Film captures Indy’s golden age of rock radio (Indianapolis Star 1-10-12)

Documentary film ‘Naptown Rock Radio Wars’ revisits the eras when WIBC, WIFE and WNAP took turns being in step with Indy’s youth culture
10:02 PM, Jan. 9, 2012

Written by David Lindquist

Bouncin’ Bill Baker, Jay Reynolds, Reb Porter, Cris Conner and Buster Bodine were not famous musicians, but they did enjoy rock-star status in Indianapolis.

Instead of making the hits, they played the hits on radio stations WIBC (Baker), WIFE (Reynolds and Porter) and WNAP (Conner and Bodine).

The stations ruled the airwaves when Elvis Presley rose to stardom, the Beatles invaded the United States and the FM dial provided a haven for counter-culture anthems and attitudes.

Documentary film “Naptown Rock Radio Wars” — which premieres Jan. 14 with two showings at the IMAX Theater at the Indiana State Museum — revisits the eras when WIBC, WIFE and WNAP took turns being in step with youth culture.

According to “Naptown Rock Radio Wars” director David Fulton, the on-air personalities were legitimate celebrities.

“They were probably cooler than you, because they were playing rock records,” Fulton said. “You had a lot of respect for them, and you thought they were a little smarter than you were — and led a more interesting life than you did.”

Baker, who hosted “Toast and Coffee,” a morning show on WIBC-AM (1070) in the late 1950s, routinely fielded phone calls from Presley.

WIFE-AM (1310) disc jockey Gentleman Jack Sunday made the onstage introduction for the Beatles when the Fab Four made a 1964 Indiana State Fair appearance at Pepsi Coliseum. (Sunday was a stage name for Jerry Baker, who later called TV play-by-play for the Indiana Pacers and remains a part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Network).

And WNAP-FM (93.1) had enough clout in 1968 to be given a copy of the Beatles’ “White Album” before any other local station had it. Al Stone, one of the film’s producers and an original WNAP disc jockey, said the “White Album” arrived via telephone transmission.

“(The film) is a slice of who these personalities were,” Fulton said. “Whether it’s obvious today or not, these are individuals who influenced what happened in Indianapolis, culturally. They gave us the ability to look in to what else was happening in the world.”

In retrospect, the “wars” detailed in the film were routs.

Despite having a fraction of WIBC’s 50,000-watt signal strength, WIFE quickly dominated the market with its “Good Guys” on-air staff and an influx of British Invasion hits that snowballed after the station’s debut on Oct. 31, 1963.

The station known as “Lucky 13” also made a splash through contests and promotions.

“WIFE bought this city,” Stone said. “They spent millions of dollars giving away houses, cars and boats.”

“Naptown Rock Radio Wars” depicts WIFE founder and Nebraska-based entrepreneur Don Burden as a visionary and taskmaster.

Burden showcased his disc jockeys in a glass storefront studio at the WIFE building, 1440 N. Meridian St. Fulton said he was surprised that it was difficult to track down images of the station’s “window on the world.”

“Everybody drove by it every day,” Fulton said.

In 1968, WIBC’s parent company grew weary of losing listeners to WIFE. Fairbanks Broadcasting made its FM property at 93.1 an alternative to everything the “Good Guys” represented.

When WIFE boycotted the Doors in response to Jim Morrison’s notoriously naughty onstage behavior, WNAP chose to spin songs by the Doors once an hour.

“I don’t think the average listener had or has any idea of how cutthroat this is,” said Stone, who taught English at Beech Grove Junior High School and worked an evening on-air shift at WNAP’s studio, 2835 N. Illinois St.

California-based radio historian Don Worsham said WNAP was the first commercially successful FM-only rock station in the United States.

An annual raft race on the White River became a popular WNAP promotion, while the late Chuck Riley voiced a bowel-quaking station ID linked to the station’s fowl nickname: “The wrath of the Buzzard.”

With WNAP knocking the wind out of WIFE, WIBC recovered its place as an AM leader. In the early 1970s, AM stations WNDE and WXLW entered the fray to vie for pop-rock listeners.

Dabbling with disco proved to be a misstep for WNAP. On Feb. 14, 1978, WFBQ-FM (94.7) added disc jockeys to its previously “robot radio” rock format. Five years later, Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold arrived in Indianapolis to solidify the Q95 dynasty.

“When WNAP abdicated the rock ‘n’ roll crown, which they created in this town, WFBQ seized it and nobody was able to get it back from them,” Fulton said.

Today, the 93.1 FM frequency belongs to WIBC’s news and talk. Sports resides at 1070 with WFNI-AM. WTLC-AM’s gospel music and commentator Amos Brown are heard at 1310.

The FCC stripped WIFE mastermind Burden of five radio stations in 1976 because of a scandal involving free advertising supplied to a politician’s re-election campaign. Burden died in 1985 at age 56.

Fulton said he believes Indianapolis radio missed an evolution in rock in the late 1970s, when punk and New Wave stirred youngsters in England and the United States.

“In 1977, I started enjoying punk and nobody on the FM dial was speaking to me anymore,” said Fulton, who played in an early Hoosier punk band called the Last Four Digits.

Call Star reporter David Lindquist at (317) 444-6404.

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