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Closing The Zoo

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Cleveland Wheeler gazes out the dusty window of his new radio digs, the small, dimly lighted studio of WRBQ-AM (1380). It has the look of a place long in disuse. "At least it's got a nice view of the bay," he says with a rueful chuckle. The silver lining lacks luster. It may be a waterfront view, but it's not the view from the top, which is where Wheeler stood for nearly a decade. For nine years he was the kingpin of WRBQ-FM's powerful morning show, the Q-Zoo.

This past Friday, however, he started work as the lone 6-9 a.m. DJ on the station's AM side. Before Wheeler's switch, WRBQ-AM had simulcast the Zoo program, earning ratings that could barely be called a blip. The DJ's new headquarters are just around the corner and down the hall from the roomier FM control room,

but in career terms it's a couple of light years away.

With Wheeler's departure, the Q-Morning-Zoo, as Tampa Bay listeners came to know and embrace it, has officially folded. Two new personalities, Mike Elliott and Kent Voss, will carry on in the Zoo's name, but the golden era is over. Wheeler was the last link to the show's origins.

Station management says Wheeler has been re-assigned. Most everyone else, including Wheeler, say he's been demoted: "Sure, it's the biggest demotion in the world," he exclaims.

Wheeler's lucrative contract with Phoenix-based Edens Broadcasting, which owns WRBQ, runs through the end of 1991. Instead of paying him off and cutting him loose, as is often the custom in radio, the company is requiring him to work for his money. Even if Wheeler somehow manages to make the AM show a success, he says the station has no plans to extend his contract. While WRBQ general manager Mike Horne acknowledges the station does not foresee renewing Wheeler's deal, he adds: "If the AM show does extremely well, we'd be foolish not to."

Wheeler anticipates "zero" promotional push from the station. He's flying solo. "It'll be kind of funny doing word-of-mouth radio," he says with a hearty laugh.

Fifteen months max for Wheeler at WRBQ. Most industry insiders think his tenure will be much shorter. The DJ's stock may be down, but his longstanding success at the Zoo surely counts for something in other radio markets hungry for a talented morning personality.

Wheeler, 42, is probably the highest paid AM jock in America who's not doing a talk show (he reportedly makes well into six figures). Still, many see staying at WRBQ as a bad career move.

"Nobody with a disc jockey ego is gonna go on 1380 AM and try to gather an audience," says Scott Shannon, Wheeler's first Zoo partner. "He has a hidden agenda."

Yet Wheeler maintains that he is merely holding up his end of the bargain per the Edens contract, although most radio folk say that he could certainly take a job outside the Tampa Bay market with the corporation's blessing.

"I also want some time to figure out what I want to do next," Wheeler says. "Most of the time in this business, you're just fired, and out the door you go. . . . I'm not going to just make a snap decision to get the hell out of here."

Through most of the '80s, Wheeler had no plans to go anywhere. The ride on top of Tampa Bay radio, although rocky at times, was a great trip. Wheeler and his revolving flock of Zoo cohorts earned a place as one of the biggest success stories in radio annals. Scores of stations aped their mixture of irreverent humor and wacky ensemble interplay. The Zoo Crew enjoyed astronomical ratings and brought in untold revenues. They commanded exorbitant salaries. They so outpaced the local competition that for years no one dared even take them on. Wheeler and the Zoo were even enshrined in the Museum of Broadcasting.

At a certain point, though, the Zoo members began to wallow in their own success. They became smug and pompous, then fat and lazy. They felt impenetrable. "We became arrogant," says Jack Harris, a Zoo member from 1986-88, "a little blase about the success."

Controversy, once an entity the Zoo stirred so effectively to its benefit, began to bite back. Office power plays, questionable corporate decisions, greed and a bitter divisiveness between Wheeler and WRBQ operations manager Mason Dixon finally caused the Q-Zoo to go down in flames. During the last Arbitron survey, released this month, the once-mighty morning show was ranked sixth in the overall ratings (people 12 and older) with an audience share of 6.5, compared with its heyday ratings that approached 20. A share is the percentage of radio listeners tuned to a station.

The truism in Top 40 radio is essentially this: As your morning show goes, so goes your station. The day's momentum builds from 6 in the morning. WRBQ, as a whole, ranked sixth in the latest ratings book, a shadow of its former dominance. The varied talents that formed the dynasty have been scattered.

"Just another old radio station," says Dixon, who now handles mornings at WKXX-FM in Birmingham, Ala.

