column written by Art Vuolo, Jr.
No radio personality in Detroit radio history has been more iconic than Paul Richard Purtan, who along with J. P. McCarthy, is the longest running on-air talent on the Motor City radio dial. McCarthy joined WJR in the late fifties and (except for a brief stint at San Francisco's KGO) remained in the Fisher Building until his untimely death on August 16, 1995. In fact, when I was commissioned to produce a six hour documentary called "The History of Detroit Radio" in 1971, an entire chapter was devoted to "Detroit's Super Stars;" McCarthy and Dick Purtan!
Mr. Purtan, however, had a far more mobile career but, was always true to Detroit. I was familiar with Dick prior to his even coming to Motown. I heard him on top-40 legend WSAI (AM 1360) in Cincinnati, where he helped bring the Beatles to the Queen City. He was Paul Purtan in those years, following Dick Wagner. Back then, in the mid-1960's, stations just didn't put jocks with the same first or last name on the air back-to-back. So, when he arrived in Dearborn at WKNR, the well-remembered "Keener 13," he preceded Paul Cannon, so his real first name of Paul was dropped and he began using the name Dick, since his real middle name IS Richard. He was also clean-shaven in those early days as evidenced by this photo taken in the old WKNR production studio in the summer of 1965.
Dick arrived about the same time as a Kansas City DJ by the name of Rock Robbins...but that was too close to another big name in Detroit radio, Robin Seymour. So, Rock Robbins took the name of Scott Regan and he arrived at Keener 13 just prior to Purtan. Dick needed some promotion to counter Regan's "skateboard contest," and came up with the "picture contest." You needed to draw a picture of what you thought Purtan looked like. Well, I already had an 8 X 10 black and white photo of "Paul" Purtan from WSAI. So, I cheated and drew a darn good rendering of his likeness....but still didn't win the contest.
Dick started at Keener in the 10 pm till 1 am time slot and was truly outrageous. Dick is from Kenmore, NY a suburb of Buffalo. At first he was almost as crazy on the air as another Buffalo native (now in NYC) Joey Reynolds, but later turned out to be as smooth as still another Buffalonian by the name of Tom Shannon. Soon he segued to mornings at WKNR and become increasingly popular. This caught the attention of WBAL Radio 11 (1090 AM) in Baltimore to woo him to Maryland. That lasted less than two months. He used a "non-WBAL" word on the air when he said "guts." He also did a parody about Spiro Agnew, before he was VP of the United States. That didn't sit well with the brass inside the beltway.
So, soon after he left, the Dickster was back in town and spent the next ten years at WXYZ (AM 1270). Infact his program director for part of that run was James K. Davis, aka Big Jim Edwards from the Big 8 CKLW in 1970. Then in another odd twist of circumstances, Purtan wound up across the river in Canada at CKLW (where Davis/Edwards had been, just a few years before, as a Big 8 jock) working for well-remembered general manager Herb McCord. This was just at the tail-end of the "glory days" of CKLW as a Drake-style top-40 powerhouse.
Dick will also be remembered as one of the originators of the "put-on" phone calls, while over at CKLW, since rules about such pranks in Canada were less constrictive than those of our FCC. Personally I will never forget his phony call to the late Bob Ufer, UM's ultimate "homer announcer" offering him a job at ABC Sports! Also, how a clip from his show got my "radio on video" montage banned at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. All he did was hold up a pair of dark blue satin underwear briefs, a listener sent him for his birthday, with his first name embroidered on the fly! It was outrageously funny, but the NAB thought it was in bad taste and pulled the plug on the video. Thankfully, they are a lot more progressive today.
After years of cruising through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, Dick flipped to the FM dial at WCZY-FM when it was called Z-95.5. Mid-stream in his tenure next to Mel Farr Ford (Ten Mile & Greenfield in Oak Park) the station changed call-letters to WKQI and was known as Q-95. When he finally felt he couldn't relate to the current hit music anymore, he made the move to "Fashionable Ferndale" the Detroit suburb that is home to CBS-owned WOMC-FM (104.3) which has morphed from a traditional oldies (late 50's, 60's & 70's) station to today's more prevalent classic hits fare (late 60's, 70's & 80's). It's been a 14 year run at WOMC, which (for the past 4 years) has also been the flagship station for University of Michigan Football. It's unsure how Purtan's departure might affect that relationship, but U-M equipment manager, and frequent Purtan guest on Tailgate Shows, Jon Falk, will miss him greatly.
Dick has won just about every award and honor one can achieve in a single lifetime from the NAB, the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, trade publications and civic and charitable organizations.
Tongues are already waggin' about who might succeed him. With a glut of out-of-work radio personalities the possibilities are bountiful. J.J. and Lynne and, recently hired for part-time at WOMC, Chris Edmonds and Stacy DuFord seem like a couple of strong candidates. Edmonds and DuFord are currently on Sunday's 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. at 104.3 FM.
Mr. Purtan is the father of six daughters, three of whom are in the broadcasting industry; Jennifer, Jackie, Jill, Joanne, Jessica and Julie. He's grandfather to seven grandchildren as well. I fondly recall videotaping daughter JoAnne's wedding in 1993. I stunned him and his wife Gail by (without their knowledge) getting most of the biggest names in Detroit TV news to congratulate JoAnne and Eric on their nuptials! I also remember him giving me more than I asked for in his compensating me for that video job. What a prince he is! Yup, he's one of the last of the truly "good guys" in radio.
Dan Mason, who runs CBS Radio, started out as a DJ, so he knows first hand, what a loss this is for WOMC...which stands for Wayne, Oakland & Macomb Counties, making up greater Detroit. But, in the fall I tell everyone that WOMC stands for Where Only Michigan Counts! CBS/Detroit VP & Market Manager Debbie Kenyon said, "No one has made more of an impact on Detroit radio than Dick Purtan. He's truly one-of-a-kind."
In late May of this year Dick would have been on the air in the Motor City for a remarkable 45 years! A celebration will no doubt mark the occasion and regarding that talk of another Detroit Radio Reunion, Dick emceed the last three such events, and according to local marketing executive and past reunion committee member, Mike Seltzer..."no one in Detroit can emcee like Dick."
Also his annual Salvation Army radiothon has raised over 2 million for the last couple of years which, in this economy, is incredible. He will do the annual event again on February 26th live from the Oakland Mall in Troy.
Purtan's wife Gail is an honest-to-God walking miracle who has survived both breast and ovarian cancer for the past 13 years! She is an incredible woman, and after 50 years of marriage they would like to enjoy the future together at their home in West Bloomfield and their get-a-way place in southwest Florida. Oh yeah, and he plans to do a lot of sleeping after that final show on March 26th.
Happy Retirement Richard from all of us in your "buddies and pals" club and all listeners whose lives you've touched since your arrival May 24, 1965. Good luck to our AM-FM-MC-DP...DICK PURTAN!
For more on the career of Dick Purtan, be sure to check out Keener13.com too!