John Gorman: Rocks the Music Box Supper Club!

John Gorman

John Gorman (right). Photos: © 2016 Jim Carver / The Rust Belt Chronicles.

John Gorman should need no introduction. The genius behind taking a radio station (WMMS) in Cleveland, Ohio and given four months to turn-it-around or face the loss of their music format is an iconic story. Long before, Seth Godin pushed: “not waiting for permission“, “not waiting to be picked” or “creating your own tribe“; John Gorman  pioneered a movement, resulting in monumental achievements. He defied the odds, broke down barriers, and subsequently made WMMS the definitive cutting-edge FM radio station and most respected of the entire entertainment industry!

DSC_3402aI had the privilege of attending John’s, “Cleveland Dinner Party” session at the elegant, Music Box Supper Club in the rejuvenated flats of Cleveland, Ohio last week. The Wednesday weekly, story teller sessions are presented by the Cleveland History Center, Medical Mutual, along with Scene Magazine. Music Box Supper Club manager, Mike Miller hosts the series, bringing the details with his questions to the guest speakers throughout the evening. The Music Box Supper Club is the perfect setting for this personal insight featuring Cleveland legends given the up-close seating, delicious food and beverages. Checkout their upcoming schedule of upcoming Cleveland Dinner Party Series!

In attendance were the Vice President of LiveNation, Barry Gabel, former, TV-8 Fox Sports Personality, Dan Coughlin (who gave his story teller session a few weeks ago), John Crowbar of Scene Magazine, and Daffy Dan of the famous T-shirt company, Daffy Dan T-shirts. The show was a sell-out.

John Gorman: Cleveland Stories Dinner Parties: How WMMS created havoc in the 70s, and became the most respected radio station in the country!

DSC_3405John Gorman began his session explaining how his career started in Boston, working with an AM radio station. In the early 1970’s, AM radio ruled the airwaves. FM radio was frowned upon and often looked upon as the “red-headed step child”. Mr. Gorman saw the opportunity as a challenge to reach listener’s with what they wanted to hear. Ironically, it was during this time in Boston, he met and became friends with Denny Sanders.

Denny would soon be hired as the program director of WMMS and move to Cleveland. Sanders really had no desire to be the program director (he wanted to be a DJ), so he asked his friend, John Gorman to take the position. The radio station had just been bought by Malrite Communications, who was going to change the format from rock to country western.  In those days, you could petition the FCC to keep the same format by obtaining 6,000 signatures, This was one of John Gorman’s first challenges in Cleveland. WMMS received the signatures required along with permission from the FCC to extend their rock album format for only four months.

Denny Sanders and John decided they would not only beat the odds of surviving 4 months, but their goal was to take WMMS to the top of all radio stations in the USA!

Back in those days, WMMS spun entire albums, which once again, set them apart from their competitors. Malrite Communications didn’t want WMMS to succeed because it’s far cheaper to run syndicated programming. With the odds stacked heavily against him, John Gorman recruited broadcasting students to become Disc-Jockies from nearby Cleveland State University. He shortened their DJ names to become distinct and memorable (such as:Kid Leo”, Matt “The Cat”, Betty “Crash” Korvan, “BLF Bash”, “Ruby Cheeks” andBilly Bass“) while on air.

John Gorman told us the funny story on how he was advised by the staff to reside in East Cleveland upon taking the programming directors job. He rented an apartment out off 55th Street, not too far from the studio of WMMS. At that time, the area around East 55th Street was rougher, than it is now. One night, he heard what he thought was firecrackers and realized it was gunfire next door to his apartment. He promptly moved.

In fact, it was during his drive home one night while listening to Desolation Row by Bob Dylan on WMMS and noticing the surrounding destruction of the neighborhood, John got the idea for “The Buzzard” logo, which replaced the original “Mushroom” logo.

Photos: © 2016 Jim Carver / The Rust Belt Chronicles.

John gave us insight as to how the radio station began breaking unknown acts in the USA, by purchasing the UK magazines, New Musical Express and Melody Maker (interestingly, I use to buy Melody Maker too). This is how he discovered Queen, (a band whom the other US radio stations wouldn’t spin, due to their gay-slanged name). WMMS would supply the artist record with heavy airplay, book the band on the “WMMS Night’s Out” (recorded live) at the Cleveland Agora through Henry “Hank” LoConti Sr. and Buddy Mayer. The Monday night shows scheduled at the Agora would sell-out with some shows simulcast live on air. Two week’s later, Mr. Gorman would book the band in a larger venue such as the Allen Theater.

