Profile of Marc Sommers
by Scott Benjamin
Marc Sommers on WABC
When Marc Sommers arrived at Musicradio77 WABC in the late spring of 1979 for an on-air audition he had prepared "a ton of material" in hopes of impressing ABC Radio Vice President Rick Sklar and WABC Operations Manager Glenn Morgan.
"I had two weeks notice, and it was the only time that I ever wrote out that much material," said Marc - whose real name, which he has used for the books he has written in the recent years - is Travis Ayres.
Rick had initially called him three years earlier after Marc had sent air checks to WABC, WLS, the ABC owned and operated station in Chicago, and other stations.
Todd Bauer - the afternoon newsman at WTIX in New Orleans, and a friend - was known for his humor.
"He even wrote curse words into my weather forecasts, but I was able to talk around them without ever making a mistake," Marc said in a Mar. 30, 2007 phone interview with Musicradio77.com.
Marc didn't believe Todd when he told him one day that, "Rick Sklar is on the phone."
"Rick said, ' I like what I hear,' " Marc recalled. "He told me that I wasn't ready yet for New York. But he told me to keep sending air checks."
"Having been a program director, I know that it is a demanding job," he said. "But you hear program directors say that they don't have time to listen to air checks."
"But my argument to that is that Rick Sklar was the most recognized program director in the world and he found the time," Marc added. "He listened to them so that he would have two or three people he could call when there was a need to hire someone."
He said that in the mid-1990s when he was doing some part-time work at WKJY in Garden City, Long Island, Tony Florentino, the program director at the time, said that he had known Rick during his career as a radio consultant in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s after he left ABC.
Tony said that Rick had a file cabinet of air checks that were arranged so that he could easily identify the top three or four air personalities in the country for almost any format.
"There are people that I've spoken with through the years that have said they were first contacted by Rick two or three years before they were hired," Marc said. "He seemed to keep track of people and was good at evaluating talent."
Immediately following his 1979 on-air audition, Rick and Glenn told him they would get back to him.
"After they saw the concern on my face when they said that, they added, 'No, really, we'll be in touch,' " Marc recalled.
However, he said about three weeks later he saw a story in Radio & Records that WABC had fired Glenn Morgan, who had been with the station since 1971 when Rick had hired him as the assistant program director and production manager.
"When I saw that story, I thought that was the end of my shot at getting to WABC," Marc said.
"But two days later I heard from Rick," he said.
The station had decided to hire Marc to succeed the only female air personality in WABC's history, Liz Kiley, who had only joined the station the previous February.
He became a full-time utility/weekend air personality, working regularly on Saturday and Sunday and substituting for air personalities during the week when they were sick or on vacation.
The on-air staff welcomed Marc with open arms.
"Harry Harrison was on vacation when I arrived, but he had left a note in my locker before he went on vacation to welcome me aboard," he recalled.
Marc, who lived in New Jersey during his time as an air personality in the Big Apple, said that he had been used to radio station staff meetings being held in a backroom with pizza while he was working at stations in the South. However, he was astonished when he learned that his first staff meeting of the air personalities would be held in the Towers at the Waldorf-Astoria.
On Saturday, Nov. 17, just three and a half months after he arrived at Musicradio77, the assistant program director at the time, Sandy Sanderson called Marc and asked him to meet him in the waiting lounge at the station.
He said that Sandy met him and told him to stay in the lounge until he came back to get him.
" 'Sandy, this is mysterious, you've got to tell me what's going on.' " Marc recalled.
Sandy, who also was the production director at the time, said that Al Brady, the new program director, was about to fire night air personality George Michael, who had arrived just over five years earlier from WFIL in Philadelphia.
George had faced the challenge of succeeding Cousin Brucie, who had generated huge ratings for WABC before bolting to WNBC in a much-discussed move in 1974.
However, Al and Sandy were unable to intercept George, and he started his show and continued on the air for about 20 minutes before they summoned him to an office.
"The wisest decision would have been to go home and take care of it Monday," Marc recalled.
A short time later George re-entered the studio to collect his headphones and carry bag.
"Uncomfortable is not the word to describe how I felt," Marc said regarding the emotions he had as George left the studio.
Marc said he arrived at WABC at a time of uncertainty, and that over the next two and a half years the station that had just years earlier attracted 8 million music listeners a week took steps to becoming a talk station that also featured the New York Yankees.
"There was panic because WKTU had finished first in one or two books at that point," Marc said of the FM station that had soared in the ratings after adopting a disco format.
"There were people in the industry that said that if WABC goes, then Top 40 on AM is dead," he recalled regarding the growing popularity of FM stations.
Initially, Marc spoke to Al Brady about succeeding George Michael on the night show.
"Al was classy about it," he said. "He told me 'I know you want the evening show and listening to you the last few months you probably deserve a shot at it.' "
"But he had already set his plans," Marc said, making reference to Howard Hoffman being installed Dec. 10, 1979 as George's successor on Monday through Saturday night.
