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Published September 20, 2014

The Day The Music Died: WQDR 94.7 FM

On the evening of Wednesday, September 5, 1984 I was listening to the radio in my bedroom as the last notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” faded into static. Even though I knew WQDR 94.7 FM would be signing off and switching over to a country format, nothing had prepared me for the moment it actually happened. I sat in stunned silence, staring at the radio dial as I absorbed the moment and allowed the reality sink in.

Without lingering too long, I moved the dial down to the right end of the dial to 106.1 to hear former ‘QDR air personality Bob Walton’s promo announcing “the torch has been passed” to WRDU. The demise of WQDR as a rock n’ roll station was the end of Triangle area radio as we once knew it.

Once my musical tastes evolved and I switched the dial from AM to FM, it wasn’t long before I happened upon rock n’ roll. It was radio as I’d never heard it before. The Top 40 approach on AM was upbeat and fast paced, but AOR (Album Oriented Rock) wasn’t like that at all. It was more personal, like hanging out at a friends house, spinning your favorite records together.

RELATED: The Cameron Village Subway Music Scene of the 1970’s.

The on-air delivery of WQDR announcers was so laid-back, like a whisper. compared to the manic, saleman-like approach of AM.

Then, there was the music itself which was truly atmospheric. Sure, they’d still spin some familiar hits you could hear on AM, but for the most part, album rock stations were an entirely different beast. They’d go off the beaten path into deep album tracks you’d never hear on Top 40 or AM stations. The laid back announcers and album experience conjured vivid images in the 1970’s listener’s mind — involving, maybe, the distinct aroma of marijuana smoke, blacklight posters and incense burning.

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - WQDR 94'ers -WQDR 1st Billboard_Mike Koste
WQDR’s first billboard campaign circa 1973, artist unknown. Image provided by Mike Koste.

This is exactly the impression I had when I first stumbled upon 94.7 FM back in the 1970’s. That frequency belonged to WQDR in Raleigh, first filling the airwaves in 1972. While it wasn’t the first rock n’ roll station I discovered on the FM dial, it was the first to truly have an impact, one that’s lasted a lifetime.

 

A Pillar For The 1970’s Rock n’ Roll Community

Growing up in Eastern North Carolina wasn’t the most isolated existence, but when it came to music, it did often feel like I was cut off from the rest of the world. In that sense, WQDR acted as a beacon, providing a lifeline to those of us that lived and breathed rock n’ roll. In those days, I read Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, Rock Scene and Hit Parader to stay in the musical loop. It may be difficult for some young folks to remember, but prior to MTV music programming on national television was limited and usually relegated to the late night hours on shows like Midnight Special. With WQDR, I could get my fix 24/7. Plus, they kept me up to date on all the latest concerts and the newest music.

Newer generations of listeners struggle to understand the magic of WQDR. But it wasn’t just a radio station. Back then, listening to radio was a more personal experience. Today, many stations feature canned programming, with very few live announcers on the air. But with WQDR, you could call in at any time of the day or night and actually speak to whoever was on the air. Listeners would form a bond with their favorite announcers and vice versa. People like JT Austin, Jo Leigh, Gayle Rancer, John Lisle, Bob Walton, Brian McFadden, Daniel Brunty, Gongaware, Joan Siefert, Tom Guild, Maria Mills, Allan Handleman, Pat Patterson, Rockin’ Ron, Cabell Smith, Bob Robinson (aka “Bob the Blade”) and other members of WQDR’s esteemed air staff formed connections with listeners–so strong that simply reading this list likely brings back overwhelming memories of the magic WQDR days and 1970’s nostalgia.

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - Mike Cross at the Pier - Sandra Simpson
WQDR and the Pier Present Mike Cross – Ticket provided by Robert “Bert” McMillian

Back then, a fun Friday night included finding whatever location WQDR was broadcasting from, and joining the party with your favorite DJs. A lot of times you could find them hanging around the Village Subway. WQDR wasn’t just a station; it was a lifestyle.

  • The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - Daniel Brunty Arrogance Intro The Pier - John Rottet
  • The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - Arrogance The Pier - John Rottet
WQDR announcer Daniel Brunty introducing Arrogance at the Pier in 1980. Photos Copyright John Rottet.

Specific songs connect deeply with memories. Like the first time you heard Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” crackle through the airwaves, or that time they played The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in it’s entirety on All Night Albums. Mention Fundermotz Airlines or Two Flags Over Fuquay to a ‘QDR aficionado and watch as a smile bursts across their face, remembering Pat Patterson’s morning show.