The Zoo's keeper

At least the fallen emperor has his clothes. On this Tuesday morning, Cleveland Wheeler is not wearing the casual outfit of most DJs. He is dressed impeccably in a loose-fitting, double-breasted suit of creamy gray. His silk print tie is accented in green. His shirt is starched white. Roundish, amber-tinted glasses shade his eyes. Wheeler's bushy hair has a reddish hue, and two snow-white sideburns creep down the sides of his face.

For all his success in radio, Wheeler does not have a temperament for the business away from the microphone. He shuns promotional appearances and generally steers clear of crowds. He's quick-witted and has an engaging laugh, but seems, deep down, a serious sort. The DJ is politically aware and harbors deep concerns about the environment. "I've always been into survival and the elements and been close to the earth," Wheeler says.

At points during his Zoo tenure, his detractors say, Wheeler turned the morning show into his personal soap box, talking incessantly about the plight of this endangered species or that and losing sight that the morning radio was supposed to be fun and entertaining.

Wheeler hopes to put the fun back into his career on his AM shift, called the Breakfast Club. He aims to establish a creative mixture of music targeted to adults. It will not be a talk show in disguise, he says, although many of his contemporaries don't buy that.

Although his downfall _ temporary or not _ must be painful, Wheeler appears somewhat relieved that the struggle is over. "What happened to me is probably for the best," he says. "None of us could've stayed in this hell hole for very long. You had to constantly watch your back. It was unbearable working with people; you wouldn't talk to them in the hall."

Birth of the barnyard

In the early '70s, a rambunctious radio talent named Scott Shannon lorded over a Birmingham, Ala., station that featured a lineup of talent with animal nicknames. The morning DJ was called "Coyote." Shannon called WERC the "Birmingham Zoo," according to Bill Thomas, a radio consultant based in that city. "The "Zoo' name was a Shannon-ism that he revived when he went to Tampa," Thomas says.

Like most radio people, Shannon made the rounds of various cities throughout the '70s _ Nashville, Washington, D.C., and other stops.

Meanwhile, in Tampa during late 1973, the beautiful-music station WEZX was taken off the air for three months and transformed into WRBQ-FM: Q-105, Top 40. The industry was in the midst of moving pop stations from the AM to the FM band. Q-105 was an instant success, quickly becoming Tampa Bay's leading hits-oriented outlet.

The station went through the usual personnel changes. Wheeler came in as morning host in February 1978. A week later, Dixon signed on as afternoon DJ and within six months landed the program director's job. The two jocks first clashed in the late '70s. Wheeler recalls missing a Saturday night promotional appearance at a Burger King: "Mason called me up early Sunday morning and threatened my job." (Dixon does not recall the incident.)

The disco fad of the late '70s hurt Q-105, which was not willing to fully embrace the mind-numbing dance style. A disco station that called itself 96-Kix made serious inroads into the Q's status. "Our ratings dropped into the fives from double digits," recalls Pete Schulte, WRBQ general manager at the time.

The management of the Harte-Hanks chain, which owned Q-105 then, decided that some new blood was needed. The corporation's national program director, George Williams, was impressed with Shannon and persuaded Schulte to meet with him. "(Shannon) wanted $40,000 if he didn't do an air shift and $50,000 if he did one," Schulte says. "So I took him up on the latter."

Shannon arrived in early 1981, moving above Dixon in the chain of command, and quickly set about revamping Wheeler's morning show. "On my first meeting with him, I couldn't believe I was going to do what I always wanted to do in radio," Wheeler says.

One evening, Shannon and Wheeler sequestered themselves in a Tampa hotel room for about eight hours and hashed out the concept. "We thought of all the pros around the world, the best entertainers, thought back over the decades, the early days of radio," Wheeler explains. "The first thing we decided to do was set up a format where the DJs were not on a pedestal _ just the people next door who do radio. We used the dumbness in people that's comical and lovable, that was Shannon's thing. We did some blue stuff, but it was cute. It didn't grab you with anatomy."

Shannon told Wheeler he was going to stay on the air about two months to get the show off the ground, but great chemistry between the two took hold immediately and the audience tuned in straight away.

"I'm the more blue-collar, street-educated personality," Shannon said from his office at KQLZ in Los Angeles. "And (Cleveland's) more sophisticated. He'd watch PBS, go to wine-sippin' parties."

The Q-Zoo developed into a winning combination of satire, infectious studio shenanigans and high-energy music but was still the kind of community forum where listeners could call in trying to find a lost dog.

Shannon was the more career-oriented of the team, while Wheeler was content to enjoy the heady ride in Tampa Bay.

"One time, we'd just gotten back from a radio convention, and I'm sitting by the pool on a Sunday morning, glad to be back in Tampa, and Shannon calls," Wheeler recounts. ""What d'ya think about going to Detroit?' he asks, and I said Detroit wasn't my kind of place. This kind of thing happened about six times."

