Happy 75th Birthday to Indianapolis’ Own WIBC Radio – A Strange Trip Continues

by Kent Sterling

imagesToday 75 years ago, somebody flipped a switch, and WIBC was on the air.  Who knows what noise spilled out of radio speakers that day, but if it was like most start ups I’ll bet what followed the next day was a little better.

WIBC was almost 55 years old when I walked into the converted medical offices (that have since been converted back to medical offices) that served as the studios and office space at 9292 N. Meridian for my first day of work there in March, 1993.

The place at that point had tumbled from the summit of Indianapolis radio to become a madhouse of crazy ideas and crazier execution.  The general manager was a fearless and combative man whose ideas confounded a conservative marketplace.  The traffic reporter wore a beanie complete with a propeller, and the afternoon drive host was an arch conservative madman whose attacks on respected civic leaders were at once horrifying and hilarious.

Our news director was a World War Two veteran who was as respected in Indianapolis as Walter Cronkite was nationally, and on the day I interviewed, the receptionist sat in as a co-host on the morning show for the first time – a spot she still occupies.

Within the first three months of my being hired, the 69 year-old news director almost came across the desk to fight the general manager, was was a solid 6’4″, 240 lbs., and just crazy enough to enjoy beating a senior citizen who still referred to his former wartime enemies as “Japs.”  Calmer heads prevailed, and Fred Heckman resigned, rather than throw arthritic hands.

WIBC also tried to to win listeners with “Confessions Month” – a guest driven segment where people who exhibited strange behavior were asked about their aberrance.  We featured a woman from San Francisco who delighted in causing accidents by standing nude in her apartment window as cars only a few yards away attempted to exit an interstate.  There was also Gigi Allen, a bar band veteran whose schtick involved defecating on stage and flinging the yecch at the audience.  A nude housekeeper was the least weird person we welcomed.  Indianapolis rioted, and the plug was pulled before the 10th.

An afternoon drive host engaged in a fist fight with a veteran during a debate about the fate of Vietnam MIAs, and the office of the afternoon host became the headquarters for a right wing political action committee.  Employees became ex-employees at an alarming rate, and a day rarely passed without people questioning the sanity of the station that once best reflected culture in central Indiana.

Then in April, 1994, the announcement was made that Emmis Communication had agreed to buy WIBC and WKLR from the wacky guys at Sconnix..  Jeff Smulyan has said many times that the purchase was not a business decision, but a moral one.  He just couldn’t stand by and watch the reputation of this proud heritage radio station be tarnished by the strange decisions by the soon-to-be-previous owners.

From that point forward, the dust settled, and WIBC regained it’s footing as a respected voice of news in Indiana.  Those who left because they just couldn’t watch WIBC be deconstructed came back.

What happened before and after that brief time from March, 1993 – April, 1994 is more or less typical of the operation of a full service radio station.  There were many people who worked and continue to work to respect the legacy of one of America’s legendary radio stations, but no period was filled with more amazement and laughter.

There have been great moments in the last 40 years – like Fred Heckman’s on-air work to resolve the Tony Kiritsis/Dick Hall episode.  There have been monologues by Greg Garrison that stripped away the political polarity that most often defines his show, and brought amazing clarity and reason to times of great turbulence and sorrow.  There have been radiothons to benefit The Salvation Army that were both exhausting and magical as they informed and provided Indianapolis residents a great portal for donating to those who do the most good.  Bouncin’ Bill Baker defied the Indiana State Legislature to play the innocuous “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsman.

WIBC continues to inform and enlighten.  Gone are so many who worked to make the station what it was during different eras, but Steve Simpson, Terri Stacy, Greg Garrison, Pat Sullivan, Dick Crum, and Denny Smith are still getting it done.

WIBC is being rebuilt and redefined yet again as a conservative radio station.  ABC is out.  Fox News is in.  Friendly talk in the afternoon is out, replaced by “Chicks on the Right.”  It makes business sense to appeal to the same demographic throughout the day.

There is no radio station in Indy, or perhaps America, that has been more things throughout it’s history.  It will continue to evolve, and there will be good and bad times.

I was fortunate to be there for some good and some  bad.  All were challenging, and all were hilarious.

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