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When 'The Morning Guys' Went Silent

by on July 23, 2020 2:29 PM

 

Happy Valley felt different on the morning of Tuesday, June 30. And the change was not for the better, at least from my perspective. Folks tuning in to radio 1390 that day from 6 to 9 a.m. got national programming instead of the familiar voices of Jeff Byers and Gary Sinderson. 

All seemed normal the day before when Byers and Sinderson concluded their WRSC show, “The Morning Guys.” But within 10 minutes of saying goodbye to their listeners that morning, they had another goodbye conversation—with WRSC General Manager Andy Kreiser.  Citing the financial impact of COVID-19, Kreiser informed the duo that, effective immediately, they were being let go.  

“I know the nature of the business,” says Sinderson, also the manager of WJAC-TV’s State College bureau. “And I understand the economy is bad. But honestly, I was surprised for two reasons. First, while Jeff was on vacation a person in management had assured me several times that we were fine; they knew we had listeners. Second, I was working on a story for my other job about companies that had taken COVID relief money from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.  I was surprised to see that the parent company for the radio station, Forever Media, received a loan of $1-$2 million in early April to help protect 174 jobs. This is online; it’s public information. So they gave us the explanation that [the show’s cancellation] was COVID-related.  But if they received that much money to help protect jobs, does that mean Jeff and I weren’t among the essential jobs? It’s fair to say I’m puzzled.”

(Forever Media State College declined to comment for this column.)

Sinderson had invested just two years into “The Morning Guys,” but that was enough for him to feel the impact of the show’s cancellation. 

“It was a lot of fun,” he says, “and we also got factual information out to the community. The best part was when the phones were lighting up with callers. That interaction with the community is the part I really miss, along with working with Jeff.” 


Various foods were a staple of discussion between Sinderson and Byers, and they often received edible gifts from listeners.

As for Byers, his involvement with the show ran longer and deeper.  Also known as the radio voice of Penn State wrestling for the last 31 years, Byers co-hosted “The Morning Guys” since the summer of 2011. In that role, the man they call “Ironhead” was paired with Kevin Nelson. And Byers will probably never forget the emotions of watching Nelson say goodbye to his audience when he retired in 2018

Given the abrupt cancellation of “The Morning Guys,” Byers had no such opportunity to bid adieu to his loyal listeners. And so, just a few days ago, I sat down with Jeff and asked him to share his heart.    

I know you and Gary got the news about cancellation of “The Morning Guys” right after finishing the show on Monday, June 29. Can you describe the scene?  

Byers: We walked into his office, and [Kreiser] said, “You know, unfortunately with COVID-19, we’ve got to make some hard decisions. We're letting you guys go.” I think he may have had more to say, but as soon as we learned we were being let go… Well, we both have day jobs, and neither of us were able to stick around much after 9. I'm not even sure we were there for 30 seconds.”

Did you sense that something big was going to happen when you headed into that meeting? 

Byers:  Not really. We'd been kicking around a bunch of new ideas. They were telling us that they wanted to revamp. We had a meeting the week before I went on vacation, talking about some new imaging and some different segments. They had a guy who was cutting all the liners and a new opening and all that stuff.  

So how did you feel?

Byers:  I wasn't happy about it, but I guess I'm at a point in my life where I truly believe everything happens for a reason and that it'll lead to bigger and better things. Something else will open up, and I have enough connections in this town. I've been thinking about doing some more writing. I haven't really settled on anything yet.

But this blindsided us. Gary and I had talked a few times earlier and we were kind of surprised with the direction that the company was taking. They’d been going away from local stuff for a while and then seem perplexed with why they can't get more local advertising. But losing focus on local programming is not unique to this area or to that broadcast. I think you're seeing media in general losing focus on local, local, local which is where the opportunity really is.

So now we're a few weeks past the shock. Are you more or less grieved?

Byers: Really, the only bad thing was not giving us the opportunity to do a show to say goodbye. I can certainly understand being leery of giving somebody the airwaves if you don't know what you're going to get. But we're both long-time broadcast professionals in this area, so neither of us were going to bad-mouth anybody on the way out. To not have that opportunity to say thanks to the audience and say how much we both loved doing the show…that was the disappointing part.  

I wish I had chosen my words differently at the end of Monday’s show. One of the taglines that I would use to end the show was, “We'll be back to bother you some more tomorrow.” And that's how I ended that show. Obviously, I don't like giving inaccurate information, so that’s disappointing.  

And yeah, I think we had been doing some good things, and I think some of the ideas that the program director (Chris Forshey) had were good in trying to build on what we had done. I think we were on the verge of some bigger and better things. He's still there, and I think they're doing a local show just from 8 to 9 a.m. that he's hosting. Sadly, at the moment there is no other option for local [news talk radio]. You have that one hour and that's all you have in the State College area. There was a time when this area had WJAC and WTAJ-TV with aggressive news departments. You had three radio stations, 3WZ, WRSC and WMAJ at the time, with aggressive news departments.  And then you had the Centre Daily Times and the Daily Collegian. You had a group of 10 to 15 individuals really holding officials and leaders accountable for any actions taken. And now, Gary with WJAC is the lone investigative reporter.

Do you have a desire to jump back in the broadcasting arena?

Byers: I definitely love variety and I love talking to people. And I think it's important to talk about the best direction for the community moving forward. And so, yeah, I definitely want to get back into more radio work. I probably love doing radio more than anything else, but as I said, I like writing and I'm certainly open to other avenues. I’ll probably take at least another month or so to figure out the options.

But you're still working for Forever Media on the Goon & Ironhead Show. So talk to me about how that feels.

