When Radio Was Color Blind

35Once upon a time, radio was pretty much like the TV show The Voice. We only knew what we heard coming through the speaker on our radio.

Those pilots of the airwaves were magical.

We may not have had a clue as to what they looked like, but we created a persona in our minds as if we did. It was never even close to the real person, if we ever happened to meet them.

As a young lad, most of my radio listening occurred at night, after the sun had gone down and when AM radio signals enjoyed the benefit of the skywave effect. The reasons for this were simple. First, during the day I was in school and when school got out, I was outdoors playing sandlot sports. Second, at night the only TV set in the household was controlled by either my parents or older siblings. But the transistor radio was completely in my control. I’d listen to radio stations from all over North America. One of those stations would be the most listened to AM radio station of its day, WABC out of New York City.

Who’s the Black Guy?

I got my best school friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before and how far away the stations we picked up were and where on the dial they were located.

Music Radio 77 – WABC out of New York City threw a pretty consistent signal over Western Massachusetts at night and so it got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC a lot as well, so you can imagine our surprise the first time we saw a picture of the WABC All Americans (that’s what they called their air personalities back in the 70s). We looked at one another and said simultaneously, “Who’s the Black Guy?”

That personality was Chuck Leonard. His cool factor just went up in our eyes. Chuck Leonard was not only heard over WABC late at night but on one of our local ABC network affiliated radio stations doing the feature show “Sneak Preview.” Chuck was famous for one-liners like “The best that ever did it and got away with it.” Yes we heard a lot of Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being black. And once we found out, we didn’t care.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry

In 1958, two hit recording artists were having a backstage fight over who would close the show that night, Lewis or Berry. The decision would be made by the show’s host and producer. He chose Berry. Lewis would end his act with Great Balls of Fire and then torch his piano.

The man who enraged Lewis was the radio personality who is credited with coining the term “Rock and Roll,” Alan Freed.

While many remember Freed for his involvement in accepting payola for playing records on his radio show, Freed was instrumental in integrating Top 40 radio with black artists.

Motown Sound

Contemporary music on the “kid’s stations” was integrated with the birth of this type of radio. Everything that wasn’t your parent’s music was embraced. It was the silent rebellion for many of us.

My favorite artists were The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Al Green, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson among many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.

I remember thinking; I should have been born black.

But it was Alan Freed that would be the first to break down the color barrier and integrate the music he played over the radio. It’s almost hard to believe that people in his day considered Freed a threat to society because he was playing “race music.”

You can read a really interesting history about Alan Freed and this period in his life at my professor friend Jay Douglas’ “Out of My Mind” blog.

Radio Formats Begin to Silo

As music radio began moving from AM to FM, the Top 40 – or the best of the newest songs type of format – began to silo into their own formats. Depending on who’s counting, there are at least 20 different music radio formats today. It’s hard to find any radio station nowadays that plays the wide variety of artists, styles and music that one could hear over a single radio station back in the 70s, as this 1970 Top 100 Songs from WABC demonstrates.

Bowling Alone

In  2001, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone. His thesis was that our American society was breaking down as we became more disconnected from our families, our neighbors, our communities and from the republic itself. While once upon a time bowling leagues had thousands of members, today we are more likely to bowl alone.

The great Yogi Berra captured this societal breakdown this way, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”

PTSD

More recently, Sebastian Junger made an interesting observation about PTSD. What he wrote about and famously talks about in his TED Talk is that soldiers don’t experience PTSD from being at war, but from coming back home to America where today’s society is such a disconnect from the close tribal life of a soldier’s military unit. Where they eat together, sleep together, care for one another and protect each other’s life. When they come home from today’s modern warfront, what they find is an alienating and bitterly divided modern society. Maybe a better term for what our soldiers feel should be called “post deployment alienation disorder” says Junger.

The question becomes not can we save our vets, but can we save ourselves?

For radio’s future, the question might not be all that different.

19 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales, Uncategorized

19 responses to “When Radio Was Color Blind

  1. James Heckel

    There’s a movement afoot to drop the word “disorder” from the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The argument is made that all soldiers who have experienced combat have post traumatic stress, which they express in many different and not always obvious ways. “Disorder” places a stigma on a condition which is in reality universally suffered by the combat veteran. This stigma discourages many from seeking treatment. Let’s lose the “D” word folks. Call it “PTS.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Sebastian Junger is onto something in his observations of returning soldiers – including his own experiences as a war reporter – that the situation is one of “Post Deployment Alienation” or “PDA.”

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  2. Mike Harris

    When I emigrated from the UK to the USA, I landed in NYC and the taxi driver had 77WABC on his radio. I believe it was Harry Harrison on-air at the time, and he was calling New York “the most exciting city in the world.” I knew I’d arrived! All the WABC jocks conformed to the MusicRadio ‘style’ but each was able to inject their own personality. Like you, I had no idea that Chuck Leonard was black and it never occurred to me to think what color he was – or any of the other on-air staff either – any more than I wondered how tall they were. Their voices and their personalities were everything, along with the music, the reverb and the PAMS jingles. I stuck with WABC until the very end, and can remember pulling over to the side of the road and sadly listening as the jocks said their farewells and MusicRadio became “all talk WABC.” I still remember Chuck Leonard fondly and miss hearing his voice. I read a memoir by Rick Sklar (who was WABC’s PD) and he noted that the station hesitated to use head shots of Leonard in their publicity at first until listeners got to know his voice, as they weren’t sure of the reaction to realizing that WABC had been the first to put a black jock on a mainstream (i.e. white/Top 40) station. I believe it was Dan Ingram who persuaded Sklar to hire Leonard away from WWRL, a New York R&B station. So glad they did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first air personality I heard on WABC was Roby Yonge on a vacation trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

      I had my little Zenith transistor radio with an ear piece and once I dialed in WABC as we drove the New York City area, I never stopped listening.

