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May 2001

Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers
5th Annual Hall of Fame Inductions
Tralfamadore Café, 622 Main Street
Tuesday, May 15, 2001—6 PM to 10 PM

by Gary DEEB

It has become the must-attend event of the year for Buffalo broadcasters. It’s the annual gala that saw Buffalo Bob Smith bring down the house with the final performance of a spectacular 65-year career. It’s the extravaganza that moved Irv Weinstein to tears. It’s the momentous occasion where Joe Rico accepted acclaim as the master of jazz radio, where Dan Neaverth implored parents to “tell your kids that you’re proud of them,” where Jack Mahl saluted the crowd and declared “That’s all from Mahl!” for the final time, and where Joey Reynolds thanked the higher power for more than 2 decades of sobriety.

It’s also the grand affair that found Ralph Hubbell describing his love for Buffalo: “The soil is good—and the trees grow tall.”

And yes, it’s also the festive evening that found Van Miller tossing Viagra pills at Weinstein, Rick Azar and Tom Jolls.

Now in its fifth year, Hall of Fame Night, produced by the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers, continues its splendid tradition of shining the spotlight on the richly textured history of Buffalo radio and television. The eagerly anticipated affair again will make its home in Bobby Militello’s Tralfamadore Café in downtown Buffalo, with another standing-room-only throng of 400 expected to be there.

Getting into the Western New York Broadcasting Hall of Fame is an awfully tough trick. Only 30 illustrious broadcasters have pulled it off so far—George “Hound Dog” Lorenz, Clint Buehlman, Doris Jones and Foster Brooks among them.

The following are the six supremely gifted broadcasters who have been chosen for that rare honor this year—the class of 2001—to be inducted at the Tralf on Tuesday evening, May 15:

LIZ DRIBBEN

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LIZ DRIBBEN has scaled the heights of broadcast journalism alongside Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Charles Osgood, Charles Kuralt and Walter Cronkite. Through 21 years as a producer, writer, reporter and interviewer at CBS News in New York, she contributed her formidable talent and discerning critical eye to the betterment of the careers of several of the most distinguished journalists in American broadcasting history. “Invariably,” says Wallace, “the listener comes away from a Liz Dribben interview enlightened, entertained and sometimes even moved.” Wallace knows, because Liz was the producer, interviewer and ghostwriter of his daily radio program “Mike Wallace at Large,” as she also was for “Dan Rather Reporting” and “Newsbreak with Charles Osgood.” But the foundation that formed the greatness of her CBS years—1972 through 1993—was created in Buffalo, where she was one of the most memorable personalities on WKBW-TV (Channel 7). She started in 1959 as a publicist and production go-fer. By 1964, with “Dialing for Dollars” 5 days a week, her landmark one-on-one interviews on weekends and a daily morning newscast, Dribben had elbowed her way into a medium that previously segregated females into the bailiwick of cutesy-pie duties. Stymied by lack of further advancement, she hopped a plane to the Big Apple in 1969 and never returned. To this day, Western New Yorkers of a certain age hold indelible memories of the charming woman with the intellectual depth and the love of language, a definitive star who lit up that living-room tube through the ‘60s—and has continued to be a devoted Buffalo booster from 450 miles away ever since. Dribben now works as a commentator at WNYC-FM, hosts talk shows at WEVD Radio and teaches broadcast journalism at Columbia University. Says Charles Osgood: “Liz could have been a great detective or psychiatrist. When she listens, people talk.”

