Get Your Attaboys Here
“Anyone who works is a fool. I don’t work - I inflict myself upon the public.”---Robert Morley
Whenever I watch Donald Trump fire someone on his TV program I recall that day, June 6, 1983, I and most of the staff got the ax.
WSAR was an all talk station for about four years. There was some success, especially when Steve Cass did the morning show, 8:30 to noon. Ken McLean, who was the mid-day host as well as program director. We were good because we had a good sense of the topics listeners wanted to talk about.
It is the Holy Grail of talk radio that lots of calls means lots of listeners. That may be true as a generalization but, as I later learned in Boston, there were exceptions to the rule. We’ll embark on that matter later. But in a small market like Fall River lots of calls created the perception of success for potential advertisers. We needed to get and keep those lines lit up.
A good example of that was a trivia show Bill Sylvia did on Saturday mornings. Good trivia questions are those which make you nod your head in agreement when you hear the answer to the question. When the questions are posed for the mere sake of posing questions, they become boring fast. Throw in prizes however, and away you go. Those not interested in winning a prize will soon get bored and listeners move along. However, a sharp salesman will point to the phone activity and sell advertising at fairly high rates.
The trivia show had lines cooking before the show went on the air. There is an element of the public who wants something for nothing. Anything at all will do.
I used to give away “Attaboys” to listeners. Most caught on, but there was a large group who thought it must be something of value. The poor producers were left with the task of informing the listener what an “Attaboy” really is. More than a few listeners complained bitterly about being fooled and some called management the next day.
Even when I prefaced my remarks with a statement that “I didn’t have any real prizes” but I would still offer “Attaboys”, the hint was not sufficient to smooth everyone’s feathers.
On that fateful June 6th morning an “Attaboy” is what we all received when we were fired. We knew what the callers who expected something felt like.
The general manager read from a message prepared by the owner of WSAR which said in effect we didn’t do well enough and sales were down so he was changing the format.
Bob Fay the new GM had been brought in to shore up sales after Bob Nimms left a few months earlier (Bob Nimms passed away a few weeks time later). WALE in Fall River did talk radio for about twenty years before WSAR got into that format. There was also WEAN in Providence doing talk. Ditto in New Bedford with WBSM. WHJJ in Providence was starting as a talker too. The competition was plentiful. Add to that a day-timer in Taunton and WRKO talking in Boston, then throw in WBZ and WHDH (Boston) in the evenings and WSAR was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So the radio version of the Grim Reaper visited and swept us all away.
Bob asked me to stay behind after the others had left the office. He said he wanted to talk to me.
“Have you ever contacted the Boston and Providence stations for a job?”
“Who have you spoken with?”
“WEAN and WHJJ.” (In Providence.)
“No.” (I thought about where this may be going.)
“Nothing in Providence, they’re not interested?”
“Both stations think I’m too conservative and conservatives will never sell here or Boston. That’s what they say.”
“Have you contacted the Boston stations?”
“Yes, but I never hear back or reach anyone on the phone.”
“Interested in Boston?”
“You bet.” My heart began to beat a little harder. I asked him if he thought I could handle Boston. Mr. Fay told me I was as good as anyone in Boston.
Just then Bob Fay picked up the phone and called Mel Miller, program director at WRKO. He worked with him and Bob Fish, the station’s GM, in Boston for a long time when had been sales manager at WROR, the FM sister station to WRKO.
He got Mel on the phone and suggested he may want to interview me. Mel told him he had nothing to offer me at the moment but he’d talk to me anyway. Bob put me on the phone and we set up an appointment for the next morning (Thursday).
Sometime between the time we spoke and when I arrived Mel Miller got a call from his Saturday morning man, Lou Marcel. He told Mel Saturday would be his last day, e was moving on the do evenings at WBZ beginning the next Monday.
As I walked through his door, Mel Miller, without as much as saying hello asked, “What are you doing Saturday morning at five?”
“Sleeping like any sane person, why?”
“I need someone to do the show from five to ten. Lou Marcel called and he’s leaving. Too bad you’ll be sleeping.”
“Who needs sleep?”
After the necessary paper work was completed Mel suggested I simply be myself, relax and have fun. I’d be on with Lou and he’d show me the ropes.
WSAR went dark (radio term for shut down) at midnight. I took a call from an antagonistic caller who thought I was out of a job since WSAR was changing format. I had answered quite a few calls after announcing at the last minute it was my last show on WSAR and the station changing format on Monday morning. I said I’d take calls off air for a short while.
After turning the transmitter off I stayed in the studio for about a half hour saying goodbye to what had now become something of my radio family. Most were positive and supportive. One began to scream the moment I said hello. Apparently my political point of view didn’t set well with her because she said she hoped my family and I would starve, “Then I’d know what life was really like.” I said nothing and softly hung up the phone, shut off the lights and locked the front door behind me as I left.
I got about an hour of sleep that night. I arrived home after 1 AM. Shower, a glass of port, and sleep by about 2. The alarm screamed at me at three. In the studio by shortly after four.
At about 4:59 I was beginning to think I was going to be alone. Finally Lou Marcel walked into the studio. I was awed by the fact we had a board operator and a producer. Heck, I worked completely alone at WSAR. The equipment was first rate as were the creature comforts. Even the chairs were comfortable.
