The Hottest Country Sound on the East Coast

Warren Wright talks about Chevy Chase-based radio station WMZQ

INTERVIEW: Warren Wright
WHEN: 13 February 2012
WHERE: Langston Brown Community Center, Arlington VA
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
HOW: transcribed from recorder
TRANSCRIBER: Carl Lankowski

I am sitting with Warren Wright at the Langston Brown Community Center in Arlington, Virginia to do an oral history interview for HCCDC on Warren’s experience with WMZQ, a radio station that was lively in the 1980s-1990s.

Let’s begin by asking you, Warren, to say a little about yourself.

WW: Sure. My name is Warren Wright and I am a resident of Arlington, Virginia and I have been involved in a number of business start-ups in the private sector. But there was a period of about ten years when I was in the radio and television business. It was a very memorable time. A good place to be for a young person…and I was young then. Some of the best years were at WMZQ in Chevy Chase between 1988 and 1992.

How about a little background about yourself before turning again to that period. Tell us a little about where you are from, where you went to school and so forth.

WW: I was born and grew up north of Chicago in Winnetka, Illinois and moved to the New York area when I was younger when my Dad got a job in New York. The formative years were spent in the suburbs of New York, AKA New Jersey, a town called Bernardsville—enjoyed high school, enjoyed athletics, enjoyed academics, enjoyed everything and ended up going to Franklin and Marshall College in 1980, originally as a pre-med and then as a pre-law student and then became a government major and a general manager of the radio station.

That is how you got into radio and TV?

WW: Serendipity. It was so much more interesting for me to work and actually accomplish something than it was to study and spit back information. So, I know I did not want to go to graduate school. I wanted to get a job and work. I think Freud said that love and work are the cornerstones of humankind and I found that to be the case.

Where did you go after graduating from Franklin and Marshall?

WW: Well, the economy of 1984 was about the way it is right now. Not too great. So, it was finding a job anywhere you can. I really was not up for going to law school or graduate school. I was more of an entrepreneur than a student. I ended up working at a CBS affiliate in Scranton, Pennsylvania called WDAU. It was right on Lackawanna Avenue. Had a lot of fun—most of the people that worked there were young like me, some from New York. It was kind of a funky little weird town to be in. We made it fun actually.

A coal-miner’s town.

WW: Oh yes. Scranton is like no place else in the world.

Oh, my people come from there. I know what you mean. So, how did you get from Scranton to Washington?

WW: Well, willpower. I felt I just needed to get out of Scranton. It just wasn’t a good place from me at 22 or 23. And my wife, Jennifer was finishing up her graduate degree in International Affairs at the University of Kentucky, Patterson School, and was planning on getting a job in Washington, DC. Jennifer went to Franklin and Marshall as well, so we used to visit DC as college students and really liked the area and thought, well, this would really be a fun place to live. So I moved to Washington without a job. I lived in my friend’s basement for about four weeks. The economy was a little better and I was able to get a job at a radio station, B106, WBMW, which was the famed Howard Stern station. G. Gordon Liddy and a lot of characters came through. I am always working around a lot of characters. That was pretty wild.

Where were the offices for WBMW?

WW: They were on Main Street in Fairfax. The signal was actually in Manassas. It was primarily a Northern Virginia signal, 106.7. WMZQ was my next stop after that radio station. It was in ’88, I guess.

Tell us what WMZQ was all about. What was the concept?

WW: I was there at a very interesting time. In the mid-1980s, country music was going through a radical change. There was a movement away from downscale, hillbilly type of stuff. Younger people started getting a lot more interested and country music got a lot more pop. So, folks like Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Clint Black and all those guys came out of the scene and became very popular. In fact, WMZQ was the Number One-rated radio station for a number of years in a row. No one would ever know that, but DC became a big country town.

Go figure!

WW: I know—it was the only country station in Washington. It was really popular. I would say on the whole east coast it was probably the top station. It was the center of country in the mid-Atlantic area. All of the famous country artists would come to the radio station.

Where was the station located?

WW: It was on Connecticut Avenue across from the Safeway and Morrison Street near the corner of Livingston. It had a tiny second storey office above Jeffrey Gildenhorn’s fish shop and deli. Not a big space. Kind of a dump. But we loved it.

Across from the American Diner?

WW: Yes. The American City Diner. That’s Jeffrey’s place as well, I think. We used to go there for lunch. The station was just a little out of the way place. It had a little sign outside, blue background with yellow lettering, with the call letters, WMZQ. It was a real fun time.

When did the station start?

WW: It might have been back in the ‘70s—I don’t even know. It was around for awhile. A big part of a station’s success is how strong their signal is, how tall their tower is, how many people you can reach. MZQ had a very powerful signal. I think the tower was in Silver Spring. The signal reached way out into Fauquier County (Virginia), up past Gaithersburg, down to southern Maryland, and way far east, so it had a very strong signal. It had different call letters before. There was a long time ago another country station in town, or so I heard. There was competition, though competition for not much of an audience. WMZQ was owned by Viacom when I was there, which is still around today. A lot of the executives that were involved in ownership are probably still kickin’ around in New York doin’ pretty well at Viacom.

