Monday, September 22, 2008

Milkshakes for the Father of Talk Radio

It wasn't that I was young and stupid. It was that I was young and stupid and oblivious to broadcasting history.

Some time ago I was an intern at radio station WMCA in New York City. At the time it seemed like a pleasant way to pass the summer.

In the late '60s, the station began experimenting with a new format called "talk radio."

The year I came along, the on-air lineup included (“First shock jock”) Bob Grant, Sally Jesse Raphael (Remember her?) and talk show host Barry Gray.

I was an assistant to Gray’s assistant. I answered phones, did paperwork, booked shows, poured coffee for guests and fetched chocolate milkshakes for Gray. At the time, my impression of Gray was not a good one and I resented the milkshake errands.

Years later I stumbled across a book entitled, "My Night People," his autobiography.

And then I wished I'd asked Gray, an outspoken critic of Senator McCarthy's Red Scare, about his feud with the godfather of gossip, Walter Winchell.

About the fan who showed up at his radio studio at 3:45 am and asked to go on the air.

Al Jolson.

The singer sang and talked as the studio quickly filled up with a live audience.

Jolson: I'll sing anything.
Gray: My favorite in the movie is "Rosie."
Gray (after Jolson finished singing): You can shoot me now while I'm happy.

And I should have asked Gray about the night in 1945 when, as a WMCA disc jockey, he got bored of just playing music and put a caller on the air. The caller was Woody Herman. And the conversation was a hit with listeners.

Gray earned the distinction of being regarded as "the father of talk radio."

WMCA talk radio is now a Christian format. Then-station owner Peter Straus is now married to Monica Lewinsky's mother. Bob Grant, just the other month, went off the WOR air after 50 years on.

And Barry Gray, according to Wikipedia, died ten years ago.

If I only knew then what I know now.

A good reporter doesn’t overlook the chocolate milkshakes.

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