In 1983, Shannon was offered a shot at the big time: to turn around a struggling Top 40 in the New York market. He didn't ask Wheeler to come along. He knew what the answer would be. After Shannon's departure, the rumors flew: Wheeler was purple with envy, a deep rift had developed between the two.

"The differences in lifestyles between me and Scott was perceived as a rift," Wheeler says. "He wanted to socialize. I wanted to go home or off into the mountains."

If hard feelings ever existed between the former partners, they seem to have passed. "I don't know of anybody I'd rather work with than Cleveland," Shannon says. "I assure you that if Cleveland and I went back together and did a morning show it would be the best in America. I don't think he's lost it. Q-105's success really took place largely after I left."

On with the show

With Shannon's departure, certain industry pundits read last rites over the Q-Zoo. But Wheeler surprised them. He built the show's momentum. The station found him a new sidekick, one Terrence McKeever (last name Ledbetter), a self-described "hillbilly" from Black Mountain, N.C. His gravel-voiced delivery and occasionally incoherent remarks offset Wheeler's more cerebral presence.

"I could throw zingers to control some of Cleveland's soap-boxing," McKeever said from his home in Atlanta. "I made light of it, and he might get a little mad. I had a good contract; it wasn't my problem."

McKeever had a couple of very public bouts with alcoholism. In '85, he pleaded no contest to charges of drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He left the show and entered alcohol rehab for a spell, after which the station returned him to the air.

By the spring of '87, McKeever had run his course with the Zoo. He was transfered to another Edens station in San Diego.

"When I left, the program lost its street appeal," McKeever says. "It became an elitist program. My comedy was Tampa-based, not based on elephants' tusks in India and save the wigglers in the Tennessee River. I'm surprised the show lasted as long as it did. The lack of competition facilitated that."

McKeever was the last partner to generate real chemistry with Wheeler.

"I got 300 tapes after McKeever, and there may have been five that were anywhere close," Wheeler says. "There aren't a lot of unique people out there doing something different. It's hard to find a sidekick that doesn't sound like they've been on radio for 15 or 20 years."

"After McKeever left, that's when the downfall started," says Dixon, who was named operations manager after Shannon's departure. "Cleveland had decided he wanted to be a star on his own. He turned his back on the team concept. He wanted the show to be known as Cleveland Wheeler and Friends. That's when it turned."

A parade of sidekicks, most of them faceless and forgettable, paraded through the Zoo. The most notable name was longtime bay area personality Jack Harris. Although he is now part of the morning team at WFLZ-FM ("The Power Pig"), Harris looks back on his Zoo experience as a positive one _ with reservations. "(Cleveland) became too involved with his own personal issues," Harris says. "It was his Achilles' heel. One in particular was the power lines that Florida Power wanted to put through Hillsborough County. They were going to go near his house. Ninety-nine percent of the people could've cared less. You try to show unity in the AM. I found myself sticking up for some pretty weird things from time to time."

The Wheeler filibusters mushroomed. He did exert ample influence throughout the bay area, though. At one point, he argued against the use of animals from the Hillsborough County Shelter in experiments at the University of South Florida. He harped so hard that the issue was placed on a countywide referendum. Citizens voted against Wheeler's call for a ban to the tune of 3-to-1.

Wheeler looks back on his on-air crusader phase with mixed emotions. "We did it for about two years and had a wind of success with it," he says. "But then it got too preachy, and people said, "Shut the f--- up.' Still, we had our highest volume of phone calls during that period."

The internal discord at Q-105 really began to take its toll in 1987. Office encounters grew heated. Randy Kabrich, who resigned as WRBQ program director late last year and is now general manager for a station in Dallas, recounts this incident: "I told Cleveland that, because of the way he was running his show, 65 people's lives were hanging the balance. I said, "The biggest dichotomy with Cleveland Wheeler is that he wants to save the whales, the rain forests, the manatees and the elephants, and sometimes I wonder if he puts animal life above human lives.' Then he said he was going to take me out into the parking lot and whip my a--."

Wheeler remembers the incident a bit differently: Kabrich made some disparaging remarks about the Zoo's environmental efforts to one of Wheeler's assistants. "I told him "I'm going to remove you physically from this room by throwing you through that window,"' Wheeler says. "It was a heated moment that can happen anywhere."

The rivalry, some say hatred, between Dixon and Wheeler festered, intensified. Dixon charges that station research showed problems beginning to surface with the morning show, yet upper management turned a deaf ear to his warnings. A WRBQ internal memo shows that as of October '89, negative listener comments regarding Wheeler outpaced positive impressions by a ratio of 9-to-1. "They'd say things like "too much soap-boxing,' "not funny anymore,' "Cleveland is an a------," Dixon says.