Lou opened the program and made only a passing reference to my presence. We got a call from a nurse in Lawrence. They were on strike and Lou and she talked for the whole first segment. Lou was not prepared and neither was I. I picked up the paper and dealt with some of the news there and we began to get calls.
At six Mother Nature called. Ron Hurst, as solid a newsman as there is anywhere was just wrapping up the six news.
There was no Lou in the studio with just a few seconds before we went on the air.
I asked the producer, “Where’s Lou?”
“Gone home. Mel Miller called and told him to leave. He saw a story in the Herald which announced Lou was starting at ‘BZ Monday. He didn’t want him here after that. You’re in charge now. Sit in the control chair.”
That was it. The remainder of the show is now just a blur. Less than 72 hours earlier I was jobless with no hope for another job. Now I was working in a major league station.
As I left the studio I thought about how great it was to have had the opportunity of broadcasting there. It was sort of like the feeling a baseball player gets during a September call up and actually plays a Major League game.
Just then the producer motioned that I had a call. It was Mel Miller. He asked what plans I had for next Saturday morning.
I thought that week was really something, full of surprises, both bad and good.
Well that was nothing compared to what I had in store for me. The roller coaster ride had just begun.
Mel Miller called on Monday morning and asked if I could come in late “tomorrow morning” and he’d tell me what he expected of me. He’d also critique my tape from Saturday.
I arrived at the station at about eleven. Mel took take me to lunch and later introduced me to the general manager.
As I sat down in the Miller office, Paula O’Connor (who now is the program director at WTKK-FM, WRKO’s current primary talker challenger) entered the office informing Mel he had an important call. It was Jerry Williams. “He isn’t well. He can’t do his show today.”
Mel looked at me and smiled. “Can you stick around and do the Williams show?”
Jerry’s show was on 2 to 6. His producer was a young man named Alan Tolz who had moved from Philadelphia when Gerry came to WRKO. They had worked together in Philadelphia a few years before.
“We’ve got a guest scheduled. I can blow him off for you if you want.”
“He’s a keeper. Why is he here?”
“Promoting his appearance at the North Shore Music Tent?”
For some reason Day 'O and Jamaica Farewell ran through my mind.
Alan was aware I was far more conservative than Bellefonte. He said this was strictly a show promotion. Maybe we shouldn’t lock political horns. He spoke with Bellefonte who agreed it would not have much promotional value should we get into a heated political argument.
We did have a good conversation and talked about the state of the music and record industry, his music, his smoky speaking voice which turned to silk when he sang, everything except politics. Even off air he was relaxed and non political.
My first major show and it went smoothly.
More than twenty years later I wrote the following on Jerry’s memorial web site:
“One of my fondest memories of Jerry goes back to 1983, when I first started at WRKO. I was intimidated by being at such a powerful station and working with people like Jerry, David Brudnoy, and Guy Manilla. Jerry stopped me in the hall one day and told me I was going to be OK and just be myself. He said the talk business was really very simple, just be honest and talk about whatever bothered me or made me feel very good. Others would probably feel the same way. Don't be afraid to talk, ‘That's why they call us talkmasters.’”
When I headed for the exit I was intercepted by Mel Miller who suggested we have dinner the next night at six. I agreed.
The next day Mr. Miller was on the phone when I arrived and signaled me to wait a minute. When he finished his call he asked me to see Jon Keller, David Brudnoy’s producer. Brudnoy was sick and would not be in.
Mel asked, “OK with you?”
One of my all-time favorite people was Johnny Most, the longtime voice of the Boston Celtics. You remember his signature “High above courtside”. Johnny had a stroke a few months before and was in the recovery process. David had scheduled Johnny as his guest. No, not to talk basketball. Rather it was to talk about stroke recovery and, secondarily, Johnny’s poetry. Yes, Johnny Most was a poet.
Johnny even read a couple of his poems and had calls from women, something we had not expected.
Johnny Most, the Renaissance Man?
His poetry? I’d rather not say. A bard he was not.
I still had not sat down with Mel Miller for him to critique my work.
As I headed home he intercepted me again and pulled me into his office. It was midnight and he wanted to get my “paper work” done. The next day was Friday and he needed to get his time sheets in and we had not even agreed on a salary.
Finally we got together.
Time to play the money game.
Mel asked me how much money I was seeking? Before I could respond he told me how much his budget would allow. I was surprised by the amount. Before I left for Boston, Helen and I discussed how much I should ask for. We arrived at a figure about half what I was offered. My head spun.
WSAR was a good station and paid what the market was able to pay. The difference was population. Fall River is a minor league market while Boston is major league. It had everything to do with the potential audience size and the advertising rates the stations could charge. The salary differences reflected that.
Finally Saturday came around again and I was going to do my own show, my way. That’s what the boss wanted.
My second Saturday at WRKO could not have been more eventful. Politics made up most of our discussions. Not very different from today. Of course politicians have always been accused of slinging manure. Well, what was the topic of discussion that morning?
There was a plea from the Department of Public Works. They needed shovelers right away. It seems a manure truck tipped over in the South Station Tunnel and the DPW needed workers to shovel up the mess.
That was my first experience with a big dig.
As I left the station that morning I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an omen.
Boston’s first “Big Dig”, I thought. The next one was full of…… Oh, you get the idea.