Dealmaking radio station owner 'Downtown Dave' Wagenvoord signs off at 81

Published May 11, 2014

CLEARWATER — In honor of his death, "Downtown Dave" Wagenvoord's radio station recently put together a seven-minute highlight reel of him behind the microphone, where he was most comfortable.

The podcast, on WTAN-AM-1340, which Mr. Wagenvoord and his wife bought in 1988, leads off with the show he broadcast the morning of his 80th birthday and includes a contest among 8-year-old boys manipulating their armpits to mimic flatulence.

Mr. Wagenvoord, a master of old-school bartering — especially when it came to exchanging goods and services for airtime on nearly a dozen radio stations he owned across the United States — died April 21, of a neuroendocrine cancer. He was 81.

"We call ourselves the Walmart of radio," Mr. Wagenvoord said a few years ago about his radio stations, which included WDCF-AM 1350 in Dade City; WZHR-AM 1400 in Zephyrhills; and KLRG-AM 880 in Little Rock, Ark. "We sell an hour of time for less than one minute you'd pay on a network station."

The concept of "brokered" radio is simple: Anyone can buy airtime, sell advertising and keep the profits. That it has survived among behemoths CBS, Clear Channel and Cox Enterprises, reflects the road map of the man himself.

He co-authored a book about how to achieve your dreams without money. No Cash? No Problem! published last year promises a "new mindset that could change your life forever." Mr. Wagenvoord certainly walked that walk, and his position as a broadcaster enabled many of these cashless transactions.

Hotels, restaurants, automakers and jewelers sold their wares in exchange for credit or products, which his radio stations could use for prizes or resale. Others paid for hour-long advertisements, a precursor to infomercials.

Bartering didn't stop when he left work. Mr. Wagenvoord once traded a house in Hawaii for a blue Porsche, which he used as a down payment for a home in Palm Harbor, according to his wife and business partner, Lola Wagenvoord.

To his ever-shifting formula, Mr. Wagenvoord often mixed in local business experts, high school football and a healthy dose of controversy.

In 1988, the same year he bought WTAN, he angered Plant City residents by sponsoring an "I-don't-want-to-go-to-Plant-City-because . . ." essay contest.

The prize? A haircut, plus "two nights in a mediocre hotel," Mr. Wagenvoord told the Times then.

In 2006, Mr. Wagenvoord celebrated his 50th year behind the mic by inviting nudist broadcasters into the WTAN studio at 706 N Myrtle Ave. in Clearwater.

And when Don Imus famously stumbled in 2007 with racially insensitive remarks, Mr. Wagenvoord was among the first to welcome the repentant shock jock back on his airwaves several months later.

"He's going to be more careful," said Mr. Wagenvoord, who nonetheless added a 25-second delay to the show, just in case.

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David William Wagenvoord was born in Lansing, Mich., in 1932, the son of a radio station general manager. He attended Michigan State University on a golf scholarship, where he gave golf lessons to his ROTC instructor in exchange for letting him cut class, his wife said.

Drafted into the Army during the Korean War, Mr. Wagenvoord hosted a Good Morning, Vietnam-style radio show in Korea and wrote for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

He worked as a DJ in Tallahassee after the war, broadcasting rock 'n' roll. He married, moved around the country and acquired several radio stations. He met Lola Thornton, a dental hygienist, in 1982 in Honolulu and married her, his second marriage. The couple owned Wagenvoord Advertising Group, which owns WTAN.

As other mom-and-pop radio stations have disappeared, theirs have soldiered on, albeit without the same glamor. Lower overhead might be a key to that longevity, said former WTAN talk show host Skip Mahaffey.

"Ask any attorney or real estate broker," said Mahaffey, who now has shows on WWJB-AM 1450 and WXJB-FM 99.9 in Brooksville. "You can do a show for Dave for 100 bucks an hour. Or you can go to Clear Channel and pay $600, or I know people who pay up to $1,600 an hour."

Downtown Dave broadcast his last show a few months ago, said Lola Wagenvoord, 64. He had loved her idea of taping one more show — from "WGOD in Heaven" — but lacked the strength to make it to the station.

His cremated remains lie in an urn alongside others containing the remains of Great Danes the Wagenvoords owned over the years.

Lola Wagenvoord said her husband will be remembered for "making the deal, making it happen, satisfying the customer and doing good for the community with a bit of humor."

Mr. Wagenvoord couldn't leave the planet without making one final deal.

To offset funeral costs, his wife said, "You can expect to hear some advertising over the air for Hubbell Funeral Home."