Searching for Chuck McKay and Finding Greg Aust (The Final Chapter)

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Big 8, CKLW building in Windsor, Ontario

For the past 20 years, Hot Ticket Chuck McKay’s February 1975 so-called meltdown aircheck (click here to listen) at CKLW-AM in Windsor/Detroit has been online. Radio enthusiasts and industry professionals alike have spent years dissecting and analyzing the recording. In part because CKLW-the Big 8 was a famous Top 40 radio station in the sixties and seventies: a 50,000 watt signal that reached at least 18 states and the Big 8 was the most listened to radio station in Canada. CKLW had top ratings in the major U.S. markets of Detroit and Cleveland

There has been speculation and some disagreement as to the identity of Chuck McKay. Who was Chuck McKay in real life? Some theories were silly; for example, McKay turned into a contemporary and controversial California talk show host named Jaz McKay. To begin with, if we compare voices, Jaz McKay and Chuck McKay sound nothing alike.  Next, Jaz McKay is too young: He would have been 10 years-old when Chuck McKay’s radio career took off in 1968. A more credible theory was that Chuck McKay was an on-air name used by Greg Aust, a DJ who worked several major market radio stations. His other aliases included Chuck Williams, Austin in Boston, Greg Austin, Steve Austin, Greg Pierce, Jim Applegate and his real name Greg Aust.

I met and listened to Greg Aust in 1972, when he was the midday personality at KVI-AM in Seattle.  My opinion all along has been that Aust was Chuck McKay and, also, Chuck Williams, Greg Austin, Austin in Boston, etc. The jocks on that list all had Aust’s distinct style and vocal timbre: the same inflections, a barely under control ego, an offbeat, dry, bold sense of humor that pushed the limits back in the day.

Even to those of us who thought Aust was McKay, there was uncertainty as to Greg Aust’s true identity. Since 2012, there has been a rumor that the name Greg Aust was actually an alias for a DJ and radio programmer named James D. Welch — who died in Phoenix in 2008. Based on my conversations with Aust some 40 years ago, I was surprised to read that. On the other hand, since Aust was only a casual acquaintance, I didn’t critically question that information. My interest level increased when I learned that Greg Aust’s sister had lost contact with her older brother about ten years ago, and she was asking for assistance in locating Greg.

Greg’s sister said that her brother did not enter the world as James Welch. He was born October 7, 1949 and his legal name was Gregory Van Aust.  She supposed it was possible that Greg had changed his legal name later in life, but that seemed unlikely. There were similarities between the careers of Greg Aust and Jim Welch — they were both about the same age, they had both worked in Phoenix and Kansas City, and both men had been known as “Greg Austin.”

In an effort to determine if Aust and Welch were the same person. I collected photos and enlisted the aid of people who knew Aust and/or Welch. I had pictures of Greg Aust from his time in Seattle and other images were available online. It was more difficult to locate photos of Jim Welch. From his obituary, I knew that in the early ’70s Welch (as Greg Austin) had been part of the WHB-AM AirForce in Kansas City. I found two WHB promotional postcards from that era: One DJ on each postcard was tagged as “Greg Austin.” I assumed that to be Jim Welch, since he had used that on-air name at WHB. In comparing those photos to pictures of Greg Aust, I knew the “Greg Austin” at WHB did not resemble Greg Aust. The rumor that Aust and Welch were one and the same seemed to be a case of mistaken identity, but I wanted to solicit other valid opinions.

Tom Kennedy, P.D. & consultant

Photos of Aust and Welch were sent first to Greg Aust’s sister. Then I distributed them to radio guys who had worked with one or both men. On the Aust side of the equation, images went to program directors/consultants Tom Kennedy, Bill Hennes, and George Johns. Former colleagues and acquaintances of Aust, who reviewed the photos, included Famous Amos (Russ DiBello), Harley Davidson (Greg Gawronski), Peter B (Peter Boem). Welch’s friends and former colleagues, who helped me establish a positive I.D. for Jim Welch, were Brad Waldo and Forrest Mosely. The conclusion among all parties involved was unanimous: Aust and Welch were different people — their commonality was they had at one time shared the on-air name “Greg Austin.” Even a casual glance at the photos below will reveal that Greg Aust and Jim Welch were different people.

