because their ears are afraid to experience the sounds of life. This is George Kello, not underground, but above ground". His first recording wasn’t a song but a peace chant delivered by John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a concert in Ontario. Kello’s program helped set the stage for the diverse musical offerings that followed where the on-air hosts “said what they wanted to say, and played what they wanted to play.”
Stewart Brinsfield, Jr (1934-2015), a lawyer, bought WRVC on March 16, 1970 and changed the name to WOWI (pronounced WOW-WEE). Kello’s program stayed on the air for the rest of the year. The station switched to a full-time progressive format on May 15, 1971 with program director Chuck Taylor proclaiming, “By progressive, I don’t mean to imply solid acid; rather, a carefully blended mixture of hard rock, hip country, blues, and jazz. [We] don’t want to be a radical, revolutionary voice that widens the already wide gap. I would hope that we can be a bridge over that gap.” The musical range was vast, mixing the somewhat obscure, well-intentioned, ready-to-be-heard with the slightly familiar. Brinsfield also oversaw the construction of the station’s 50,000w tower in Deep Creek, dramatically adding to the station’s coverage. He was also known for sometimes hiring on the spot. Brinsfield, who had been living in Raleigh, North Carolina, suffered a massive stroke on Easter Sunday and left this astral plane on April 8, 2015. He had been in ill-health for about 8 months, according to his partner of 40 years. Kello remarked that 'the Duke of WOWIland has departed!'
The main on-air studio was located on the third floor of the house at 713 Colonial Avenue in the Ghent area of Norfolk. The studio was small, the equipment was barely reliable and many of the staffers had their first ‘and best’ on-air experiences there. One door led to a fire escape and that Kello recalled being ‘like an Earth orbiter escape hatch’ giving a sense of sustained orbit above the earth.’ Many listeners and fans used the fire escape to visit the on-air staff, often bearing assorted gifts and new recordings to share. At times, a room on the first floor operated as an in-house studio where noted musicians and bands would play live on the air.
Besides George, who was hired and fired by Brinsfield several times, the more knowledgeable and gifted curators of sounds included: Arthur "Art" Williamson, Bruce Garraway, Rollie Bristol (d), Dave (But You Can Call Me Nick) Nichols, Larry Dinger, Richard "Dick" Ross, Larry Gray (d), Greg Bernet, Randy Spiers, George "Gandalf" Wolf, Larry Allen, John "Ahh Clem" Nesci (d), Susan "Sue" Billingsley, John Stevens, and Margaret "Peggy" Woods. Others included Dave Webster, Jimmy Minard, and Chuck Taylor. Also helping out were Miss Betty and office manager Elaine Cohen.
Many of the staffers give credit to Bruce Garraway for making the station more professional in its activities. He, along with Larry Dinger and several others, brought order to the 30,000 strong song catalog that the station collected. Staffers often left the recently played records out where others could see them so that no one would repeat songs that were recently played.
Another important seminal figure at the station turned out to be Robert "B.C." Conwell. Bob sold advertising and as then, continues to be one of Progressive WOWI’s biggest cheerleaders. Besides still carrying the torch for the station, he aired ‘Rare and Imported Tracks’ on WMYK a.k.a. "K-94 FM", and it featured a long-standing Progressive WOWI reunion show in the early 1980s that brought many of the original WOWI on-air personnel back for music offerings and discussions about what WOWI was and the effect that it had. Conwell is to be credited with helping to piece together this history. Through B.C. and his co-host Gary Steinberg's efforts, more than 20 hours of original programming and early 80s reunion shows is currently available. Keith Nuttall, a friend of George Kello, also provided some 18 additional hours of original shows for the author.
Landmark FCC case
In 1972, station announcer John Nesci, was charged by the Federal Communications Commission with playing "obscene, recorded" lyrics’ on the air. The FCC was listening when Nesci played the now famous Country Joe McDonald’s Fish Chant from Woodstock whereby the word Fish was changed to Fuck. Nesci was also charged with airing the license plate numbers of undercover police agents. Billboard first published the front-page news story on October 14, 1972 and followed the case in subsequent issues. This marked the first time in this country that the playing of recorded lyrics was challenged in court. None of the charges stood and the FCC dropped its case against Nesci and the station in December, 1972. Nesci, an actor before and after WOWI, held his ground citing First amendment rights but lost his job anyway for his strong political stance but gained the respect of radio announcers everywhere.
May 15, 2011 marked the 40th anniversary for the station going full-time progressive and several of the former announcers offered some celebratory remarks for the occasion.
Bruce Garraway: "Working at WOWI-FM did much to broaden and shape my musical tastes and to influence the remainder of my radio career. It was always in the back of my mind informing decisions and helping me to be better. It introduced me to some wonderful/eccentric/lovable/challenging people. WOWI was fun and sometimes it wasn't, but it was a hell of a time and a great ride" (Correspondence with author, 2011).
