Andy Hilger, 1930-2013

St. Cloud radio man – and so much more – Andy Hilger passed away Sunday. When I was growing up, I’d hear his editorials on WJON, the radio station just down the street and across the railroad tracks from our house. But even when I got to know a few people in St. Cloud’s radio community during college, I never knew Andy Hilger. Faithful reader and friend Yah Shure did, however, and he was kind enough to craft a remembrance:

Andy Hilger dropped by a small, 250-watt radio station in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on his way through town in 1958 and asked if there were any job opportunities. By the time he’d sold 1000-watt WJON and its more-powerful sister stations in 1999, they were worth nearly thirteen million dollars. I still have a copy of the 1980 or ’81 front page St. Cloud Daily Times story in which Andy was named the most influential person in the community. It was not an exaggeration. My former WJON co-worker Jim and I were astonished to read things about Andy’s pre-St. Cloud life in his obituary that we’d never known about. It doesn’t seem fair that Alzheimer’s should have ended such a remarkable run for such a remarkable man.

By the time I first got a foot in the door as a salesman (thank you, Marsh), Andy had transitioned out of some of the day-to-day operations of his WJON/WWJO radio stations. Direct selling was not my strong suit, and after two months, I’d come to a crossroads regarding my future at the place. As I departed a meeting with the stations’ two sales managers, I was met in the hallway by Tom Kay, WJON’s program director. He asked me how the meeting had gone, then beckoned me into his office. Tom was in the process of creating another airshift and strongly encouraged me to apply for the position, which I did. Tom didn’t mention this to me until much later, but when he ran the candidates for the position past the station higher-ups, Andy was of the opinion that if I couldn’t cut it as a salesman, he wasn’t at all convinced that I could cut it on the other side of the glass. Having already been familiar with my college radio background, Tom was able to convince Andy otherwise. While it wasn’t uncommon for former air talent to move into sales, no one at WJON had ever previously chosen the opposite path.

WJON was something of a family operation. Andy’s wife Carol handled the payroll, and the Hilger children were sometimes underfoot. Several staffers happened to be in the lobby when daughter Mollie, who was maybe six or seven years old at the time, was running her toy vacuum cleaner over the carpet. During a lull in the conversation, Mollie blurted out, “My daddy’s going to sell this place!” You could have heard a pin drop. Kids really do say the darndest things.

By 1979, Andy was in the process of building a new house for the Hilger family. WJON had a Heathkit weather station in the on-air studio, so that current weather conditions could be tracked after the St. Cloud National Weather Service office shut down each day at 5 p.m. The temperature sensor for the WJON weather station was housed in a small structure with a shingled top and louvered sides, mounted on a short pole in the yard behind the since-demolished old cinderblock studio/office building on Lincoln Avenue Southeast. A buried wire connected the sensor to the Heathkit unit inside the studio.

One day, the temperature readings on the Heathkit went completely haywire, and after some investigation, it was discovered that the louvered structure had been stolen, lock, stock and broken wire. Morning man Galen Johnson was outraged at the mere thought that some lowlife vandal would abscond with the station’s valuable weather instruments as he speculated on-air about who the perpetrator might have been. This went on for several days before the controversy ended as quickly as it had begun. It seems that Andy had thought the structure was actually a birdhouse, and he’d taken it upon himself to transplant it to the new Hilger residence without consulting anyone. His rather sheepish admission of guilt ended the mystery on a typically quiet note.

Andy was a man whose Christian roots and conservative leanings were as deeply embedded in the community as the city’s namesake granite deposits. Although he tended to maintain a general hands-off approach to the music and personality aspects of WJON’s full-service programming, there were times when he did object if he felt things contradicted his beliefs. When a prominent station client threatened to pull advertising from the station, the Edict of Sister Mary Elephant was handed down, barring further play of the Cheech & Chong novelty hit with the screaming nun. Likewise, Billy Joel’s chart-climber “Only The Good Die Young” was quickly scuttled from the WJON playlist after Andy determined the song’s “Catholic girls start much too late” line was one toke over the line for such a Catholic-dominated community. Only Casey Kasem was allowed to override the ban whenever the song appeared on the weekly American Top 40 countdown show.

From very early on, Andy became very active in the St. Cloud community, as did his WJON, which cemented a tight bond between the listeners and “their” station. Ironically, Andy’s hands-off approach to programming meant that he also didn’t go out of his way to get to know his own airstaff very well. One-on-one face time with Andy was relegated to once per year. As the spearhead of the area’s annual United Way drive, Andy would have the station’s receptionist call each of us at home, telling us when to see Andy in his office to discuss our annual “contribution.” Had Andy taken the incentive to sit down and chat at other times, the airstaff might not have been left harboring a bitter aftertaste toward the United Way.

Andy discovered that the ideal way to tout his views were through daily station editorials. These usually tackled local political and community issues, with equal time always provided for opposing opinions. If nothing else, Andy was a fair man, and his reasoning was well-thought out. However, on one winter’s day in early 1981, Andy dropped the ball.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, the Minneapolis Tribune had run a story about the Kingsmen’s 1963 hit, “Louie, Louie,” rehashing the controversy over the song’s allegedly dirty lyrics that had arisen when the song was a hit. Back in 1963, my mother had sat down with me after I’d bought the single, and after playing it all four speeds, gave the record a clean bill of health. (There have since been those who claim that the drummer uttered an obscenity after having dropped a stick. My own take is that they would have stopped the tape at that point if he had. In any event, it wouldn’t have been part of the song’s lyrics.) The Tribune article also printed the complete lyrics to the song as originally written by Richard Berry, which was the first time I’d actually read them. All those garbled words really added up to a Jamaican love song? Who knew?

Not Andy Hilger, apparently. When I heard his WJON editorial run one morning a few weeks later, he’d climbed high on his soapbox, denouncing the record as unfit for human consumption. But Andy never did bring up any of the actual lyrics to prove his case. He was simply restating the hearsay stemming from the 1963 controversy.

When my nightly oldies show began following the station’s ten o’clock news that evening, I let fly the first record I’d cued up: Wand Records single 143. “Dooo-do-do-do. Do-do. Do-do-do. Do-do . . .” Two minutes and forty seconds later, I recited the newspaper article’s printed words to “Louie, Louie,” then went on with the show. I never heard one word about it. Ever since then, whenever I hear the Kingsmen start to play, I’m reminded that my little act of rebelliousness was nothing more than helping to keep a fair man fair.

Here’s a link to the St. Cloud Times’ coverage of Andy Hilger’s passing.

Incorrect date changed since first posting.

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