WIRO has served Ironton, Tri-State on radio for decades
EDITOR’S NOTE – This is the first in a four-part series, which will run every Saturday through October.
I grew up watching the pulsing red light flicker through the sycamore branches from our porch on Seventh Street. The red light crowned the top of the tower perched in the plaza above the small radio station on the hill.
And I listened to the voices and music broadcast from that 205 foot tower: Mac McElroy and Joe Bowman, Noah Don Adams and Mike Todd, Hal Murphy and Ronnie Bell, “Johnny Dollar” and the “Flying Dutchman”.
In time, I’d be playing the hits there and looking out the bay window of the control room overlooking our hometown toward those shaved-back Kentucky hills just across beautiful Ohio. For so many of us radio boys, this was our starting point – WIRO AM, 1230 KHz, “1-2-3-GO Radio”. Ironton, Ohio.
Here is our story:
WIRO Radio signed on the air in the fall of 1951 at 250 watts of power. Low power local radio stations were called “teapots”. Glacus G. Merrill served as president of the Iron City Broadcasting Company and Robert Edge was the station’s general manager. Within a year, however, a new group of owners acquired the station license, and from June 1952 WIRO flourished.
Keeping the name Iron City Broadcasting, the new team included President and Chief Engineer Clarence Baker, Business Manager Ted Nelson, Sales Manager Pat Shannon, and General Manager Clinton E. McElroy. The Big I quickly became an essential radio station deeply invested in the life of its community.
The McElroy years Donna Secrist was WIRO’s first secretary/receptionist. When the station changed hands, it stayed. “They got me when they got the station,” she laughs. It worked pretty well; Donna married Mac McElroy. They had three children.
Under the inspired leadership of Mac, the new WIRO has energized its programming and participated in all possible social events in the listening area:
• Broadcast of Johnny McCoy’s Big Band Orchestra live from the Marting Hotel.
• Welcoming business leaders from the city center for the morning show “Breakfast at Kresge’s”.
• Hosting meet-and-greet remote musical performances at Frisch’s Big Boy drive-in theaters on State Route 141 and Second Street.
• Presentation of the Sandman Serenade registration application program.
• Presentation of Ironton High School sports.
• Broadcast of Ironton/Lawrence County’s signature event — the Memorial Day Parade.
• Offer moving religious programs every weekend.
• Investing in innovative DJs who have gone above and beyond by engaging selflessly and selflessly with the personal concerns of their listening family: if your dog is lost, call the Big I. If you need a hot sports score, call Je-2-1922 .
“The community has been extremely responsive,” says Ms. McElroy. And that community, she points out, stretched from Ashland to Greenup, from South Point to Wheelersburg and from Waterloo to Kitts Hill.
Another major reason why the community responded so enthusiastically was the Big I’s emphasis on presenting breaking news and weather. Mac McElroy’s motive was simple: “If you read it in the paper, it’s history. If you hear it on the radio, it’s news.
Then there was the juggernaut of exciting hometown sports on the air. Mac enthusiastically called Ironton High School play-by-play, and Joe Bowman delivered color commentary in style. This was the start of a torrid love affair between WIRO and the Ironton Tigers. And it was Mac McElroy, who on a Friday football night first called the IHS the “Million Dollar Marching Band.” (The next time you go to Tanks Memorial Stadium, look towards the gang shelter; you’ll see a banner there honoring Mac.)
In 1961, however, as some of Iron City’s partners moved away, full responsibility for running the powerful radio station fell to Clarence and Mac. And Mac’s health was wearing him down. They have chosen to pass the torch to WIRO.
Clinton McElroy Jr.’s enduring memory of that time is “Everyone in town knew my mom and dad, and by extension me, Little Mac.” Everything that happened in Ironton was represented on the Big I. It was the heart of Ironton.
Beginning his own career as a journalist, Clint’s years on Tri-State radio were consistent ratings and award winners. One of the favorite jobs of his 46 years in broadcasting was managing WIRO’s Fox Sports programming for future owner iHeart Radio, carrying on the family tradition.
