I was a part of the
broadcasting industry from 1967 to 1981, and the majority of my time was
spent at WTMA. I loved the station and I loved working there. What
follows is an observation of why, together with a brief history of our
radio market as I remember it.
WTMA owned Charleston from the early 1960s until the late 1970s. In 1974
(my first year there), WTMA had a little over twice the number of
listeners as the next station (WPAL). FM penetration in 1974 was minor.
Most car radios were still AM only. In AM Drive, we had 40 shares. In
afternoons with Booby Nash the numbers went up to 50 shares.
In 1974 there were only 14 AMs and FMs in the market. There were only
two ratings periods at the time: April/May and October/ November.
Chuck Smith (Mr. Smith to us) owned WTMA throughout most of the
period, and was not afraid to spend money to make money. It was common
for us to give away a total of $10,000 a year during rating periods.
(That's about $50,000 in today's money)
John Burwell at WTMA in 1974
Chuck Smith sold WTMA for a brief period (1972-1974) to Ted Turner.
Ted sold it back to Chuck and used the money to buy a broken-down UHF TV
station in Atlanta. That broken-down TV station became WTBS, and the
rest is history.
It's hard to describe the feeling of working at WTMA in 1974. We were
the #1 station in South Carolina, and we had higher cumulative ratings
than any station in the entire Southeast, including Atlanta. We knew we
were good. And we were. The entire staff and management worked together
as one big team. All of us ate and slept WTMA, and no one punched a
clock. Ten-hour days were not uncommon. We made regular public
appearances as the TMA Good Guys, and all of us showed up at remotes and
other live events. I think, most importantly, we actually thought we
Each TMA jock had a desk in the announcer's area. Each desk had a
typewriter. One was expected to work on show prep in the hours in which
he was not on the air. Some of us (myself included) were also expected
to write and produce commercials during our off-air time. When I
arrived, the time slots were as follows: 6a-9a, 9a-noon, noon-3p, 3p-7p,
7-midnight, and midnight-6a.
When WTMA hired me, I was the morning drive (6a-9) DJ at WNOK in
Columbia. I was hired to do the overnight shift at TMA (midnight to 6a).
I took the job for two reasons: first, WTMA was the top-rated station in
the southeast, and this was an opportunity for me to hit the "big-time."
I figured I could get my foot in the door, and then move to another time
slot when a new position opened. Secondly, at the time WTMA was paying a
lot of money for air talent. I was offered $2,500 a year more than I was
making doing the morning show at WNOK. In today's money, that's a
$10,500 yearly pay increase, and that was the salary for the lowest-paid
airshift on the station! Six months after I arrived, Steve Russell
was moved to WPXI (our FM) to be their operations manager. I was given
his time slot (9a to noon). I stayed in middays for most of my on-air
time at WTMA.
Two interesting notes from my first week on the job:
1. About my second or third day, I arrived at the office and an older
man (whom I hadn't met) asked me to take his car and sit in the gas
lines (The energy crisis was raging at the time) and fill his tank. I
told him I didn't think I was allowed to leave the studio for personal
reasons. He said he was certain that it would be all right for me to go
and wait in the gas lines for him. I told him that he would have to ask
our GM for permission. He walked off with a frustrated look, and came
back about 30 seconds later, handed me his keys, and said, "Mr. Trenton
agrees with me." On my way out, I asked another jock if he knew the man
for whom I was going to running errands. He said, "That's Chuck Smith.
He's buying this station back from Ted Turner!" Oh.
2. At my first evening staff meeting, our head salesman, Rudi Gresham
(who was the template for Herb on the old TV series WKRP in
Cincinnati), hired a stripper from the Joker Lounge to come in and
"streak" us. (Streaking was becoming the a fad on college campuses). She
evidently didn't know what streaking was, because she ended up
performing her act for us. The stripper took Booby Nash's glasses off
his head and she and squeezed them between her ample body parts. The
glasses broke! Booby didn't think it was funny at all!
