by Alex Cosper
see also American Radio History
Cleveland holds a special place in American radio history because it is regarded as the birthplace of rock and roll radio, spearheaded by popular disc jockey Alan Freed, who worked at WJW and coined the term "rock and roll" in 1954. Even though the term had been used in r&b music since the thirties, it became popularized by Freed who did a show called "The Moon Dog Rock 'N' Roll Show" on WJW before moving on to WINS in New York.
Freed made national news in the early sixties when he was targeted by a congressional investigation into radio payola, in which he pleaded guilty for accepting money from record labels, resulting in a $300 fine. Although it ruined his career, time has been more generous to Freed's contribution to history, which has been illuminated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sitting on Lake Eerie. At the top of the triangle-shaped building is a broadcast booth called the "Alan Freed Studio."
Cleveland radio history dates back to the twenties with Warren R. Cox's WHK being the earliest licensee. By the forties the AM dial included WHK (1420), WCLE (610), WTAM (1100) and WGAR (1480).
In the late eighties the market leader was top 40 hit station WMMS, owned by Malrite. The station's success was characterized by its high Arbitron rankings in both young and upper demographics. It was a three way race for playing contemporary hits, but the runner-ups regularly placed outside the top ten. Those top 40 rivals were Ardman's WPHR (107.9) and United's WRQC (92.3).
Ironically, Cleveland is noted for being the birthplace of rock radio, yet by the late eighties the only rock station in town was classic rocker WNCX (98.5), owned by Metroplex, which was still a top three station. More irony struck when Malrite flipped WMMS back to album rock, which had been the station's previous heritage. The ratings fell off from double digits as the station moved from the top to the middle of the pack and then changed hands to Shamrock.
Adult contemporary stations did particularly well at that time. Booth American's WLTF (106.5), Jacor's WMJI (105.7) and independent WDOK (102.1) all fought for high market shares. Beautiful music also scored high ratings in Arbitron across the country, but clearly reached its peak in the eighties. The beautiful/easy listening format leader in Cleveland was Win's WQAL (104.1), which was usually one of the top stations in town during the latter part of the decade. Booth American's WRMR (850) was a distant competitor on AM.
The rise of urban music in the eighties grew from successes in key markets such as Cleveland. Zapis' WZAK (93.1) was one of the top urban contemporary major market stations in the country. Meanwhile, news/talk and country formats did not do as well in Cleveland as across the nation. Country combo WGAR (1220 AM and 99.5 FM), owned by Nationwide, usually tapped into the top ten. The leading news/talk stations were independent WWWE (1100) and Metroplex's WERE (1300).
WGAR began its rise to the top in 1990, in which it reached number one that fall and blasted into double digit ratings. The station hung around the top for most of the decade. Nationwide Broadcasting picked up another market leader with WMJI, changing the format to oldies. It hit number one in the spring 1997 Arbitron. Stations that remained strong in the ratings throughout the decade included WZAK, continuing its urban format, WDOK, WQAL and classic rocker WNCX, which was picked up by Clear Channel.
Clear Channel also owned alternative station WENZ (107.9), which trailed competitor WMMS, owned by Nationwide. The station flipped to current rock in February 1997. Following a series of mergers as a result of deregulation from the Telecom Act of 1996, Clear Channel expanded to become the biggest radio chain in America by 2000.
In 2005 the top radio station in Cleveland has been Clear Channel's country station WGAR. Clear Channel has also dominated the top three with news/talk WTAM-AM and oldies station WMJI. Other successful radio owners in the market include Infinity and Radio One. Infinity's outlets include adult contemporary WDOK, classic rock WNCX, hot ac WQAL and alternative WXTM. Radio One's properties are urban WENZ, urban ac WZAK and gospel WJMO. The most successful independent owner is Elyria-Lorain with Smooth Jazz WNWV.
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