35 years ago – The Buzzard is born!
35 years ago on April 18 the WMMS Buzzard made its debut. How the Buzzard came to be our logo was a long journey that started with a drive on the then bleak and isolated section of Euclid Avenue between East 55th and 105th on a damp, cold Cleveland December evening and, surprisingly, an incident regarding a syndicated radio show.
On April 16, 1974 the Buzzard made its first appearance in a full-page print ad in a short-lived alternative bi-weekly named Zeppelin. Though the paper was housed in Cuyahoga Falls, it had Cleveland-based investors and good distribution throughout Greater Cleveland shops, stores, and bars most likely to be frequented by potential WMMS listeners and, at that time, we couldn’t afford to trade or buy ads in the Scene. Concomitantly, we premiered a Len “Boom” Goldberg-voiced ID, which ran every hour at the top-of-the-hour proclaiming WMMS as “the Wrath of the Buzzard!”
We’d had it with the old hippie FM underground image. Our goal was to be Cleveland’s #1 radio station – and also become one of the most influential FM stations in America.
It was a tall order and many believed we couldn’t succeed. FM meant find me. FM penetration didn’t match AM’s dominance – and FM radios were optional – not standard in automobiles. A radio with both AM and FM bands cost more than a stand-alone AM.
Initially, David Helton was given two Buzzard ads, both hand-sketched by me on a yellow legal pad. They broke the then-unwritten rule of acknowledging rival stations in advertising. We believed, written or unwritten, “rules were made to be broken” and we’d have to break a few of them in order to achieve our objective.
There were two versions of the first Buzzard ad. A slightly restrained one, which featured two slips of paper (to represent Arbitron ratings diaries) – one reading “GCL,” the other “IXY” – the two prominent top 40 stations in Cleveland at the time. We didn’t know if Zeppelin would reject the ads mentioning rival stations so David completed the subtle version first.
The second version, which was our second ad, two weeks later in Zeppelin, was not subtle. The Buzzard was perched in a radio station graveyard, surrounded by tombstones for WIXY, WGCL, and WNCR, the latter also a top 40 station, which at one time was direct competition to WMMS.
While David was working on the second ad, WNCR dropped its top 40 format for country and changed call letters to WKSW (for KISS Country). That’s why the WNCR tombstone is on a hill, covered with a cowboy hat and a cowboy boot in front of it. This was our rendering of that station’s Boot Hill.
David’s art brought the Buzzard to life.
David Helton remembers:
It was 35 years ago this week that we created and drew the first Buzzard. I met Denny Sanders, who was doing his show at WMMS, on Tuesday night, after I got off work from American Greetings. Denny explained what he and John wanted. I remember Denny asked me to pick a song off Madman Across the Water – and he played it! That was the best part of the first meeting. They needed the art the next day for Zeppelin magazine’s print deadline and, of course, that was the story of meeting Denny on the west side around East 50th and Detroit so he could pick up the finished artwork – except that there was no East 50th street – but, obviously, we found each other.
Dan Garfinkel remembers:
A little over a year after the Buzzard logo was introduced a group of Case Western Reserve University MBA students did a study and determined that the Buzzard was the most recognizable logo in Greater Cleveland, beating out both the Cleveland Indians (Chief Wahoo) and Coca-Cola. (In Greater Cleveland and Greater Buffalo Pepsi-Cola outsells Coca-Cola.)
When I arrived at WMMS, we were doing 3,000 T-shirts per year. I felt we could use the T-shirts as a way to build the brand, perform a public service by generating more money for worthy causes, and give our smaller advertisers, many of who had supported us in the early days, but were being priced off the station due to our growing ratings. To show our appreciation for their support, I built a distribution network that included both large, multi-location chains and small mom and pop stores. Innovations included drop shipping merchandise directly from the manufacturer, thus eliminating using the station as a warehouse; growing the business sufficiently so we that we had enough “weight” to order custom-made shirts, with color inserts, etc., standardizing our sizing mix, creating a regular “release” calendar with a spring and fall shirt; analyzing how many promos to use to successfully launch new product and developing relationships with multiple charities to receive proceeds (including, of course, the Free Clinic, but adding the Cleveland Ballet, the Cleveland Orchestra, and a music scholarship at Cleveland State University, to name a few).
We also introduced additional productions, including drinking glasses (which benefitted the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), calendars, thermoses, and camp shirts. And that was just in the area of paid merchandising. We also distributed a massive number of bumper stickers and promoted where they could be picked up, creating store traffic for dozens of retailers.
Please turn to Chapter 7 in The Buzzard for the complete story on how our fine-feathered friend came to be.
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