By the time I arrived in 1974, WTMA-FM had become WPXI, thanks to an FCC
ruling that greatly restricted simulcasting. WPXI was automated and used
Bonneville's "Beautiful Music" package. "This is Pixie! WPXI. Beautiful
Music for the Lowcountry," was the canned voice's familiar image ID. The
automation was a primitive step-computer programmed by rolls of
punch-tape. You should have seen the huge tape reels and "Carousel" cart
machines! Steve Russell staffed the station during the day, but after
5:00, the TMA news department was responsible for changing the tape
reels. From midnight to six, the tape changing responsibility fell to
the all-night jock.
In 1974, WTMA's Top 40 competition was WKTM (now WXLY). Former WTMA
afternoon drive man J.J. Scott was the PD, and they were nowhere
close to us in 12+ ratings numbers. They were, however, second to us in
18-24 men, and I remember that caused a bit of concern. As a result, we
cut our number of "new" songs to one per hour, increased our hot
rotation to every three hours, and decided to play "Twin-Spins" through
all the quarter hours. We moved the weather forecasts from :15 and :45
to :10 and :40, and delivered the forecasts over the intros of songs. We
also began to cluster our spots. Instead of playing a maximum of two
spots at a time, we clustered them into five two-minute stop sets.
(maximum of 4-:30's or 2-:60's). We also gave away five thousand dollars
in contests. By April/May of 1975, WKTM was a distant third. I think it
At TMA, winning was everything. After I was moved to the 9-noon slot,
the General Manager John Trenton, called me into his office. John
was a nice guy but he was serious about performance. He said to me,
"John, you've made it to the best station in the South. You made it
because you are very good at what you do. Your job is to maintain the #1
rating in your time slot. If you can't do that, we will find someone who
will. Have I made myself clear?" He had. I did.
The broadcast equipment at WTMA was old, but all of it worked, and it
worked well. Management's philosophy was to spend money when needed, but
ONLY when needed. If something broke, it was fixed or replaced
immediately. We played actual 45 RPM records alternating them between
two instant-start turntables. The entire record playlist was kept on a
wooden board mounted on top of the broadcast console. Commercials,
jingles and show drop-ins were played on a three-stack cart machine. On
the right-hand side of the studio there were racks and racks of
processing equipment and patch panels. In the back corner of the studio
there was a huge wooden box (about 3' by 3') containing the springs for
station's reverb unit.
John Burwell lighting one up on the air in 1976
I believe every DJ smoked, and so the walls were…yellow. Patch cords and
loose wires were everywhere. Today's OSHA would have shut us down. The
studio didn't look all that great, but hey -- this was radio, not TV.
(Most of the jocks didn't look all that great, for that matter.)
Sometime in late 1974 our Chief Engineer Bill Dudley, left us to
become the GM at WKTM/WNCG. Bill was replaced by Charlie McHan,
who I believe was the finest radio engineer in the entire world. I still
don't know how he did it, but in 1975 WTMA was the best-sounding AM
station in the Southeast, if not in all of America. The signal was loud
and compressed, but there was not a hint of distortion in the system.
Charlie was also an old movie buff, and I believe he had every old movie
that existed recorded on one-inch video tape. (This was before the days
of VCRs!) Charlie would regularly invite the staff over to his house to
watch movies. I developed my love of Frank Capra movies from times spent
In 1975, ARB changed management and became ARBITRON, and they also
changed their sampling techniques. They began to "weigh" the ratings
based on skin color. Their idea was that African-Americans were not
likely to fill out and return a diary, so they decided that every
"black" diary that was returned would count for more rating points than
a "white" diary would. They supposedly had a formula for each city based
on ethnic breakdown, but for Charleston what it meant was that one black
diary was equal to three "white" diaries. Thus, in one book, WPAL went
from 6th to 2nd in the market. (April/May, 1975)
We could see the handwriting on the wall, and again, our management
didn't know what it meant to lose. Since Arbitron decided to stack the
deck, we decided to play to win. Beautiful Music WPXI became WPXI -
Super 95 Soul. The station used the same automation equipment, but
instead we played hit soul music and the best of Motown's great oldies.
