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97 Rock, live -- from Florida How Buffalo disc jockey Larry Norton was able to keep broadcasting his morning show after moving to the Sun Belt to care for his aging father

Larry Norton has been called a heritage personality, one of a handful of disc jockeys whose shows over the years have become part of Western New York life.

So it may seem odd that for the past three years -- since late 2008 -- Norton has been broadcasting most of his morning show -- announcing school closings, celebrating Bills victories and bashing local leaders -- from Florida.

"We were hesitant to talk about this story because I don't want to offend listeners who think that somehow I've given up on Buffalo," Norton, 55, said over the phone from his home in southwest Florida. "That's not the case at all. I came down here for good reason."

For years, Norton's father Wallace "Wally" Norton lived in Cape Haze, Fla., where he had moved after losing his wife, Bertha, to cancer in 1995.

"My dad took care of my mom," Norton explained. "He took care of his lady friend Lillian, who also got cancer and died. And then he went downhill. He wasn't eating right. He wasn't taking his medicine. There was no one left to take care of him."

Eventually Wallace Norton turned to his son and daughter-in-law for help.

"[Barb and I] had been going down here almost every month checking on him, getting him to the doctor. He asked if we could take care of him, because he didn't want to go into a nursing home," Norton said. "It's what I had to do. He was my father."

In November 2010, Wallace Norton died of cancer in his Florida home. He was 78.

"I told my dad before he died that I got to do the two things I wanted to do," said Norton. "Give him a better quality of life, and spend time with him as a friend."

John Hagar, program director at WGRF-FM 96.9, has worked with Norton at the classic rock station since 1988, when it was owned by Rich Communications.

"We did go out of our way because we wanted to keep him at all costs," said Hager. "Over time we realized it was best for both parties. [Larry] has said that things were so difficult with his father that those four hours on the air each morning were the bright spot of his day. It kind of kept him going."

> Home away from home

In November 2008, as the health of Wallace Norton declined, Norton went to former station manager Kevin LeGrett to resign. Norton recalled LeGrett coming back to him with a plan that would allow the morning DJ to continue broadcasting his show from a new location -- his father's home in Florida.

"It was very flattering to me," Norton said. "It was going to involve a pay cut, but I was fine with that because I had nothing lined up. Barb and I figured we'd retire early, come down here and find something to do. I thought about freelance commercials. I joked about being a greeter at Walmart."

Norton and his wife of 32 years grew up in Amherst. They met as students at Amherst High School. They raised two children in Amherst. Except for three years in the 1980s when Norton worked at WCMF-FM 96.5 in Rochester, Amherst had been their home.

In 2008, the "Norton in the Morning" crew included producer Russ Burton, and longtime co-hosts Rob Lederman and Chris Klein.

"None of this would have been possible if I had not been working with Chris and Rob for so long," Norton said. "I've been working with the two of them for more than 15 years. We have a sense of timing."

They also have a sense of family, according to Klein, 39, who started at the station reporting on traffic conditions in March 1999.

"Because we've all been together so long we're like a family, though dysfunctional," joked Klein. "We're a rock station, so you probably think we're old hippies or rockers, but it's really a people business, and it can still work even if the people are in different locations."

The digital technology that enables DJs to perform their jobs from a distance is not new, according to Chet Osadchey, market manager for Cumulus Radio, the company that owns 97-Rock, WEDG-FM 103.3 and WHTT-FM 104.1.

"The technology has been around for a long time," Osadchey said. "It's just gotten so much better and has dramatically improved that it's a lot easier to use."

Norton's makeshift studio in Florida consists of a mixing board, headphones, computer and several monitors. A digital phone line links him with the 97 Rock studios on James E. Casey Drive in Amherst. Skype allows the two studios to communicate by voice, video and instant messaging.

"We dial him in," said Hager. "We call an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) number, which is like calling a phone line. He's got a microphone and a little mixing board. He's got his headphones on so he can hear everything that's going on in the studio here."

Through Skype, Norton can see if Klein is ready to do the news. Producer Steve Trippi and Norton also use hand cues. They wave, point, hold up fingers -- whatever it takes to communicate.

"When I am on the air in my little studio, and I'm on Skype, I have The Buffalo News website open and TV station websites open," Norton said. "Because the world has gotten smaller -- you hear that all the time -- it's gotten easy to stay in touch and do a live local show even though I'm not physically there."

> Phoning it in

Norton isn't the only 97 Rock on-air personality who is working off-site. Lederman, who has worked with Norton for more than 20 years, phones in segments from home at 7:45 a.m. three days each week. The arrangement allows him to get daughters Joli, 12, and Mari, 8, on the bus to school. It also frees Kathi Lederman, his wife, to work as a schoolteacher.

"At 8:15 I get my kids on the bus, and by 9 I'm at the station on Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Lederman said. "On Tuesday and Thursday I'm there at 7 a.m. and do a character in-studio, like Carnac or Punman."

Lederman's call-in segments spin off local news stories or current topics of human interest. Lederman, who has operated a comedy club at various locations throughout the area since 1987, is employed by Cumulus as its creative director. He said the job fits into his daily routine.

"I'll be in the car waiting for my kids to get out of dance or walking through Wegmans," Lederman said. "And I'll write my bits in my notebook."

Lederman, 52, called his friendship with Norton more like a marriage.

"We're the same person," he said. "I've spent more time with him than I have my wife, and I've been married 15 years."

Norton, who spends more than half the year in Florida, maintains his home in Amherst. He returns often to Buffalo to visit his son, Daniel, who is married and lives in Rochester. Norton's daughter, Jeanette, who earned a master's degree in arts management from the University at Buffalo, recently moved to Washington.

Norton is a mainstay as host for 24 years of the 97 Rock Ball Drop on New Year's Eve. He also volunteers at the "Make-a-Wish" Foundation.

"If you plan ahead, flights are not expensive," Norton said. "It's all a trade-off. In Florida you have the air-conditioner on sometimes. In Buffalo you have the furnace on. My friends laugh at me because I'm broadcasting storm-related school closings when I'm not seeing that out my window."

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com