The subsequent reviews and airtime would serve to achieve Queen as being recognized as a rising-star, by other radio markets. Meanwhile, WMMS became rapidly noticed as a trend-setter.

John spoke of following this marketing plan to break bands nationally such as: “Rush”, “The Sensational Alex Harvey Band”, “The Tubes”, “Suzi Quatro”, and more. His partnership with the Agora also launched the successful, “CoffeeBreak Concert Series” at the old Cleveland Agora on East 24th Street featuring up-and coming bands, along with local favorites at 1:00 pm. on Tuesdays. It was during this time, he saw the need to “connect the dots” by creating another strong alliance with Jules and Michael Belkin of Belkin Productions. This resulted in the successful “World Series of Rock” concerts held at Municipal Stadium.

Imagine Cleveland without the Rock Hall?”

-John Gorman

Not only did John Gorman take a radio station with 4 months to live to become the top and most popular in the USA, he largely became responsible for Cleveland being awarded with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. As John stated: “Imagine Cleveland without the Rock Hall?”

John briefly talked about “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll” he’s witnessed over the years, telling us it’s nothing like the HBO show sensation; Vinyl. “It’s bullshit” exclaimed, Gorman (Interestingly, during the last episode of Vinyl, Tony Danza mentioned, “MMS” twice; while instructing a musician to go do an interview). It was at least nice to see Hollywood recognize the power of WMMS back in the day! Mr. Gorman told us how he actually was backstage to witness the breakup of Aerosmith, years ago (in their inebriated state of mind), as he reminded us Rock N’ Roll is a brutal business.

During the questions period asked by the audience, John gave us the low-down on discovery of  the late, Murray Saul (who was originally hired as a salesman), and how his “Get Down” rant came about. The humorous story was a highlight of the event as ironically a barge drove by in the river out into Lake Erie. The weekly Friday rant was featured at 6:00 pm. with the tunes: “Born To Run” (Bruce Springsteen),  “Friday On My Mind” (The Easybeats) and later, “Cleveland Rocks” (Ian Hunter),with Murray’s rant in-between; was a staple of all blue-collar workers. The popular rant signified the WEEKEND was upon us and it was time to Party!

The observation of the barge in the background reminded me of how the relationship between Murray and John was special, (like two ships passing in the night). Murray Soul had to be smiling down!

“Connect The Dots”. – John Gorman

John gave us the three key ingredients for his success:

  1. A Good Plan (He only had 2 rules at WMMS- Don’t make the same mistake twice and don’t lose the radio license).
  2. A Great Staff (Between 1978 and 1984, WMMS had no turnover in staff).
  3. The Best Audience  (“Connect The Dots“).

The BuzzardHe stressed the importance of “Connecting The Dots“. John feels the Cleveland audience has a higher IQ than the rest of the country towards recognizing exceptional rock music. John’s vision in the Cleveland, Akron and Canton markets becoming one big city was an unique observation! His realization of no barriers or boundaries is the present and future of music.

The former program director reminisced, wondering how he kept his job? John broke nearly all the rules in marketing, political correctness and media within the music industry while achieving greatness.

So what caused the demise of the station? John feels WMMS simply became to big to sustain their success.

After departing from WMMS, he spent a few years as a consultant. Not content with that in 2015, John Gorman launched oWOW, an online radio station with a format consisting of the likeness of his former radio station. What else would you expect from a man who’s always is ahead of the curve?

Judging by his past remarkable achievements, we know John will be successful! I would never want to bet against this visionary man, who established WMMS as the most respected name in the business and Cleveland, Ohio, as “The Rock N’  Roll Capital of the World”!

John Gorman’s incredible story is a must read: “The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio–A Memoir“. This fascinating book is a must read for any music fan, musician, media student or anyone interested in the history of the Cleveland rock scene.

I want to personally thank John Gorman for your in-sight, courage, kind comments and achievements in giving us lasting memories and connecting us with music. Special thanks to the management and staff at the Music Box Super Club for the delightful experience!

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Photo: Courtesy of John Gorman.

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Jim Carver About Jim Carver

Jim Carver is the President of The Rust Belt Chronicles.

In 2004, Jim graduated from North Central State College with a degree in Business Information Technology. Jim developed "Rock Lines" news report online in 2010.After a trial-run of The Rust Belt Chronicles in April of 2013, Jim decided to make his dream a reality in 2014 by re-launching The Rust Belt Chronicles.

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