Byers: We've teamed with Blue White Media to buy that hour of time (3-4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays). So it's a little different situation; we're not working for Forever Media. We're on a Forever station, but it's a different contractual arrangement. Yeah, I love doing that show. Goon (Keith Conlin, a former Penn State offensive lineman) has some terrific stories from his playing days, and obviously as a letterman he is close to the program and knows a lot about the inner workings. But the thing I miss with that show is that we can’t take calls. It's not possible with the manpower we have and the arrangement we have.

That's a good segue to where I want to go now, which is asking about your memories from “The Morning Guys.”

Byers: There's been a ton from over the years. But truthfully, the thing that sticks out the most is the first time I got to do this show with Kevin. I don’t remember any of the details, but I just remember pinching myself because I had grown up listening to Wendy and Kevin. (Local legend Wendy Williams had hired Nelson in 1969, and the two eventually created the “Wendy and Kevin Show,” a forerunner of “The Morning Guys.”) That was just such a staple of my childhood. It always sounded like they were having a blast. Wendy and Kevin were a big part of why I got into radio—hearing those guys and how much fun they were having.

So that first time I did the show with Kevin seemed surreal. Having that opportunity to work with him for as many years as I did was a thrill. Some of the Grange Fair shows we did were just an absolute hoot. I loved talking with the vendors there and having different guests on the show. You could get the politicians to open up a little more in a venue like that.

There was one gag that stood out from the others during time with Kevin. It seemed like I was getting a lot of emails that said something like, “Hey, I'm a Russian woman, and I just need to get some help to get over to the United States. Can you help in paying my way? I'm looking for true love.” So this one morning we started talking about Olga from Russia who was interested in me. And I mentioned that she thinks we are meant to be, but she just needs a little help financially to get over here. She was going to inherit millions of dollars, and then she was going to share that with me. All I had to do was send something like $50,000 to help her.

So we went on with this for a couple of weeks, and of course, most people were in on the gag and we were having fun with it. And I'd get calls for months and months from folks saying, “Hey, how are things going with Olga?” Typically, I’d say that we were having trouble because she needed another $10,000. Well, finally, one morning we got a call from a woman who was very concerned for me. She was as earnest as could be, but she was not realizing that this was not really happening. She said, “I think this is a scam.” And I said, “Well, I appreciate that. And I think you might be right.” But we had some fun with that in 2015 or 2016. I was single at the time, not even dating anybody. This was before Marisa was in the picture. (Byers married Marisa Vicere in May of last year.)


Longtime radio host Kevin Nelson, right, co-hosted 'The Morning Guys' with Jeff Byers before Nelson's retirement in 2018.

Do you remember any sad conversations?

Byers: We definitely had some people open up on their troubles based on the connection that we were making.  I know that when my sister, Jennifer, passed away in August of 2015, I never felt more connected to the audience. I shared some stories of my sister, so when I got back on the air after she passed we had two days of what seemed like nonstop calls with condolences. That was very touching and very meaningful. 

What kinds of topics would people talk about?

Byers: We had people share their stories, and we’d get stories of kids' accomplishments or grandkids’ accomplishments. I loved hearing about that. We had some wonderful live interactions like when Boalsburg Fire Company 3 would drop off muffins for us, and we’d publicize different events for them. Charlie with the Ferguson Township Lions Club would call when they had their chicken dinners or their soup sales. And that stuff was always the most fun since we’d ask, “What soups do you have?” And he’d list all of them. And we’d say, “Ah, who wants the corn chowder, when you could have the ham and potato?” And that's the stuff that I enjoyed most. I’d get worked up about different political issues, and I was glad to have the forum. But truthfully, the opportunity to screw around with the audience and just feel that connection was always the best part.

Do any other favorite memories come to mind?

Byers: I will say that last week of shows with Kevin in 2018 was very meaningful and it was cool to see different people come in to talk with him. Scott Geesey was once a co-host with him, and they picked up right where they had left off. We also had Sue Paterno there and I know that was meaningful to both of us, but really meaningful for Kevin. We both have the utmost respect for Sue and what she's meant to this community. And I know she listens…uh listened…regularly to the program.

We tried to handle all the issues that came up, and whether you agreed or disagreed, you were getting what was in my heart. But the Sandusky stuff and the reaction to it were things I'll always remember. I still remember the morning after reading through the grand jury report just being absolutely aghast—not understanding how nobody at the university had responded to what was being reported. And then I learned over time that, yeah, you can make stuff up in a grand jury report that’s completely unrelated to the facts. That was eye-opening for me in terms of not rushing to judgment. Since then, I've tried to be much more careful in terms of how we handled stories, especially when we were only getting one side of the story.

If you had the chance for a final week or even one final show, what would you have wanted to include? 

Byers: First of all, to thank the audience for putting up with me and us for as long as they did. Again, this is near and dear to my heart since I grew up with Wendy and Kevin. So I felt a strong sense of legacy in working at WRSC and trying to uphold the entertainment value. I would have tried to communicate that to the audience and also thank the people who were willing to sponsor the show over the years.

I would have also wanted to thank listeners and sponsors and even the guests we had on the show. That’s how I first met Marisa when she came to talk about the Jana Marie Foundation a couple of times. I never really had a chance to talk with her until we got together later through a mutual friend. But the first couple of times I met her, it was through the radio show.

So you're definitely a winner from doing “The Morning Guys,” no matter what else happened. 

Byers: That is a fact. 

I want to have you do a fill-in-the-blank for me.  So here it is: “The Morning Guys radio show...” 

Byers: “…is impossible to describe.” The thing that I think made our show unique was that we did have the local slant, but it wasn't just a local news/talk show. We had a lot of elements like an FM morning zoo, the type of show where you get into a raging debate over whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not. I think we were a little different in our ability to mix local issues, national issues, and completely meaningless trivia.


Jeff Byers stands outside the headquarters of Forever Media State College. Photo by Bill Horlacher

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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