Remembering a radio legend
To those of us working in AM radio in Altoona during the 1960s and ’70s and to a generation of listeners, he was Bill Robbins.
A pulsating personality with a soothing delivery, Robbins came to Altoona as disc jockey and program director. He rapidly transformed an ordinary WVAM into a powerhouse, hiring a stellar parade of talent yielding several central Pennsylvania No. 1 ratings.
As program director, Robbins’ finely tuned ear for quality music made him a keen judge of the 45s he scrutinized weekly to fill the Big V Top 40 hit list.
He also recognized the value of his stations being tethered to the community through promotions, giveaways, remotes at schools, special events, charitable causes and business grand openings.
In WVAM’s heyday, Robbins was instrumental in organizing and bringing in numerous ’60s headliner pop groups and hosting weekly dances at countywide schools giving exposure to local bands.
Robbins understood people, too. Saddled with the unenviable job of reining in outsized egos, he succeeded by building staff camaraderie through playful jousting and practical jokes, the “pulling of chains,” creating a bond he cultivated and sustained.
Robbins brought me in as a gopher while still in high school, as green as a Granny Smith apple.
A novice amid pros with dues to pay, I filed records, assisted with remotes, washed the mobile cruisers, passed out surveys, swept and mopped when needed, emptied trash and did Sheetz and fast-food runs on demand.
In time I earned Sunday mornings, 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., running the board, mostly pre-recorded church tapes, Casey Kasem, John Koza’s live Polka Party and in between reading a smattering of news, weather and sports.
I listened, learned and observed, as much as my young brain could absorb, a small cog in a huge wheel but gaining a priceless schooling in hands-on radio.
And then it happened.
Robbins promised full-time work if I would go to radio engineering school and obtain a first class radio operator’s license, back then an FCC requirement for night-time non-directional signals.
I gladly obliged and returned six months later, first as the Dougger’s 6 p.m. to midnight newsman and then as the all-night DJ for $100 a week.
Naturally, nothing lasts forever, and Robbins left WVAM for a West Virginia station, and three of his jocks followed him there.
He had that kind of grand impact.
Big V radio, in all its glory and success, became a shadow of itself, never measuring up to its greatness without Robbins.
AM turned talk, and FM ruled musically, personality radio dying. Then, after 25 years, Robbins left to work in the auto industry.
On April 13, 2017, Brent D. Walton, aka Bill Robbins, 76, of St. Clairsville, Ohio, passed away at his home, surrounded by his family.
Though saddened, I am forever grateful. For if it weren’t for Bill Robbins believing in me, I would have never gotten the chance to be part of a magical moment in that golden age of radio. We’ll miss you pal.
Art Greenwald, known as “Art Green” when he was in local radio, is a 1971 AAHS graduate and a Penn State alumnus. A freelance writer, journalist and author living in Fort Lauderdale, he is also a former Altoona Mirror writer.