Billboard Boys: The Greatest Radio Contest of All Time

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

(Radio) 7pm– right here on the Lehigh Valley’s radio station, WSAN!

RM: The year was 1982, and on the eastern edge of Pennsylvania, in the small city of Allentown, sat an AM radio station called WSAN.

RM: For years, it had broadcast country music to the surrounding Lehigh Valley, an area known for malls, manufacturing, and Mack Trucks. But the station was about to undergo a complete identity change.

NED TEETER: Well, WSAN was coming off being a country station and becoming a nostalgia station.

RM: This is Ned Teeter. He was a DJ at WSAN at the time. And he says that as the station transitioned to “nostalgia”, meaning big band, and soft hits from the 50s, they wanted a “gimmick” to hook new listeners. Something to lure people to the sweet sounds of The Andrews Sisters and Perry Como.

NT: So you had FM radio stations playing music with really nice fidelity, and then you had us playing music, so you had to be a little bit different. So you know, they’re shutting up and playing the hits, we’re injecting something different into our air sound, and this contest, well, that was a little different.

RM: A contest. WSAN decided that it would launch a good old-fashioned endurance contest reminiscent of the pole-sitting stunts and dance marathons popular in the 1920’s. The station secured a local sponsor called “Love Homes” to donate a prize: a single-wide modular home, worth 18,000 dollars.

NT: In 1982 even a modular of eighteen thousand dollars is a significant price.

RM: And then they devised the scheme. WSAN had a billboard in Lehigh Valley advertising the new “nostalgia” music format. They would get three contestants to ascend a 30-foot ladder to the billboard platform, and whoever stayed up on that platform the longest would walk away with the new home. WSAN called it the “You’ll Love To Live With Us” contest.

ARCHIVE: It began in September of last year when radio station WSAN challenged their Lehigh Valley listeners to see who could stay the longest. On a tiny shelf 30 feet above a highway intersection.

NT: It was supposed to be a way to get people to know we had changed our format. Look at our billboard, and give away a modular home for a sponsor. That’s what this was supposed to be. That’s not what it was.

RM: WSAN had grossly underestimated just how much people would endure for a little economic security.

DALTON YOUNG: I don’t know if it was the law of attraction or what, but I mean, in the weeks leading up to the contest people were asking me, “Oh you’re out of the Army, and you’ve been away, what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to be in this contest.” This was before they even drew my name.

RM: This is Dalton Young, one of the 3 contestants that would eventually be chosen by WSAN. He was 22 years old at the time. He’d just been discharged from the Army the month before, and he thought that sitting on a Billboard above a highway sounded like as good an option as any.

DY: Yeah, I mean the economy was really not good at that time. Unemployment was outrageous.

RM: Dalton was so dead set on competing that he turned in a thousand entries. He’d carefully read the submission rules, and realized there was no specified limit to the number of times a person could submit. And it turned out he wasn’t the only one who’d read the fine print, and had a lot of time on their hands. Here’s Ron Kistler with his wife Sue.

RON KISTLER: I was unemployed and heard about the billboard contest and wasn’t working. I was looking for work and didn’t have any so…

SUE: …something to do.

RON: …eh.

RM: Ron’s not the chattiest person in the world, but what he lacked in conversation he made up for with determination. When he heard about the contest, he and Sue hand delivered over 4,000 entries directly to the WSAN station.

RK: I think we were trying for 4000, and we came up to 4004, so that’s what we sent in.

RM: Ron and Sue had been dating for a year before the contest, and they were looking to move in together. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a place of their own.

RK: I thought was a quick and easy way to get a house.

RM: The last of the contestants was Mike MacKay. He died in 2006. Back in the early 1980s, he was the only one of the three contestants who was married, and he was the only one who had a job, but even still, he couldn’t afford to buy a home. MacKay sent in an astronomical 47 thousand entries to WSAN. He used a rubber stamp with the phrase “I need a home,” and then cut out and signed every piece of paper. He submitted so many times that the first 10 entries pulled by the selection team were his.

DY: Yeah, my first impression of Mike was that he kind of windbag, you know, kind of full of bluster.

RM: Again, Dalton Young.

DY: But if you could get past all the bluster, he just had a big heart, you know? He was just a really nice guy I think.

