Monday, September 5, 2011

The Famous Fifteen Sunshine... Clunker!

The Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine

The gig at WTTO proved to be a good one.  True there were no dances or other outside appearances to augment my salary, but on the up side I really didn't need the extra cash.  My new job paid quite a bit better than the old 'KNX salary, and Deb was able to find a great job almost immediately.  Deb was a technician in a dental lab back in Saginaw, and before that in Grand Forks.  She'd mentioned how handsome her new boss was.  I should have listened more carefully.

Doing afternoon drive at a tightly formatted station like WTTO was a challenge.   Mike Joseph was a stickler about making comments that focused on local areas or events, but squeezing that into a 10 second record intro was difficult indeed.  He also insisted on weird, formatic idiosyncrasies such as not mentioning the title of a song if they were the first words in the lyric, not using the word “degrees”... he felt these things were redundant, and redundant chatter was NOT acceptable in Mike's world.  He insisted on strict adherence to his hourly format clocks where he'd indicate the tempos of songs he wanted played.   They were either “Up” or “Sweet”, and woe be to the jock that got one in the wrong place.  He said he'd researched the market thoroughly to determine what segment of the audience was available for each hour, but I later learned he just pulled it out of his rear end.  As a matter of fact most of the reams of “research” he presented was apparently from other markets.   Like most radio consultants Mike was 25% legit and 75% B S, but that 25% worked really well. The station was a huge success and my afternoon ratings were through the roof.  A great position to be in, believe me!

The problem with these tight playlist formats is what the industry calls “burnout.”  You can only maintain a playlist of 15-20 current titles for so long until people begin to get tired of hearing the same songs over and over.  Unlike Mike's later format incarnations, we did play older titles on WTTO.  He took advantage of that when the ratings started to drop by running his tried and true “Battle Of The Biggies” promotion in which listeners would call in to vote for their favorite song from the past.   Each song would be played over and over against a new competitor until it was voted off.  This not only involved listeners intimately, but helped establish the playlist for the next ratings cycle.  This worked a couple of times until listeners got tired of it too.  Finally during a ratings slump, Mike pulled this little dandy out of his can, “I know, give away a CAR!!”

Whoopee, THAT”S never been done before!!   He said cynically, then slapped his own hand.

So the general manager of the station went boldly where no WTTO manager had been before, straight to the Chevy dealer, hat in hand to beg for a car.  The amount of advertising he traded off for this car was staggering, but he got the thing and it was a dandy... a brand new Z-28 Camaro complete with a 396 and four on the floor.  We needed a snazzy name for this fabulous set of wheels, and Mike called an all hands meeting to hash it out.  We must've sat there for an hour before I piped up... “Well, the station's logo is .Famous Fifteen', and it's summer... why don't we call it “The Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine?”  The room fell silent as Mike slowly contemplated.  “Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine, Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine...” he rolled the phrase over and over, carefully weighing each word for maximum impact.  “Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine it is!”  The room erupted in cheers.  I should have felt good about this, but it was only because they wanted to get the hell out of there.
We took the car to a sign painter who painted Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine on the sides  with paint which was supposed to wash off when we gave it away.  Part of the daily responsibilities of each jock was to drive the thing around Toledo, going to different neighborhoods each day so that people could get a look at it.  With that performance package, getting us to drive it around was NO problem.  It wasn't long before we began to test the car out, much to the chagrin of the local constabulary and the management of the station.  Toward the end of the summer we were to give the car away in a huge drawing.  By this time that car had been in every Toledo neighborhood, and more often than not, in every bar parking lot of every neighborhood.  We needed a BIG finish for the contest. 

Now only an idiot would decide to take a car that cost the station probably two years worth of free advertising to Milan Dragway, and race it!  Did someone call?