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - WQDR Staff Dorton Arena 1976_Mike Koste
Backstage at Dorton Arena in 1976, following Joan Armatrading’s area debut in opening support of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Photo by Mike Koste.

WQDR’s Frank Laseter, Mike Koste, Bill Hard, Greg Wells, Chris Miller and Paul Crowley of A & M Records with a mess of record guys, and Joan, clearly uncomfortable with the hoopla.

WQDR connects us with first loves, first concerts, your first car, your first stereo, dancing to the Fabulous Knobs or Arrogance at the Pier in the Cameron Village Subway. Robbin Thompson’s Two B’s Please, Glass Moon’s Growing in the Dark, the Mondo Montage compilation, Mike Cross’ The Bounty Hunter, Nantucket’s “Heartbreaker” single. All memories tied to a single, very unique radio station.

 

First-Hand Stories: Slip-Ups And Spills In The Studio

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - 1
Sandra Willamon (aka “Mother Q”), the future Mrs. Lee Abrams. In the WQDR control room, 1974. Photo by Mike Koste.

Sam Taybron:

  • I do remember a not-so-good story about my first weekend overnight. I fell asleep while on the air, only to be awakened by the General Manager and two of Raleigh’s finest. I thought I was fired, but I lasted for more great years. Long live the Star Ship Q.

Ron Phillips:

  • I fell asleep once, too. I used to work midnite ’til 10am, a long shift! Anyway, the Sunday morning part was pre-recorded PSA tapes. I fell asleep on the floor and as awakened by Hap Hansen walking in, yelling, “What’s going on in here!” Never heard another word about it.

Lori Russell Rentsch:

  • I was working at both WQDR and WYNA from ’76-’81. No one minded me doing it because they were in no way, shape, or form competitive. It was never a problem except for one time. I remember being on air on ‘QDR, gave the weather, then said, “It’s 75 degrees at WYNA Raleigh!” and hit a Linda Ronstadt song. Didn’t even know I had done it until all the phone lines lit up at one time. First call: What’s a YNA? From then on I always wrote the call letters in BIG letters on the weather! Oh, and at about 3:30 in the morning I accidentally knocked my bottle of Tab over onto Loggins’ & Messina’s Angry Eyes, which was playing on air at the time. It was close to the end, and at first it was still playing okay. But not for long. started speeding up to faster than 78. Ooops!

Brian McFadden:

  • I also tried lubricating the studio equipment with beverage. Two weeks after the brand new board was installed, maybe 1982, I spilled coffee into it while working the overnight shift. Everybody went easy on me except Bob Herman. I thought he was gonna kill me. At least it was black coffee without any cream or sugar.

JT:

  •  When I left WQDR in mid-1979 I drove cross-country practicing my chops for KZAP in Sacramento. I was listening to un-scoped air checks on my shows on WQDR and would turn the volume down and do a break on K-ZAP. I got to the station and first thing they tell me is, “Don’t say K-ZAP. Say K-Z-A-P!” In my very first break I deliberately blurted out, “WQDR! There! I got that out of the way first on K-Z-A-P!”

Mark Dodd:

  • WQDR was such a total blast to work for. The energy was always fresh, fun, and active – a sense of adventure in every day – and so much camaraderie, not just with the air staff, but the sales staff and in-house neighbors at WPTF-AM and WPTF-TV. The AM and FM studios were separated by a wall, so while the radio revolution was playing out on one side, on the other you had the comedic genius and brilliance of Maury O’Dell, Gary Dornberg, and Bart Ritner with their morning show and talk programming, as varied as Ask Your Neighbor, Jimmy V’s BBall Program, Larry King on overnight. One of the things I loved doing were the overnights, as the whole ambiance of graveyard shift just gave everything a relaxed and almost otherworldly feel – and the callers are all-out wacky. I also enjoyed driving the mid-40’s Mack Fire Truck that was converted into a gigantic four-wheeled soda dispenser. Folks would honk, wave, all that.
The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - WQDR Tom Guild & Gayle Rancer
Tom Guild and newsperson Gayle Rancer, late 70’s or early 80’s at WQDR. Photo provided by Gayle Rancer.

 

WQDR’s Original Vision

On-Air Personality Jim Huste describes the WQDR experience, from beginning to end:

When WQDR first went on the air after Christmas 1972 it was a different radio station than it ultimately morphed into being for the good 10+ years it ran.

