Remembering WLW’s Old COMEX Building

Mar 7, 2016

DJ Jim LaBarbara started at WLW-AM in the COMEX building at 901 Elm St., downtown.
Credit Provided / Jim LaBarbara

That vacant red brick building at Ninth & Elm Streets downtown bought by Kroger recently was once the studios for WLW-AM’s Jim LaBarbara, Rich King and James Francis Patrick O’Neill, and WLWT-TV’s Peter Grant, Gene Randall, Phil Samp and meteorologist Tony Sands.

For about 20 years, the COMEX building housed WLW’s radio operations and TV news across the street from WLW headquarters at Crosley Square, now the Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy-Armleder campus.

From the mid 1950s until 1976, people could sometimes watch WLW TV newscasts or radio shows through the huge plate glass windows and hear via outdoor speakers. Channel 5 viewers also saw announcer Bill Myers and DJ Jim “The Music Professor” LaBarbara do weather from the building’s roof.

WLW's old COMEX center on Elm Street, across from Crosley Square
Credit John Kiesewetter

In 1976, AVCO sold off Cincinnati’s first radio/TV combination to different owners, with WLW-AM moving to the Provident Tower at 1 E. Fourth St., and WLWT-TV moving into Crosley Square.

“The big glass windows at the corner of Ninth & Elm were designed so people (in the 1950s) could watch a TV newscast from a studio in the building, like at NBC’s Rockefeller Center, although that didn't happen often,” says Myers, a retired WLW announcer/weatherman/engineer and a station historian.

Channel 5’s news moved from the COMEX storefront studio into Crosley Square in the mid 1960s, when the newscast went all color, says cameraman J.K. Smith. WLW radio moved into the picture window studio after that, he says.

The studio was inside these large windows.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Myers did WLW-AM’s “Clockwatcher” morning radio show in 1965, which was replaced by the Dunn & Warner team (Tyler Dunn & Max Warner). JFPO took over mornings in 1967.

The “Music Professor,” hired in 1969, remembers the radio studio windows facing Crosley Square, from where the Bob Braun, Paul Dixon and “Midwestern Hayride” shows were telecast.

“People walking by could look in but seldom did. Doing the afternoon show, I'd look out and see Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, etc., walking by after the ‘Bob Braun Show.’ They often went to Izzy’s for a late lunch,” LaBarbara recalls.

“It was an exciting time. The biggest names in show biz came to be on the ‘Braun’ show. Bob and I had a good friendship. He often sent me guests,” LaBarbara says.

By the late 1960s, the TV newsroom was still next to the radio studio, but not the TV studio.  TV anchors “would prepare the news and go across the street to the Channel 5 TV Studios. We all got along. Tony Sands was my in-studio weatherman and Phil Samp did sports both on TV and radio,” LaBarbara says.

“Sometimes during the summer, I'd do the weather from the roof of the COMEX Building,” LaBarbara says. “I had a hand-held microphone and a weather forecast. The TV cameraman would open the window across the street and signal me when it was time to read. He would point to me --  but without my glasses, I couldn't see. So they would scream! Half the time the forecast would blow away and I would just make up the weather. It was fun, and a great plug for my show.”

This view looking east on Ninth Street shows Crosley Square, headquarters for WLWT-TV and WLW-AM until 1999.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Being on 50,000-watt WLW-AM was something special for LaBarbara.

“When I first started at WLW, I got a call from the President of AVCO Broadcasting, John T. Murphy, telling me how good I sounded. I was flattered, it was a great compliment. He called me a number of times to say, ‘You have a great future with us, you are a wonderful talent etc.’ One night after he called I entered the TV newsroom and everybody was laughing. Gene Randall, one our newsmen, could imitate John T. Murphy. Gene was putting me on.

“A few weeks later I was reading the round-by-round updates on a Mohammed Ali fight. I got another call from Murphy telling me I didn't know what I was talking about, because he heard something different. ‘I used some very colorful language and told him to quit bothering me, I'm trying to do a radio show!’ I slammed the receiver.

“The next morning at 8:30 (general manager) Charlie Murdock called and ordered me the station immediately. He said, ‘What were you thinking?’ I was being terminated. This time the real John T. Murphy had called, not Gene Randall. I told Charlie the whole story about Randall, and thanks to a benevolent Murphy, I kept my job,” LaBarbara says.

After WLW-AM moved out, the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati had its offices in that building in the late 1970s, when I covered Hamilton County government for The Enquirer.

Crosley Square
Credit John Kiesewetter

  Kroger executives said last week they plan to rehab the quarter-acre property, not demolish it to build a downtown supermarket, according to The Enquirer. I really don’t care if Kroger tears down the COMEX building or not.

But here’s my question: Why isn’t there a historical marker at Crosley Square? It was the center of Cincinnati’s TV innovations for more than 50 years (1948-1999)? The studios produced national programming such as Ruth Lyons’ “50-50 Club” on NBC in 1951-52; “Midwestern Hayride,” the “Jerry Springer Show” and NBC radio’s “An Evening At Crosley Square” in the 1940s. Crosley Broadcasting moved into the old Elks lodge in 1942 from Arlington Street in Camp Washington. 

Credit John Kiesewetter