Monday, January 09, 2006

Radio Days - Part I The Slow Death of AM Radio

He did it! The moment has arrived…..The King of All Media, Howard Stern has just launched his brand new show on Sirius Radio.. And from what I am hearing he got enough of his fans to buy the subscriptions needed to pay his salary. Many say satellite radio already achieved some legitimacy when Opie and Anthony started their show on competing XM.. Seeing the massive publicity surrounding Howard’s move to satellite got me thinking… and once I start thinking.. keep that keyboard away.. ‘cuz all Hell is breaking loose! Isn’t that really what most bloggers do? We think .. We write..… and voila.. Anybody can read our kooky thoughts and ideas.

So what did it get me thinking? Does Howard’s departure from so called terestial radio mark the end of FM Radio? Sadly, I think AM Radio is already dead and buried.. Unless you’re a right wing WABC fan, or an all sports WFAN listener.. The AM band seems to already have a fork stuck in it…. I don’t count the all news stations as AM stations, .. since they basically hire robots to read the news… and to me… AM needs personality!!

I reread last month’s entry about AM in my younger days (Pay Radio.. Are You Sirius?)…As a kid…. AM Radio was hopping….. But when WABC went all talk on May 10, 1982…AM started to lose its footing as the source for music personality radio. As mentioned last month, Howard came to WNBC shortly after WABC went talk…and he enjoyed a few successful years doing afternoons at WNBC until he was unceremoniously dumped by them on September 27, 1985. Shortly thereafter he took his show to K-Rock where he briefly did afternoon drive, until he ultimately moved to mornings replacing Jay Thomas. The rest is history.

AM Personality Radio took another hit when beautiful hi fidelity FM started to adopt the format. Z100 came on the scene on August 2, 1983... a top 40 station with radio wunderkind Scott Shannon anchoring the Z-Morning Zoo…. a humorous high energy morning show that included offbeat contests.. a guy named Mr. Leonard who called in every day to say he wouldn’t be coming to work.. and song parodies that attacked the NJ Devils, a rather lame hockey team that had a hard time winning games in the first years since the franchise moved here from Colorado.

I remember the whole “Howard Got Fired from WNBC” hullaballo all went on during the Jewish holidays in 1985. One day our Rabbi had invited me over to his sukkah where, he mentioned to me that he saw an article in the New York Times about this Howard Stern character and asked me if I was familiar with him. When the Rabbi asks you a question like that.. its time to put on the mid 80s innocent look…kind of like Ronald Reagan being asked about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal. ”Stern”, I replied “I think he did a radio show… never really heard it though”. Moments later during a prayer you say in the sukkah instead of saying the word Ba-Sukkah… I almost slipped and said Ba-Ba booey… (Now the Stern historians will correct me by saying that he was Boy Gary back then… well Pumpsterdamus told me his nickname would be Ba Ba Booey!)

So how would one describe WNBC’s canning of Stern? Dumb! Stupid! Absurd! A colossal error that cost a radio corporation millions of dollars! The station tried to replace him first with Joey Reynolds who is actually quite witty and does a show at WOR, and later Alan Colmes. Reynolds had to endure a horrific live broadcast on October 22, 1986 when the N-copter crashed during a live Jane Dornacker Report… killing his off the wall traffic reporter, and ultimately the N copter. NBC soon decided to leave the radio business and the station basically died a slow and painful death, and was replaced by WFAN in 1988 which assumed the 66 spot (not to be confused with "execute order 66"), moving over from its original home at 1050.

WFAN came aboard on July 1, 1987 replacing country music station WHN. I was actually the third caller to the first ever show that was hosted by Jim Lampley. Lampley is now living in LA and was married to Bree Walker who does the news on one of the local stations out there. I actually saw her recently on Larry King Live and she looks - horrible. She was a very pretty woman but had some horrific looking plastic surgery that was probably done by the same doofus who took his knife to Joan Rivers! But unlike Joan, Bree was actually an attractive woman at one time... even though Jim Jensen once asked her on the air if she thought her momma would have aborted her had she known that she would have been born with the condition that gives her claw-like hands and feet. I wonder if Channel 2 will show that clip on the Channel 2 News “classics” feature on their website!