BILL & MILDRED MILLER

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BILL & MILDRED MILLER seemingly came out of nowhere but a Colden turkey farm when they waltzed into the WBEN-TV (Channel 4) studios in the old Hotel Statler to begin their daily “Meet the Millers” program right after New Year’s Day in 1950. Indeed, they did raise gourmet turkeys 30 miles south-southeast of the city. But there was nothing smalltown or rookie-like about the way they handled themselves in front of a camera. Bill & Mildred were seasoned showbiz pros, having worked vaudeville from coast to coast through the 1930s and ‘40s as dancers and sketch performers. Thus, when Channel 4 executive George Torge invited the Millers to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for viewers of the fledgling station in 1949, he had a notion that this Mutt & Jeff team might have a long-term TV future. Two months later, “Meet the Millers” went on the air. For a half-hour every weekday for nearly 21 years, Bill & Mildred offered cooking tips, petty and serious bickering, and cozy interviews with the world’s biggest stars—from Perry Como to Tony Bennett; from Debbie Reynolds to Elizabeth Taylor. The Millers were intelligent, classy, warm-hearted to newcomers in Buffalo broadcasting and, most of all, fabulous ambassadors for the City of Good Neighbors. Virtually every celebrity who guested on their show left town with generous thoughts about the Millers and the city Bill & Mildred called home. After “Meet the Millers” left the air in 1970, Bill Miller became Colden town supervisor. In the 1980s, the Millers closed up the turkey farm and retired to Florida, where they both passed away in the early 1990s.

RAMBLIN' LOU SCHRIVER

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RAMBLIN’ LOU SCHRIVER is the personification of the American dream, where rugged individualism crossed with personal generosity creates genuine greatness. Like “The Little Engine That Could,” Lou Schriver blazed a downright solitary path starting more than a half-century ago, preaching the gospel of country music way before it became cool to be country. When 1950s morons called him a hick, a hayseed and far worse, Lou hung tough and earned an increasingly fine living simply by being himself—a broadcaster who played Ernest Tubb instead of Frankie Avalon, a bandleader who barnstormed the Northeast, an irrepressible salesman who cajoled merchants into investing in his radio show, and a radio station chieftain who now ranks as the only independent owner in the Buffalo radio market. In the process, he became indisputably the most revered country-music radio personality north of the Mason-Dixon line. Beginning as a teenager at WJJL in 1947, Schriver parlayed his love of country and his relentless pursuit of the public ear into a career that probably knows no equal. Moving to WWOL in 1964 broadened his audience, and purchasing WMMJ in 1970 and transforming it into WXRL gave him the ultimate bona fides as a broadcaster. With tens of thousands of ferociously loyal fans, Ramblin’ Lou has worked his way into the Country Music Disk Jockey Hall of Fame in Nashville and the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame here at home. Along with his wife Joanie Marshall, he’s also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars. Ramblin’ Lou’s Family Band continues to perform regularly, and Lou still hosts his daily radio show each afternoon on WXRL. Friends, he’s the real article.

TOM SHANNON

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TOM SHANNON’s career runs a parallel path to the history of rock ‘n’ roll—breezy and carefree; hard-driving and entrepreneurial; dedicated to roots. As one of our town’s finest exports of the 1960s, his enormously popular 18-year tenure in Detroit still ranks as one of the prime reasons why outsiders always treated Buffalo radio with respect. Cutting his teeth in his early teens at WXRA Radio in 1955, Shannon soon moved to WKBW and took over 7-to-midnight after Dick Biondi’s departure for Chicago, the handsome youth immediately becoming a Buffalo teen heartthrob and one of America’s best-known rock jocks via KB’s near-total East Coast penetration at night. “The sun never sets on the Shannon empire,” he declared, in that singular mixture of innocence and chutzpah that seemed to embody his on-air persona. Near midnight, he’d often spin his “bearskin rug music,” perhaps the Flamingos’ track of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and the girls alongside the radio would get all dreamy and moist. With the face of a matinee idol, Shannon quickly grabbed a weekly TV gig as host of “Buffalo Bandstand” on next-door neighbor WKBW-TV (Channel 7). By 1964, his huge KB Radio ratings and the infectious joy of his air work landed him at rock powerhouse CKLW in Detroit, where once more he made it look easy, simply duplicating the household-word success that he had magically spun in Buffalo. In Detroit he also stepped up his TV work, eventually becoming host of the morning show at ABC-owned WXYZ-TV. In 1972, he switched to Denver, handling a daily radio air shift and the daily TV gig “Afternoon at the Movies with Tom Shannon” at KWGN-TV. For the past 25 years, he has shifted back-and-forth between popular stints in Detroit and Buffalo, with a short stretch at the Shop at Home TV Network in Nashville. Shannon is the co-writer of his theme song, “Wild Weekend,” a top 10 hit in 1963 and still a gutbucket oldies favorite worldwide. Forty-six years after it launched, his career continues in full-stride at WHTT-FM, where he still pumps out the hits each day in afternoon-drive and where he still intones at the close of each broadcast: “Above and beyond all else—later.”

