When Keener Was Young

By December of 1963, the Keener phoenominon had captivated the Motor City. The station was rocketing to the top of the Detroit radio ratings with the winning combination of entertaining announcers, a tight playlist of proven hits and an “intelligent flexibility” given to the jocks to experiment.

Keener burst onto the scene in the midst of a changing American scene. We were still processing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Warren Commission was convened on December 3rd to investigate. Malcolm X gave his famous “Message to the Grass Roots” speech in Detroit. The first video tape instant replay was demonstrated by CBS TV Director, Tony Verna during a telecast of the Army/Navy football game. When Mort Crowley appeared in a full page ad for WKNR in the December 9th edition of Broadcasting Magazine, The Beatles had yet to explode on the American scene. I Saw Her Standing There & I Want to Hold Your Hand would be released on December 26th.

The December 19th edition of the WKNR Music Guide featured for acts from Berry Gordy’s labels. The Marvelettes, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Miracles were all getting airplay. Rock and Roll was still intermingled with what would, in a year, be considered “middle of the road”. Bobby Vinton’s There I’ve Said It Again was at Number 1, juxtaposed with the garage grunge Surfin Bird from the Trashmen at number 4. Keener’s very first number one song, The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie was still in the top 10 and Chuck Berry’s The Twist was the top rated LP.

On television, The FugitiveThe Patty Duke Show and Burke’s Law premiered on ABC.  Petticoat Junction began its 7 year run on CBS. And Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was finishing the first of 25 seasons on NBC. The Jetsons, Hawaiian Eye and Leave It To Beaver ended their prime time runs. Being close to the border, many of us were fans of the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings remained our favorite NHL team.

It was a year of big screen blockbusters. Cleopatra, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the Cinerama masterpiece, How The West Was Won were all doing boffo box office. A journeyman actor from England named Sean Connery appeared in the first installment of the James Bond series, Dr. No. Walt Disney had two entries in the top 10 grossing films of 1963, The Sword in the Stone and Son of Flubber.

Trolls, the Vac-u-Form and Kenner’s Easy Bake Oven were the most requested items on kids’ Christmas lists.

The Keener Key Men of Music in December of 1963 featured Mort Crowley in the morning, Gary Stevens, Bob Green, Robin Seymour, Jim Sanders and Bill Phillips, essentially the starting line-up the station had debuted when it flipped formats on Halloween night.

For those who grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, these memories are likely still fresh, from a time before our phones were in our pockets and radio was a secondary source for news and entertainment. We still mourned Kennedy, had yet to process the impact of the Vietnam war and believed that championship seasons were still ahead for the Wings, the Tigers and the Lions.

Radio was at the center of our collective consciousness, at home and in the car. And our relationships with the entertainers behind the mic that was just as important as the tunes we were humming.

Gary Stevens

Our aircheck of the week features Keener’s afternoon drive ace, Gary Stevens, recorded 7 months later, in July of 1964. Here he is at his zany best, featuring the Wollyburger, Keener Baseball, the British Invasion and more. Gary would graduate to the Big Apple, become a pirate radio legend in England and then move behind a desk as one of the most successful broadcast executives of the era.

Dec 13th, 2017 | Filed under Keener

WKNR – December 8, 1965

In December of 1965, the Vietnam war was raging in Southeast Asia. St. Louis residents were still marveling at the recently completed Gateway Arch. Pillsbury introduced a new spokesman, someone they called the doughboy. We were still humming Beatle tunes from their film, Help!, in the wake of their 4th and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Detroit Red Wings were just under 500 on the season, hoping to extend a 4 game winning streak as they prepared to host the New York Rangers at Olympia Stadium. We were driving cars with maize and blue Michigan license plates, watching Divorce Italian Style on the Channel 7 late movie, and on CBS, promos were running for the Saturday night debut of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

Keener’s playlist reflected the eclectic tastes of a public that was still processing the evolution of rock and roll. Eddie Arnold and the Statler Brothers shared the field with Simon and Garfunkle, The Hollies and the Byrds. The British Invasion was in full swing with 4 acts in competition for ear time. The Underdogs were one of the Michigan garage bands who were seeking a second chart hit, while playing with the likes of Suzy Quatro and a Doug Brown and The Omens at Punch Andrews’s Hideout Night Clubs, the latter featuring a keyboard player from Ann Arbor by the name of Bob Seger. Toys like the Easy Bake Oven, GI Joe and Whamo’s Superball were among the most requested Christmas gifts. Advertisements for David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago were appearing in Detroit area newspapers. The film would open on December 22, joining The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Sound of Music as the year’s biggest blockbusters.

