Special to Halcyon Daze.
The controversial firing of Perry Stone in 1987 was a significant QFM milestone. Unlike the euphoric success of Tim The Rock N Roll Animal perched on the ledge for The Who six years earlier, Perry Stone’s departure represented the station on other end of the spectrum. The fallout from his release was a terminal, devastating blow from which QFM never recovered. Although it would take another ten years to destroy QFM for good, the events of 1986 and 1987 were clearly the beginning of the end.
The Milwaukee radio landscape was in a period of transition in early part of 1986. The balance of power had begun to shift. Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller had been dominating morning radio for the last four years at WKTI. Yet QFM found itself competing directly against new challengers. 1986 was the year where WMGF (Magic 96) would change format and become WKLH– the first Classic Rock Hits radio station in country. Dave Luczak and Carole Caine were retained to continue in morning drive for the new WKLH. The Dave & Carole Show is currently the longest running morning show in Milwaukee. But it was the music that fueled its initial success.
The effect of WKLH on QFM’s audience was significant. QFM management chose to ignore the initial threat. When the ratings showed the station taking a beating from WKLH, QFM management decided to overcompensate for their losses. Soon QFM began playing oldies records from Chuck Berry and cramming them in between Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin songs. The change in direction only alienated QFM’s core audience.
QFM had always outlasted their toughest competitors (most notably the Hearst owned Superstars formated WLPX). This time it was different. PD Jerry Gavin wanted to go after the same 25-54 year old audience that was listening to WKLH. Doing that would have to come at the expense of the 18-34 year old audience that QFM had worked so hard to build up over the last decade. The previously loyal 93QFM audience was purposely blown off. It didn’t work. Gavin was fired and was replaced by Greg Ausham.
Greg Ausham was the last truly successful program director at QFM. Greg was aggressively competitive. He was shrewd and relentless. He was what QFM needed at the time. His first order of business at QFM was to find a new morning show. Greg needed a show that would guide the station back to its place of prominence. At the time, Milwaukee morning radio was a fairly mainstream environment. The landscape was wide open for a lightening strike. That lightening strike was Perry Stone.
Greg hired Perry Stone for morning drive in 1986. Perry Stone would soon become the most controversial jock in Milwaukee radio history. Perry’s show pre-dated the days of nationally syndicated morning radio shows such as Howard Stern. Having spent time in New York at WAPP, Perry Stone was clearly influenced by Stern. However, many believed that “shock” radio shows were an East Coast phenomenon and would never work in Milwaukee. With Greg Ausham’s blessing, Perry was given free range with the content of his show. As a result, he proved the critics wrong.
Perry Stone says:
“I was hired by one of Greg’s friends and one of the best Programmers today, Dave Hamilton (KQRS). I worked with Dave in New York on WAAP in the early 80’s. He sensed that I had the potential to be a great morning host. He flew me into Washington DC for possible wake-up duties on WAVA but it didn’t work out…No one was really sure what kind of morning show I would do.”
Perry’s show was unlike anything that Milwaukee radio had heard before. By comparison even Steve Dahl at the Loop in Chicago seemed more restrained than Perry Stone did at the time. Suddenly the ratings began to climb.
One of Perry’s signature bits was to summon the dismembered head of actor Vic Morrow who had died during a helicopter accident while the filming of the movie version of “The Twilight Zone” in 1982. Vic, Perry’s alter ego, would launch into caustic verbal tirades and comment on the news of the day. He also welcomed other dead celebrities who had just joined him in Hell. When Jackie Gleason died in June of 1987 Perry aired a full conversation between Vic and Gleason in which Gleason announced “That’s right….I’m dead!” It was vintage Perry Stone.
It was open season. There were no sacred cows on Perry’s show—including other QFM disk jockeys. Chip Hobart, who reportedly discovered Bon Jovi, was one of Perry’s favorite targets. In particular Perry poked fun at Chip with a parody of “Hip to Be Square” from Huey Lewis and the News with a version called “Hip to Be Chip”. The finished product was not exactly flattering—a fact not entirely lost on Chip.