Photos 1 & 3 are Greg Aust. Photos 2 & 4 are Jim Welch (as Greg Austin). Additionally, I found published documents that precluded any possibility that Aust and Welch were the same person. In 1972, Billboard Magazine reported that Greg Aust was working middays at KVI-Seattle (his KVI tenure June 1972 until Feb. 1974). In that same time frame, Jim Welch (as Greg Austin) was working nights in Kansas City.

    

Jim Welch’s close associates said that, as far as they knew, Welch had never been employed by the same radio stations as Aust. Even in Kansas City and Phoenix, major markets Welch and Aust had both worked in, they were at different stations. Furthermore, Welch hadn’t gone by any of Aust’s multiple air-names, except they had shared that one moniker “Greg Austin.” Interestingly enough, the rumor that Aust was really Welch came about because of the confusing situation in Kansas City. In the early ‘70s, Greg Aust was at a Las Vegas radio station. Then WHB in Kansas City hired Aust away from Las Vegas with the intention of putting him on-the-air as “Greg Austin.” Prior to his moving to Kansas City, Aust was involved in a controversy at the Las Vegas station. Nobody I talked to knows the details, but Greg Aust did not end up getting the job at WHB in Kansas City. In the meantime, WHB had invested in a “Greg Austin” custom jingle package. To avoid wasting their money, the station hired Jim Welch and told him to go by “Greg Austin” on-the-air. It is interesting to note that in 1976 Aust relocated to Kansas City — he worked at KCMO AM as Gregory Aust.  At that time Jim Welch was still over at WHB (as Greg Austin), and Aust probably used his legal name on-air at KCMO to avoid having two deejays in town called “Greg Austin.” Yet again, in 1982, Aust came back to Kansas City — hired by KLSI FM. He went by “Greg Austin” on-air that time. When compiling an article such as this one, I know from personal experience that it is exceedingly difficult to track disc jockeys who change their names regularly and move all over the U.S.A. and Canada, too. 

Let’s recap what I knew at this point in my investigation: (1) Greg Aust and Jim Welch were definitely different people; (2) Jim Welch had died; (3) Greg Aust did not die when Jim Welch passed away: He might be alive, or maybe not. In the process of identifying Aust and Welch, I learned 100% for certain that Greg Aust had been the infamous Chuck McKay. Or looking at it the other way around, one could say that the infamous Chuck McKay was actually Greg Aust.

Chuck McKay was really Greg Aust

That revelation — Aust was McKay! — did not surprise me.  I had suspected that to be true and several of the radio professionals I interviewed knew that to be a fact. However, to avoid disputes about the accuracy of my reporting, it was essential to speak to the ultimate authority. Bill Hennes, or Wild Willy, was the program director (P.D.) at WNHC in New Haven, CT.  Back in ’69/’70, Bill gave Greg Aust (as Chuck Williams) a job. Aust honed his craft, while working with Willy at WNHC, and that gig turned into a springboard that took Aust to several legendary major market radio stations. 

Left: P.D. Bill Hennes; Right: Chuck Williams (Aust), WNHC, circa 1970

Hennes and Aust worked together again in the mid-’70s: Bill was P.D. at CKLW at the time of the Chuck McKay incident. That memorable night, in the wee hours of the morning, Hennes crawled out of bed and drove into the station to fire Chuck McKay. Bill Hennes told me that when he hired and fired McKay, all within a period of four days in 1975, he was actually hiring and firing his friend Greg Aust. Aust (as Chuck Williams) had worked at CKLW earlier in his career and fortunately everything had gone better that time! Hennes described many previously unrevealed details of the Chuck McKay Incident at CKLW, and I will write more about that episode in the future.

George Johns. P.D. & consultant

That one “elephant in the room” question remained unanswered: Was Greg Aust (who was the man called Chuck McKay) dead or alive? Even though Aust didn’t die as Jim Welch, there was no guarantee that Aust was still alive. In searching the Social Security data base, I didn’t locate a record of his death. And, if he had died, his sister said the family had not been notified. Up until ten years ago, Bill Hennes, Tom Kennedy and George Johns had been in periodic contact with Aust. Then the calls stopped and they heard nothing more from Greg. During our telephone conversation, George Johns, a programmer and consultant, told me a funny story. In 1974, George was involved with hiring DJ’s at WVBF in Boston. The station was recruiting a morning jock and, based on his aircheck, management hoped to hire Aust away from KVI in Seattle. They flew Greg into Boston and his interview was memorable. Aust always exuded confidence on-the-air, but during that job interview he was mild mannered, hesitant, and he stared down at the floor much of the time. Greg sported a different look — a shaved head. Peach fuzz was growing back on his scalp, but George Johns said Aust’s head looked like a tennis ball. The haircut was explainable, it was tied to a promotion back in Seattle. Despite the less than stellar job interview, Aust was hired based on the strength of his aircheck. George believes it was a good decision: Within six months, Aust’s talent and offbeat humor increased WVBF’s Weekly Cume Rating by 100,000 listeners. This 1974 photo of a bald headed Greg Aust was taken at about the same time he flew to Boston for the aforementioned job interview.