On the WKNR Music Guide, the number 1 song was Columbia Records’ reinvention from Simon and Garfunkle’s Wednesday Morning, 3AM LP. The Sounds of Silence had flopped a year earlier, inspiring producer Tom Wilson to bring bassist Joe Mack, drummer Buddy Salzman and guitarists Vinnie Bell and Al Gorgoni into the studio to overdub an electrified backing track. Done without the duo’s knowledge, this gave the record a competitive edge in a field filled with electric competition.

The Beatles’ Day Tripper & We Can Work It Out, became one of the station’s highest debuting double sides, opening at number 4. Power rotation also included iconic hits like the Hollies’ Look Through Any Window, James Brown’s signature I Got You and the Vogues ode to the working man, 5 O’clock World. The James Bond film Thunderball was still in circulation at neighborhood theiaters, along with Tom Jones’ theme song. And The Lovin Spoonful’s follow up to Do You Believe in Magic, You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice, was in it’s second week on the charts.

Bob Green

Keener was in it’s prime as a Detroit radio brand, as is showcased in this classic Bob Green aircheck. The Letter from Santa contest distributed Kodak’s Instamatic cameras across the Motor City. Lucky license numbers and The Keener Word of the day were perennial promotions. Bob’s conversational energy is both engaging and infectious, reflecting the Intelligent Flexibility maxim that was at the key ingredient Keener’s secret sauce. You can hear other familiar voices, including Paul Cannon and Ted Clark and classic Detroit advertisers are in evidence, including Gene Merollis Chevrolet. Behind it all is the classic WKNR reverb, crafted from a Hammond Organ spring by chief engineer, Jerry Martin.

Listening again to the Keener sound reminds us that, then as now, communications is about building relationships. We are engaged to the extent that we feel part of the magic. And in the mid 1960s few things were more engaging than WKNR.

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Dec 8th, 2017 | Filed under Keener

How Keener Covered the Summer of ’67

It began with a raid on an unlicensed after hours bar, “a blind pig” in the parlance of that time. 5 days later 43 had died, nearly 1,200 were injured, over 2,000 buildings had burned and more than 7,000 were arrested. It became known as the 1967 12th Street Riot (#Rebellion67 is the hash tag being used on Twitter), at the time the largest riot since the Civil War. It would not be surpassed until 1992 when Los Angeles erupted in the wake of the Rodney King beating.

Units of the Michigan Army National Guard and ultimately the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were deployed to quell the unrest and the reverberations of the event still echo to the present day.

WKNR Contact News provided extensive coverage of the story, which featured prominently in Keener’s annual documentary production, “Detroit 1967“.

News Director Philip Nye deployed WKNR’s 8 man staff throughout the impacted area. “At it’s peak,” he remembered, “the riots spread over fourteen-square miles of the city. A curfew was in effect, a complete ban placed on liquor sales, gasoline can be purchased only during certain hours and never in a container, offices, banks, schools, businesses, industries were closed down; the heart of Detroit was deserted. Deliveries were curtailed. Food ran short. All normal activities in the nation’s fifth-largest city was at a standstill.”

“Police sealed off 12 street hoping to contain the riot. It didn’t work. All available firemen were called to duty, trying to battle the burgeoning number of blazes. It became nearly an impossible task. Time after time they were the targets of bricks and bottles at a fire scene. Later those bricks and bottles became bullets. Like a plague it spread, moving west and northwest across Woodward. It was out of control. At a command post downtown, city officials were joined by Michigan Gov. Romney. State police were called in, the National Guard mobilized and finally federal troops requested… By Thursday, it had run its course. Troops were told that sheathe their bayonets. On Friday the last major fire was reported.”

Photo: TroyHistoricVillage.org

The Detroit Free Press won a 1968 Pulitzer Prize for it’s coverage and many of us who listened to WKNR back in the day remember visceral television images of black smoke curling into the summer sky.

Much was done in the wake of the riot to try and change the environment of anger and distrust. The success of initiatives like “New Detroit”  and “Detroit Renaissance” are debated to this day.

In 1994, Detroit’s first African American mayor, Coleman Young, would write, “The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.”

The summer of ’67 changed the nation, bringing uncomfortable realities to the forefront of our consciousness and changing the course of our dialogue about race, poverty and the American Dream forever.

Link – Listen to Detroit ‘ 67, the WKNR Contact News documentary about the year.
Link – Read Jim Feliciano’s excellent essay about the 12th Street Riot and WKNR’s coverage at the Motor City Radio Flashbacks website.

Michigan Radio’s Stateside program is tweeting the events of #Rebellion67 in real time on twitter. Follow @StatesideRadio for the stream.