RM: Between the three of them, Dalton, Ron, and Mike submitted 52,004 entries. And this sounds like a lot until you consider how many total entries there were. The station received over half a million submissions.

NT: We had like Miracle on 34th Street right? These bags of postcards on the conference table, just piled up high.

RM: There was a reason they were getting so many entries. Around the time the competition launched, the country was slogging through the worst recession it had seen in over 40 years.

(Ronald Regan): “Good evening. I’m speaking to you tonight to give you a report on the state of our nation’s economy. I regret to say, we’re in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.”

RM: The recession began in 1981 when the Fed raised interest rates to try to fight rising inflation. It then dragged all the way through 1982. Companies cut their spending to try and cope, and hundreds of steel facilities and manufacturing plants closed; including some in the Lehigh Valley. Places like Allentown, where WSAN was located, were hit particularly hard.

NED TEETER: You’ve got to remember that this is ground zero of the Rust Belt. Blue collar town. Steel’s gone. Mack trucks is threatening to leave. Champion Spark Plugs is closed.

RM: The national unemployment rate was the highest since the great depression, and interest rates skyrocketed to 20% in 1982. If you were a blue collar worker and didn’t already own a house at this time, it would be incredibly tough to get one. To many people, the idea of spending a little time on a billboard for a chance to win a home must have seemed like a pretty good deal.

NT: People were looking for better times, better days. And that was a big part of it. This is kind of like a Rust Belt fairytale.

RM: The contest officially started on September 20th, 1982. Dalton Young, Ron Kistler, and Mike MacKay ascended the billboard to begin their stay. Towering behind them was an advertisement for the station reading, “Unforgettable 1470 WSAN.” Here’s Dalton again.

DALTON YOUNG: Yeah, it was raining that day. I remember it was kind of a drizzly and crappy, a little bit damp and cold, there was traffic blowing by throughout the day. Planes flying right overhead because it was right near the Lehigh Valley Airport.

GENE WERLEY: This was supposed to be about a 30-day event.

RM: This is Gene Werley, another DJ at WSAN, and one of the contest organizers.

GW: Well, the name officially, is Gene Werley, but almost everybody around here would call me “Early” Werley it came from doing the morning shows.

RM: Werley said that besides some local coverage when the guys went up, there wasn’t that much fanfare around the contest in the beginning. Even though WSAN had launched the contest as a kind of promotion, they didn’t do the best job of promoting it with other media outlets.

GW: It was going on, people just weren’t made aware of it. There wasn’t mention on the other radio stations that they might have listened to. There were no articles in the newspaper. There wasn’t anything on the TV news that they watched.

RM: The accommodations up on the billboard were pretty barebones. Each guy had a small tent, a radio, a landline telephone, and a chemical toilet, which is kind of like a tiny porta-potty. It was almost like camping, only you were 30 feet in the air, surrounded by a freeway traffic, and trapped on a billboard.

GW: We made the guys comfortable, we didn’t torture em. You had your tent, you had everything going on in there.

RM: The billboard platform itself was about 8 feet by 48 feet, and it had been divided into three equal sections by waist-high partitions. The organizers at WSAN wanted the contest to last long enough to draw some attention, but not forever. They figured that by discouraging interaction between the contestants, they might keep the whole thing to a reasonable length.

DALTON YOUNG: Yeah, we didn’t talk at all for you know, I don’t even know if we said ‘hi’ to each other.

RM: But even if the guys weren’t encouraged to interact with each other, they still had plenty of people to keep them company, from a distance. The contest required that the guys have their own support team to deliver food and to handle cleanup. Each contestant had a pulley system, so they could raise or lower supplies in buckets or on trays. Dalton’s friends and family stopped by all the time to chat from below, Mike had his wife, and Ron’s parents made sure he got everything he needed and got rid of the things he didn’t. Here’s Sue Kistler.

SK: His parents did a lot too, as far as bringing food. His dad was in charge of emptying the Porta-John. That was his job. Um…(laughs)

RM: Sue and Ron were dating at the time, and Sue visited Ron every day except one while he was up on the billboard. Strangely enough, the contest might have even made their relationship stronger.

