50 YEARS OF BOB ALLISON'S "ASK YOUR NEIGHBOR"
A GOLD STANDARD FOR DETROIT RADIO
By Len Malysz
A half-century of broadcasting for a radio personality is not exactly unprecedented, but it is about as rare as finding a gold nugget in your backyard. For many listeners in the metro Detroit area, this phenomenon resulted from sharing recipes and household hints over the virtual backyard fence of Bob Allison's Ask Your Neighbor radio program, now celebrating its golden anniversary of continuous broadcasting.
According to Allison (born Allesee), "I've never worked a day in all those years, because if you enjoy what you do and can't wait to do it all again, how can you call it work?"
Let's take a stroll down memory lane and imagine what it was like in Detroit, circa 1962. Lunch hour crowds were jamming downtown sidewalks and kids lined up at street corners to sneak a first look at the shiny new models on auto carriers heading for dealerships. It was a time of local TV favorites such as Lunch with Soupy, George Pierrot's World Adventure Series, Bill Kennedy at the Movies, the Lou Gordon show, Toby David as Captain Jolly, Rita Bell's Prize Movie and many more.
On February 5 of that year, WWJ-AM launched the first Ask Your Neighbor show with Bob Allison at the microphone in place of the long running soap opera My True Story carried by the NBC radio network. Some listeners were unhappy with this abrupt change in their morning routine, but it wasn't long before the mostly housewife audience catapulted the show to number one in what was then the fifth largest radio market in the country.
As popular as the radio show was for adults, many baby boomers remember him more for his TV work as the host of Bowling For Dollars or the Twin Pines milkman on the weekly kids show Milky's Party Time. Allison's cohost and eldest son Rob remembers that "suddenly I became the most popular kid in school when everybody thought I could score those highly prized Milky tickets. Not a chance, but it was fun while it lasted."
Despite the high profile recognition from his TV work, Ask Your Neighbor was the center of Allison's universe. Talk radio was still in its infancy and Bob's easy going radio style set the standard for keeping the focus on the listener and consequently making the cash registers ring for the show's advertisers.
Allison recalls that in 1978 "the station decided to go to an all news format, but the advertisers wanted the program to continue. That's when we decided to buy airtime at another station and sell the commercials ourselves."
Fortunately, the audience followed as the program moved to several stations over the years and, in 1997, finally settled at the mostly ethnic WNZK 690-AM from 9-11 a.m. Monday through Friday. Some of those original advertisers - such as Rosenthal Household Cleaners - are still with the program.
Third member of the AYN team is long-time sales manager Al O'Neal, who also serves as substitute host when Allison is away. "I don't doubt my selling skills," he jokes, "but when sponsors keep renewing their contracts, you know there’s a reason beyond what I bring to the table. Fifty years of the same host and they still want more. That's really saying something."
Many of today's listeners were youngsters whose mothers were devoted Ask Your Neighbor fans and tune in for many of the same reasons. Not only for the recipes and household hints, they often cite the program as a refuge from the din of news, politics and racy morning radio shows. Allison admits, "I'm basically an optimist, so the program walks on the sunny side of the street where we leave the troubles of the day behind and focus on the best place to have your furniture reupholstered or how to create a recipe that duplicates your favorite restaurant dessert."
However, AYN has also kept pace with new technologies, such as a website (AskYourNeighbor.com) providing archived podcasts of the last ten shows, hundreds of free recipes and streaming audio on the Internet that attracts a worldwide audience of listeners. Allison points out that "originally, Rob’s involvement was to create the website but his background in culinary arts helps bring a level of knowledge that contributes a lot to the program." Professionals of every stripe also provide their expertise, including regular features on health, financial, legal and nutritional issues as well as problems relating to gardening, home repairs and services relating to nearly every aspect of daily living.
Away from the microphone, Allison enjoys the company of his wife Maggie at their home on the fourth fairway of Oakland Hills Country Club and their combined family of six grown children and eleven grandchildren. An accomplished pianist, he continues to play regularly at Detroit Rotary Club and DAC Beaver Club meetings. His activities also include charity work and Maggie’s community involvement with a $3 million contribution to Hospice of Michigan, several millions to the Maggie Allesee Department of Theater and Dance, and the Bob Allesee Chair of Broadcasting at Wayne State University as well as 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.
Further recognition of fifty years hosting Ask Your Neighbor is currently underway in the form of a documentary on WTVS, where Allison serves on the board, and a nomination to the Broadcasting Hall of Fame is in the works.
This Indiana small town boy didn't exactly spin straw into gold but he did spin neighborly conversation into a golden anniversary on Detroit radio. Maybe someone did find that nugget in their backyard.
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