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Wheeler back on airwaves; Babacas back on the prowl

On bay area airwaves, Cleveland Wheeler pushed the frontier of morning show dominance. But he eventually had his fill of the radio industry and quit. A "stellar" opportunity to help push the newest frontier in broadcast radio recently got Wheeler back on the air.

Wheeler, 53, co-created the Q Morning Zoo with former colleague Scott Shannon, a morning show on WRBQ-FM "Q-105" that debuted in 1981 and didn't fold until 1990. The show's infectious mix of comedy routines and music dominated its time slot throughout the decade. The concept was copied at hundreds of stations around the country.

Wheeler and his fellow Q-Zooers were enshrined in the Museum of Broadcasting. Shannon departed in 1983, successfully transferred the Morning Zoo format to stations in New York City and Los Angeles, and was named the most influential radio programmer of the past 20 years by trade publication Radio and Records.

Station infighting, and successful challenges from Ron and Ron on WYNF-FM "95YNF" and WFLZ-FM 93.3 "The Power Pig" knocked the Q-Zoo, and Q-105, from its pedestal. Wheeler left the station in 1991. Throughout the '90s he did morning show stints in cities such as Houston and Mobile, Ala., as well as at local stations WYUU-FM "U92" and WQYK-FM 99.5. He co-founded a short-lived, Chicago-based radio consulting firm called Air Support.

Increasingly disillusioned with the radio industry _ "Basically it's a cookie cutter," he said _ Wheeler started selling real estate along the Pinellas beaches in 1996.

But Wheeler was lured back to radio in August by XM Satellite Radio in Washington D.C. He's DJ and "broadcast design architect."

"That's a new term for program director," Wheeler said, laughing. XM and rival Sirius Satellite Radio started a new form of radio this year: direct satellite feeds to paying subscribers equipped with satellite car radio kits.

XM offers 100 channels _ 35 are commercial free _ on a signal that can be received with CD audio quality coast-to-coast. Wheeler, who commutes to his Gulfport home on weekends, considers this a radio revolution. "It's trite to think of this even as cutting edge. It's beyond that."

A radio kit costs about $250, plus a $9.95 monthly fee. Wheeler's noon to 4 p.m. show, is "Sixties on 6" (Channel 6).

Tampa missed out. So did Chicago, San Jose, Philadelphia and Foxboro, Mass.

But heads up, Minneapolis. You're on deck. Socrates Babacas wants to build you a new stadium.

For several years, the Massachusetts real estate developer has made a full-time occupation out of trying to buy a professional football or baseball team. He prefers cities where the team is struggling and the stadium needs replacing.

Sound familiar? After Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse died in 1994, Babacas _ you can call him "Socco" _ was ready to fill the void. "We're going to buy the Bucs for $190-million!" he declared. "Mike Ditka is going to be our coach, and we're going to the Super Bowl in two years! Believe me, this is real. We're not chasing a rainbow."

In 1995, Malcolm Glazer bought the team for a record $192-million, and Socco left town angry. Known for candidness and colorful hyperbole, Babacas predicted disappointing seasons for the Bucs. "They're going to get beat. That's all that matters."

Now Babacas, 72, says no hard feelings but the Bucs will never make it to the Super Bowl. Besides, he's concentrating on his latest proposal: replacing Minneapolis' aging Metrodome with a 92-acre stadium complete with retractable roof, adjacent 4,000-square-foot mall, 26 restaurants, and free parking for 30,000 cars, at no cost to taxpayers. He won't name all his investors, but says he has steel companies from Minneapolis and New Jersey on board.

Babacas shares his Springfield, Mass., home with his wife, Harriet, and his German shepherd, Lady. His family _ five daughters, 10 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren _ all live nearby.

If his Minneapolis venture doesn't pan out, Babacas said he might next consider buying the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and moving them to a new stadium near the Florida State Fairgrounds. "If I knew what kind of money you guys were talking about, I may go and try to do something over there."

_ Michael Canning can be reached at 226-3408 or canningsptimes.com.

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