SK: Well, that’s all we could do was talk. So, we got to know each other a lot better in that time because we talked every day and on the phone, or with me at the bottom of the billboard.

RM: Aside from the essentials, each contestant was allowed to bring a non-essential item up with them. Mike MacKay brought a guitar which he learned how to play up there, Ron Kistler brought a copy of American Rifleman Magazine and Dalton…

DY: Yeah, I had some nunchucks up there. In fact, I think I got them for my birthday maybe it was?

RM: As you can imagine, there was little room to do anything, and even less when Dalton had his nunchucks out. But there wasn’t much to do period. Here’s Ron Kistler on his daily schedule.

RK: Oh, you know, wake up, have something for breakfast. Listen to the radio, hang out. Have something for supper. Watch traffic.

RM: The routine was mind-numbing. Days quietly crept by. Then months. September….

RK: Wake up, have something for breakfast….

RM: October…..

RK: Watch traffic.

RM: November…

RK: Listen to the radio.

RM: But if they were listening to the radio in November, they might have heard a new song; one that would help transform their sleepy lives up on the billboard into something much bigger and stranger. The song was by Billy Joel.

“Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line”

RM: In November of 1982, the song “Allentown” started climbing the Billboard Charts… and it happened to be about the very town where WSAN was located. The song painted a vivid portrait of the economic hardship working-class families were going through at the time. He was talking about companies like Bethlehem Steel in the Lehigh Valley, shutting its doors and eliminating nearly 10,000 jobs. Because of the song, the city of Allentown became a kind of stand-in for all the suffering Rust Belt towns in the Northeast and Midwest. Here’s Dalton Young again.

DY: You know, I think he was talking about the economy and it just happened that this contest was going on. And, I mean, you know it wasn’t you know, stated that this contest is because the economy is so bad and we’re gonna try to give somebody a home that might not otherwise have one, but they both seem to work together really well.

RM: People started paying attention to Allentown, and the contest.

(Radio Announcer): 81 days on the billboard for Mike McKay, Dalton Young, and Ron Kistler in our Love Homes WSAN, You’ll Love To Live With Us contest, and so far they’re hanging in there pretty good.

RM: And as this media coverage expanded, stories about the contest started to hit national newspapers. On Dec. 9th, 1982, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and the response was immediate.

GW: The phones were ringing constantly. All the lines.

RM: Here’s Gene “Early” Werley, the WSAN DJ.

GENE: And I have no idea what they’re saying, except they’re talking about people on a billboard. So, by the time we got off the air, some information was gathered that said the Wall Street Journal did a front-page article on the billboard.

RM: Suddenly, this little AM radio station, which only had about a 50-mile range, was piquing a lot of interest.

(Radio Announcer): Allentown, Pennsylvania has been receiving international publicity. No kidding, from all over the world…

BETSY MORRIS: You know, before social media and really even before the internet. Some stories just did that, and you didn’t even really know how.

RM: This is Betsy Morris, the staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal who wrote that article. Morris didn’t expect the story to catch on like it did. But because of her story, Dalton, Ron and Mike were fielding questions from People Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Phil Donahue about their extended stay on the billboard. Dalton even remembers getting calls from Japan, New Zealand, and France on the landlines that they had up on the board.

DY: A French magazine ran a story in France about the contest in for whatever reason they put each of our phone numbers in the uh, in the article. So all of a sudden we’re getting like 100-150 calls a day from French people.

BM: You have no idea when you’re writing stories which ones are going to hit a nerve. I mean, it was interesting that to look back and see all those, all that paparazzi outside the billboard later.

RM: But looking back, Betsy Morris understood why this particular story resonated. Then-president Ronald Reagan had referred to America as the “shining city upon a hill” but life was so hard in that shining city that three men had confined themselves to a billboard for months, all for a chance to win a home. There was something dystopian about it.

BM: I mean the American dream was really shaky at that point.

RM: And while the guys on the billboard never said they felt exploited by the radio station, an air of desperation did begin to seep into the contest as the months went by.

INTERVIEWER: How long do you think you’ll be here?

DY: Oh, maybe two years. I don’t know. Depending on them mostly.

INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, run that by me again?

DALTON: I’d say probably two years, maybe a year nine months, a year and eight months. Come down for summer of 84 because I’m a summer person.

