The year 1958 would be pivotal for Top 40 radio. It is the year that the Top 40 format would gain its credibility on Madison Avenue. Radio has long been dependent on local advertising for the bulk of its support. But the national advertiser has also been helpful to stations, contributing twenty to thirty percent of a station’s revenue to the top line. Up until 1957, with the exceptions of a few major stations in large markets, the Top 40 format was without a voice in the halls of the national advertising rep firms in New York. That was until Bob Eastman formed his national advertising firm, Eastman and Company to represent the budding format. This formation is notable for two reasons. First, that Top 40 was now seen in the national ad community as a legitimate format, and second, the company which would one day buy WAPE – Eastman Radio – had been formed. (It is ironic that when Eastman bought WAPE in the early 1980’s they immediately switched the format to “Big Band”.)
1958 would also mark the year WAPE came on the air.
The story of the station starts with a friendship which began nearly fifty years before the station went on the air. They were two friends who attending college in the early 1900’s; one a former dairy farmer and the other a mathematics teacher. Along with their families, relatives and friends, they would build a group of radio stations which covered a good part of the southeastern United States. Their stations would reach millions, influencing teen life across the southeastern United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. They would produce and bring live rock and roll shows to town, which were so legendary that they are still recalled nearly fifty years later.
Ape Call is the story of one of their stations, WAPE in Jacksonville. WAPE would be the last great AM station which would be designed, built and operated by the Brennan and Benns families of Alabama. The Brennan’s had a hand in some of the most influential radio stations of the day, having first entered into the business with the Benns family in the mid-1940’s. Through this early period their stations were concentrated near their Alabama home. WAPE would present a new frontier to the Brennan’s, both in its geography and in its persona. The station would benefit from the accumulation of knowledge gained over the years from WVOK and WBAM. WAPE would be a radio station which would be bigger than life, its influence spanning at least five states and more than five decades.
Everything at WAPE was done with a sense of fun and flair. You could hear it on the air, experience it at station promotions, see it in the futuristic building on Highway 17 in Orange Park – which attracted visitors from all across the United States – and live it every day in a signal which always sounded bigger than any other station on the dial, as said every day by the WAPE In Men, “from the Capitol to the coast, from Washington, DC to Key West, Florida!”
The flames of the success of WAPE would be fanned by the invention and mass-marketing of the transistor radio. This granted teens the freedom to choose their own music, no longer tied to the families’ table-top or car radio. Above all, these sets were affordable and portable. Soon the sandy beaches of Florida, Georgia North and South Carolina would be dotted with the new transistor technology as teens of the day flocked to the coast for a daytime or weekend getaway.
From 1959 through the early 1970’s, it could be said with great certainty that every teenager living along the southeast coast, from Daytona Beach to Wilmington, North Carolina, had two favorite radio stations; the Top 40 station in their home town and Jacksonville’s WAPE. And in some cases, it was the distant WAPE, and not their hometown station, that was on top of the local ratings.
The exceptional coverage area of the WAPE signal would allow it to spread its musical influence up and down the coastal areas of the southeast. The stations weekly playlist listed the most popular “top 40” acts of the day as well as regional and local artists. In addition to the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, the Turtles, Young Rascals and Otis Redding, listeners would also be treated to Mouse and the Boys, the Daybreakers, Soul Covered Glass, the Dalton Gang and the Coronadoes. The influence of WAPE would manifest itself with packed houses wherever these bands would play, not just in Jacksonville but as far away as Waycross, Brunswick and Savannah, Georgia.
Live music shows were not limited to local acts. WAPE produced and promoted a steady stream of concerts by national artists. These concerts were so successful that were that were also duplicated at sister stations WBAM and WVOK. The Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Herman’s Hermits, and the Grass Roots – the list goes on and on. WAPE would flex its promotional muscles in 1964 by hosting the Beatles in concert.
Gone are the days when music was king on the AM dial, and as iconic top-forty stations go, WABC, WLS, WGAR, KHJ, WQXI, WIBG and their kin are gone. Drive into Jacksonville today and you can still hear the primal scream which first pierced radio dial of the River City in the fall of 1958 – the Ape Call. Every hour the Ape Call is used to identify the station that is still known as “The Big Ape”, a brand and a radio station that is alive and vibrant more than fifty years after its AM counterpart first went on the air at 690 kc. Tune to WAPE-FM at 95.1 and you can will hear the spirit of a radio station which was brought to life by the three Brennan brothers from Alabama. WAPE-FM broadcasts a full day of “todays hit music” and maintains an ownership association with its 50,000 watt AM parent station, now known as WOKV-AM 690.
You are here because you are curious. Curious about a history, a radio station, a relative, a co-worker or a part of your own past. This historical blog started out as a timeline on an Excel worksheet; nothing more. It was going to be a timeline of the legendary WAPE in Jacksonville. That would be me in search of a part of my own past. In search of the origin of the music coming out of the little black Jade brand transistor radio given to me by my grandmother. A radio which spent many summers on the white sands of Myrtle Beach parked in front of the Jade Tree and Sandpiper motels. That radio which was always tuning between WTGR in Myrtle Beach and WAPE Jacksonville.
The simple timeline has become is a journal of stories with an album of cherished family photographs. Not my family, but that of the Brennan family of Alabama. But not just the Brennan’s, you see the folks that worked at their stations were more than just employees, they considered themselves family too.
What it has also become is more than a history of one radio station. You see, each radio station was somehow linked to the other. It became impossible to talk about one without knowing a little something about another. I guess these radio stations were family too.
While this work has grown in scope and depth more than I could have ever imagined, it is, and will be by no means complete. Everyday there is a new photo, an undiscovered piece of audio or a new story shared. The one thing that I hope to achieve is to record first-hand accounts of those who were there, and leave that record for all who visit.