Photos by SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press
Sidekick Rob Allison gives his dad, "Ask Your Neighbor" host Bob Allison, a two-minute warning at his Southfield studio.
Love thy 'neighbor'
Call-in radio show marks 38 years of chatter and cheer
February 4, 2000
BY JULIE HINDS
This is talk radio, but the caller doesn't have a beef. A cottage cheese pie, yes. The recipe for the pie has been a hot topic on Bob Allison's show for a couple of days and she wants to share her version.
"Where did it come from?" Allison asks. A 1954 Betty Furness Westinghouse cookbook, the caller says.
"Well, that goes back a few days!" replies Allison, as they proceed to spend the next nine minutes reciting the ingredients and double-checking the instructions.
Nine minutes is an eternity in talk radio. In nine minutes, Dr. Laura Schlessinger could berate two callers and make a third one cry. In nine minutes, Rush Limbaugh could rehash every scandal from the Clinton administration and squeeze in nine commercials
But this isn't radio as it usually sounds. This is "Ask Your Neighbor," a show that has been on Detroit radio since 1962 and currently airs 9-11 a.m. weekdays on the small, mostly ethnic station WNZK-AM (690).
The rules are different in Mr. Allison's neighborhood. Callers get as much time they need. They're not hustled off or chided for their opinions. Everyone is treated with courtesy, from longtime fans to new listeners.
It's shock radio only in the sense of how startling it is to find a show on the dial this gentle and folksy.
"You'd be surprised how many people write or say that we're an island of civility in a sea of rage, a place where you can be at peace," says Allison, who's trim and ruddy-cheeked at 67.
Saturday marks 38 years since "Ask Your Neighbor" was first broadcast. Allison doesn't have anything big planned for Monday's show. He's saving the special guests and tributes for the 40-year anniversary, and perhaps the 50th.
"There's no reason why I couldn't do it another 12 years," says Allison, whose mother turns 100 soon. "I'd only be 80."
The format of "Ask Your Neighbor" is essentially the same as it was on Feb. 5, 1962, when it made its debut on WWJ-AM, replacing a radio soap opera called "My True Story." Recipes and household hints are still the order of the day, although some of the questions now come via e-mail.
On a recent morning, a caller from Windsor wants to know the history of the name Sebastian. Another caller is looking for refresher courses in nursing.
Allison, meanwhile, reminds listeners of yesterday's search by Mildred for an artificial sweetener she had in the hospital after her gallstone operation, and delivers warm, ample endorsements for advertisers such as Bobson Construction.
A woman calls in seeking a ceramic tile installer for her daughter, then remembers another question. "I went to a wedding shower and they served some kind of a rice as a side dish and it was so delicious," she says. "It wasn't a rice pudding, but it was on the sweeter side."
Allison ferrets out clues like a kitchen Matlock. What was in it besides rice? Who was the caterer? After a thorough cross-exam, he concludes, "You've given us a pretty good description and hopefully someone will recognize this as something they make in their kitchen and phone it in to us."
Off the air, Allison is frank about his status in a medium ruled by younger, edgier personalities with bigger audiences.
"Nobody knows who I am," he says. "They might know my name. But that doesn't bother me, because I don't do it for that reason. Most people do it for that reason and that's a fundamental problem."
Allison's reasons have the perspective that comes with 50 years in the business. He's still here, and still believes in himself and his ability to put on a good show. The neighbors feel the same way. They know who he is, that's for sure.
And plenty of Detroiters remember listening to "Ask Your Neighbor" in its heyday, though not all of them realize it's still around.
"Neighbor" lasted for 16 years on WWJ, until the station switched to an all-news format in 1978. Allison was courted by WJR, but decided to take his show to a smaller station, where he bought his own airtime and sold his own commercials.
Several stations later, that's still how he does it, with help from his son Rob, 42, his on-air sidekick, and longtime colleague Al O'Neal, who handles the ad sales and fills in as substitute host.
"I do the show the way I want to and if someone doesn't like it, that's fine, turn something else on," says Allison. "I don't pander. And I don't talk down to people."
