From The Vault: How WEBN birthday party turned into summer-ending celebration for half million

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Posted at 8:46 AM, Sep 01, 2016
and last updated 2019-09-01 00:09:30-04

Watch Frank Wood Jr. talk about the zany history of WEBN on the station's 30th anniversary in 1997 in the video player above.

CINCINNATI – If you're going to Riverfest for the annual WEBN fireworks Sunday, here's a little trivia to impress your family and friends.

> The first WEBN fireworks show in 1977 was a lot smaller than the extravaganza it is now. Fewer than 50,000 people turned out on the riverfront – mostly at Sawyer Point and the Serpentine Wall, according to police.

Watch Al Schottelkotte's report on the first Riverfest fireworks:


> When a stopped train blocked people from leaving that first year, many crawled under the train cars or climbed over them. Some even uncoupled the cars, so when the train started up the next morning, it broke apart on the tracks, to the surprise and consternation of railroad workers.

Watch real partygoers come by boat and RV:


> Before alcohol was banned, crowds were unruly and there were scores of arrests and hundreds of citations. In 1988, a man was beaten to death with a baseball bat downtown after leaving the show. After that, Cincinnati, Covington and Newport banned people from bringing alcohol to the riverfront, but the cities kept selling beer at the event because of the money they took in. Some of it went toward police overtime and cleanup.

The cities set up alcohol-free zones but finally banned alcohol altogether in 1992 and '93. After that, Riverfest became a family-friendly event. Attendance soared and problems became few and far between.


John Mellencamp jammed with WEBN during Riverfest in 1991.


> There are no rain-outs: ask anybody who got drenched in 2012.


> The fireworks didn't always happen on the Sunday before Labor Day. The show moved around the calendar - landing on Labor Day, a week before Labor Day - until there was a consensus that having the day off afterward was a good idea.

The rest you probably know – how WEBN staged the first fireworks to celebrate its 10th birthday, not expecting to be starting a tradition that has lasted 42 years. And how Riverfest now draws a crowd of half a million or more to watch the colorful spectacle and hear rock (and classical) synched to the blasts.

Watch highlights from a recent fireworks show below:


Anybody could have started a summer-ending fireworks show on the riverfront, but only a FM rock station that broke all the rules could have turned it into one of the biggest, baddest fireworks shows in the country, and kept it going.

RELATED: Riverfest photos through the years

WEBN's quiet, humble beginnings in 1967 didn't give any clue that it would turn into a radio giant. Frank Wood started it as a jazz and classical station out of an old house in Price Hill. His son, Frank Jr., started a rock show on weekend nights called "Jelly Pudding." That's where a lot of Tri-State teens first heard Hendrix, Joplin and The Who.

As rock exploded, WEBN grew a huge young audience – and an attitude befitting it. With an overgrown, snarling frog as it mascot,  WEBN used practical jokes, stunts and risqué TV commercials to spread its name. It teamed Robin Wood, the owner's daughter, and Eddie Fingers, popular then as now, as the Dawn Patrol, and their morning show was a huge hit.

And who could forget the Fool's Day Parade every March 32nd, led by the Our Lady of Perpetual Motion Marching Band? It was a whimsical celebration of fake floats, satire and off-color jokes that busted your gut every year.

WEBN entranced a young generation of listeners at the same time it offended their parents, but wasn't that the idea? WEBN took over the No. 1 rating from WLW and held it for more than a decade.

And if parents didn't like it, so what? It probably didn't stop them from going to Riverfest for the WEBN fireworks.

SEE other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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