So WFAN was born and became the 1st ever all sports radio station! Most of those original weekday hosts are still around in one way or another.. Greg Gumbel is at CBS…. Lampley does boxing on HBO and I assume is on TV in LA… Howie Rose does the Mets games and Steve Somers shmoozes s-p-o-r-t-s nights and weekends. Pete Franklin has since moved to the great beyond. Art Shamsky was also one of the original hosts, hosting a short lived program from 1-3. The following year, on Friday October 7, 1988 WNBC went off the air and the FAN moved to 66 in a wild broadcast, as a legendary station was put to death, and moments later another one got a better spot on the dial. The old WNBC listeners who tuned to 66 the following Monday heard a familiar voice….Imus remained in the mornings at his old post on 66 although his new studio was at WFAN in Astoria Queens, instead of Rockefeller Center.

I kind of miss WNBC and I don’t think FAN would have moved into the 66 spot had Howard not been canned. I also wonder what would have happened to Imus had Howard been moved to mornings. But the Imus train chugs along and in the early FAN days he deliciously exploited a Will Clark vs. Don Mattingly debate between mid-day host Mike Francesa and weekend host Chris Russo. Ultimately, their bickering became so popular that they became afternoon drive hosts in 1989, and never looked back!

Russo had been toiling in obscurity at WMCA, an old talk station that was hemorrhaging listeners by the thousands. They hired a former WABC guy named Paul W Smith to host the morning show and Russo was his sports guy. He also hosted a weekend sports talk show there too. Little ol’ me was looking for a radio internship at the time, so I made some arrangements with WMCA and off I went to my first day working in the control room for afternoon drive host Gary Dee… who was MCA’s version of Bob Grant. Well, I showed up there and Dee had just been fired and… well, welcome to Radio.

I also helped out on a wknd show hosted by Patricia McCann who was the last generation of a family that were bigshots in NYC radio, but before my time. McCann did a breezy magazine show and over the years I have heard her do commercials for Golden Blossom Honey. The spots would start…”Hi this is Patricia McCann… for Golden Blossom Honey”. I always wondered… does anyone under the age of 40 even know WHO Patricia McCann is? Kind of a strong way to start a spot, don’t you think?

McCann’s show followed Russo’s sports talk show….and I used to listen to the Mad Dog when I’d drive in.. Back then I used to tell him that he would one day replace Franklin as the PM Drive host on the FAN, and once he even took me to Shea Stadium for Tom Seaver Day! (I should have told him he’d replace Johnny Carson… he might have taken me to Scores!) We were sitting in the press box, and I pointed out something to him regarding the game that was promptly announced a minute later in the press box to which Russo bellowed in his own inimitable way…”GOOD JOB NATE; GOOD THAT YOU KNEW THAT”. Some newspaper guy overhearing this exchange went up to him and said… “Aren’t you Chris Russo?” Wow, the Mad Dog was recognized!

I remember the day the Stock Market crashed. All of the on air personalities at WMCA had a lot of money. The key word is “had”. They used to share a big office and that night they were all pacing nervously and almost all of them were near tears. Except for one - Sonny Bloch. Sonny did a real estate investment show and had no money in the stock market. As many grown men cried at their desks, Sonny lit up a cigar, put his feet up on his desk and mocked his coworkers with “I told you so”… He was a bit of a shmuck about it, and reminded me of the Penguin from Batman. Bloch later got caught being involved with some financial misdoings… and went to jail and later died.