What was a typical day there for you?

WW: It was always different. There was always something going on. It was a funny place because the general manager, Paul Wolinsky, a wonderful guy, was way ahead of his time. He was an openly gay man – back in the mid-80s – he was in his 30s, and here is this progressive young man running a conservative country radio station. He would come in with the coolest cowboy boots and the best shirts. He was a fashion icon. He would always be into something, always have a story, being in a limousine with Randy Travis or something. So, you’d show up at the station and there would be a limousine parked in that tiny little parking lot off of Livingston. They would never fit in the parking lot. Someone was always there. I remember Dolly Parton came in once and was just so nice. That’s one thing about country music folks: they’re just so nice. They’re just so pleasant, unlike the rock ‘n roll guys. I know rock guys now are probably better. They are just really great folks. I remember meeting Marie Osmond; I spent a bunch of time with her. She had five kids. Looked great, had five kids. She was being interviewed by the morning drive team, Jim London and Mary Ball, who lots of people were fans of back then.

Sounds like the top billing came to this radio station.

WW: Yeah—all the top advertisers would advertise on WMZQ. If you were selling advertising like me, it was the place to be. Now, WTOP was a big competitor obviously. It is still around. It is a news station. News stations always do well because they can run more advertisements per hour than country stations can. They can do about 16 per hour; we could only do about 12. Now they do way too many. I don’t know what they do. It’s different now. Back then there was always stuff going on; it was always an interesting place. We were never bored. We had concerts. Every year we had a concert out a Bull Run, out in that big field out there in Manassas Park. We had tons of top acts. One time there was an up-and-comer whose agent was trying to get us to do a deal. We were, like, well, I don’t know, he’s up and coming, he’s kind of big, I don’t know if he’s really going to make it in country. But it turns out that his name was Garth Brooks. I’ll never forget it. We negotiated to have him sing in our concert, among other people, for fifteen thousand dollars. This was about 1990. We did the deal about eight months in advance and by the time he actually appeared, he was getting one hundred thousand dollars and had just cut his first album, which sold a million copies. He had become a super star. We got very lucky. I have to say one thing about Garth Brooks: he is an amazing guy. While he was singing there was a thunder storm. It was a big dramatic thing. But after he finished, he got off the stage and he went back stage and announced to everybody: hey, y’all, if you want my autograph, come on back. I’ll get you my autograph. And he stood for about four hours signing autographs one after the other for every single person that came by. I’ve never seen any performer be so loyal like that. That was sort of typical for WMZQ—wait! I am kind of missing that now. (laughter)

Did you say that some of the performers actually lived around Chevy Chase?

WW: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly where she lives, but Mary Chapin Carpenter lived in the neighborhood at the time… I think. She wrote the famous song “It’s Christmastime in Washington”. I don’t know if she is originally from the area, but I know she lived in a house not far from the radio station because she would just walk over and spend time there. That was on Saturdays, when Lee Michael Dempsey and Katie Daley, who were bluegrass DJs—and they still do bluegrass on WAMU actually—so if they hear this—hi guys!—and Chapin used to come over—they used to call her Chapin—to chat and hang out. She went to Brown University, graduated, became a pop star, and made it.

Who were the DJs that worked at MZQ?

WW: The morning drive team was the famous Jim London and Mary Ball. They were so good together. Jim had worked in other stations and so had Mary, but there was just an immense connection between the two of them. They were like husband and wife in the morning. They had the Number One morning drive show. Everyone was really into it. And I remember that mid-days it was Bill Worthington who is still in radio—you hear his voice all the time. Keith MacDonald was the afternoon drive. He was a nudist, which was interesting. He used to tell us about his colony and everything. Mary Bartone was at night. Dave Kellogg, the man with the lowest voice on earth. All these guys have been around forever and worked everywhere. In radio that’s how it goes. But MZQ had a really good team.

And you had mentioned Clint Black.

WW: yeah, he would come around, but not that often. But every once in a while you would see these guys, usually with their promoters, being interviewed on our morning show or whatnot. One time I had a meeting and came into the lobby—there was no one there—they receptionist must have gone off for a minute—but there was a guest that came in, a woman, a blond girl, looked like she was about 19-year old, dressed up in country and all. So I said is anyone helping you? She said no. I said, well, my name is Warren Wright. She said, well it’s nice to meet you Warren Wright, my name is Trisha Yearwood. She wasn’t a full recording artist yet and no one had heard of her yet. I remember saying to her: Trisha Yearwood—now that’s the name of a country singer. She said, yeah, well, that’s what I do. (laughter) And after that she got a huge fan base – just one of those things at the station—you just kind of run into folks.

And Katie Daley?

