When you talk to veteran radio people around the country, they’ll tell you the same thing about Detroit: It is an amazingly competitive market.
Many iconic personalities and stations have graced its airwaves — J.P. McCarthy and Dick Purtan on the one hand, Steve Dahl and Howard Stern on the other.
Since FM radio first got a foothold in the late ’60s, scores of stations have come and gone, call letters have been created, swapped and dropped, and formats have been tried and failed — and sometimes tried again.
That’s why the celebration WRIF’s 50th anniversary on Feb. 14 was noteworthy. In one of America’s most dog-eat-dog radio landscapes, RIFF stands out for a whole slew of reasons. Only a handful of rock stations around the country have reached this pinnacle.
Committed to the same format through its five decades, the station once owned by ABC has been the most successful FM in the history of the market. In two areas for which stations are measured by their ownership — ratings and revenue — WRIF has been a mainstay in both, sporting some of its best numbers in the last few years.
Since those wild and woolly days when FM was an afterthought, Detroit radio owners have come and gone. ABC sold its entire group of 14 radio stations to Capital Cities Communications in 1985, followed by a number of other transactions, where WRIF was sold like a Monopoly property.
It wasn’t until Greater Media bought the station in 1993, and later sold it to Beasley Media Group five years ago, that WRIF enjoyed another long period of dominance.
Mike Clark (left) and Drew Lane (right) with Kid Rock some time in the 2000s at the WRIF studio. Photo courtesy Beasley Media Group
The Drew & Mike show, featuring Drew Lane, Mike Clark and Trudi Daniels ruled the morning FM airwaves, 1991-2013. And in the past few years, the reign of Dave & Chuck the Freak took hold when Beasley acquired WRIF and sister station Classic Rock-formatted WCSX. Both of these morning shows helped the station recapture its glory days, cementing its legacy as Detroit’s rock station of record.
Holding stations together during ownership transitions is arduous, especially when new management takes over with little knowledge of the market.
As former WRIF program director and general manager Tom Bender once explained to me, “Working for a great radio station means a commitment to the call letters, not necessarily to the station’s owner at that moment in time.”
Loyalty to this storied rock radio brand by its staffers — on and off the air — its millions of listeners over the years and its advertisers speaks volumes about the respect WRIF has earned in its five decades of service.
There is much urban legend associated with radio stations endure this long — some stories true, some exaggerated and some just made up. But the story of the station’s call letters is one that many don’t know.
A flier explains the name change at WRIF-FM. Beasley Media Group image
When ABC stations were first licensed, their call letters were the same as their heritage AM sister stations. Here in Detroit, that station was WXYZ. In 1971, ABC decided its FM armada needed their own unique identities, and applications were filed for new call letters for its seven FM radio stations.
The WRIF call letters — nicknamed RIFF from day one — almost ended up in Chicago. That’s because the name chosen for 101.1 FM in Detroit was actually WDAI — an abbreviation for Detroit Automotive Industry.
WRIF was reserved for ABC’s Chicago station — as in the wind riffing across Lake Michigan. Somehow in the filing process with the Federal Communications Commission, the applications were flipped, and the stations got each other’s call letters.
And so, WRIF ended up right here in Detroit. That was the last time there would be confusion about the station’s identify and its mission.
In the 1971, WRIF was established in the “back 40” of the WXYZ-Channel 7 property, where ABC added three trailers onto a small house in Detroit. The man on the far right with glasses and moustache is Tom Bender, who was a program director at WRIF and also the general manager for a number of years into the 2000s. (Courtesy Beasley Media Group)
WRIF’s beginnings were beyond humble. ABC added three trailers onto a small house on the “back 40” of the Channel 7 property. Soon after, afternoon drive institution Arthur Penhallow would be hired out of Ann Arbor by WXYZ-FM’s first programmer, Dick Kernen. It was a job Penhallow — the “Mayor of Riffville” and the “Grand Poobah of Rock ’n’ Roll” — turned into a career lasting more than 35 years on WRIF, bellowing his signature “BABY!” and holding court for Detroit rockers on the drive home from work.