DALTON YOUNG: They asked us how long we would stay up there and I said, “Well I don’t know, two or three years?” And I really meant it you know, that wasn’t just bravado but I figured, Okay, in order to save enough to get an eighteen thousand dollar home what would I be willing to invest in time? And I thought two to three years.

RM: When December and January arrived, it started getting colder. The lowest recorded temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit, so the guys were given portable heaters to keep them from, you know, dying. A huge snowstorm shut down the entire city, but it didn’t stop the contest. According to Dalton it was a welcome change of pace.

DY: You know, for me it was a piece of cake. You know for that whatever, 24 hours or however long, 48 hours ‘til they dug everything out it was it was peaceful you know? It was just so quiet and so peaceful. It was great.

RM: Actually, given everything the guys were going through: the isolation, the weather, the boredom, they were holding up surprisingly well. Here’s an interview with Ron around the same time.

INTERVIEWER: The temperature has dropped to zero most snow 24 inches. You must be talking to yourselves! But how are you doing psychologically?

RK: Oh I’m fine. You know.

RM: Dalton, Ron, and Mike all made it through the winter and lasted into the Spring. At this point, they’d spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day away from their families. And still, nobody intended to come down.

RM: And then finally in March of 1983, after 6 months of basically nothing happening, something happened.

DALTON YOUNG: It was one morning, there was a guy out talking to Ron and Mike.

RM: A stranger that Dalton hadn’t seen before was down below the Billboard chatting with the guys. He casually struck up a conversation with Dalton, telling him that he was also a veteran.

DALTON YOUNG: And we were talking about our experiences in the military and some of the partying we had done, and he at some point asked me if I got high, and I said, “yeah.” I thought at that point, you know, we had some sort of a bond you know, “Yeah sure I get high.”

RM: I mean, he was on a billboard for six months.

DY: He asked me if I could get him some. I had a little I could part with, so I stuck it in a cigarette pack and dropped it down to him.

RM: Dalton lowered down two joints, and the stranger thanked him with a 20 dollar bill.

DY: I said, “Look, man, really, just take it.” you know? He said, “You know, I insist…” And I thought, “Well you know, 20 bucks is 20 bucks. I’m not going to turn it down.”

MIKE KRASJA: I get a phone call early in the morning probably before 5:00 o’clock…

RM: This is Mike Krasja, executive director of the HGF Group, the company that was funding the contest. He remembers getting a call from a contest organizer saying:

MIKE KRASJA: You’re gonna have a good time telling the boss this one, Dalton got busted for selling drugs. I says, “What?” I said, “How can he be selling drugs, you know, 20-30 feet up on a billboard?”

RM: Apparently the stranger who’d solicited the pot from Dalton had been an undercover police officer. Because Dalton accepted that 20 dollars, he was arrested on drug charges.

MIKE KRAJSA: It made the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, I think the same day that Reagan announces missile defense system. So there’s Reagan’s missile defense system and there’s there’s Dalton being busted on the front page.

RM: Dalton was knocked out of the competition on day 184.

DY: I’m probably the only person in history to be arrested selling pot from a billboard.

RM: And yes, there were plenty of rumors that Dalton had been set up; maybe one of the other guys reported him to the police, or maybe one of the contest sponsors wanted to speed along the end of the contest. None of this was ever actually proven, but you gotta admit, it’s really, really fishy.

RM: Ron and Mike both descended from the billboard to testify in court. They had breakfast and a quick shower, then went right back up on the billboard to finish out the contest. But after Dalton’s arrest, the competition felt…different. Here’s Ned Teeter again, one of the WSAN DJs.

NT: We have this contest and these people are becoming everyman heroes. And it’s a great story it’s..it’s heartwarming. And then over two joints of marijuana Dalton gets pulled off the board. And I think that’s when things changed. I think that’s when things went from “How is this thing gonna end?” to “How are we going to end this thing?”

RM: By this point, the competition had become a huge annoyance for town officials. The town commissioner even described the contest as a “hemorrhoid” and wanted it stopped.

NEWCASTER: Officials here at town hall equally disillusioned with the contest have contemplated sending the housing inspector to evict the contestants. The billboard has no plumbing or smoke alarms and the town’s already sent them bills for residency tax, listing the billboard address.

