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John Gorman on the glory days of WMMS, and how it all began

September 14, 2018

John Gorman on the glory days of WMMS, and how it all began

CLEVELAND, Ohio – John Gorman and Denny Sanders made WMMS what it was – a legendary FM radio station. You could argue that Gorman, as much as Alan Freed, is responsible for Cleveland being known as the home of rock ‘n’ roll – and by extension, a big part of the reason the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is here.

Gorman has moved on from terrestrial radio, and now runs the internet radio station oWOW. He is using the business AND creative acumen he employed in building WMMS into what it was. Can that happen with oWOW? I wouldn’t bet against him. - Chuck Yarborough, Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic

By John Gorman

WMMS was meant to be.  It came to pass in Cleveland when a few like-minded rock ‘n’ roll rebels with comparable imaginings gravitated to a dilapidated FM station. Our initial 1973 staff was a small amalgamation of college radio DJs and marginally experienced radio announcers augmented by a novice sales staff. 

When I arrived from Boston in 1973, Cleveland was in decline. A number of Fortune 500 companies moved their headquarters to business-friendly cities. The population plummeted when many Northeast Ohioans migrated to the Sun Belt.  Cleveland’s Draconian politics and negative reputation encouraged the exodus. Cleveland was a city one moved from. Not to.  

Denny Sanders and I were émigrés at WMMS.  We’d worked at a few Boston stations together.  Denny moved to Cleveland a year earlier to work at WMMS and had recently endured an unanticipated station ownership change. 

In 1972, WMMS had built a reputation of extending beyond the musical parameters of the album rock format by breaking the gender-bending, glitter-rocking David Bowie at a time when guitar heroes dominated rock radio airplay. 

50 years of WMMS memories.

But following the station’s sale, most of the fundamental WMMS airstaff opted for prospects elsewhere. Denny stayed, was promoted to program director, and was struggling to rebuild the staff with a meager budget limiting him to hiring announcers from college radio who’d work for next to nothing.  

During this upheaval, Denny hired me as music director. We shared the vision of a musically broad album rock station incorporating all the elements of rock and roll, including top 40 crossovers, rhythm and blues and even local artists.  

WMMS at 50: Moments that made history.

Two months later, September 1973, Denny gave me his program director title so he could concentrate on his new evening show and specific projects essential to charting our course.  

Our staff had grown up in the ’60s and was influenced by the golden age of top 40 when it played everything from the Beatles to Dean Martin and the DJs were fast-talking, high-energy musical guides.  We had outgrown that style of radio –but not rock ‘n’ roll.  The surviving rock acts were now recording adult-themed songs that echoed our principles as we evolved from small records with big holes for big records with small holes.  

We knew what our listeners were experiencing in this rapidly evolving period. Authority was questioned.  The status quo was challenged.  FM replaced AM.  

A playlist of diverse new rock music would fully establish our image as a rock and roll musical bellwether station and define Cleveland an important break out city. We’d comb through Melody Maker and New Musical Express to learn what was happening with rock overseas and befriended musical trend setters, locally and nationally.   

Collectively, we possessed the passion, determination, and guerilla programming and marketing to pull it off.  

We accepted the mission of providing our listeners the soundtrack and information they deserved. Our airstaff was emboldened to be the on-air gatekeepers of rock ‘n’ roll and popular culture. Though we were one format – every on-air WMMS personality was critiqued and encouraged to develop their own style.    

We built an aggressive sales team that believed in the format and made good money with some of those dollars reinvested in backing our attack.  

The promotion and marketing of WMMS was all in-house with no outside agencies or consultants. We chose the Buzzard as our logo and David Helton found us to illustrate and animate it.  

To solidify our foundation in the community, we took WMMS beyond the music by presenting news, public affairs programming, and public service announcements that were pertinent to our audience.  

Eventually, nearly every WMMS listener could recite the entire weekday and weekend lineup.  They were rock stars in their own right. Even local advertisers shared in the stardom. Ask Daffy Dan.  

It was a championship team on and off the air that respected its listeners.  Above all, it was the team for the times.  

Could it happen again?  History does repeat.   Over the decades we’ve witnessed the degeneration of terrestrial radio and the peaking of satellite radio.  We are now experiencing the rapid adoption of everything online, including radio.  Whatever happens will come to pass on that platform. 

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