Today, he’s in business with his three sons who have over twenty terrific podcast series to their name. He also writes the NYT Best Selling graphic novel series, “The Adventure Zone.”
An AM radio station broadcasts a circular signal from its tower. The WIRO 1230 AM footprint—when increased to 1,000 watts—covered all of Lawrence County and also reached deep into Scioto County, as well as three counties in Kentucky and two counties in West Virginia.
In other words, WIRO could be heard clearly within a 20 mile radius from New Boston to Chesapeake and from Grayson to Getaway. The radio market in the tri-states of Ironton, Ashland and Huntington at the time had some 50,000 potential listeners.
The Auble years
Kenneth H. Auble of Orville, Ohio loved radio. The radio consumed his thoughts. His life’s purpose, according to his wife Rose, was to own a radio station that was the heart of his community.
Looking for a radio station to buy, Ken and Rose Auble stopped in Ironton.
They had heard good things about WIRO. Rose recalls that the station had “an impeccable reputation”. And he was for sale.
Ken quickly made his offer. The acquisition of the hometown radio station of Ironton by Tri Radio Broadcasting, Inc. became official in February 1962.
Before the ink dried, Ken Auble set to work tirelessly as president, general manager and chief engineer.
“He loved engineering.” Rose said.
But Ken wasn’t just the Big I’s new engineer; he was his driving force. According to one of his DJs, “Ken Auble worked 25 hours a day”.
“Ken’s goal was to make the radio station a vital part of the community,” recalls Ms. Auble.
He had a solid foundation to build on. According to Rose, WIRO’s dynamic impact on its listening community has grown even stronger thanks to Ken’s vision and hard work.
Ms. Auble was the bookkeeper, check writer and supervisor to her trusted right-hand man – the secretary/receptionist who also served as traffic coordinator, program log typist and sometimes DJ mum.
Marlene Ferguson held the position for 20 years, starting as a high school student in 1952. Audrey Hunter provided more than a decade of dedicated service. And there was always a high school student alternating in the office who was learning the craft of business.
In addition to talented disc jockeys playing popular music and constantly updating news and weather, the Big I also broadcast live Ironton City Council meetings and local election results.
The beloved tradition of broadcasting the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade – still the oldest such parade in the United States – continued with Ken Auble on the mic.
The commitment to showcasing the best in sport has skyrocketed on its watch. While WIRO proudly broadcast baseball from the Cincinnati Reds and football from the Ohio State Buckeyes, among others, local high school sports attracted a slew of loyal fans.
Ken’s undying love for the Ironton High School Fighting Tigers, his voice bursting with excitement on radio shows, proved legendary.
But remember, Ken Auble was also the station engineer. In 1964 he flipped the switch and WIRO’s power increased to 1,000 daytime watts, greatly increasing its coverage area; the signal dropped back to 250 watts after local sunset. In 1972, Ken’s love for engineering brought another stellar project to Radio Plaza – WITO FM.
AM’s sister station took its first steps in 1972 and officially joined the family in the summer of 1973. WITO operated its three kilowatts at 107.1 MHz. The format was County & Western. And the new station welcomed Russell High School’s Red Devil sports into the fold.
Ken Auble was not finished (Ken was never finished.). He designed the first fully transistorized solid-state transmitter in the Tri-State and, according to a Harris Radio Equipment Company representative, probably the first in America. This innovation not only made AM sound cleaner, but also increased the range of the 1230 KHz signal. Ken, always working ahead of the rest of the country, also transistorized other key pieces of studio equipment and most of WITO’s transmitters.
In 1985, after more than 20 years of extraordinary success, Ken’s health forced him to slow down. He and Rose sold the Big I stations. Regardless, he continued to be the hometown radio station champion of Ironton until his death at age 72 on September 16, 1999.
Next week: Ironton’s hometown radio station – we’re starting to share deeply felt memories of DJs including Noah Adams and Bob Miller.
Written by Gordon Hall. Copyright on the work reserved by the author.
Gordon Hall is a former DJ, broadcast journalist and communications instructor. He started his 30-year radio career with WIRO in 1969.