Aust in 1974, KVI promotional photo

Ultimately, it was a helpful tip near the end of George Johns’ Email that led to my discovering the fate of Greg Aust. Johns said Greg’s closest friend over the years had been Bill Gardner — the airplane pilot disc jockey. Gardner has been among this country’s most prominent air personalities. He has worked at some of the top stations in the largest markets including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. In 1974, while employed at KVIL-FM in Dallas, Gardner received the award as the Billboard Magazine Major Market Air Personality of the Year.  He was nominated once again for that same award in 2002, during his eight year tenure at KOOL-FM in Phoenix, but John Records Landecker won the award that year.

Bill Gardner, KVIL, Dallas. George Johns hired Bill to boost the ratings

 Bill Gardner said he first met Greg Aust when they were both young. Gardner is slightly older than Aust. It was in the late ’60s and Gardner was a jock at legendary WHB in Kansas City. (Aust was raised in K.C.)  If the call letters WHB sound familiar, that’s where the Aust/Welch identity mix-up occurred several years later. Like most young people who want to work in radio, Greg was infatuated with broadcasting and he spent his time listening to local radio stations. Aust liked Gardner’s show and he would call Bill to talk about radio, music, etc. Greg had recently graduated from high school. He was maybe 19 or 20 years-old. The frequent telephone calls to the radio station led to the two men meeting and a friendship that lasted for more than 40 years. This bond developed at about the same time Greg landed his first job at KEWI-AM in Topeka, KS.

Left: Aust (1970); Right: Bill Gardner as a youth, WHB DJ

 On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t have met Greg Aust, or heard him on-the-air, had it not been for Bill Gardner. In 1972, Gardner was at KING-AM in Seattle. Aust came to town to visit. Bill told Greg about an opening across town at KVI. Aust applied for the job and that’s how he ended up in Seattle. Over all the years that passed, Gardner and another WHB colleague stayed in contact with Greg. In 2015, the three friends were planning a short trip. Gardner, who is an airline pilot, agreed to fly into San Diego and pick up Greg.  Unfortunately, that trip never happened: It was cancelled when Gardner and his friend received word that Greg Aust had unexpectedly passed away of natural causes. Knowing the place of death, and the approximate date of the death, I contacted County of San Diego Vital Records. They searched their death certificate data base and found a match.  Sadly, Bill Gardner was correct. Greg Aust, the radio announcer, had passed away on July 23, 2015. The certificate was sent to Greg Aust’s sister. With this information in hand, she plans to follow-up on the details of her brother’s passing. I have obscured certain private information about Aust and his family, but the top part of the certificate was reproduced here.

Chuck Williams (Aust), WLS-Chicago

Bill Gardner filled in some of the gaps that exist in our knowledge of Greg’s life and career. Anyone tracking Aust, as I had been, discovered that his trail became harder to follow as the years went by. I found no evidence that he was working in radio, or actively pursuing jobs in radio, after 1995.  Even during the ’80s, Aust was spending less time on-the-air. In 1985, Gardner was P.D. at K-101 in San Francisco. He hired Greg for the weekend shift, but Aust didn’t stay long. Instead he moved back to Tucson. Greg’s sister, and his friends and colleagues, said that he gravitated away from radio and into telemarketing. According to his sister, Greg liked the less structured environment of telemarketing — nobody spent much time critiquing an employee’s wardrobe or asking how much sleep he or she got the night before. A telemarketing firm that Greg often worked for was owned by one of his former radio colleagues. Gardner said he noticed that Greg was turning inward, distancing himself from friends and family. Even during his days in major market radio, Aust didn’t talk much about the past or try to analyze what he had done right or wrong on a job. His eye was on the next gig — what was up ahead, not looking back at what was in the rearview mirror.

