1930-1939: DECADE OF BANKRUPTCY & BUREAUCRACY
WOWO heard its listeners
Bob Sievers remembers how the station began to build its audience.
Morning after morning, decade after decade, we all answered the same wake- up call.
It was so uniquely Hoosier that the rest of the world had to hear it to believe it.
Of course, as we all knew, parts of the world as far away as Africa and Sweden could hear our morning routine, broadcast on WOWO, 1190-AM, "the 50,000-watt voice of the big business of farming."
First a rooster crowed, then a penetrating baritone barreled through every kitchen and dairy barn in the area and declared the day's work begun:
"Good morning, neighbors. Now it's chore time at Indiana's world-famous Little Red Barn. Chore time with farm-service director Jay Gould and yours truly, Bob Sievers, and the music of Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers."
Sievers, now 81, was a WOWO announcer from 1936 to 1987, with six years off as a Navy officer in World War II and the Korean War. He and the radio station grew up together.
Young Sievers, young WOWO
Sievers broke into radio through church. His church, the Gospel Temple, broadcast the first show on WOWO every morning, "Morning Radio Bible Class" at 7 a.m. Sievers, a freshman in high school, frequently stopped at the church to watch the show being broadcast.
One morning in 1932, the WOWO engineer who worked the show didn't show up on time. Sievers had watched him intently and felt confident he knew which switches to throw when. He winged it and broadcast the show flawlessly.
Sievers had just landed himself an unpaid job.
"So every morning . . . after I carried the morning paper, I would go to the Gospel Temple and sign on WOWO, and then I would go to South Side High School," he said.
Four years later, station managers finally hired him.
As Sievers began broadcasting, radio invented itself. From the beginning, WOWO showed a knack for promoting itself and building an audience.
"Radio in those days promoted local talent," Sievers said. "Back in the '30s, the big stars on WOWO were Penny West, George Arthur, Joe Trim, the Blackhawk Valley Boys, Joe Taylor and the Redbirds, Norm and Bob; of course, Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers, even then; Kenny Roberts, a famous yodeler; Howard Ropaugh . . . I could go on and on."
Local talent made sense for WOWO. Performers got the publicity they needed, and WOWO got an audience because performers told all their friends to tune in.
During the '30s, the station also leaned heavily on man-on-the-street interview shows. Sievers remembers it as simply a good way to involve listeners.
The Depression was waning, shoppers had money and downtown had the shops. Streets were bustling.
"If they were from, say, Berne, Ind., or Coldwater, Mich., I'd talk to them about their hometown, and what they liked about their hometown, and what they were doing in Fort Wayne," Sievers said.
At the end of the program, Sievers might still be surrounded by 35 or 40 people. He always saved the show's last two minutes for one thing.
"I'd go around and get everybody's name," he said, "so they could go home and say, `Did you hear me on the radio?' "
Jay Gould, who built the Barn
Jay Gould, a musician who coached high-schoolers in choral singing, joined WOWO about 1938.
"In those days, I had to laugh, because he was what I called `prissy.' He wore spats on his shoes, and he wore pinch-on glasses," Sievers said.
But Sievers barely got to know Gould before World War II intervened. Two weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Sievers quit WOWO, enlisted in the Navy and married Harriett, his wife of 57 years.
Sievers excelled in radar study during the war, wrote a textbook that was adopted for use throughout the Navy and rose to the rank of commander. When the fighting was over, he came home to WOWO.
"They told me Jay Gould is our new farm director," Sievers recalls. "I said, `Farm director? I don't think he even knows what a cow looks like.' "
But Gould was no stranger to the barnyard. He grew up on a farm in Michigan and, as farm director, became well-versed in agriculture through countless news releases from universities and conversations with county agents.
Gould had big plans for the morning show. After the war, he and Sievers started building the institution that would rule morning radio for 40 years. Sievers gives Gould, who died in 1984, nearly all the credit for "The Little Red Barn."
The premise of the show that Jay and Bob were broadcasting as they went about their chores on a farm seems unimaginably innocent compared to 1990s rant-radio. With sound effect after sound effect, from a crowing rooster to clucking chickens to a hand-pump drawing water for the coffee, their make-believe captivated listeners.
"That was entirely Jay's idea," Sievers said. "We'd pretend we were in the barn milking. . . . We would walk from the farmhouse to the barn, and we'd talk about the weather that morning. If we had a foot of snow, we'd be wading through the snow. . . . When he'd interview an agricultural agent, he'd say, `C'mon, let's sit down on this bale of hay and talk.' "
Helping the listeners
Their 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. show also gave birth to some of modern radio's fixtures, such as school announcements.
"That was Jay's idea, getting the school announcements," Sievers said. "All those little pieces in the pie add up to building your audience."
The way Sievers describes it, much of the show evolved by adding features listeners asked for, from lost-dog announcements to degree-day reports to Sievers' daily calls to area State Police posts.
Sometimes listeners' requests were a bit more desperate. Sievers remembers an early broadcast on WOWO when he helped guide a lost pilot to a Fort Wayne landing strip.
He knew the pilot was listening to WOWO, so Sievers enlisted listeners to call in when they spotted or heard the plane. He in turn helped the pilot adjust his course.
"I'd say, `Now you're about 5 miles north of Fort Wayne. Reverse your course and fly one-eight-zero back this way.' Then pretty soon the phone would ring: `Bob, I'm out here at Roanoke, and this plane just flew about 50 feet above my house.' I'd say, `Now you're southwest of Fort Wayne. Fly about zero-three-zero.'
. . . Finally, I got the plane to where he was low enough to actually see the airport," he said.
Brushes with fame
Through all his years at WOWO in fact, you still can hear his voice in commercials on the station Sievers has enjoyed a universe of celebrity encounters, from seeing Billy Graham turned down for a preaching job at Gospel Temple in 1938 to broadcasting a demo album from 12-year-old Elvis Presley.
But it's the hundreds of thousands of regular folks in his audience who always meant the most.
The feeling is mutual. The evidence is there, any time Sievers dines out and raises his voice above a whisper. Some watch and listen; a few approach for autographs.
Sievers never finds it a bother.
"I feel so honored to think that they even knew me."