"I've always felt that Al was brought in to do the firing," he said. "However, afterwards he put some pieces in place and then he got fired and it seemed as though it was incomplete."
"It seemed like he didn't get a fair shot to implement what he wanted to do to keep that station a Top 40 station," Marc said.
Former WABC air personality Mike McKay said he enjoyed his interaction with Marc.
"He was a guy that you could easily swap stories with over a couple of beers," he said in a Mar. 18, 2007 phone interview with Musicradio77.com.
Marc continued as a full-time utility and weekend air personality through the remainder of the station's time with a Top 40 format. On May 9, 1982 he did the next to last music show in WABC's history.
He became a fan of legendary Musicradio77 air personality Dan Ingram, who moved from afternoons to mornings in November 1979 only to return to afternoons in March of 1981.
"I would do the early morning show on Monday after the station was off the air for the transmitter maintenance," Marc said. "It really was the Dan Ingram warm-up show."
"I often stayed in the studio for the first hour of Dan's show and would chat with him and the engineer," he recalled. I learned so much. He taught me how to do one-to-one radio. It was an honor, because if he didn't like me, he wouldn't have let me stick around in the studio."
However, gradually over his 33 months at WABC, the station made a transition to a full-time talk format.
"The air personalities were almost being thought of as the second-class citizens," he said regarding the addition of sports and psychology talk shows and the Yankee games.
Regardless, he told The New York Daily News at the time of the shift from music to talk that becoming an air personality at WABC "was like going to the Olympics," since the station had been the most listened to in the nation.
"I think they killed that format prematurely," Marc said regarding the decision to end the Top 40 music programming. "They still were cumeing about 2 million listeners then."
"But the ABC network had made the decision to go to a talk format on some of their stations," he said.
Marc found work a short time later at WHN (AM) which was then a country station, and then moved to WCBS-FM, an oldies station which already had former WABC air personalities Harry Harrison and Cousin Brucie on its roster and would add Ron Lundy in 1984 and Dan Ingram in 1991.
"I think at CBS-FM we had the best air staff of any of the stations that I worked at," Marc said.
He said that former longtime WCBS-FM program director Joe McCoy realized that "the WABC guys were not has-beens."
Although Marc, who was at the station for more than 11 years as a full-time utility air personality, had some legal conflicts with Joe at the end of his tenure, which included the pursuit of arbitration over his firing from the station in 1994, he has praise for the longtime program director of what was the nation's most listened to oldies station.
"I think he was an excellent program director," he said. "Joe hired people for what they could do and then let them do it."
"If he went over an air check, he would say that you need to be a little bit more intense here, or a little less intense," Marc recalled. "He tweaked things."
He said that he believes that WCBS-FM made a premature decision to switch in June 2005 from oldies to the iPod-inspired JACK format.
"I don't think that the music of the '60s is dead," Marc said. "I think that you can present it to another generation."
"In 1992, CBS-FM won three of the four ratings books and was taking 12-plus shares," Marc said. "You can't take a 12-plus share without having some young people listening to you. If it could be done in 1992, I think it could be done today."
"A lot of stations do oldies now, but it's not the conventional oldies format of mostly 1960s and 1970s music," said Mike McKay, who is the part owner of KVLC-FM in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which has a conventional oldies format.
"We don't do it because it's the music that I like," he added. "We do it because it works. The core audience is obviously the people who were in high school in the 1960s and 1970s. But we have a 17-year-old intern who knows the lyrics to the songs."
Mike also is the co-owner of three other stations in New Mexico - KXPZ, with a rock format; KMVR, a hot adult contemporary outlet; and KOBE, which offers a talk format.
Marc said that his 29-year-old daughter, Alissa Ayres tells him how the music of the 1960s is played in some of the clubs in New York City, where she lives.
"My daughter discovered Buddy Holly and then discovered the Beatles and she found that she liked the music," Marc said. "I think that has happened with other young people."
Growing up in the 1960s in Jackson Parish, Louisiana, Marc had listened to such Top 40 stations as KLIF in Dallas, and discovered WLS in Chicago, which at night could be received as though it were a local station.
He had been studying in college to become a graphic artist, but left to join the Navy, where he was a chief petty officer and fire technician and made some missions into Vietnam aboard the USS Regulus.
While returning by boat to San Francisco in 1969, he heard "Proud Mary," by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio.
"I thought, right then, that I wanted to play that kind of music on the radio," Marc said.
His brother, Tom Ayres, who died two years ago, already had established a career as a newspaper reporter and had moved to television, working on the air as a reporter for WFAA (channel 8) in Dallas. He received more than 20 journalism awards.
He was an inspiration for Marc, who immediately upon returning from the Navy enrolled at the Elkins Broadcasting Institute, the school where former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith would go to get training before he became a commentator in 1970 for ABC's long-running Monday Night Football.