WRIF DJ Arthur Penhallow in the studio, circa 1970s, is about to have water poured over his head by Nick Lowe. The man at left unidentified. Photo courtesy Beasley Media Group
Bob Seger (left) with Arthur Penhallow, drive-time DJ at WRIF, at an event in the 1990s. Photo by Steve Galli
Those who labored in those trailers for more than a decade now look back at the experience fondly. But at the time, those rustic conditions proved less than ideal. The facility was difficult to heat and cool. And walking across the floor of the air studio in the second trailer was like tiptoeing through a mine field. A wrong step could trigger the tone arm bouncing around a vinyl record being played over the air. In the winters, ice falling off the nearby 880 foot tower often caused a hazard to employees — and their cars.
Yet, under those less than ideal conditions, the station thrived, making its presence known in Detroit. In the early years, the trailers were kept secret. But when J.J. & the Morning Crew joined the station, the staff leaned into their surroundings.
Inspired by the Flamingo Mobile Home Park in nearby Farmington Hills, the station’s bowling and softball teams became known as the RIFF Flamingoes. Capacity games were played on Lawrence Institute of Technology’s small baseball diamond across the street from the ABC complex.
Over the years, the WRIF air staff delighted thousands of rock fans when the Doobie Brothers, Journey, and the J. Geils Band among others took to the diamond.
Plastic pink flamingoes began to adorn the lawn around WRIF.
But in 1980, the staff left the trailers and move a stone’s throw east from Channel 7’s main building. The new WRIF facility was state of the art — one of the most modern, best-equipped, and beautiful radio facilities of its era.
In tune with history
When WRIF first launched in 1971, it hit the airwaves during the radical John Sinclair-infused era of protest in Detroit. Yet, progressive rock music discovery was never a huge part of the WRIF brand. That reputation was held by the wild and woolier WABX, and later, W4 — two stations that competed hard, but eventually fell victim to the competitive pressures of the Detroit radio marketplace.
WRIF was — and to this day, still is — true to its original mission: a mainstream rock station that deftly walks the line between leading and following its audience. Many observers of the Detroit radio market have likened its embrace of rock ’n’ roll to the hard cadence of the factory assembly line. As Bob Segeer sang in “Making Thunderbirds,” great rock on the radio often provided the soundtrack to the market’s industrial roots.
The WRIF “formula” transcended music. It always included having some of the market’s best and most dynamic personalities on staff. When the station’s management team of Jay Hoker and Tom Bender brought J.J. & the Morning Crew over from arch-rival W4 (WWWW) in 1979, WRIF’s reputation for stellar, dominant morning shows was set.
Not long after moving to the WRIF trailers, the Morning Crew launched their anti-disco statement in the form of the soon-ubiquitous DREAD card, issued to Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco. To this day, these paper and plastic cards are in the wallets and sock drawers of thousands of Metro Detroiters.
Along with Ken Calvert, Karen Savelly, Steve Kostan, Carl Coffey and Penhallow, the WRIF team featuring Johnson and Baier’s character voices very much echoed the philosophy of its next door neighbor, Channel 7: “We got who you wanted.”
WXYZ-TV had recently amassed the best talent in the market in Bill Bonds, John Kelly, Marilyn Turner and a high-profile cast of weather and sports stars to lead the television market for years. Across the parking lot at WRIF, that same strategy was being employed, bringing together the best rock air staff in town.
But how to market it? Enter the “Remarkable Mouth.”
Hoker was looking for just the right television commercial to sum up the new spirit of WRIF. Working with a Los Angeles production crew, Hoker went with a TV spot that became the most famous of them all.
The concept featured an attractive model lip-syncing a fast-moving 20-second montage of the station, its music, and its personalities. Hoker chose a young up-and-comer, Hollywood ingenue Kelly Harmon, to star in the spot.
After the commercial was shot and “in the can,” Hoker and the RIFF team discovered Kelly Harmon had a Detroit connection. She was the daughter of University of Michigan football star Tom Harmon, and the sister of actor Mark Harmon. Kelly was also the ex-wife of auto magnate John DeLorean, who was making waves during these years.
Harmon’s serendipitous connection to Detroit helped turn WRIF’s “Remarkable Mouth” into a much buzzed-about commercial, leading to in-market appearances and posters that ended up in gas stations and bedrooms all over the metro area, similar to the ubiquitous Farah Fawcett posters of that era.