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Jul 21st, 2017 | Filed under Contact News, Keener

Keener13.com Turns 15!

In June of 2002, Steve Schram and Scott Westerman were doing what they loved best: Staying up late and listening to WKNR airchecks. It was a habit that began when they first met at Michigan State University in the ’70s, but, as individuals their love for Keener had taken root a decade earlier, on that October evening in 1963 when WKMH took on new call letters and a new format.

They didn’t know it then, but WKNR and the people who worked there, would set the standard for every future step in their professional careers. “How would Keener have done it,” became the question they would ask themselves as their own broadcasting adventures took shape. And now, as the clock passed 2AM, one of them, neither can remember which, came up with the idea of a creating website celebrating their favorite Detroit radio station.

It didn’t take long to pull together the beginnings of what would become the largest collection of Keener memorabilia in existence. And on July 1, Keener13.com launched.

Since then, virtually every significant personality heard on WKNR has contributed something to the collection. The aircheck archive has been a source for researchers studying Detroit’s 60s history as Keener reflected it. Keener13.com has been referenced in television documentaries and in Andru Reeve’s famous, Turn Me On Dead Man – The Beatles and Paul McCartney Death Hoax. We’ve amassed a nearly complete collection of every WKNR Music Guide. There’s the “Inside Keener” library of weekly staff memos that chronicled the comings and goings. And the Keener photo gallery is filled with the famous faces we associated with the voices we knew so well.

This website has spawned a number of celebratory events. For two summers, we were honored to produce special broadcasts on Keeners 1310 Khz frequency during the Woodward Dream Cruise. A collectable series of Keener Podcasts were created. Keener personalities were honored celebrities in a series of Detroit Radio Reunions over the years. And in the summer of 2014, we were proud to participate in a reunion of many of the original Keener Keymen in New York City.

Along the way, Steve and Scott have occasionally taken to this space to mark key events in the lives of the Keener generation. We’ve said goodbye to some who have left us too soon, remembered moments in popular culture that shaped our attitudes about the world around us and shared the backstory on some of the personalities that are indelibly connected to the soundtrack of our lives.

6 years ago, Keener13.com surpassed the lifetime of WKNR itself. We marked that event by launching the Keener Facebook Group and entering into the world of social media that would have been a significant, audience participation dimension of the station’s personality, had it existed back in the day.

Scott Westerman & Steve Schram

The Keener13.com project has been a labor of love, a reminder of  how radio, at it’s best, could connect with an audience in an affirming, life changing way. A common statement made by everyone we’ve talked to who was connected with WKNR was that it was a defining moment in their lives. We share that sentiment.

And at every turn, we have been grateful for the essential contributions of people like you, folks who were touched by the Keener Magic and were willing to share your stories with us.

Thank you, for a decade and a half of great memories, and for making every season, Keener season!

Jul 2nd, 2017 | Filed under Keener

Remebering Swingin Sweeney

By Scott Westerman curator@keener13.com

The Red Eye Grille straddles the northwest corner of 7th avenue and 59th street in New York City. It’s just blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman and Colbert performed and a short walk to the heart of Broadway.  In the summer of 2014 it was the home for a reunion of many of the original Keener Keymen. In attendance were Bob Green, Jerry Goodwin, Gary Stevens and Robin Seymour, personalities from the dawn of WKNR’s notoriety. Scott Regen came soon after.  John Meagher and Jim Brooker represented Contact News with Pat St. John and Jim Kerr representing the long tail of the Keener legend. Frank Maruca joined via Skype. At the center of the action was the man who found the venue, the host and sometime master of ceremonies, Frank “Swingin” Sweeney.

It’s now almost two years later as I meet Frank and his long time companion, Stephanie for lunch at that same hallowed location. It’s clear that he’s royalty here, warmly welcomed by the staff, who exude genuine love for an amazing spirit who became Keener’s second morning man in the wake of Mort Crowley’s dramatic departure. Read more…

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May 25th, 2017 | Filed under Keener

The Keener Top 113 All Time Leading Hits 1956-1968

WKNR Music GuideRemember how Keener used to play special programming on holiday weekends? Rock-u-mentaries were common on Top 40 stations back in the day. The History of Rock and Roll, Aural histories of the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, and Motown, each of these topics were fodder for extended attention, especially over those long weekends when the DJs took time off to be with their families.

