45 YEARS OF “ASK YOUR NEIGHBOR” ON DETROIT RADIO
By Len Malysz
Ask any baby boomer growing up in the Detroit area about the Milky’s Party Time television show sponsored by Twin Pines Dairy and you’ll get a smile of recognition.
Ask their mothers about the Twin Pines milkman on that show and they’ll tell you about Bob Allison, host of the “Ask Your Neighbor” radio program renowned for its household hints and recipes, now celebrating its 45th anniversary of continuous broadcasting in the greater Detroit market.
“We used to be the number one rated show in the mid 60s when mothers were less a part of the workforce and tuned us in to talk about things as if it were over the backyard fence,” says the 74-year old broadcaster who once earned his living playing jazz piano in Los Angeles.
The path from then till now has taken Allison from his February 5, 1962 debut show on WWJ radio to a number of metro Detroit radio stations when he decided to forego a job offer at WJR radio and become an entrepreneur.
“We were going strong for over 16 years on WWJ until they changed to an all-news format back in 1978,” he remembers. “Our dedicated advertisers wanted the show to continue so we decided to buy airtime at another station and sell the commercials ourselves.” Some of those sponsors – such as Bobson Construction Company – are still with the program, which is on the mostly ethnic station WNZK 690-AM from 9-11 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Allison shares the show with his son Rob, who co-hosts, screens callers and produces the show, as well as maintains the askyourneighbor.com website that streams the program worldwide. “We get calls from everywhere in North America and sometimes overseas from folks who want to keep in touch with the Detroit community,” adds the youngest member of the Ask Your Neighbor team, which includes sales manager Al O’Neal, an occasional substitute for the host during Allison’s infrequent vacations.
The program has changed little from its early days when listeners called in to detail favorite recipes that often went on for 15, 20, sometimes 40 minutes. “This used to drive radio station management wild because it was verboten in the industry, but the sales manager loved it because listeners responded to the advertisers,” Allison recalls.
How does a radio program continue on so long? It has much, if not all, to do with the personality of the host, who instinctively knew that an audience existed for a low key approach sometimes compared to an adult version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the PBS television show renowned for gentility with preschoolers. “I never thought the meanness we see and hear around the broadcast medium has anything to do with a long-lasting appeal to everyday people. Our vision has always been on neighbors helping neighbors, and that’s how we expect to continue until they take me out of here feet first.”
Another reason for its longevity is a demographic that spans genders, income levels and generations. “We have teachers, lawyers and ditch diggers,” he says with pride, “as well as young mothers with kids heard in the background. Men are more frequent these days and we still get those 30-year listeners calling for the first time.”
Beyond just a cooking show, Allison (real name, Allesee, was considered too ethnic back then) introduced a variety of guest experts over the decades, such as Murray Gula, Glenn Haege and Jerry Baker, who’ve gone onto their own broadcasting careers (Murray is still on the show with Bob and Rob each Friday).
A new set of guests have since joined the show to cover subjects that reflect what Allison and many of his listeners have come to experience. “I’ve gone through the surgeries and limitations of age that many of our neighbors are now facing, so we cover these subjects with experts in the field.”
One of them is nutritionist/registered dietitian Theresa Malysz from the transplant team at St. John Hospital in Detroit, who regularly appears with her Nutrition On Call segment. This radio opportunity traces back to her husband Len’s early days with Allison, who employed the Wayne State University student to hold his cue cards on Milky’s Party Time. “38 years later I heard about The Duct Tape Diet book they wrote together,” Allison relates with a smile. “Turns out that Len was a much better writer than cue-card holder (he left them at the wrong camera once). So we invited them on the program to combine her expert knowledge with his humor, which made the book such a fun read.”
In addition to broadcasting, Allison is active with many charities and civic clubs throughout the area, as is his wife, Maggie Allesee, who made headlines with a $3 million contribution to Hospice of Michigan, another $2 million to the Wayne State University dance department and other considerable sums, together with Bob, to a variety of schools, arts groups and area charities. They both believe strongly in supporting the community that made his success possible.
Bob and Maggie have been married for 30 years and have 6 children and 11 grandchildren between them. “When the family gets together for the holidays,” Allison chuckles “it’s almost like the gang from Milky’s crowding into the family room.”
After 45 years of continuous broadcasting in the Detroit radio market, such a gathering of Ask Your Neighbor listeners would probably require something on the order of Cobo Hall. Of course, they can still gather around the radio and call in to kick off the 46th year.
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