Greg Aust never brought up the Chuck McKay Incident at CKLW when he was talking with his close friends Tom Kennedy, George Johns, Bill Gardner or Bill Hennes (having been the P.D. who fired Aust at the time, Hennes said it was not a topic they ever wished to discuss). There was one known exception: In the ’90s, Harley Davidson worked with Aust in California. Greg was no longer employed at the station, but the two men knew how to reach one another. When the Chuck McKay recording went online, Harley called Aust and told him the news.  Greg Aust found that amusing and the two men had a good laugh. During Aust’s days on the radio circuit, moving around from station to station, he often favored temporary or unconventional housing — monthly rate hotel rooms, sometimes apartments and condos he could rent, or even crashing for free at his employer’s radio station. That same pattern continued into his later years. A list of Greg’s known residential addresses, from the ’90s to more recent times, included pay by the week hotels, temporary housing, shelters and shared living facilities. At the time of his death, Aust was residing at a house on Jodi Street in San Diego. Prior to his passing, Greg had made a major change in his life. It was no secret that during his radio career Aust partook of his fair share of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol consumption contributed to his reputation as a risky hire — unpredictable and sometimes unreliable. Bill Gardner said that as of 2007, when he dined with Aust, his friend was sober and no longer drinking alcohol.

Chuck Williams (Aust) back row 2nd from left, with Creedence Clearwater Revival & CKLW’s Frank Brodie

In his time, Greg Aust worked at many important radio stations. This resume is incomplete, but he was employed by the following: KEWI-AM Topeka; WNHC-AM New Haven; CKLW-AM Windsor/Detroit (more than once); WLS-AM Chicago; WMID-AM Atlantic City; KFRC-AM San Francisco; KVI-AM Seattle; WVBF-FM Boston; WMYQ-FM Miami; KRIZ-AM Phoenix; KCMO-AM Kansas City; WMAQ-AM Chicago; KFI-AM Los Angeles; KOPA-FM Scottsdale; KLSI-FM Kansas City;  K101 FM San Francisco, KWFM-FM Tucson; KLLS-FM San Antonio; KTSR-FM Bryan College Station (Texas); and KMEN-AM San Bernardino. The jobs listed here are approximating chronological order, but they are not exact. Aust worked Las Vegas around 1972, but, since the name of the station is unknown to me, that job was left off the list. His first radio gig was in ’68/’69 in Topeka, followed by New Haven in ‘69/’70.  His last radio job that I can verify was in San Bernardino in 1995. Details about Aust are sketchy, so if anyone has further information, or can add to the list of radio stations he worked for, I would like to hear from you. If you are interested in learning more about Greg Aust’s radio career, please click here.

While pursuing this project, I spoke with many innovators of Top 40 radio and the Drake format.  In future stories, I will describe: (1) my conversation with Bill Hennes and previously undisclosed details of the Chuck McKay Incident at CKLW; (2) George Johns’ story of the time Austin in Boston didn’t report for work for several days and, when pressed on the matter, he cited The Beatles as the reason for his absence; (3) why and how the Find Greg Austin promotion contributed to a Miami FM station losing its broadcast license.

Below are two Greg Aust airchecks. The first track is chronologically the earliest remaining recording of Aust: 1970 at WNHC, his boss was Wild Willy Hennes. The delivery and style are reminiscent of Hot Ticket Chuck McKay from 1975. The big difference is Greg kept it together and Willy didn’t have to fire him during the show! The second aircheck is bold, edgy and pretty sexy for ’70s radio: It’s Date Bait with Greg Aust as “Steve Austin” on KRIZ-AM in Phoenix.

>Edited & scoped. Run time 3:34. Chuck Williams, WNHC-New Haven, 1970.  He says: “How do you like me so far”? That same line is in the notorious and so-called McKay meltdown at :44.

>Edited & scoped. Run time 7:39. Steve Austin, Date Bait, KRIZ-Phoenix,1976.

Special thanks to the people who helped with research for this article:  Bill Hennes, Bill Gardner, Bill Ogden, Peter Boam, George Johns, Tom Kennedy, Kim Elliott, Famous Amos, Harley Davidson, Captain Curt Powers, Brad Waldo, Forrest Mosely, and Michael Hagerty.

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Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions.

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