By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
It was the most recognized voice on local radio.
Floating through the air to anxious listeners across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, it told the news every morning to tens of thousands. And it ended every newscast the same way:
“This is Jim Uebelhart filing Gas Company newscast number …,” followed by a running total of how many broadcasts he made in his long career.
The deep, resonant voice of Mr. Uebelhart (pronounced u-bull-heart) was a familiar one to the area’s older residents. For decades, he reported the news on WSPD-AM. By the time he retired in 1972, he had done 14,269 broadcasts at 8 a.m. sponsored by Columbia Gas Co. – hence his closing line – and was a local legend.
“If Jim Uebelhart said the sky was falling, everybody would have gone outside to watch,” said Jim Rudes, the former Channel 13 anchor who started his career at WSPD-AM in 1951.
“He was the king of broadcasting,” said Frank Venner, who worked at WSPD and Channel 13. “He was the most trusted figure around.”
It wasn’t too long ago that radio stations were a scrappy alternative for Toledoans to get their news. Just two decades ago, more than 20 radio reporters were running around town and gathering local news for four Toledo stations.
Things have changed, radically. Now only two reporters, both at one station, are around and the days when local radio was a major source of original reporting are over.
“Radio was an important news source when I broke in,” Mr. Rudes said. “It’s a big disappointment to see the state it’s in now.”
What’s happened in Toledo has mirrored a national trend toward corporate ownership and cost-cutting, and away from local news. As an industry, radio is doing phenomenally well, with gaudy profit margins and rising listenership. But news content has sometimes been sacrificed along the way.
“Radio’s a minor player now in news, compared to television and newspapers,” said Vernon Stone, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri school of journalism who has studied radio news operations nationwide.
Radio has been a part of Toledo since the turn of the century, when Dr. Lee DeForest did experiments here that led to the beginning of station broadcasting.
At first, Toledo radio meant amateurs erecting unwieldy aerial antennas around their homes in an often vain attempt to hear some distant signal.
Then, on April 21, 1921, the first real radio station arrived in Toledo, when Earl Frank fired up a 10-watt transmitter in the Navarre Hotel at Jackson and St. Clair streets. His station, which he called WTAL, started transmitting less than six months after the first commercial station in the country, Pittsburgh’s KDKA.
WTAL struggled along for six years, with no set programming and little listenership. It was often easier for local listeners to catch programs from out of state than to hear tiny WTAL. Easiest to hear were the two major Detroit stations, WWJ and WJR, then owned by the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, respectively. The two, which would go on to become Detroit institutions, were broadcasting 5,000-watt signals.
At the time, radio was an exciting novelty. Stations were starting all over the country, many with signals strong enough to reach far and wide. Known now as heritage stations, outfits like WGN Chicago and WJZ New York sent entertainment and news to thousands, and began to organize into networks like National Broadcasting Co.
The largest stations, broadcasting at between 10,000 and 50,000 watts, were known as clear channel stations – because competing stations on their frequencies were not allowed for some distance around them – and could be heard many states away from their source.
Throughout the 1920s, The Blade ran a daily radio page reporting the stray signals local listeners picked up from cities like Houston or St. Louis.
Those clear channel stations were the first time Americans, previously divided by geography, could have the same experience at the same time: listening to jazz from a New Orleans station, hearing the inauguration of a president, or laughing at the jokes of New York vaudevillians. It was one of the first steps toward the creation of a nationwide popular culture.
In 1927, Toledoan George B. Storer was trying to jumpstart his own business, selling gasoline to motorists. In search for more ways to advertise his product, which he called Speedene, he decided to buy WTAL, change its call letters to WSPD, and flag it “the Speedene Station.”
Speedene never made Mr. Storer a fortune, but broadcasting did. He made WSPD the eighth affiliate of the new Columbia Broadcasting System and, over time, added 10 other radio and television stations to his media empire.
For years, radio was king, and its networks were the only national medium.
When major news like the Hindenburg disaster broke, radio got the news out instantaneously.
World War II made celebrities of news reporters like Eric Sevareid and Edward R. Murrow, with his famous introduction – “This is London” – of his newscasts from bomb-battered England.
In was in this era that some of Toledo’s radio news legends were born, men like Mr. Uebelhart, who died last year, and his afternoon colleague on WSPD, the late Edward C. Kutz. To many Toledoans, if one of them didn’t say it, it wasn’t true.
When civil defense officials needed someone to be the “voice of Toledo” on all radio stations in the event of an air raid, they chose Mr. Uebelhart because his was the best-known voice in the city.
Radio was the main source of breaking news for people for probably 30 years, said Dr. Michael Gerhard, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and a former radio reporter. “That obviously changed.”
