Media Scene

50 years ago: When ‘Big WAYS’ radio splashed into town

Stan and Sis Kaplan, owners of Charlotte radio station Big WAYS. In 1965 they paid $550,000 for a station worth millions in 1975.
Stan and Sis Kaplan, owners of Charlotte radio station Big WAYS. In 1965 they paid $550,000 for a station worth millions in 1975. Bill McCallister

Baby boomers, this will make you feel old: It’s been 50 years since a radio station called “Big WAYS” turned Charlotte on its ears.

People still remember when in 1965 Stan and Sis Kaplan swept into Charlotte from Boston and bought the last-place station that broadcast at 610 AM, the frequency that WFNZ-AM (“Fan” 610) occupies today. WAYS’ studios at 400 Radio Road were so decrepit that a colony of cats was tolerated to keep the rodent population in check.

Charlotte was a fairly sleepy town back then, Sis Kaplan remembers.

“It was pretty different from what it is today. People who complain about the progress, I’m not one of them. It’s gotten to be a terrific city.”

In those days, WBT-AM (1110) ruled the roost as a courtly CBS affiliate still carrying “The Arthur Godfrey Show.”

Big WAYS launched that spring with the high-energy Top 40 format, then an alien sound in the Carolinas. And the Kaplans spent lavishly on talent, importing a hit parade of personalities through the next decade including Morton Downey Jr., Jay Thomas, John Kilgo, Jack Pride, Tom Kinard, Jack Armstrong, Pete Ray (“the Pete Ray-D-O Show”), Dick Blanchard, Long John Silver and Jack Gale.

But it was the treasure hunt, the first of many stunts that made the station famous, that had all Charlotte talking. Each week, a $1,000 coupon was buried somewhere and clues were broadcast day-by-day by Mr. Treasure, a character created by morning personality Gale.

Within days, Sears was sold out of transistor radios. A moonscape of craters spread across the city. Traffic jams developed around suspected money dumps.

Police appealed to Stan Kaplan to knock it off, and the city’s old guard found his brash tactics beneath dignity. “Havoc being created in the community by his treasure hunts is hardly the way a newcomer should introduce himself,” sniffed an editorial in The Charlotte Observer.

Of course, the public absolutely ate it up.

When Mr. Treasure would reveal the final clue, news director C. Michael Blackwell would be waiting at the spot to interview the winning prospector and present the check.

“It was the most energetic thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Blackwell recalled this week. He was news director at WAYS for two years, before leaving for Southeastern Baptist Seminary and now, at 73, is the president of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina.

Blackwell recalls his first newscast on WAYS – as he was running through the script, Sis Kaplan walked in the studio, leading a horse.

“Sis was trying to crack me up. That was the kind of atmosphere we had out there.”

Blackwell met a woman working as a temp at the station named Kathy Kanipe. They’ve been married now for 48 years.

WAYS sponsored concerts and once landed the Monkees. Blackwell remembers talking to the warm-up act, a nice guy and little-known performer named Jimi Hendrix.

Robert Murphy was one of the biggest names at the station. He wrote skits for the show, and Larry Sprinkle – long before his forecasting days at WCNC (Channel 36) – would bring them to life with a panoply of voices.

They had the psychic named The Great Dildoni and, as the PTL scandal heated up in Charlotte, a televangelist named the Rev. Bill Taker, leader of the Pass The Loot Club. Traffic reports would often talk about backups at the Belmont tunnel.

“61-derful WAYS” deposed WBT as No. 1 in the ratings and, at its height, had the largest audience share of any Top 40 station in the nation and ranked 15th among all U.S. stations in total listeners.

WAYS was purchased by the Kaplans in 1965 for $550,000 and sold in 1986, along with its FM counterpart, for $13 million. When Stan Kaplan was buried in 2001 at age 76, more than a dozen local radio stations went silent for one minute in tribute to the man who changed the industry in Charlotte.

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.