WQDR, started by young radio whiz kid Lee Abrams – with his prior experience as a young programmer for ABC Radio Networks at WRIF in Detroit plus other stations in Miami and Chicago – had a more a “Top 40” vision for WQDR.

WQDR went on the air with a WMYQ Miami program director named David Sousa, who also had a strong Top 40 background. WQDR’s image for the first year was more of a “Super-Q” type of delivery. Lots of electronic sound effects under station IDs, “Starship Q” tee shirts, etc. It wasn’t until WQDR started to hire announcers locally that the genesis of WQDR began.

Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, with its universities and strong progressive college stations like WDBS at Duke, WKNC at NC State and WCAR at Carolina enabled WQDR to change to rock and roll presented by folks that really knew the history of the music and artists they were playing. These presenters lived the music. They were listening to that same stuff on their home stereo systems. They didn’t need liner cards to know what to say. They knew about the artists and how to put music together in sets. The difference between the free form stations they came from and the WQDR presentation was the imposition of music categories based on the popularity of songs and the repetition those songs received.

The 1978-79 WQDR 94er's. Top row from left: Cabell Smith, Pat Patterson, Jo Leigh Ferris and Winslow Stillman. Bottom row from left: Ben Weatherford, JT Austin, Sam Taybron and Jack Elder. Photo provided by JT Austin of WQDR.
The 1978-79 WQDR 94er’s. Top row from left: Cabell Smith, Pat Patterson, Jo Leigh Ferris and Winslow Stillman. Bottom row from left: Ben Weatherford, JT Austin, Sam Taybron and Jack Elder. Photo provided by JT Austin of WQDR.

It was akin to orbiting planets. Really new, popular songs received the most repetition and the repetition slowed down as songs faded over time. Some songs disappeared completely and other songs remained if they continued to be popular. Salted with other strong album cuts from popular artists, WQDR’s program and music directors really worked hard to maintain the freshness and integrity of the music! Add in live concerts from clubs with local bands and tons of live appearances by DJs–and WQDR became real to the listeners.

All of the WQDR announcers and writers and producers and sales people and managers lived pretty much the same lifestyle. It was a harmony that gelled everything together. It was a family, we hung out together, were proud of what we were doing and spread that pride with tee shirts, scrub shirts, license plates, bags, hats, Frisbees and you name it. We really let our free flag fly… and it came across with perfect integrity on the air.

 

Great Radio Means Breaking Corporate Rules

Another WQDR announcer, Chris Miller, adds to the story, recounting the risk and the rewards of starting such a non-corporate, youth-based radio station:

The staff of WQDR were kids basically. When I first started working there I wasn’t even old enough to drink. We basically made it up as we went along. The music was exciting and the social climate was very interesting. Carl Venters took a signal that made no money and let a bunch of long-haired guys run it.

One the first evening the station was on the air and engineer pulled the plug for a few minutes because we played The Pusher. Programming was the main part. We had rules for the type of commercials we would air, how many (8 minutes per hour or 10 units), and we didn’t air commercials with jingles. Dave Berry just about killed everyone when we turned down our first network commercial. I think it was Certs or Juicy Fruit. I once pulled a syndicated program off the air because it was sponsored by the Army.

WQDR is one of the stations responsible for the phone company setting up special prefixes for radio stations–we totally crippled the phone lines in the Research Triangle area and once effected the entire state for a couple of hours. Instead of apologizing to ATT at the time, the management said, “We’ll probably do it again so you should fix it.”

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - Pat Patterson On Hold LP - Jonathan Lee
One of Pat Patterson’s comedy albums; Pat was the morning radio host at WQDR from 1977 – 1982. Photo by Jonathan Lee.

The corporate world now just frankly doesn’t look for creativity, just profit. You have less than a handful of live talent and no one in a position to make creative decisions. Great radio will not happen like that. Corporations are built by people who rely completely on research because they don’t have the balls to make a real decision. Also the changes in society and music make it much trickier now-a-days. While WQDR and other stations were not offensive, we were never PC. We never overtly told people to smoke dope, but it was between the lines. Until someone passionate about classic radio and rock–and there are lots of them–wins the lottery or cashes in on the Nigerian prince letter and doesn’t care about profit, I can’t see a station like WQDR happening again.

 

Raleigh Music Culture And Community

WQDR even had two stores in Raleigh, where listeners could purchase concert tickets, t-shirts, bumper stickers, tote bags, jackets, and license plates–all emblazoned with the distinctive yellow and green WQDR logo. Today, people boast pictures of these collector’s items online and show them off to friends.