The first blow to radio news occurred in the 1950s, according to experts, with the growing mainstream popularity of television. Radio’s ability to get the news out instantaneously was suddenly trumped by the flow of pictures into American homes. The big stars of radio news, like Murrow and Sevareid, moved to the tube, and television men like Walter Cronkite became the trusted voices of news.
“Television pushed radio right to the sidelines,” Dr. Gerhard said.
WSPD-AM got into the television business early, starting WSPD-TV in 1948. It was only the 28th TV station in the United States. The stations shared a news staff until 1954, when the two were split.
WSPD-TV eventually became WTVG, Channel 13, and the two stations are now separately owned.
But even with TV as competition – along with The Blade and the Toledo Times – AM radio news still fared well. As recently as two decades ago, there were four radio stations in Toledo with active reporting staffs: WSPD, WOHO, WCWA, and WMHE.
“At press conferences, we’d usually have reporters from at least two or three radio stations there,” said Harry Kessler, mayor of Toledo from 1971 to 1977. “Radio was a force.
“I remember back when I ran for city council for the first time, back in 1961, and I was losing,” Mr. Kessler remembered. “I was listening to the radio and I knew I was in trouble when Jim Uebelhart said on the air, ‘Harry Kessler, who’s that?'” Not surprisingly, Mr. Kessler lost.
Radio news reporters took pride in working for WSPD and its legendary team.
“It was fantastic working with Jim Uebelhart,” said Jerry Arkebauer, who reported for WSPD from 1961 to 1964, before moving to the company’s television station. “We were the No. 1 news radio station in town, and you were part of a group of people who were very good at what they did.”
Mr. Arkebauer, now a vice president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said Mr. Uebelhart’s 8 a.m. newscast was one of, if not, the top-rated radio newscast in the country, because no other station had a full 15-minute newscast at that time. “We had international, national, state, and local news, and we were far ahead of everybody else in town.”
Kent Slocum, general manager of WSPD in the early 1970s, said the station was a key player in the local news market. “The Blade led the community in news, but SPD played an important role,” he said. “We had qualified people and they worked hard. We had a real news ethic, a real commitment to accuracy. We didn’t necessarily aim to beat the newspaper, but sometimes we did that too.”
While WSPD was still the leader in its field, by the 1970s, fewer and fewer people were looking to radio for their news. One of the culprits: the FM band.
FM stereo, quite simply, sounds better than AM. It had been around since the 1940s, but most homes only had AM radio, leaving FM stations out of the mainstream.
But by the 1970s, more FM stations began popping up on the dial, and with the improved sound, more began focusing on music instead of news. As rock ‘n’ roll grew as an economic force, news became a less profitable format.
Not long after, in 1980, the federal government deregulated the radio industry. Until then, stations were required to have news and public service programming.
Before deregulation ended that requirement, many stations had their own staff of reporters, and most of the rest had newsreaders to recite headlines from the major wire services. But given the freedom to cut their budgets by eliminating news, many stations took the opportunity.
One by one, the other news stations in town started dropping their staff, first eliminating reporters, and eventually switching to just reading stories from wire services or other sources on the air.
“Things were competitive at the start of my time there,” remembers Steve Jablonski, who reported under the name Mike Jablonski at WSPD from 1981 to 1989. “SPD had the biggest staff in the market, as it had traditionally, but there was still competition. Over time, though, that went away.”
By the mid-1990s, WSPD was the only radio news game left in town.
Several other stations have news readers who give news updates, and some do reporting by phone, but none have reporters who gather news around town.
The final hit occurred three years ago, with the passage of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. Among other radical changes, the act removed all limitations on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide, and doubled the number of stations a company could own in a single market, from four to eight.
Stations that once were owned by small companies were suddenly under the control of large corporations. In 1996, WSPD was purchased by Kentucky radio conglomerate Jacor Communications.
Then last year, Jacor merged with Clear Channel Communications to create an enormous corporation with more than 400 stations. Then, last week, Clear Channel announced it was buying AMFM, Inc., for $23.5 billion, which would result in a company with 830 radio stations nationwide.
With corporate ownership, radio stations began to have a more bottom-line focus, forever searching for ways to cut costs. News was often one of the first things to go.
“You’ve got fewer owners now, and they want a bottom-line, corporate focus,” Dr. Stone of the University of Missouri said. “The dropping of the ownership rules lets one owner have a bunch of stations in one place, and they’re not too keen to compete with themselves by having more than one news operation.”
In August, 1998, WSPD’s corporate parent decided to cut back on the news resources based in Toledo. Because Jacor owns news radio stations in several Ohio cities, the company decided to centralize its resources in one place to save money.
