WYSI / WSDS radio: the rock’n’roll years

The early history of WYSI / WSDS radio Ypsilanti, Michigan, which faithfully broadcast country music for more than 40 years after starting with a rock format in 1962. Written by the station’s last program director, Keith Jason Cady.

In a lifespan of more than 40 years, WSDS AM 1480 was perhaps the longest continuously operating country music station in the midwest. The station would change hands only twice and stay true to the country sounds that brought the station fame.

About 1957, University of Michigan Law School graduate Craig Davids stumbled upon a pasture near the old Peninsular Paper factory at 580 W. Clark Road in Ypsilanti, just east of Ann Arbor. He saw its future as an addition to his radio portfolio. Davids, along with his wife Kathleen and brother-in-law, owned WCER Charlotte, Michigan, but dreamed of building one closer to home. David Carmine, who broadcast at WYSI, and later WEXL, was there from the beginning.

“I was actually still in high school in Plymouth at the time, and was fascinated with radio – and in particular engineering – so I was out here more or less as an intern,” said Carmine. “Later on they said, ‘We’d like to pay you what you’re worth, but we know you can’t work that cheap, so…’ [laughs] Basically we were out here, and there was nothing but cows and a pasture. This woulda been ’60, ’61 when we broke ground on the building. The process even back then was lengthy and then it became even lengthier because there were a few technical snafus with the engineering after the building and towers were up, and that put a year, year and a half moratorium on the station getting on the air, ’til those problems were resolved. They were resolved and we finished construction. I say ‘we’ … There were a number of people involved besides myself. Jerry Adams, who was Chief Engineer for the Charlotte station was very much instrumental in building this place and oversaw the engineering.”

In 1962 the station signed on the air with 500 watts of directional, daytime power at 1480kHz as WYSI Ypsilanti – in a rather unconventional way. Greg Siefker, who went on to own WMLM radio St. Louis, Michigan, remembered listening the day they switched on the Gates transmitter. “They didn’t sign on at a normal time. During the morning, they fed a tone and then took to the airwaves at about 11 a.m. It was all very exciting for a young teenager who absolutely loved radio … and who couldn’t know at the time that he’d be working at the station one day.”

Early disk jockeys

The Ypsilanti Broadcasting Company, led by Program Director Don Thompson, began as a rock-n-roll station. Originally from Minnesota, Thompson broadcast daily from 3 p.m. until sign-off as “Bootsy Bell.” Carmine said of Thompson, “He drove the concept of the programming. He was very much into high-energy personality rock-n-roll.”

John Fountain signed on the station at 5:30 a.m. and spun records until David Carmine, known as “Dave Carr,” came in and took control from 9 a.m. ’til noon. Don McComb broadcast from noon to 3 p.m., when Bootsy Bell rocked the studio to its core. Weekends saw an ever-changing lineup of jocks and block programming, particularly on Sundays when religious programs dominated the time slots. Weekend jocks included Andy Barron (Andrew Spisak), Jim Hampton, Johnny Dew, and Marty James (Jim Martin). News and sales were handled by Jack Bobicz. Clara Hoedema gave weather reports and served as WYSI secretary along with Pat Tomkins. Al Berg was station manager.

Tom Chase, a.k.a. Johnny Williams

Legendary Detroit radio voice Johnny Williams, of CKLW Windsor/Detroit fame in the ’60s and ’70s started his career on Clark Road as Tom Chase in 1964.