He worked at some day-time stations in the South, including WDDT in Greenville, Miss., which once employed Ron Lundy before he went to WIL (AM) in St. Louis and then Musicradio77 WABC.
"Ron Lundy was a big inspiration because he even had a little bit of a southern sound after he got to New York City," Marc said of the longtime mid-day air personality who grew up in Tennessee.
He started his career on the air with his given name, Travis Ayres. Then for a brief time his air name was Scotty Travis.
However, when he arrived at KNOE-AM in Monroe La. the program director, Bill Murvin, provided a list of air names to choose from and Travis chose Marc Sommers, which he has kept ever since for his radio work.
Marc enjoyed doing the all-night show in a college town where some of the students at what is now called the University of Louisiana at Monroe stayed up through the wee hours of the morning to listen.
From there he went to WTIX and was the program director and an air personality at WNOE, both in New Orleans, before he went to Musicradio77 WABC.
Marc said that he thoroughly enjoyed his six years in New Orleans.
"Once you live in New Orleans, it's always home," he said.
"To see areas of the city destroyed, it brings tears to your eyes," Marc said of the devastation that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in the late summer 2005.
He said that the federal government's response has been inadequate.
"I don't think it was even mentioned in the last State of the Union message last January," he said regarding President George W. Bush's speech to the nation.
On another topic, Marc said that through the years, digitization and less restrictive Federal Communication Commission regulations have changed the way that radio stations operate.
"Years ago you had to start the record and run the controls and you were sometimes tired at the end of the show," he said. "Now the computer generates it all until you stop and talk."
Marc said that the control of so many stations by media conglomerates has probably restricted salaries in some of the small- and medium-sized markets.
"It was more competitive years ago when more companies were in control of the stations, and sometimes they did throw some money at you," said Marc, who indicated that he didn't receive a handsome salary until he arrived at WABC.
Following his tenure at WCBS-FM, he worked at some stations in Long Island and Connecticut, including WDRC-FM, which is known as the nation's first FM station and was programmed years ago by the legendary Charlie Parker.
He also did several voiceovers for television and radio commercials through the years, including for former WABC program director Glenn Morgan at Master Audio Productions in Morristown, N.J.
More recently he was the afternoon air personality for a year and a half on KQSM in Bentonville, Ark., which is where he lives and where Wal-Mart has its global headquarters.
His wife, Elizabeth, supervises some buyers for the large retail chain. The couple has a daughter, Tina, 10, that they adopted from Russia when she was four and a half years old.
Marc said that the two adjoining counties currently have a population of 350,000 that is expected to grow to about 500,000 in the next 10 years as more of Wal-Mart's vendors establish offices in the area.
Marc said that he experienced some frustration from working in terrestrial radio following the acquisition of many stations by a small number of conglomerates.
"You just don't have the creative freedom," he said. "Even the program directors don't have much control. The consultants are saying to do it a certain way."
"I miss being on the air the way I was on the air at CBS-FM," Marc said now that he has concentrated on writing books. "You have some talented people on the air today, but they're mostly reading slogans."
He said during his time at KQSM he did a show with his brother as a guest and they gave away some of his books on the air.
"I want to have that creative freedom," Marc said. "That's not as available today in radio. If I write a book, I know it is my own imprint and that's the way I want it - even if you don't like the book or don't like a chapter. I know that it was written the way that I wanted it done."
His brother - who authored five books in the last five years of his life, including one on the Civil War - was, in part, an inspiration for his own writing career.
Marc's first book, written under his real name, Travis Ayres, Shiloh to Stones River (The True Story of Private John H. Sullivan of the 16 Infantry Regiment) covers the story of his great grandfather during the Civil War.
Work on his 2005 book, The Bomber Boys: True Stories of B-17 Airmen (authorHouse, 261 pages), began while he was living in Connecticut in the mid-1990s and was introduced to five veterans that had served in planes during the World War II air combat.
"The book was partly personal stories of survival," Marc said.
"I wanted to know what it was like to be shot at and to keep coming back," he said regarding part of his motivation for doing the research.
"Some of the stories read like combat fiction, with dog fights and shot-up planes and skies full fire, at the end of which the pilot comes in on a wing and a prayer," New York Daily News columnist David Hinckley wrote about the book, which is available at www.thebomberboys.com.
The story of B-17 waist gunner Sgt. Peter Scott is being shopped around in Hollywood by Marc's agent, Jim Donovan.
"It's a long shot that it would ever be made into a movie," Marc said.
Peter, who escaped to Spain after parachuting from his plane, told Marc that he had nightmares about the experience for two years after he returned to the United States.
Marc said that there are different emotional rewards between the two public communication mediums in which he has worked.
"In radio you get instant gratification," he said. "In writing it is much more delayed gratification."
"100 years from now people may still be reading The Bomber Boys, he said. "I'm not sure if there will be any Marc Sommers air checks around, although with the Internet that might happen."
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