We did our own music formatting - based on what the on-air talent,
Tony Jameson liked. (Tony was very, very good - an incredible
talent.) By October/ November 1975, WPAL was bumped back to third in the
market - behind WTMA and WPXI.
WPXI became more of a success than we originally intended it to be. The
oldies on WPXI were truly top-40 hits (The Temptations, The Four Tops,
The Supremes, etc), and consequently WPXI attracted a considerable
crossover audience. People began to go out and buy FM radios so they
could listen to WPXI. In 1976, WTMA, for the first time in decades, came
in second in the quarter-hour shares. We still ruled the cumes, but WPXI
was #1 in quarter-hours. We were responsible for the increase in FM
penetration in our own market!
WAPE in Jacksonville also became a force to be reckoned with in 1975
when "The Greaseman" hit the air there. They would show up 5th or
6th in our Arbitrons, which is quite remarkable for a signal that far
Top 40 music of this time was getting very, very stale. Disco was coming
on strong, and the thump-thump-thump beat of 12-minute singles did not
lend itself to a Top 40 format. Most of the music was boring. As a
direct result, country music began increasing in popularity across the
nation as listeners shifted to anything but disco. CHR stations (as we
were becoming known, thanks to a new trade publication, Radio &
Records) began to move away from personality radio and more into
"time and temperature" stations.
WTMA (wrongly, I think) followed the national trend. In 1974, we used to
spend a couple of hours in daily show preparation. We entertained our
audience. By early 1976 we simply showed up for our shift, and all we
were allowed to say was already there in front of us on 3-by-5 cards. It
was more than Booby Nash could take, and he did the unthinkable. He went
across the street to WKTM.
I began to focus my creativity in writing and producing commercials. My
thought was if I couldn't be creative on the air, I could be at least
creative in the stuff that got on the air. I ended up doing about 75% of
the stations' in-house commercials, and I loved it. Management loved it
as well, and responded by completely refurbishing our production studio
with state-of-the-art recording equipment.
John Burwell at WTMA in 1976
Our ratings continued to move downward in 1976, although we still
remained on top in the cumes. But in two years we had gone from having
twice as many listeners in quarter-hours and cumes, to losing to WPXI in
quarter hour shares and just barely beating WPAL in the cumulative
In 1977 management decided to take a different tact, and hired Bob
McLain (who had worked with GM John Trenton and Rick Dees
(Disco Duck) in Greensboro NC in the late 60's) as our PD and morning
man. Bob loosened the talk-restrictions, brought in a wild man (Tim
St. George) to do 7-midnight, and did a great job of rebuilding our
sagging morale. We went up 15 points in 12+ in Bob's first book! But Bob
was a rabbit, and after a little over a year, he jumped to another
rabbit hole (in Virginia).
The Bob McLain era was a fun time for those of us at WTMA. The staff was
as united as ever, and sounded great in every single time-slot. I
enjoyed being on the air because I could be creative again. I looked
forward to being on the air almost as much as I looked forward to
recording commercials. We were allowed to entertain the audience with
music and personality. It was like our earlier TMA days and we loved it.
The McLain era may have been WTMA's finest hour in the 1970s.
Competition was constantly increasing. In late 1976, WCSC (now WXTC)
went to an Adult Contemporary format, and brought in Mike Hiott
to be their morning man. (I worked with Mike at WNOK in Columbia in the
early 70's). He went nowhere in the Charleston ratings, and he moved on
to television. WCSC began a consulting relationship with Kent
Burkhart, which eventually led to the hiring of
C.J. Jones ("CJ and Buzz").
WQSN (1450 AM) made a valiant effort for two Arbitron books in 1976. As
15Q, they rocked, but nobody listened. They fell apart and changed to an
oldies format and later returned to country music.