The punchline on the commercial was Kelly’s perfect lip-synch of Arthur Penhallow’s exuberant signature, “BABY!” — the perfect stinger for the spot.
WRIF “Remarkable Mouth” Commercial with Karen Newman (1998)
Into the future
In later years, new generations of WRIF personalities and stellar morning shows would grace the Detroit airwaves at 101.1 FM. For WRIF, it’s always been about consistency — staying true to its mission. As Detroit radio personalities and shows have come and gone, as rock music has bobbed and weaved through its many phases, WRIF remains essentially the same station it was back when Jerry Cavanaugh was mayor and Al Kaline roamed right field at Tiger Stadium.
In the Motor City, radio isn’t just another medium. For many, your favorite radio station was a reflection of your personality — who you are (or were). From free concerts featuring local bands at Hart Plaza to RIFF Fest to “Maul Time,” WRIF has been a lifestyle as much as it has been a musical beacon.
At Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor, two WRIF listeners (from left), Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour, WRIF afternoon host Meltdown, a WRIF winner, Lzzy Hale of Halestorm, and another WRIF winner got to go music and comic book shopping with Corey and Lzzy prior to their concert at the EMU Convocation Center on Feb. 10, 2018. Beasley Media Group
During a focus group of young 25-34 year-olds I conducted a few years back, I asked how an old-guard radio station could maintain its relevance in their entertainment hierarchies. As a guy from Downriver explained to me, “WRIF’s been around as long as I have. My dad listened to it. I respect they’ve always stood for rock.”
For Detroit rockers of all ages, the station has always been there, dependably playing Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Pearl Jam, White Stripes, Metallica and the music of Michigan rockers of all generations. While the current playlist remains a reflection of what is popular in rock ’n’ roll today, WRIF still manages to feature “Everything that rocks” — its slogan and it philosophy.
Back in the day, Metro Detroiters displayed their radio loyalties by sporting station bumper stickers slapped on the backs of their precious cars and trucks. The competition for bumper exposure especially among the city’s rock stations was fierce.
A WRIF rolling billboard passes Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Photo by Steve Galli
WRIF’s iconic “racetrack” oval shape became ubiquitous with the station, with or without the call letters and frequency. Over the years, rock bands, area sports teams, local concert venues, and celebratory slogans have occupied those RIFF stickers, becoming collectors’ items still on sale on online sight like eBay.
Last weekend, COVID and all, generations of WRIF alumni descended on the building to reminisce and reconnect with one another, and to get behind the mic again. Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Kid Rock, and other rock luminaries called in to share their RIFF stories. And for weeks, loyal listeners have been sending in their personal photos of station events, concerts, and ticket stubs, all celebrating the rock ’n’ roll experience in Detroit.
As veteran Ken Calvert joined his current counterpart in middays, Jade Springart, he intoned those famous call letters for the first time in decades, and declared, “It feels so good to say that again.”
WRIF afternoon drive host Meltdown with the rock band Kiss in the 2000s. Beasley Media Group
The station’s “new guard” — Springart, Meltdown, and Screamin’ Scott Randal — along with Dave & Chuck the Freak — not only welcomed the celebration — they were part of it. The melding of these disparate generations of RIFF rockers only served to reinforce the connection they all have — entertaining Detroiters with rock and personality on 101 FM WRIF.
Today, FM radio is but one of many audio entertainment outlets accessible to consumers on their phones, their tablets, and their smart speakers. Streaming playlist platforms, satellite radio and podcasts are all part of most consumers’ menus.
As WRIF celebrates its golden anniversary during this transitionary time in our world, it’s a reminder about the power of consistency, personality, a local compass, and commitment.
As a wizened local philosopher reminds us, “Rock ’n’ roll never forgets.”
Fred Jacobs worked at WRIF during the 1970s and ’80s, first as research director and later program director. (Photo courtesy Fred Jacobs)
Fred Jacobs worked at WRIF during the 1970s and ’80s, first as research director and later program director. He launched his own radio consulting company, Jacobs Media, in 1983, and happily counts WRIF as a client today. Jacobs was inducted in the national Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.