“I was going to Eastern Michigan [University], driving in from Allen Park every day and listening to this station, listening to Bootsy Bell,” said Williams. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, he is the worst jock I have heard in my life!’ (Sorry Don.) At the time I remember saying to myself, ‘I can do better than that.’ Of course I couldn’t, but at the time your ego is there.  I had a great friend, Dave Kelly who owned a station up north. Dave and I went to high school together. I called Dave up and said, ‘Do me a favor. Write me a letter of recommendation. I wanna take it to WYSI and get a job, you know, weekends.’ He said, ‘You’re never gonna get away with that. But I’ll do it for you.’ So I picked it up, and I called the radio station. Didn’t know who to ask for, they put me in touch with Ed Smitt, General Manager. And I told him I was going to Eastern Michigan and I wanted to do something on weekends. Was there anything available? He said, ‘You’re in luck! Yes, Saturday and Sunday. Talk to Don Thompson.’ So I’m thinking, OK, he’s the program director. No clue that he’s really Bootsy Bell. So I come in for the interview, and I’d never been in a radio station in my life and I started asking all these stupid questions and Don says, ‘You’ve never been in a station, have you!?’ I said no. He swore a little bit and said, ‘Well I’m not going on the air Saturday and Sunday so you better sit down and learn!’ That first Saturday, I drove in and I was so nervous – I stopped the car a couple of times, and I said, ‘No, you gotta do this!’ I got to the building, walked up to the door. The engineer was, of course, sleeping on the couch like he usually was, and I turned around and I threw up.  I turned around, got back into the car and drove to a gas station and cleaned up and I said, ‘Well, you better do this or you’ll never know if you can do this.’ So I came back and went on the air. That was 1964.”

Red Ellis, WYSI sales slip.

1965 WYSI sales slip signed by Red Ellis

“Gary Stevens had the biggest numbers for afternoon drive in the history of Detroit radio,” said Williams. “He was on WKNR [Dearborn, Michigan], a 27-share in the afternoon.  That’s like, unheard of! Anyway, I was here at WYSI maybe three weeks, and I have a rock-n-roll band I manage. We were supposed to be appearing for Gary Stevens at this club. I was at the club talking to Gary, the band’s not there yet, and he said, ‘You’re TC from twelve to three.’ And I went, ‘WHAT? How in the world would you know something like that? You’re like THEE jock. How would you know that?’  He said, ‘The general manager and I were driving through Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti going to the University of Michigan. President [John F.] Kennedy was giving the commencement speech and we were flipping the dial around and we hit you and left you on. The manager said, “Hey this kid’s gonna be good”.’ He said, ‘How long you been doing this, a year or two?’ I said, ‘Three weeks.’ And that spurred me on to stay in the business. If this guy believed in me, then I could definitely do this and make a living at it.” As Tom Chase, Williams stayed at WYSI, playing top 20 hits for almost two years and moonlighting in the news department at WPAG radio Ann Arbor before accepting a job as news castor at WJEF radio Grand Rapids. From there he made the switch to “The Big 8” CKLW [AM 800], and into Detroit radio history.

George Young

By 1965, WEXL radio Royal Oak, in a Detroit suburb, had already switched to a full-time country music format. WYSI also added a few country programs, hosted by Dave Carr, and Andy Barron. Musician Red Ellis, who also worked at WAAM radio Ann Arbor as an engineer, performed his brand of country gospel over WYSI, which he recorded for various local labels, as well as Starday Records of Nashville, Tennessee. WYSI paperwork revealed Ellis bargained to trade commercials for a piano from the Ypsilanti Piano & Organ Company in 1965.

George Young, WYSI. 1965

George Young in the broadcast studio of WYSI, 1965.

Another popular music act in Detroit and downriver communities was George Young and The Youngsters. Young replaced Tom Chase on Saturdays with a studio record show, and later added live and pre-taped broadcasts with his band from various venues in Metro Detroit. “First time I walked into the studio, I was supposed to go on at twelve noon,” said Young, “and Smitt (the general manager) brought me into the studio to go on. He said, ‘You’re on in five minutes.’ So he walked out, and I was all new to this. He said, ‘There’s the log.’ To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what a log was! Here I am, nervous as hell – excuse the expression, that’s an old radio term [laughs] – and I’m looking around, about to throw up because Tom [Chase] left, and I’m all alone with Bootsy Bell. … So I look at the log and it said, ‘Weather on the reel-to-reel.’ Well, Johnny Williams never showed me how to put the reel-to-reel on! I didn’t even know I was going on the air! So I look at Bootsy Bell (or Don Thompson) and I said, ‘Man, how do you put the reel-to-reel on, right here with the weather?’ He looked at me and says, ‘You’ll figure it out. You’re on after this record’ – and [he] walked out! Of course we used to make up the weather …”

In 1966, Dave Carr negotiated a format change that ignited a spark that burned for more than 40 years: the country sounds of the “Big 1480.”

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