      I thought Roby was good, but then Dan Ingram would truly blow me away.

      WABC had stationality with strong personalities that could deliver radio in their own style without losing the All Americans Team sound.

      Thank You Mike for sharing your story.

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      • Mike Harris

        Roby Yonge! Yeah, the guy who was apparently fired for saying on-air that Paul McCartney might be dead – although Yonge claimed he’d already been fired and figured he had nothing to lose when he did the broadcast – and got turfed out of the studio! I grew up in England listening to offshore ‘pirate’ radio that was so thrilling to a young teenager. I decided I had to be a DJ and was a club disc jockey (with occasional radio jobs) before emigrating. Never made it to US radio, but I now live in Nashville and do a fair bit of voiceover work, so it kinda worked out! And yes, Ingram was the best. He never took himself seriously, and he made the listener feel that he was ‘in’ on the joke. In my experience, he never failed to ‘hit the post,’ and this was before voice-tracking.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Growing up as a teenager in Chicago in the ’70s I had the same extraordinary experience as a radio listener thanks to another ABC O&O, WLS Musicradio, where the smoothest pipes on the air belonged to the enchanting “Queen of Rock,” Yvonne Daniels, daughter of African-American jazz great Billy Daniels. And what a playlist they boasted! You could hear a sequence that included Chicago R&B, hard rock, bubblegum, pop and even a novelty song–all in a row. Stations that boast of “variety” today have no idea what true variety is.

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  4. Another great post Dick! I remember sitting in my Dad’s brand new 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 down in Miami Beach on vacation in the summer of ’66 listening to WABC like it was a local station. In 1976 when I started working at WABC Chuck was still the “Best that Ever Did It” and those of us on the 4-midnight shift ended our night with him. He was (as were the rest of the WABC on the air crew) one of a kind. It was a time that only comes about once in a lifetime. So glad I was there for part of it!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The focus and concentration of radio at that time is truly amazing. You WERE in the right place in radio’s history Frank. No doubt about it.

      Listening to WABC Rewound 2016 and everything sounds as alive and focused as when it first aired. It STILL gives me chills.

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  5. Great piece, Dick. Always a pleasure to read your posts. And thanks for the plug for my story on Alan Freed. I am a native of The Bronx and had many friends in radio in New York. My first paying gig at a radio station was at WHN. A few years earlier, WHN had been WMGM, which competed fiercely with WINS at the start of the Top 40 era. So many of the people I worked with at WHN had been competing against Freed in his WINS days.

    The stories I could tell (if I even remotely assumed they were true).

    Mike Harris is indeed correct. WABC’s Dan Ingram had a large hand in getting Chuck Leonard to the station. since the management of the station had brought him to New York City after he had been on the air in Baltimore for a little more than a year.

    Leonard was working at the Washington Evening Star in D.C., under a guy named Carl Bernstein. Leonard also moonlighted at WEBB, an R&B station in Baltimore. He quickly made more money on the radio than he did working at the paper.

    WEBB’s management also owned WOL in D.C. and asked him to move there. Then, they changed their minds and sent him to WWRL in New York.

    Dan Ingram heard Leonard on the air and told Wally Schwartz, then WABC’s GM, to find a way to bring Leonard over to the station. After a little back-and-forth haggling, in which Leonard turned down two job offers from Rick Sklar (WABC’s PD), everybody finally came to terms.

    Leonard made the transition from WWRL to WABC in seven weeks (not a typo).

    According to WABC lore, and Rick Sklar’s comments, Leonard was the first African-American DJ on a major market station (by which I assume Sklar meant top ten market, since I believe Baltimore was in the top 25 in the 60s.)

    I grew up listening to WABC (how could you not—it had a signal you could hear on your washing machine), and I was always proud of its service to the community. I guess that’s what happens when a radio station is run by—you should pardon the expression—radio people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m a little younger, but for me I remember listening to KAAY, and WSB. We were also fortunate to have a great local AM in our town (WKIZ – Key West) complete with Tanner jingles and weekly surveys. Then 1973, the birth of FM top 40 (with Y-100 Miami) and other great stations in South Florida. 96X, I95, WAXY, WSHE, WBUS (WWWL), K102 etc. For me, the birth of FM radio was just as exciting. As for WKIZ, it continued to spin records and Tanner jingles till 1989! I was one of the last disc jockeys to be live on this 250W AM before it it would go to a D/C live assist reel format, N/T, and now Spanish. I would also leave AM for the opportunity to do mornings on a new FM (WPIK).

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  7. Djmc

    Gee…how many rock stations actually employ a black DJ nowadays??

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  8. So really, how many rock radio stations hire black DJ’s nowadays?

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  9. ‘Enjoyed your post, Dick, but may I offer a slight correction. Alan Freed was not convicted of payola – the practice controversial though not illegal – but fined $300 for two counts of commercial bribery after an exasperating and expensive legal battle. A small point, perhaps, but I believe an important clarification. Thanks …

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  10. Dear Lord, do I EVER remember those days. As a teenie bopper in love with my Dad’s protégé whose radio name was ‘Bob Wayne’….Ingrained in my mind, heart & soul is the one day after his motorcycle death when my Dad came to my bedroom to tell me. Thank God for diaries. I turned mine and wrote of my horrible shock that DAY. HIS memory led me to a carreer in radio.

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