MCA was the first of 2 radio internships… my 2nd was at the FAN which I started at shortly before it moved from 1050 to 66. They really didn’t have much for me to do there, so I set it up to work an occasional overnight shift in the control room for Steve Somers. Back then he had a wacky show with the same insomniacs calling in about the same topics at the same time each night. He would occasionally put me on the air once he realized I could do an uncanny impression of Dr. Ruth Westheimer. I would also go in on Sundays and help put together files containing recaps of that day’s NFL games which I think ended up in the men’s room so the hosts would have something to read just in case their tummies hurt them from the various delicacies one could purchase at the local eateries in Astoria.

I also worked in the newsrooms at WOR and WCBS before I embarked on my on-air career. WCBS was just a temp job basically to help in the newsroom between Thanksgiving and New Year’s in ’89 when everyone took time off. If I did an overnight shift, I got to call the morning sports guy with a wakeup call and Max Kinkel from the FM side used to call me to find out if I knew the lottery numbers. Thrillsville!! I stayed at WOR for a longer period though. The only major highlight was meeting Joe Franklin. He did a weekend music show there overnights Sat to Sunday. I used to work that shift in the newsroom since I didn’t have much of a social life and my claim to fame with Joe was I was the one who told him that Donald Trump and Ivana were splitting because he was having an affair with Marla Maples. I’m no news breaker.. I just got to see the screaming headlines in the NY Daily News before he did.

AM Radio was dying a slow death… which meant it was time for it to be rescued. I got my cape and purple tights and little did I know that Dangerspouse and I would team up in an attempt to save AM Radio!



Dangerspouse said...

And we DID save AM radio! At least for Mike and Marv. Those two schmucks were able to see that station for millions after we turned their numbers around.

Hey Natey, don't be so quick to write off AM radio, as you did in your opening paragraph. WFAN is the #1 billing station in the entire country. Not the biggest numbers, but because ALL their numbers are in 18 - 34 Males demographic, advertisers beat down their doors to throw money at them. They are the richest station in the US, bar none, and as long as that is the case then you can bet your frequency modulator that AM will be a alive and healthy a loooong time. (BTW, the Fall Arbitron numbers came out, and 1010WINS was #5 in NY Market overall, if I recall. So no death knell there yet either.)

Y'know, for all the times you and I talked over the years I never heard all those stories of you pre-NNJ. Or maybe I just tuned you out. Either way, it was a fascinating read.

Hey - I filled in for George Meade on WOR all last week, and they loved me. People actually called the station to tell me I was kickin' tuches. Now that George has announced his retirement, don't be suprised if someday soon you're applying for a job as MY board up!

Great post, buddy. Very entertaining!

Nate said...

I think you meant to say "sell that station for millions"... You are indeed the radio king.. and in a future post, the rest of the universe will hear the great tales of those good ol' days!

I agree that FAN and WINS are successful... but what is there for the non sports fan (such as yourself) to listen to on AM Radio...

Congrats on filling in for George Meade.. keep us posted for your traffic schedule, and please focus your reports on 287 specifically the lower 10 exits!

Dangerspouse said...

Oops, you're right. I meant "sell". You always were quick to point out my gaffes, on and off the air, ya bastid.

For non sports fans? Speaking for myself, I have 3 of my 5 pre-sets on 820am WNYC. Also don't forget Air America, which is sticking with am (not sure it that's by choice, but they're doing well). And hey - Bloomberg News Radio is very strong here. Not the largest cum, but what a target demo: people with $$$! They bill zillions.

Oh, here's a traffic tip for you:

Avoid Rt.287 between exits 1 and 12 (Edison to Franklin) every day from 6am - 9am, and 4pm - 7 pm, and you'll be fine. Otherwise, it's a mess. Hope that helps! Pretty insightful, huh?

Nate said...

But danger... I'm talking about AM content with PERSONALITY!

I predict that once you figure out how to hook up a podcast, you will channel your energies into a little microphone and proceed to entertain the masses on your very own podcast.. Is the world ready?

I dont know if your comments about Bloomberg Radio mean its going into porno or if you meant to write about its cume rating! :)

And as for my AM dial, I only have WFAN programmed in along with the all news station where I listen to my favorite traffic reporter.... Chris Maget!