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - WQDR Gear_Brian McFadden
WQDR State Fair merchandise. Photo by Brian McFadden from WQDR.

There was even a television show hosted by WQDR announcers that followed Saturday Night Live on WPTF TV 28. It’s title, appropriately enough, was After Saturday Night. There was the WQDR Last Chance Rock n’ Roll Band and the station’s own basketball team, the ‘QDR 94’ers and East Coast Live with Allan Handleman. Who remembers being flown via helicopter into Carter Stadium along with ‘QDR staffers for the Poco, Van Halen, Boston and Outlaws concert in June of 1979?

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - WQDR Staffers and Listeners Carter Stadium 1979 - Tom Guild
WQDR announcers and contest winners at Carter Stadium in Raleigh on June 2, 1979 for the Poco, Van Halen, Boston and Outlaws concert. Everyone was flown into Carter Stadium via helicopter. Photo by Tom Guild of WQDR.

From L-R: Rockin’ Ron Phillips (WQDR), Susan Robinson Litchfield, Deborah York Register, unidentified contestant, Jo Leigh Ferris (WQDR), unidentified contestant, JT Austin (WQDR), Debbie Russo Bishop, unidentified contestant and Jack Elder (WQDR).

If you were there you remember the red NCSU plastic cups darkening the sky like falling rain!

The Day The Music Died WQDR 94.7 FM - Red Cups - Jamie Massey
NCSU red cups in flight at Carter Stadium during the Poco, Van Halen, Boston and Outlaws concert on June 2, 1979. Photo by Jamie Massey.

What started as an experiment in late 1972 evolved into one of the first Album Rock Stations in the nation. Many members of the WQDR community, including announcers and DJs, still reminisce on the WQDR Facebook Page. They share nostalgia and history, including pictures and sound files of old shows. One members posted a recording dating back to 1974, a slice of music history revealing just how different rock n’ roll radio sounded in the 1970’s. While they share a similar format, the glory days of WQDR were far less regimented than current rock radio.

WRDU 106.1 signed on just a few days prior to WQDR signing off in 1984. In those waning days prior to the switch-over, several longtime members of the ‘QDR airstaff migrated over to ‘RDU. Having those familiar voices on air helped soften the blow of losing WQDR. But Triangle radio was never the same.

Even 30 years later, the impact is still felt. The magic of 70’s rock, the AOR format, and the DJ’s that came together at just the right time–WQDR captured lightning in a bottle. The chemistry was so unique and the timing so perfect that it’s never been repeated.

RELATED: 7 Wonders Of Raleigh: Icons of The 1970’s.

In a touch of irony, ‘RDU itself went country in October of 2006. Then, in early 2010 it switched to an all-talk format. On April 1, 2013 the station previously known as The River became “Classic Rock 100.7 WRDU.” Rock n’ roll and the classic RDU call letters have returned to Triangle radio–but in name only. The programming isn’t live and the format is the same cookie-cutter format heard on similar stations nationwide. WQDR left an incredible void.

Like the untouchable era of fast cars, classic rock, live concerts beneath Cameron Village, WQDR vanished, taking our youth with it–but leaving us with irreplaceable memories:

Lynn Bowman:

  • I remember you could call in and actually win stuff, because there were not so many people here that you couldn’t get through–and you might be using a rotary phone!

Catlyn Gregory:

  • Oh man. I was listening to ‘QDR on my little transistor radio when they announced John Lennon was dead.

Brian Hobson:

  • We tuned in and … the image that comes to mind is a speeded-up video of a rose booming. The environment changed; the city seemed to change with WQDR on the air. The DJs were extremely cool, and they were obviously having a great time putting out some wonderful music for the people. They spoke to us, and we listened.

Bob Leah:

  • Me and the gang of folks I hung out with thought it was a gag at first. We kept waiting for the country format to flip back. Hours turned to days, as we slowly realized it was never coming back.

Here it is. That fateful broadcast, classic rock followed by WQDR signing off for the last time.

WQDR Sign-off newsclip

 

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  • Jonathan Lee

    Jonathan

  • Jonathan Lee is a freelance graphic artist, photographer, writer and sometime podcaster who grew up in Eastern North Carolina who currently resides in Raleigh. He also presently serves as one of the folks behind the Guitartown discussion group which centers around the alt.country music scene in the Triangle. Guitartown has a presence on Yahoo Groups, Facebook and Twitter. All my articles.

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