'John Stevens':" Was it really forty years ago? Seems like yesterday that I first walked through the doors of WOWI. Greeted by the lovely receptionist Patty Kane and led into a brave new world. I had been on air at WGOE in Richmond and knew absolutely no one in Norfolk. She introduced me to Dave Nichols who in turn introduced me to Rollie Bristol and Larry Dinger. Good fellas was my first impression. A tour of the station and studios in hand, it was off to have a beer with the guys and get the skinny on what WOWI was all about. It didn't take me long to realize that I had found a jewel. I recall the first song I played was Van Morrisons' "Into the Mystic". The freedom to mix various styles and genres was exhilarating, and the deejays in house were masterful at doing just that. I fondly recall driving around listening to Art Williamsom put together sets that just blew me away. The studio itself was perfect—funky beyond comprehension with equipment that I could only describe as bare essentials. But the walls were crammed with every album imaginable and we all took great pride and passion in mixing styles of music that some might think unworkable, but we made it work ! I shudder to think what the music scene in Norfolk would have been like had WOWI not existed, for sure poorer for its absence. I to this day remain on the air, but have never had a creative outlet that could rival that of WOWI-FM. Happy anniversary my dear friend" (Correspondence with author, 2011).
Concert Promoter Gabbo (Webb Productions): "It is with fondness that I remember the entrance of WOWI-FM as the first station in Hampton Roads to broadcast progressive music (read album cuts) full time 40 years ago. I give credit to Stuart Brinsfield with the vision and recognizing the opportunity to provide the 'diet' to feed the heads of the changing tastes of southeast Virginia's music fans. Their humble beginnings with a low powered, day time FM station located in a unmarked store front on Colley Avenue grew with their audience as Brinsfield traded and acquired a 50kw signal that reached far and wide—a real 'powerhouse' and well respected by advertisers and other stations in the market. That was quite an achievement in a market with 25+ stations. WOWI brought in DJ's with the deepest knowledge of the music scene around...Bruce Garroway, Art Williamson, Larry Gray, Rollie Bristol, Dave Nichols, Larry Dinger just to name a few...not only could they pick the right cuts to play, they could speak to the background and history of the artists and band members. WOWI stayed on the 'bleeding/leading edge' of the vast offerings emerging from America and the UK while maintaining very high industry ratings. Today, WOWI continues to be a topic when friends get together and talk about events in their lives and the music back in the day"(Correspondence with author, 2011).
An aside from Dave 'But You Can Call Me Nic' Nichols: "I do remember the "biker gang" of The Fabulous Mr. T and the Trashmen riding through Ghent on their Harley Recycles, Captain Cosmos showing slides of his recent trips throughout the universe at the Chesapeake Planetarium, the Norfolk Department of Health's VD clinics confidentiality policy administered by Mysterious Dr. M, trips to Ghent's trendiest night club, the Boom Boom Room located in the basement of the WOWI building and our station mascot, AHH Clem's goat Barney. Absurdly humorous inane plays on language and logic were a shared and infectious part of the WOWI announcing style" (Correspondence with author, 2011).
Many of the on-air announcers started their career at WOWI. The late Rollie Bristol (d. December 4, 2008) went on to an active career at WGH and WHRO/WHRV where he did the Art and Rollie Show, later called Rollie Radio. His extensive knowledge of all things music and his humble approach to sharing his enthusiasm with his friends and listeners gained him a huge following and a deep respect. In speaking with Bob Conwell via a WOWI Reunion Show on K-94's Rare and Imported Tracks in 1981, Rollie said, "There was something about those old days, when we had a good group of individuals together at the station, because it was all a free-form kind of format. There was nobody saying you’re going to play this, you’re going to play that—it was all up to our own musical judgment as to what got played. And there was a lot of work involved in that effort. We really listened to the music, trying to find what was good, no matter what kind of music it was. We had a lot of meetings where we got together and talked about what we were playing and if we thought someone was playing too much of one kind of thing, or maybe not enough, we tried to remedy that. Our goal was to provide an overall balanced sound. There was a certain element of excitement in creating a program as you go—live on the air. There was something about the late 60s and early 70s that was happening at the time in music. There was a whole realm of great, exciting music coming out on top of each other—a whole mushrooming of creative music—progressive type music of all kinds. BC—I think a lot of it is still coming out. It just doesn’t get played. Rollie, “That could be. One of the things about WOWI as that we tried to give exposure to relatively unknown things”. BC “You can count stations that do that now on less than one hand”.
- Action Magazine, Virginia Pilot-Ledger Star newspaper, 3.21.70, Man Here Pushes ‘More Progressive Sounds
- Broadcasting Yearbook, 1970, WOWI Acquired
- Billboard, 5.8.1970, WOWI-FM To Hip Rock
- Billboard, 10.14.72, DJ Indicted for Disk Airing Ibid, 11.4.72, DJ’s Defence Asks Full Access to ‘Obscenity Evidence Ibid, 11.18.72, Obscenity Case Dismissal Sought Ibid, 12.2.72, Obscenity Rap Against DJ Dismissed Broadcasting, 10.9.1972, 'Announcer charged with violation of obscenity law Broadcasting 11.7.1972 With Nesci off air, government abandons its obscenity case
- Virginia Pilot, 12.4.08, ‘Hampton Roads radio host Rollie Bristol dies at age 67
- Progressive WOWI-FM 1970-75 Facebook Site
- Rollie Bristol talks with Bob Conwell, 2.25.82
- Progressive WOWI-FM Radio show, Greg Bernet, followed by Dick Ross, 1974
- John Stevens show, vol 1. on WOWI's last day 1.14.75