Though Allison hasn't had a ratings analysis of the show done for a while, he says the median age of listeners is probably 50. "Half the audience is between 30 and 50," he says. "The other half is between 50 and infinity, like myself."
Community of callers
The loyalty of the neighbors runs deep. They tune in every day, buy the recipe books that Allison puts out and subscribe to the Menu Minder, a monthly recipe newsletter that costs $20 a year. Listeners send condolence cards to each other, drop by the studio with homemade soup and think of Bob, Rob and Al as part of their extended family.
Helen Sigmund, 81, of Royal Oak -- whose nickname on the show is "The Cookie Lady" -- has been listening to Allison since Day One. She can reel off a list of the regulars who've passed away and those who are stil calling in. Rob calls her "Grandma." She doesn't bake as much as she used to, but she still gets stopped at stores by people who recognize her voice and want recipe tips.
Belle Camhi, 75, of Oak Park, a neighbor for about 20 years, won't leave the house when "my Bob and Rob" are on. "They are people who really care for people," she says, recalling times when she brought Allison homemade soups and meatballs. "I hope he never quits."
Adele Sapilewski, 56, of Sterling Heights started following the show in 1969, when she quit work to await the birth of her son. She still listens to the show every day, or tapes it when she's busy. "When I need something, I can go on the line and someone is always there for you."
Younger listeners say they're glad the show hasn't changed. Sheryl Brooks, a 32-year-old cable service technician from Taylor, got tired of FM fare and found Allison's familiar voice while flipping the dial. "It's real people, kind of old-fashioned radio. The good thing about it is it hasn't changed."
"It's like Vernors ginger ale, it's always the same," says Alex Krentzin, 39, who catches the show on days off from his job at the Berkley Public Library. "It reminds me of work, really. It's an information booth, a mixed-up reference desk."
Allison has had many jobs in his career. Before "Neighbor" started, he spent a couple of years in Los Angeles as a piano player. Local baby boomers may remember him best as the host of "Bowling for Dollars," a local TV show that was the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" of its day, in terms of ratings.
The Indiana native spent more than a decade in broadcasting before landing in Detroit as a hip young disc jockey with a love of jazz (and a last name of Danish origin, Allesee -- pronounced AL-uh-see -- that was considered too ethnic by radio executives of the era).
He expected to stay in town a couple of years, then move to another job in another city. But as "Neighbor" took off, his children reached school age. It seemed the right time to put down roots and become a good neighbor off the air, too.
Today, Allison works for numerous charities and civic clubs and is on the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He and his second wife, Maggie Allesee -- they have 6 children and 11 grandchildren combined -- have given large donations to an eclectic range of schools, events and arts groups. Last week, Allesee, whose first husband was the late industrialist Howard Acheson Jr., made headlines for her $2-million endowment to the Wayne State University dance department, which will be renamed in her honor.
Easy does it
At this stage of life, Allison could take it easy and spend his mornings enjoying the view from his home, which borders the golf course at the Oakland Hills Country Club. The tendons in his shoulders have been giving him some trouble, and he's facing a hip replacement operation.
But he prefers to drive to a studio in Southfield and be with the neighbors.
"After 38 years, it's hard to break a habit," says Allesee. "He never misses a day. He'll throw up in a wastebasket before he'll stay home. He really does enjoy it, the visit with the neighbors. And he feels like he's doing a service, being of help, giving them information. It follows the pattern of our lives."
Rob, who volunteered to launch a Web site for his dad -- www.www.cleanstar.net.cn -- and wound up joining the show, thinks "Ask Your Neighbor" could go on indefinitely, "as long as the neighbors are there."
Neighbors like Rose from Fraser, who's calling about a pizza recipe that uses two loaves of frozen bread dough. "I made it, it was great and now I can't find it," she says on the air.
Allison looks through his notes, but can't remember it. Rose isn't sure if she heard it on his show, or read it in a magazine.
It doesn't matter. Somebody will call in with an answer eventually, or a recipe that's close. For two hours, at least, there's always a neighbor who's willing to help.
JULIE HINDS can be reached at 313-222-6427 or at email@example.com.
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