Burt & Muriel Levine - Broadcasting Pioneers

Burt Levine, the son of a Pennsylvania merchant, didn't originally intend to get into the "business side" of radio. "The local station auditioned four of us from high school during the summer, presumably so one of us would get a paying job," said Burt, "but it turned out we all auditioned all summer and nobody got a paying job. That was my introduction to radio." He graduated from Temple University and eventually did get a paying job writing advertising copy for a station in Philadelphia. "I never thought of myself as a salesman, I thought of myself as a writer" he said.

"When the salesman got sick and had to move to Phoenix for his health, I was the only one that knew the accounts. They told me 'Go start selling.' So, with great reluctance, that's how I started selling." Burt went on to become the young sales manager of WCAN Radio in Milwaukee and eventually decided to buy his own station. He had traveled through the Roanoke Valley and was so impressed with the friendly people and merchants that he decided it was a perfect place. So, after three years of researching the market, Burt and a group of investors formed WROV Broadcasters, Inc and purchased WROV in 1955. We suspect that Burt and wife Muriel were silent partners in the deal to buy the station and eventually bought out the other investors.

When you mentioned WROV you always thought of Bert Levine and what a broadcast genius he was, but that "behind every good man is a good woman" and through most of Burt's 33 years of owning WROV, his teammate and partner was his wife, Muriel. She was in many ways "the power behind the throne." Burt had the vision but Muriel had the strong business skills and above all the access to her family's money and expertise. Her father owned radio stations in Florida and she grew up in the radio business. She was a great systems person and later put in one of the earliest IBM systems to manage the station's accounting and program logs. But she was seldom seen at the radio station. Both Burt and Muriel felt that having him at the station and her working from home was a good idea and the best arrangement for their family. "We felt it would be a disaster if both of us worked in one place."

Shortly after acquiring WROV, Burt began construction on studios at the transmitter site on Cleveland Avenue at 15th Street. Sometime before October, 1955, the station was moved there from the studios downtown in the Mountain Trust Bank building. The new building was built up the hill from and adjacent to the original Quonset hut that housed the transmitter. The former studios at the MTB building were taken over by Roanoke's new television station, WDBJ, who used them for a short time before moving to the Times-World Building. Burt apparently knew he'd be moving away from "big studio" shows to what would become one-person "disc jockey" shows, knew he wouldn't need all that space, and wanted to cut expenses.

Sometimes in life a unique set of random circumstances coalesce to produce a truly unique phenomenon. This was the case in 1955. Television was killing radio in the ratings, yet most shows appealed to older Americans who could afford TV sets. A new form of music called "rock and roll" was becoming popular, due to the likes of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Pat Boone with Elvis just around the corner. The post-war baby boom made young people the largest segment of the population, yet they were largely ignored by the mainstream media.

So Burt's idea "to start from scratch and make radio exciting with local personalities to take the place of national personalities" and target young people was ingenious. And it would result in one of Roanoke's most well-known icons and a major part of its collective identity for the next 30 years. Though WROV was smaller than its competition -- 1,000 watts daytime compared with 5,000 for WDBJ (now WFIR) and WSLS (which became WSLC for years and is now WVBE) -- it grew strong by outworking and outsmarting the competition.

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