Since then, WSPD has had no anchors to read the news in Toledo. Instead, the news is written in Toledo and sent electronically to Columbus, where an anchor reads it on the air.
At the same time, WSPD’s local staff declined. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, WSPD employed between eight and 12 news employees, including anchors and reporters. All but a few of the anchors did reporting when not on the air, meaning the station sometimes had up to seven or eight people reporting the news daily.
But with the shift of anchors to Columbus, the staff was cut back. Now, WSPD has two news employees: news director Tom Watkins and reporter Rob Wiercinski. Between the two of them, they are responsible for covering all of Toledo and its suburbs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mr. Wiercinski covers the morning shift, Mr. Watkins the afternoon. If news breaks on the weekends or at night, they are on call.
Mr. Wiercinski is quick to point out that the new way of doing things at WSPD has some advantages. For example, the station used to broadcast a network news feed overnight because it didn’t have an anchor to read local news in the wee hours of the morning. But with a news hub in Columbus, an anchor there reads Toledo news every half hour through the night.
“We actually produce more news product than we used to,” he said.
He said having Clear Channel personnel throughout the state allows the station to have stronger coverage of state government and events in Cleveland or Cincinnati. And the anchors in Columbus “now know how to say ‘Peter Ujvagi’ or ‘Wade Kapszukiewicz,'” he said.
But former WSPD reporters think that covering a city Toledo’s size with two people is an impossible task.
“You can’t cover the city like a blanket with a staff that size,” Mr. Rudes said. “Rob Wiercinski is a very good reporter, but how thin can you be? This system of having the anchors sit in Columbus is awful. It’s all bottom-line, say the news as quickly as you can and get done.”
“You don’t see a lot of the original reporting you used to see, the human interest stories and the interesting pieces that the other guy might not find,” said Mr. Jablonski, now director of communications for Columbia Gas in Columbus. “With fewer people, you don’t see as many original pieces, because the reporters don’t have the time. You can only cover the fires, the shootings, and the council meetings.”
Mr. Jablonski also pointed out that when a major story broke in the 1980s, he as news director could mobilize almost a dozen people to work on it. Now, there are only Mr. Wiercinski and Mr. Watkins.
The news gathering abilities of WSPD became part of debate last week when they became the subject of a very public legal battle. On Sept. 28, The Blade filed suit against WSPD and morning-show host Mark Standriff for allegedly stealing the content of its news articles. The station denied the allegations.
Many say the loss of active radio news operations is a loss for the entire community.
Just as only large markets like New York and Chicago have been able to support more than one newspaper, only large cities like Detroit have been able to maintain thriving news radio, some say.
“Our staffing levels have been steady and are growing,” said Steve Stewart, operations manager for WJR, the Detroit news radio giant, and a former news director at WSPD. “In the big markets, news radio has done very well as a format in recent years.”
In smaller markets like Toledo, news is less of a money maker because of the costs of having a staff large enough to do a good job of covering the city.
“It’s a lot tougher to make money doing news in radio than it is in television,” said Dr. Gerhard, the Ball State University professor. “In TV, you have a few stations in each city with large audiences for news, so you can draw in lots of money for advertising. Radio is so fragmented that you’re dealing with tiny audiences in a lot of cases.”
Dr. Gerhard said nationally, local TV stations make about half their revenue from their news operations. For radio, the total is closer to a fifth, he said. News is mostly profitable for very large stations, he said.
“In a lot of ways, radio news is dead outside the major markets,” he said. “Radio has much more of an entertainment role. It’s kind of sad, but that’s what the market has dictated.
“When I was in radio [in Indiana in the 1970s], there was a real excitement when you would compete with the other outfits or beat the newspaper to a story. Even small stations had two or three news people on staff. That’s almost completely gone now.”
The world of radio has changed radically in the 1990s. The shift to corporate radio has led to a programming uniformity that has pushed many, more eclectic formats to the sidelines, while generating massive amounts of money.
Many stations have discovered that local disc jockeys are more expensive than purchasing syndicated programs and, as a result, crude shock-jocks like Howard Stern have moved to the forefront, along with political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy.
Many stations have abandoned DJs altogether, deciding instead to pipe in music from satellites.
Several former WSPD employees said they wish their old station would invest more in its news operation, hiring additional reporters and bringing back anchors. But most acknowledged that, with the changing face of radio, it’s unlikely.
“It would be great if you could do more than just the basic news and have a large staff you could put out on the streets to bring back what’s happening today,” Mr. Jablonski said. “But the industry is more automated now, more interested in USA Today headline-type stuff. People might learn more about the community they live in if there were more resources thrown at news, but I doubt it’ll happen.”