Jim Felton, the station's Program Director and my long time partner in crime, and I packed into the Camaro and away we went to Milan, MI.   The idea was that we'd just run the car by the crowd and announce that the giveaway would occur the following week.  Upon arriving, however, the race announcer suggested we might get a little more impact if we actually raced the car... after all, it was a muscle car in the first place.   I looked at Jim, Jim looked at me... ”good idea” we thought.   Jim had no desire to race the car himself, so he took on the task of handling the annoucements to the crowd.   They handed me a helmet and down to the car I went.  When it was my turn I confidently eased up to the line, next to me was a souped up 1965 mustang with a HUGE air scoop on the hood and pipes that made it sound like an earth mover.   The lights flashed green and I floored it, tires smoking, engine screaming as I slammed it through the gear range.  

The Mustang beat me but not by much, I'd turned a respectable 13.2.   That was the good news.  The bad news was, now I couldn't get the damned thing past second gear.  It appeared that I'd blown the transmission!  Jim and I hobbled back to Toledo using only the back roads since we couldn't drive the car over 30 mph in second gear.  It took us forever to get back, and we dropped the car off at the dealership.  "Something's wrong with the transmission, we were driving it no more than 30 mph, and she gave out on us."  The technician gave us a wry "30 mph my ass" look, and took it into the shop.

It turned out that I hadn't blown the transmission after all, but that was about the only thing that hadn't been screwed up on that car.  That special paint washed off all right, but weeks in the sun had left the words "Famous Fifteen Sunshine Machine" indelibly inscribed on the doors since the rest of the car had faded slightly.  The tires were nearly bald from the many impromptu street races we'd put it through, the engine was starting to tick, the interior had stains on the seats, from what I wouldn't care to guess... let's just say that girls LOVED that car... and it squeaked like a turn of the century Flivver.  The poor guy that won it was overheard saying to his wife, "What a piece of JUNK!"

But we did get ratings!


  1. I've read that WTTO also had the unusual situation of having two transmitter sites in use. One in the daytime and another at night. One of their transmitter sites was just across the state line in Bedford Township, Michigan (though it's probably in Lambertville since there were little towns that dotted that square mass of land). I rode my bike up there a couple times to see where it was. I recall there being an array of towers that were beaming the signal no doubt, though they eventually took that down some years back but left one satellite dish that's got weeds growing all over it. I took some pics of it as I love the artsy composition!

  2. It was a Z28 and all 1970 Z28's had a 302 engine not a 396. I suppose someone who did not know how to do a legal drag race cannot be expected to know that .
    The guy who won that car did not say anything to his wife because he was 19 and very single. It was however a piece of junk when it came to performance. The winner had it tuned up and changed the oil and it ran very well, however he had a 1969 Camaro with a 396, 375 hp engine. So after two weeks of driving the Sunshine Machine he sold it to a friend and kept his 69 Camero.
    He used the Sunshine money to do 3 things. 1. To make a few performance enhancements to his 69 Camaro by replacing the 396 with a 427, 435 hp engine. It ran at Milan drag way 11.47 seconds in the quarter mile. 2. He started flying leasons because cars were just not fast enough. 3. Started college at UT which was called TU at the time. He then went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

    After graduation he taught flying at Crow Aviation which was at Toledo Express at that time.

    He then became a Navy Attack Pilot then an Air Force Fighter Pilot. He retired from the Toledo 180th Fighter Group at Toledo Express.

    He just retired from American Airlines as a 777 Captain last September, 2015.

    He now owns a Pitts Special in which he competes in aerobatic contest and he landed a retirement job as a corporate pilot in McHenry, IL
    For fun wheels he now drives a 911 twin turbo.

    I know all of this because I was the winner of the WTTO Sunshine Machine and I am eternially grateful to the WTTO General Manager and all the staff for that contest. With the proceeds from that car and the help of a few friends and the grace of God I had a great life. Thank you all.
    Denny Hall

    P.S. The Sunshine Machine was overall a nice car except for a few stains in the back seat.

  3. Z-28's had 350/360 hp engines not as I wrote in the opening sentence. The fact that the engine was not a 396 remains.

  4. WOW!!! Thanks for getting in touch. How weird is it that you'd find this blog after so many years? I gave up writing it because, as you and others have pointed out, my memory isn't as good as I thought it'd be.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the car, sorry about the seats