Perry would also periodically call night jocks Jay Philpott and Karen Marks at home to grill them about the intimate details of their relationship. In an earlier post, Karen Marks recalled filling in for Susie Austin with news on Perry’s show. During those broadcasts the grilling became even more intense. He even put Karen’s father on the air to discuss his daughter’s relationship with Philpott.
Perry Stone was driving the other jocks crazy. But there was no ignoring the fact that the audience loved it. Although he never beat the more popular Reitman & Mueller at WKTI, Perry was clearly the talk of the town. People were paying attention to a QFM morning show again. Greg Ausham finally had the morning show he needed despite apprehension from General Manager Ralph Barnes. Greg assured Ralph that Perry would continue to succeed. And for a brief time he did succeed. Ralph made the best of situation by periodically reading complaint letters to “The Big Guy” on the air. Despite his participation, the Perry Stone Show still made Ralph Barnes nervous.
In a matter of months, Susie Austin, who had been reading the news on Perry’s show, left the station. Her replacement was Randi Rhodes. Randi, who would eventually emerge on Air America, was much more opinionated on the air. She provided a more combative foil for Perry’s on-air persona. Unfortunately their success would soon come to an end.
“My co-host, Susie Austin, became more and more upset with my material. It seemed like she began to take things personally. It affected our show and our working relationship. I worked with Randi in New York at WAAP and knew that she could handle this type of show.”
In August of 1987, Stone and Rhodes were suspended for a month without pay after a number of gay rights organizations accused Perry Stone of being homophobic. These groups put pressure on some of QFM’s biggest advertisers. When boycotts were threatened several clients chose to pull their advertising from QFM. In question was Perry’s frequent on-air use of the word “homos”. Even though the threat of an advertising boycott was real, many considered the suspension to be a stunt in itself. The hope was that a brief disappearance by Perry Stone would neutralize the controversy without having to take permanent action against him.
“As a young rebellious morning guy I didn’t understand the ‘business of radio’. I didn’t understand why management couldn’t tell the advertisers to shut the **** up or get new advertisers. The money side of radio was foreign to me.”
Perry returned from this suspension but his return would not last long. The outcry for an advertising boycott resurfaced when Perry referred to a local AIDS fundraiser as a “homo-fest”. Rather than stand by the morning show, GM Ralph Barnes suspended the morning show again. This time it was personal. During the second suspension Perry Stone appeared on the Bob Grant radio show on WABC in New York where he vented his frustration with QFM management and with its owners, Shamrock Communications. Unfortunately WABC can easily be heard in Scranton, Pennsylvania—the home of Shamrock Communications.
“I felt slighted because they told me that this suspension was not real. They just needed time for things to cool off. They wanted me to play along with it as the radio station would garner more publicity by taking listener calls and airing them (which they did). I soon learned that my suspension was real due to the main guy at Shamrock. Bob Grant’s people tracked me down and wanted me to do an interview. I said yes. Mr. Grant asked me why Howard Stern’s company supported him but my company did not. I don’t remember the exact words but I said something like, ’Because my company is a bunch of gutless-spineless minor leaguers led by Bill Lynett.’ That did me in. However I already had an offer to do mornings in KSJO in San Jose.”
When Shamrock owner Bill Lynett heard about Stone’s appearance on WABC he quickly called Ralph Barnes and demanded Perry Stone’s immediate termination. Barnes, fearing further losses of revenue and his own termination, caved into the pressure and fired both Perry Stone and Randi Rhodes soon after.