Attempting to work with Wheeler was impossible, Dixon says. "I tried everything; tried being his friend," he added. "I discovered years earlier that there was no way you could get anything done trying to be his boss."

The Q-Zoo had effectively become its own entity, existing outside the realm of station control. Kabrich recalls: "I was told in no uncertain terms (by management) that I was only (program director) from 10 a.m. until 6 a.m. Mason and I had discussions, and we both decided that the best way to come to work with the proper frame of mind was to listen to another morning show."

Nevertheless, the Zoo continued in its No. 1 position, despite losing some ground in the ratings. Yet Dixon says he and Kabrich recognized that the show was ripe to topple.

"We'd get management hacked off at us when we'd get up at a meeting and tell them if we didn't do something about the morning show it eventually was going to kill the rest of the station," Dixon says. "If corporate management had listened to what Kabrich and I had to say, we could have been able to fix what was going wrong with the morning show, and the big downfall and breakup of the whole station would not have to have happened."

For his part, Wheeler says that station management, particularly Dixon, did everything it could to undermine the Q-Zoo. He claims that the promotional push was curtailed while major contests and promotions were introduced during other shifts. Wheeler says he always suspected the off-air chatter and the private phone lines in the Q-Zoo control room were being recorded. (Dixon's response: "He's crazy. Paranoid.") Furthermore, Wheeler says he was torn between regular station mandates to play more music and his own read on the audience that told him to keep the chatter quotient up.

Wheeler accuses Dixon of building an empire to serve his own interests, grabbing all the power he could: "Mason's a great talent and great communicator, but it was misplaced. He just wanted too much."

Wheeler saw a radio station he perceived as having splintered into little spheres of individual influence, with too many people holding titles and vying for control, angling for money and national recognition. In Wheeler's view, Dixon and his team had quit caring about Q-105. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Dixon levels the very same allegations toward Wheeler.

In '89, Wheeler introduced a novelty idea called "Music From Cleveland's House," where he scrapped the station's regular programing for a morning and played different things of his own liking. He says he got management's approval.

"Mason got so upset about it, he programed against me on the AM side," Wheeler says. "He suspended the regular simulcast, hosted his own show on AM and promo-ed it on his (FM) afternoon show by saying. "Tune in and hear the music that Q-105 really plays.' People interpreted it as an on-the-air rivalry for listeners' sake, but it was very real."

Wheeler is one year older than Dixon. Both hail from Tennessee. A handful of their associates say they are more alike than either would ever suspect.

"They hated each other," says Shannon. "And they both wanted to get the other. Well, it looks like they both finally succeeded."

A different animal

Enter Ron and Ron. The morning duo of seasoned DJ Ron Diaz and stand-up comic Ron Bennington took the air on rock station WYNF-FM (95) in October 1987. It was not long before the team's hipper, raunchier style began to eat into the Zoo's audience. By early 1990, Ron and Ron had become the dominant morning show in the market.

"They took what we were doing over here as nothing that could compete with them," says WYNF general manager Shawn Portmann. "Their egos wouldn't allow that. In the face of our competition, they took no action at all."

Q-105's biggest challenge was yet to come. In September of last year, WFLZ-FM (93.3) suddenly switched from an oldies format to an aggressive Top 40 outlet. Calling itself the "Power Pig," the station launched a frontal attack on Q-105, battering and berating the Q's personalities over the air waves.

WRBQ's response was low-key. They appeared reluctant to get down in the mud. Some industry insiders think that Q-105 had been sitting on its perch so long it didn't recognize the challenge as viable.

By January, the Power Pig had overtaken Q-105 in the overall ratings. It did so in less than one quarterly ratings period. Wheeler was not around to share in the devastating news. In November, he had embarked on an extended hiatus, during which, he says, he spent time outdoors in Central America. The radio community was perplexed. The top DJ was getting back to nature while the station was enduring its biggest challenge in 15 years.

"When Cleveland left," former program director Kabrich says, "it was portrayed to me that he would not be returning."

Edens management apparently flip-flopped, because in late March it cleaned house in its programing department, firing Dixon and his team of Bobby Rich and Brian Christopher. Wheeler returned to the air 10 days later. But if Edens brass saw the move as a cure-all for Q-105's woes, it was wrong.

The Q-Zoo, despite plans to streamline and fine-tune, never regained momentum. "I really haven't felt part of the station since I've been back," Wheeler says. "Part of that's because of me, and part of that is (management). But if I have to leave the big time for good, at least I can say that I made it."