There were also periodic surveys of “The Greatest Hits of All Time”. On January 1st 1969, WKNR released their list of the “Leading 113 All Time Hits – 1956-1968″. Time and the fading of memory has dimmed the process by which the station came up with the list, but it includes some of the most memorable music of the rock era up to that time. A special, elongated WKNR Music Guide was created to mark the event. It’s become a collector’s item among avid Keenerfans. Here’s the list as it was first heard on New Year’s Day, 1969. Read more…

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May 29th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Yes, we really did listen to music that way..

12961525_1167181196655921_6556013066252969042_nSome of us may have actually had an encounter like this. In an age where music magically appears on a smart device, it’s hard for some youngsters to believe that, once upon a time, we spent our money on expensive electronics that used a revolving flat plastic disc to render our favorite songs.

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An iconic Marantz Stereo Receiver

If your experience was like many in the Keener generation, you probably started out with a portable record player, perhaps graduated to an integrated stereo system where all the components were in one box and then moved up to a component arrangement that was worth more than the car you drove. Names like Marantz, The Fisher, Sansui & McIntosh (not the computer) were coveted brands. Often times, we’d put together a receiver, tape deck, turntable and speakers that were each made by different companies. And the bigger the better! How cool you were sometimes paralleled the size of your speaker cabinets and whether or not you had one of those way cool reel to reel tape decks.


Sony’s wide array of tape recorders, circa 1975.

Mix tapes were carefully crafted back then, created from a thoughtful review of our collection of 33 1/3 albums and the 45 rpm singles we bought at Harmony House after consulting the latest WKNR Music Guide. In the car, we might have sprung for electronics from Micky Shorr’s or Michigan Mobile Radio to replace the AM-only receivers with the pristine sounds of FM. Some of the more adventurous among us might even have added reverb units to simulate stereo sound with the often static prone AM signals that were the mainstay of our youth. Along the evolutionary way, 8 track tapes had a brief vogue. Even though they played at only 1 7/8 inches per second, versus the 7 1/2 ips format that was the broadcast standard, we put up with the artifacts, just to be able to listen to our favorite albums on the road.

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The Sony Walkman

As the Keener era came to a close, cassettes had come to the fore and it was only a matter of time until the machines that played them became convenient handheld devices, a precursor to today’s iPods and smart phones. Most of us also owned one cassette recorder that was attached to our stereo stack. Mix tapes became more than just a way to listen to our favorite tunes. They could also be love letters. How many of us created mix tapes for our significant others in the hope of deepening the relationship? As John Cusack’s character in the film High Fidelity put it, “The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”

Perhaps Rob Sheffield, writing in Love Is a Mix Tape said it best. “The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”

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Apr 12th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Beatles on a Train

On March 11, 1964 The Beatles film the “I Should Have Known Better” segment of the film, A Hard Day’s Night, on a London soundstage configured to look like the inside of a railroad train. Here’s the segment (subtitled en Espanol).

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Apr 11th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Sunday Brunch with Sonny and Cher

manfromuncle_1On March 10, 1967 James Bond and the secret agent craze are at their peak. Sonny and Cher guest star as “Jerry and Ramona” on the “The Hot Number Affair” episode of NBC-TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The pop duo play garment-center employees who are swept up in a frantic quest for a THRUSH world-conquest report, hidden in the pattern of a dress. George Tobias, Ned Glass and Kelton Garwood co-star.

Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” had just finished a WKNR Music Guide chart run the previous month, peaking at number 5. What’s not generally known is that the iconic bass line that gave the song it’s power was an idea contributed on the fly by Wrecking Crew legend Carol Kaye. Here’s the story as told by Carol, herself.

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Apr 10th, 2016 | Filed under Keener

Happy Birthday, Tom Lehrer

That_Was_The_Year_That_WasDr. Demento called him, “the best musical satirist of the twentieth century. Randy Newman and “Weird Al” Yankovic are huge fans. His 1965 LP with music from the NBC TV series “That Was the Week That Was” is a prized possession for many Keener fans who were discovering their social consciousness.

Tom Lehrer was born on March 10, 1928. He was a mathematician and political scientist, teaching during his long career at MIT and UC Santa Clara. But he could also play the piano, had a love for show tunes and a razor sharp wit.

During his brief musical career, he was one of the foremost satirists of the time, writing sharp, topical tunes about everything from racism and the atomic bomb to religion and pornography. He wrote for the American version of the BBC series, “That Was the Week That Was” during it’s brief prime, from January of 1964 through May of 1965.

It’s unclear if any of his stuff ever made it to the WKNR airwaves, but if you came of age in the mid-60s, it’s likely you not only heard Tom Lehrer’s stuff, but you might also still have at least one of his albums among your LP collection.

Here’s Tom’s take on “The New Math”.

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Apr 9th, 2016 | Filed under Keener