The news of Perry Stone’s termination was a bona fide media event. The news quickly spread throughout the city. The story was reported in the Milwaukee Journal, the Milwaukee Sentinel, and on every local television newscast. While Perry was accused by the local media for being offensive, the listeners were more critical of the radio station. Many believed that QFM sold out by caving into the pressure—putting money before credibility.Greg Ausham was furious over the decision to fire Perry Stone. By this time WBCS would drop their country music format in favor of competing directly with WQFM as WLZR—Lazer 103. In October, Greg Ausham would leave QFM and begin programming WLZR. To make matters worse he also took most of the QFM air staff with him including Chip Hobart, Jim Crowe, Karen Marks, and Darren Arriens. All of whom were on the air that day claiming to have “Made the Switch to Lazer 103”! Jay Philpott would soon follow. The move would be devastating for QFM. WLZR already had a morning show in place with Bob Nelson and Brian Madden from Toledo, Ohio. The Bob & Brian Show would soon dominate the 18-34 year audience for the next two decades. Ausham’s exodus would also prompt the quick retirement of Ralph Barnes as General Manager.
QFM would never recover. The station had been emasculated. For the next 10 years, QFM would make various attempts at restoring their tattered reputation. But nothing worked. The station would go through four more General Managers, five more program directors, and nearly a dozen morning show incarnations. Finally in 1997, QFM abandoned the format and became WJZI—an all-jazz station. 93QFM was gone for good.
This would not be last time that Perry Stone would cause controversy while on the air. In 1989, Perry made national headlines at KSJO in San Jose after he was accused of calling a 17-year old girl a “slut” and a “pig” during a broadcast. The final straw came after he allegedly encouraged a local Brownie troop to embezzle money from the sale of their cookies.
Six months later he was hired by KITS-FM in San Francisco to host a morning show that promised a “more music in the morning” approach. The format failed to make much impact. Stone was soon fired for low ratings.
Years later Perry found himself at WROX in Norfolk, Virginia where he encountered even more trouble.In 1995 Perry and his partner, Henry “The Bull” Del Toro, were sued by Tommy Griffiths from rival station WNOR for defamation of character. Perry and particularly Del Toro were accused of repeatedly suggesting that Griffiths was a drug addict. Del Toro had been Griffiths’ former morning show partner for many years at WNOR. Ironically, Del Toro had been arrested and fired from WNOR for falsifying medical prescriptions two years earlier. According to the lawsuit, Del Toro and Stone made nearly 40 on-air references to Griffiths as a “coke head”, “whiff king”, “snort boy”, “Mr. Toot”, and “Frosty the Snowman” during a four-month span. The taunting got even nastier when they would call WNOR and put Griffiths on the air as he answered his own request line. Perry, Del Toro, and WROX agreed to pay $80,000 to settle the case. Perry Stone and Del Toro would be fired the following year.
At last check Perry Stone has retired from being on air. He is now the operations manager of a group of radio stations in North Carolina. To be fair, Perry Stone was hired by all these radio station to be outrageous and to achieve ratings. Each station knew what they were getting into when they hired Perry Stone. Additionally each station encouraged Perry to behave the way that he did. In the end, Perry Stone would pay the price and fall victim to the requirements of his various employers. QFM was no different. They played with fire and everybody got burned.
“No doubt, I pushed it too far and didn’t care about the consequences. I felt that if QFM didn’t work out, I could go anywhere and pave the way to bigger things. A top notch agent from Chicago signed me to a contract and did all of my future negotiations. Obviously being young and rebellious, I didn’t see the forest through the trees and the bigger picture. That being said ‘management’ should have had clearer boundaries and parameters. No doubt, WQFM was getting excellent publicity. But when it got too hot in the kitchen (as with the Don Imus situation) and advertisers threaten to pull out, that pretty much seals your fate.”
Regardless of the controversy that surrounded Perry Stone’s career, his firing from QFM has left a lasting impression on Milwaukee morning radio.
Photos from top are, Jay Philpott, a Chip Hobart toon, actor Gordon Jump from sitcom WKRP(a dead ringe for Ralph Barnes), Randi Rhodes and Bob Grant.
Special Thanks to Jay Philpott for the audio contributions!