Happy Jack and WALN's 40-year history includes its share of sports coverage

The national's first commercial cable radio station once features Phillies and Yankees baseball coverage.

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He is best known as Happy Jack Burns, one of the area's polka kings and the ringmaster and music host on the Party Channel — WALN digital cable radio.

But Happy Jack, whose real name is John Burnatowski, knows his sports as well.

And as WALN celebrates its 40th anniversary Tuesday, Burnatowski has several sports connections to list on his, and the station's, resume.

Burnatowski, 1969 Dieruff High graduate, brought Phillies baseball to the local airwaves back in 1975 when you needed to have PRISM, a pay channel, to see the non-Sunday home games from Veterans Stadium on television.

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"We approached the Phillies in 1975 because they had no local radio affiliate up here because everybody else around here was doing Top-40 radio," Burnatowski said. "The Philly station the Phillies were on wasn't that strong, especially when they powered back at night. I tried to sell [Phillies owner] Bill Giles on the idea of crystal clear cable radio and he took my offer. It was a big seller for us.

"The Phillies were playoff teams in those years, and being the Lehigh Valley affiliate got us a lot of perks. We got treated like royalty when we went down there for press conferences. I got to meet Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, great guys. And when the caravan came up here we got invited. One year I sat right beside Pete Rose."

WALN also provided non-televised Yankees radio broadcasts to the region the 1970s at a time when Yankees games were hard to get on local radio.

The station also did 76ers basketball and has been involved with various local softball events over the years, including remotes from the 1976 ASA men's fastpitch softball championships at Bicentennial and Patriots parks.

In more recent times, WALN has supplied the music for special events such as the Allentown Patriots' 50th anniversary celebration and the Donna's Dugout ALS charity softball event at Pates Park, where a local old-timers team takes on either the Phillies or IronPigs ball girls every summer.

WALN also sponsored the recent Lehigh Valley Sports Hall of Fame banquet.

"Happy Jack has done a lot of community-oriented events," said Don Hunsicker, the Pates' athletic director. "We don't do a lot with the station, but when we've needed them he has been a big help to us over the years."

And being community-oriented has been the general philosophy of Burnatowski, whose station also had a long-running weekly radio show dedicated to local racing called the CarQuest Gasoline Alley with Steve Pados that ran from 2005 to 2010.

"I'm definitely a music man, first and foremost, and I love radio drama going back to the 1930 and 1940s where you could really get into the theater of your mind," Burnatowski said. "But I also like sports and I got a kick out of having the Phillies here for two seasons, and the Yankees. And we had all kinds of racing people in here for the Gasoline Alley show."

Burnatowski also spent time with many of the Lehigh Valley's sports broadcasting legends such as the late Johnny Daday, Bob Daday and Bob Gehris.

"I worked with those guys when I was working as a production manager at Twin County Cable, which is now RCN," Burnatowski said. "Johnny Daday was a true sports legend. Everybody knew him."

He said Rick Geho, now RCN4's video production manager, is his cousin and was the best man at his wedding. The two used to "broadcast" softball games from Jordan Park over CB radio with their walkie-talkies.

Burnatowski has come a long way from those days and WALN's humble beginnings in a 6x10 walk-in closet in 1974.

The station has gone from a few dozen local Cable FM subscribers to being seen and heard by a potential half-million music lovers who get the station on Service Electric and Blue Ridge Cable digital channels and on the Internet.

Burnatowski has nothing but respect for Service Electric's late leader, John Walson Jr., who gave Burnatowski a digital TV channel in 2002. That's when the persona of Happy Jack was born and his Sunday night show from his studio atop of the South Fourth Street hill in Salisbury Township has developed a considerable following.

"We have a very good relationship with Service Electric and John Walson Jr., was a great guy and gave us the opportunity," Burnatowski said. "John was looking for someone to promote the FM radio service the cable had started. I did a two hours of oldies music as my first show.

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