RM: But Ron Kistler and Mike MacKay had dug their heels in deep; neither would come down unless they were coming down to a new home. The station had received more publicity than it ever needed, and at this point, it had become a burden. WSAN had the attention of the world, but nothing to say.

GW: We were radio guys, not PR guys. Not marketing mavens, not really, not on an international or national level.

RM: Ron and Mike lasted two months beyond Dalton’s drug bust before WSAN caved and realized that enough was enough.

NEWCASTER: When it became obvious neither man would quit and both threatened to stay forever if necessary. The station declared the contest a draw and lured the men down by offering duplicate prizes for each. They had captured the attention of the region when they came down today.

RM: On June 7th, 1983, Ron and Mike both stepped down off of their respective ladders at the same time. They’d been up on the billboard for 261 days, nearly 9 months– And in that entire time, they had taken only one shower. The station had received some criticism around the contest – people had accused them of exploiting the guys, so WSAN actually upped the prizes to try and repair some of the damage done to their reputation. Ron and Mike both walked away with a modular home, a Chevy Chevette and a free vacation.

NT: I mean this wasn’t supposed to be this. It wasn’t supposed to be this big, international, global, almost yearlong thing.

RM: The men reacted very differently in their post-contest lives. Mike tried to recreate the fame he’d had when he was up on the board. That never really happened, but when he died in 2006 his obituary still referred to him by his preferred nickname, “Billboard Mike.”

NT: He was the guy that you would say, “This was my high watermark, this defined me.” I think that Mike McKay was the one that loved it the most. He loved being “Billboard Mike.”

RM: At least He made off better than Dalton.

DY: I got six months probation and a 100 dollar fine. Of course, I do have a felony, so.

RM: Ron Kistler’s quiet determination, on the other hand, probably got him the closest to that ‘Rustbelt Fairytale’ ending. He and Sue married shortly after the contest ended. They lived happily in their 2-bedroom modular home for 20 years, raised a daughter in it, and moved on with their lives.

NT: At the end of the day you’ve got three guys that did something crazy, to try and just get a little bit ahead of the world. I mean you remember these guys weren’t looking for a mansion or a jet plane. They’re just looking for a start.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le adapted this story from the feature length documentary Billboard Boys directed by Pat Taggart and produced by Frank Petka. The filmmakers spoke with Ned Teter, DJ at WSAN; Dalton Young; Ron and Sue Kistler; Gene Werley, DJ at WSAN; Mike Krajsa, executive director of HGF Group, Betsy Morris, former writer at The Wall Street Journal. Images were provided by Pat Taggart and Frank Petka. Coda on Clean City Law by Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (7)

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  1. Andrew Macrae

    I’m curious about the apparent coincidence/contradiction that MacKay submitted about 10% of the entries but was selected in the first 10 drawings. That seems sufficiently unlikely as to call some detail of the selection into question. Can you clarify?

    1. Hi Andrew. This is Pat Taggart, director of the documentary Billboard Boys from which this 99pi episode was adapted. Rolling Stone magazine reported that MacKay’s entries were pulled 10 consecutive times before a second contestant was chosen. It wasn’t disputed by those we interviewed, and unfortunately there is no video or audio of the drawing. All entries were dumped in a pile from several different bags, and we’ve always assumed that the police chief (who picked the winning tickets) was pulling from the same section of the pile at first, one heavily populated with MacKay’s entries. When he kept seeing MacKay’s name he finally wised up and drew from a different section. Hope that helps.

    2. C

      Thanks! I was wondering the same thing :) Shows again how they weren’t really prepared to run a contest of this scale…

  2. Carol Burns

    I’ve seen the documentary twice and it’s not only an engaging story but very well documented and edited. One cannot help but be fascinated by the resiliency of these young men and the twists and turns this story takes. As they say in the film, it’s a real testament to the American spirit.

  3. Amanda

    This episode totally took me back to being a young girl living in Allentown. I remember this! What’s funny is that I remember thinking it was totally normal for men to be living on a billboard (I was only 6 years old at the time). Wow. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  4. Shawn

    Nice to hear and all Roman episode.

    But, at the same time it is a great contrast to the rest of the team—all of whom bring their own great style to their stories.

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