In 1977, WQIZ in St. George sold their 100,000 watt FM frequency to a
Washington DC company for a unheard of price of $500,000. The company
moved the radio tower closer to Charleston, and set up offices in North
Charleston. Q-107 was born, and became quite a thorn in the side to
WTMA. One of our former jocks, Gery (Gary) London (nee Chris
Pinckney), became their morning man. I was wined and dined by the GM
on three separate occasions to be their off-air production director, but
I remained steadfastly loyal to WTMA. Q-107 would eventually spend a
short stint at the top of the market in the 1980's before becoming WBUB
(Bubba 107.5 and now
Cat Country 107-5.
John's 1980 business card
In mid-1978 (Right after Bob McClain left), I was made production
director at WTMA and was taken off the air to allow me to devote
full-time to commercial production. Management bought me an Ampex
4-channel recorder and some high-powered processing toys for my studio.
I was in heaven!
When Bob McClain left, WTMA rehired Booby Nash, and made him the Program
Director. But by this time FM penetration was almost dominant. WTMA was
still #1 in Morning Drive (Booby's shift) but 2nd to WPXI almost all of
the rest of the day in both quarter hours and cumes. Country music also
begin to make great gains in the Charleston market. WEZL became quite
popular with many former TMA listeners.
In 1979, WCSC made Booby an offer he couldn't refuse, and he left WTMA
again. WCSC had also hired C.J. Jones to be their General Manager. C.J.
did the first two-man morning show in our area with a side-kick named
Buzz Bowman. They were sounding as good or better than us, and we
Management brought in a new PD for WTMA (I don't recall his last name,
but his first name was Randy) who
reformatted WTMA into "The New TMA." We continued to top WCSC in the
ratings at first, but then the unthinkable happened to us: we were sold.
In late 1980, Chuck Smith sold WTMA and WPXI to Sconnix, an investment
group from New Hampshire. Sconnix released John Trenton and brought in a
whole new management staff. I remember the first sales meeting I
attended with the new owners. We were told, "We're here to show you how
real radio is supposed to be done." They reformatted WTMA, and quite
frankly, killed it.
Their real interest was in WPXI. They changed the call letters to WSSX
in January of 1981, and made a secret arrangement with WWWZ to give them
WPXI's announcers and the Urban format. WPXI's call letters were sold to
channel 11 television in Pittsburgh, PA. WSSX became an automated hit
album-cut station. (I did all the original tape recording and voiceovers
for WSSX; I was the first "voice" of 95SX.)
In 1979, I heard and answered a call to ordained ministry and I had been
approved to go to seminary in June of 1981. (Seminary is a three-year
masters degree program.) I had all intentions of finishing my radio
career at WTMA, but I was unable to do it. I found myself constantly
disagreeing with the "new ideas" of Sconnix management. In showing us
how "…real radio was supposed to be done," they completely forgot that
South Carolina is not New Hampshire. Many of their ideas that worked
well in New Hampshire bombed down here.
I tolerated the new management as long as I could, but I simply couldn't
stand to see what was happening to my first love - WTMA. We lost to WCSC
for the first time in our history, and Sconnix didn't care. Their
attitude was so different from the staff and management of the old TMA
that I found that I simply couldn't take it any more. I quit in February
of 1981. After one week of unemployment I was hired as Production
Director by WCSC, and I finished my final four months in radio at WCSC.
By the middle of 1981, WSSX was live and highly formatted. Also by the
end of 1981, WTMA had slipped to fifth in the market, behind WWWZ, WCSC,
WEZL, and Q-107. Sconnix sold WSSX/WTMA in 1985.
With a powerful Talk Radio format, WTMA regained its rightful place in
Charleston radio in the 1990s. The future is bright, and I'm glad.
The days of AM Top 40 are indeed golden days of yesterday. WTMA was one
of Radio's finest stations in the Top 40-era. I'm proud to have been
there, and I'm proud to be a part of WTMA's long and wonderful history.
Congratulations, TMA, on 65 years of service!
from John Burwell here.)
John Burwell Today
Download a John Burwell 1977
(MP3 Format - 7:56 - 2794 KB)
Are you a former WTMA
employee or listener with a story to share?
We'd love to hear from you!