In the midst of preparing lessons for back-to-school, I learned that August 20th was designated as National Radio Day. The convergence of radio tribute with my preparations for the start of school seemed appropriate. As I grew up, the music and chatter from an AM radio served as the soundtrack for school mornings, after school hang-outs, and evening homework sessions. The dial on our small transistor radio was fixed to one station and one station only- 77WABC. Like so many school children in the greater New York area, the echoic memory center of my brain imprinted the voices from three radio personalities from this radio station: Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram, and Cousin Brucie Morrow.
Harry Harrison’s morning program announced the weather and those oh-so-important school snow cancellations. Between songs and commercials, he would flirt with all the mothers rushing to get children out the door. “Come over to the radio,” he would coo, “I’ll zip you up!” There would be a sound-byte: <<<<ZIPPP!>>>> followed by a chorus of recorded female voices, “Thanks, Harry!” Political correctness was not in vogue during my youth.
After school hours were given over to Dan Ingram, a DJ who mastered artful repetition. While important geometric theorems, irregular French verbs, and the names of specific geographic land masses have left my memory, hearing a song from the 1960s-70s brings a clear recollection of the lyrics and stylized vocals of lead and background singers. He played (and over-played) The Beach Boys’s Good Vibrations, The Association’s Windy, The Carpenters’s Close to You, or The Monkees’s Daydream Believer; a mere three bars of the introduction is enough to trigger a flashback to a particular time or place.
Now that I teach, I try to use the powerful bond of audio recitation in order to help students memorize. I now recognize the success of WABC radio was in its formula of redundancy; if Ingram wanted an audience to know a song or product, he would play that musical selection or commercial unapologetically, sometimes 10-12 times during his show.
Finally, there was Cousin Brucie Morrow in the evenings. His contribution was his role in introducing me, and thousands of other screaming pre-teens and teenagers, to the Beatles. As I would do my homework, the distraction by “All My Lovin’” necessitated a sing-a-long, “A Hard Day’s Night” needed a little dance, and “Penny Lane” was cranked loud enough for everyone -even the parents-to enjoy. Cousin Brucie’s patter was fast; his commercial promotions were smooth. His jester-like laugh was often the last sound heard before falling asleep.
The combined power of these three personalities was evident in the collective of fans who listened to 77WABC. There is a dedicated website WABC Music Radio that offers a collection of audio clips, biographies, playlists, interviews and photos for those feeling nostalgic. A quick listen to two audio clips can flood a fan with memories:
Thousands of schoolchildren grew up in this shared atmosphere of Motown soul, pop, hard rock, and surf music. The same, however, cannot be said for students today who have complete control over their individualized radio diet. They can personalize their own music selections through radio Internet stations such as Pandora, Rhapsody, Last.fm, iHeartRadio or Spotify. There are subscription radio formats such as Sirius and XM radio. There are the non-profit stations for National Public Radio and colleges, and all of these options have crowded out the once dominant commercial AM radio stations.
The range of choice for radio programming today is mind-boggling; students can tailor music to meet their every mood or occasion. Yet with this choice, the collective experience of sound, that audio community has vanished. As one of the few options available, 77WABC developed a congregation of devoted listeners. We knew the personalities that shared songs with us. We knew their routines, their cliches, and their schtick. We knew the songs they played, over and over and over. 77WABC radio was a shared soundtrack for growing up, a sharing that does not exist today.
So, Happy Belated National Radio Day and thanks, Dan. Thanks, Cousin Brucie. Thanks, Harry…(but, I’ll zip myself up.)