DAVE THOMAS

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DAVE THOMAS is the ultimate triple-threat. He has left huge footprints in Buffalo and Philadelphia in three very distinct television arenas—kids’ programming, talk shows and the weather—each of which has seen him couple first-rate creative achievement with long-term No. 1 popularity rankings. If television is a cool medium, Dave is the perfect fit, his low-key pleasantness and soothing voice having seduced viewers in two fiercely competitive markets throughout an eclectic career that spans an astounding 47 years. The Buffalo native drew his first broadcast paycheck at Syracuse radio stations while awaiting graduation from Syracuse University. Drafted into the Army, he served as news director for the Caribbean Forces Radio-TV Network out of Panama and performed air work on Armed Forces Radio out of New York. But it wasn’t until 1961, when he joined WKBW-TV (Channel 7), that Thomas picked up a real head of steam. Before long, it was Dave Thomas the weatherman, Dave Thomas creating and hosting kids’ favorite “Rocketship 7” each weekday morning, and Dave Thomas triggering Buffalo’s liveliest TV talk show (with Liz Dribben and Nolan Johannes) on “Dialing for Dollars.” He headed the vanguard of heartily artistic souls who transformed Channel 7 from an also-ran in the early ‘60s into Buffalo’s most popular TV outlet by the early ‘70s. In 1978 Thomas left for Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV, where he took the reins of “A.M. Philadelphia” and brought it to No. 1 and then became the most popular weathercaster in that city’s history. Twenty-three years later, Dave still anchors the weather three times nightly, hosts local specials throughout the year and has gained widespread acclaim for his annual stint as Philly host of the Jerry Lewis-Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. He also has acted on numerous network TV programs, including the ABC drama “Thirtysomething,” and in the motion picture “Blow Out.” Near the end of the year 2000, Thomas was selected as the first “Person of the Year” by the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers.

 

JOHN RIGAS

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DAN LESNIAK

NANCY LESNIAK

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JOHN RIGAS, who borrowed $300 in 1952 to establish the company that eventually became the Adelphia Communications empire, and DAN & NANCY LESNIAK, who created the last of the Buffalo radio stations spotlighting the Golden Era of American Music, will be honored for their manifold accomplishments by the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers during the BBP's annual Hall of Fame Night on Tuesday evening, May 15, at the Tralfamadore Cafe.


As founder, chairman and CEO of Adelphia, Rigas operates the sixth-largest cable company in America, with nearly 6 million residential subscribers in 32 states. He and his family also preside over the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, cable TV's Empire Sports Network, all-sports radio station WNSA-FM, the HSBC Arena, and subsidiaries offering voice-and-telephone services and Internet access. His pioneering media achievements recently earned him induction into BROADCASTING & CABLE magazine's Hall of Fame. At Buffalo's Hall of Fame Night, Rigas will receive the George F. Goodyear Jr. Award, for his colorful and innovative career and for his lifelong commitment to community involvement.


Dan & Nancy Lesniak will be saluted for their venerable partnership that resulted in WADV-FM, the groundbreaking station that became a touchstone for lovers of great American pop music through the 1960s and '70s. Not content simply to broadcast classic pop music, the Lesniaks instituted a supremely smooth and intelligent on-air presentation of these standards that featured genuine personalities instead of bloodless automation. Among the great WADV voices were Fred Klestine, Rick Bennett, Jerry Glenn, Bernie Sandler, Ken Ruof and Jack Horohoe. On the technical side, WADV also was Upstate New York's first FM stereo station in 1962. Dan & Nancy Lesniak's ownership of WADV was preceded by Dan's longtime radio career, both on the air and in sales and management. Dan Lesniak died in 1982. The Broadcast Pioneers will honor the Lesniaks with the Distinguished Broadcaster Award on Hall of Fame Night.

Gary Deeb is a longtime media critic and commentator in Buffalo and Chicago. He also operates Deeb Enterprises, a commercial talent agency.

 

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