Friday, January 6, 2017

Prater, Roanoke Radio Icon, Dies

Prater, smoking on air, as was the custom then.
Bart Prater is the kind of radio "legend" who made that term more than rhetorical. In the 1960s he and a team of wildly popular--and simply wild--disc jockeys made 5,000-watt AM radio station WROV--which you couldn't pick up outside the city--iconic. It was located in a tiny shack near the Roanoke River and the Mountain View neighborhood.

Working with a singular group of larger-than-life personalities--Fred Frelantz, Jack Fisher, Larry Bly, Rob O’Brady--WROV had the largest per capita audience in the US. It's market penetration often ran past 80percent.

Sure, there were fewer radio stations, fewer TV stations, fewer movie houses, no internet and no iPhones then, but the population was smaller, as well, and radio was what you did when you got in the car to drive around, which people did.

Prater died yesterday at 69, finishing his career quietly as a technical guy at public radio station WVTF. I always thought it a shame that he was not on-air, but not at WVTF where he would have been the proverbial fish on a bicycle.

Prater with Wolfman Jack, Chuck Holloway and Larry Bly.
He needed WROV or the later iteration K92. (I wrote a "Where Are They Now" piece on the K92 boys a few months ago for the Roanoker Magazine and found them to be quiet, aging little boys still remembering the good times.) He was fully alive there and his on-air antics kept the audience enthusiastically coming back for more.

I wrote about Prater a number of years ago (don't recall which publication), after he had settled into a much quieter life, but there seemed to remain a teenager trying to get out of the middle-aged man's handsome body. "Doing those shows was like masturbating in public daily," he laughed.

He was such a wild and resistant force at WROV that Burt Levine said he fired Bart "at least eight times. Usually for a day or two. We couldn't afford to be without him, but dealing with him wasn't easy."

Prater at Public Radio. Not the same.
Patrick Garrett (his reminiscence here), writing in the local radio history Rock in Roanoke (here),  quoted Levine as saying, Prater was hired "in spite of his voice" (which was, frankly, a lovely bass). "We told him that working here would not be a matter of us liking him or him liking us, it was a matter of whether the audience liked him" and they loved him!

Ralph Berrier, the local daily's splendid writer, has done a cracker-jack job of remembering Prater (here) and I suggest you read it. Radio was a powerful entity 50 years ago, a powerful local entity. It has mostly devolved into corporate crapola with little to recommend it and it certainly does not have a Bart Prater in a market this size any longer. We are poorer for that omission.


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