WW: Yes, and she is still on radio. She’s on WAMU. She plays bluegrass. She did the overnight, the graveyard shift, midnight to 5:00 a.m. It takes a lot of character to do that. Then we did  Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”—we could actually act it out. All the DJs and staff took roles. We would go into the studio and they would mix it to make it sound great. I was Scrooge; I was actually Scrooge. I think I still have that cape. Then they played it on the air.

You have a good voice for it.

WW: Being around radio folks, I think it rubs off, you know. A funny thing. One person that used to come by a lot was Marion Barry. I never really found out why, but I’d walk in and he’d be in the kitchen eating a donut and drinking coffee, smiling with his suit on and the nicest tie. Every once in a while, always in the morning. I don’t know why he was there. He didn’t have any meetings. Everybody liked him and his friends. It was the good ole days.

Was there a Gildenhorn connection?

WW: Well, that may be why he was there. I think he used to have some sort of business dealings with Jeffrey. I know that Marion Barry bequeathed Jeffrey the title Commissioner of Boxing for the City of Washington DC. And I think it was the one and only time there was a commissioner of boxing. It was his job to bring boxing to DC. I’m not sure if it actually worked, but they were always doing something.

How was the office coffee and donuts organized?

WW: We had a trade agreement for both the coffee and the donuts. In a trade agreement in radio, something gives you product and you give them air-time. There is no cash exchange; it is a barter arrangement. So we had fifteen years worth of donuts from Montgomery Donuts. And I think it was Mr. Coffee that brought around the beverage. So we always had good coffee and donuts; every single day they would deliver it fresh. And we gave them advertising. The mayor was quite sociable—he would come in, have a snack, and talk to anybody and everybody. We didn’t know why he was there. We didn’t ask questions.

Two things are interesting about this picture. First that Marion Barry frequents a country music radio station and second, that it is in Chevy Chase.

WW: Yes, it was quite a juxtaposition. It was nice having the Safeway across the street. Then there was the Chevy Chase Lounge. We used to eat lunch there. There was a Greek restaurant that came in later while I was there, the Parthenon.

It is still going strong.

WW: MZQ had a good location. A lot of the radio stations at that time were concentrated in that area, near Maryland. WMAL was on Jennifer Street. And then there are stations further up in Silver Spring like WGAY-FM. After MZQ I worked at other stations. One of them was WGAY, which is another really popular station—easy listening, 99.1 WGAY. It had a sister station WRC. That’s where I worked with Ollie North and Doctor Laura…

Sounds like a resilient network.

WW: Oh yeah, everybody knew each other. It was just a really small world. Everybody moved around between radio stations. And for the most part, folks were from around here. I was a little bit of an outsider, I guess. Of course, I didn’t stay in radio either.

Do you know what has become of MZQ?

WW: Oh yeah! 98.7. I listen to it every once in a while and it sounds great. I think they are still doing pretty well. I don’t know if it is doing quite as well as in the heyday. Actually, a lot of stations have changed formats. 99.1 used to be WHFS. Very progressive. Then it went to Spanish. And just last month it changed to news. So there have been a lot of changes, but MZQ has been very consistent. Very successful. I don’t even know who they’re owned by now.

Do you know if the office is still there?

WW: No, it’s not there anymore. [now located in Rockville MD at 1801 Rockville Pike-CL] Because I can remember driving by and there was no sign. What happened in the late ‘90s is the radio stations consolidated. By now, there are, I think, only two owners of radio stations in these parts. All the stations are in one location. They just combined everything. So, it’s, like, one location with multiple stations. Not like it used to be.

A general trend across many industries.

WW: Yes, the same story. It’s a little unfortunate. It had to happen. At the time it was an extraordinarily profitable business. There would be roughly 50% gross margin and 40% profit. You’re paying for licensing, the FCC, some property, and other than that, it’s your signal and you make the ratings out of it and then you sell advertising time. So, it’s like television in the day. Every industry has a life-cycle. When I was there, it was probably nearing its maturity. This is a medium that goes way back, since David Sarnoff, over 100 years ago. It’s kind of amazing it’s still around, with all the competition, the serious radio, the XM satellite, Pandora, iTunes.

I am still curious how MZQ came to establish themselves in that block.

WW: I have no idea, but my guess is (1) they got a really good deal, because radio stations were notoriously cheap—they never spent a lot of money on their property; (2) they had a landlord that didn’t mind them ripping up the floors, because most stations have two floors: ideally you have a cement slab and on top of that a foot clearance with a raised wooden floor, so all the cables run between them, and then there were the transformer boxes and things. But I really don’t know. It is kind of a strange place for a radio station.

Is the building still there?

WW: Yes, I drove by not too long ago and recognized the building as being the same one.

It’s a modern-looking building. 1960’s I should say.

WW: Yeah, 1960s. I’d say that’s about right. It’s not an old, old building. Probably just one of the buildings going up in a growth spurt at that time. I always loved the neighborhood. In fact, I used to go for walks, particularly in the springtime, in those neighborhoods back there. The azaleas are the best in all of DC. They’re just gorgeous and the yards are just beautiful, so I would just take a little time off and go for a walk in the neighborhood.

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