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Jerry Williams, Boston's irrepressible dean of issue-oriented talk radio, never got to say goodbye. and he's still mad as hell about it
By Mark Pothier, Globe Staff, 6/16/2002
HE AUDIENCE IS SMALL - four visitors on a rain-splattered afternoon in his Marshfield home - but Jerry Williams is on. The talk radio pioneer has listeners.
For a long time, thousands of people in Greater Boston and beyond heard his voice. Williams rode a 50,000-watt wave that swamped city halls and flooded Beacon Hill. He ignored death threats to interview Malcolm X, enraged hardhats by condemning the Vietnam War early on, and, some say, lost his spark at the end of a fiery career.
Fifty years in the business earned him one day's notice in 1998 from WRKO, his last regular employer. Except for an aborted comeback attempt at WMEX two years ago, Williams has not been behind a microphone since.
It was a finish without a proper farewell.
"I'm sort of stunned still," he says. "I'd like to do something else."
These days, Williams's body is not as strong as his resolve to get back on the air, maybe in Florida, where his three daughters live. His wife died a few years ago. Williams uses a walker to move about, and he is being tested for Parkinson's disease.
"I fell off my bed some months ago and broke a vertebra, so I'm healing," he says.
But his worst pain may not be physical. "I just wanted to do a last week of shows at 'RKO. I didn't want to do tearful goodbyes every day. After all, I'd been there a long time. They wouldn't let me do it. . . . I guess I was making too much money." WRKO referred questions about Williams to Entercom, the company that bought the station in 1998 from CBS.
An assistant for John Donlevie, Entercom's general counsel, said Donlevie did not know Williams and could not comment.
Another local talk radio legend, Paul Benzaquin, says, "When you talk for a certain amount of time, you become junk to a station." Benzaquin, who spent 35 years in radio and television, retired in 1989, because "I saw it coming. . . . You have to plan your own funeral in talk radio, and I don't think Jerry planned his. But Jerry knew his stuff. He knew everything that was going on at the State House. I think his contributions are rather large, and I think somebody ought to take note of it."
Williams's largest contribution was issue-oriented talk, and sometimes that meant pummeling a topic for weeks. To those on the receiving end, it sounded like fingernails scraping a mile-long chalkboard.
"He is a good, honest man who could drive you nuts," says WBZ radio's David Brudnoy. "When he got on a hobbyhorse, you could throttle him."
At 78, Williams acts like a man more likely to get hugged than throttled. He looks thinner than he does in old publicity photos, and a pressed plaid shirt hangs from his narrow shoulders. His voice has lost volume, but none of its authority. Gene Burns, a popular talk show host at KGO in San Francisco, was at WRKO in the late 1980s, when Williams's influence helped repeal the state's seat belt law and scuttle Governor Michael Dukakis's plans for a big prison in a tiny town.
"God, he was like a bulldog," Burns says. "He would take an issue and just rip it to shreds until he got what he needed to get done." Burns turned over the studio to Williams at 2 p.m. on weekdays and introduced him as "the dean of talk radio."
"In one sense, I would be compelled to say the business treated him badly," Burns says. " 'RKO just perfunctorily let him go when he was of no further use to them. But the other side is you've got to get off the elevator when it's at the penthouse."
Williams's 1820 house is filled with enough antiques to stock a shop. An embroidered pillow reads, "I'm not bossy, I just have better ideas." Old-fashioned radios share the living room loft with a spittoon collection, and the slogan on a framed poster could have applied to the dean himself: "radio's richest voice."
"How do I look?" he asks a reporter. "I'm taking, what is it?" He looks toward friend Jim Maurer, who is sitting nearby. "Physical therapy," says Maurer. He is director of research communications for the Parkinson Alliance, a New Jersey-based group, and has Parkinson's. Maurer says Williams exhibits some symptoms of the disease -- stooped posture, slowed movements, and a loss of balance.
Williams rattles off the call letters of radio stations from his past as though he is reading a bowl of alphabet soup, but dates of employment can temporarily blur. "A year ago," Maurer says, "he would have spit out what day of the week and what month they were -- Parkinson's delays our ability to pull those things back out."
Williams was born in Brooklyn, got his first radio job in 1946 at New York's WMCA, and the next year went to WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee.
In the 1950s at WIP in Philadelphia, he met Mac Richmond, co-owner of WMEX in Boston. Richmond hired him in 1957.
"Mac paid me big money, $1 an hour," he jokes. "But with all his eccentricities, he knew what radio was about."
Williams followed rock 'n' roll DJ Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg at 10 p.m. with talk about important issues. Or at least he tried.
"It was tough to get those kids off the phone. When I sat down, I was inundated" with listeners still calling for Ginsburg. " ' MEX was the greatest radio show that I have ever done, because it was new, it was fresh. . . . I had Malcolm X on almost a dozen times. Nobody wanted anything to do with him. He wasn't saying anything that radical." Their encounters included a six-hour marathon, rants from racist callers, and a final on-air conversation 11 days before Malcolm X was killed in 1965.
Talk radio, long cluttered by celebrity chatter, became serious business in Boston.
"He had something like 50 percent shares [that is, about half the listening audience at any given point], which is unheard of," says Bob Katzen, who runs the Beacon Hill Roll Call legislative news serv ice and was often a guest on Williams's WRKO program. Williams left WMEX after eight years, worked three years at WBBM in Chicago, and returned to Boston in 1968, this time on WBZ. After dark, the station's clear-channel signal boomed into 38 states. He fed off the power and fed listeners a steady diet of Vietnam and Richard Nixon. His distrust of Nixon led to a skepticism about government -- local, state, and federal -- that never faded.
"Some of the guys who called during the war were really touching," he says. During his 1972 campaign for president, in which he opposed the Vietnam War, Senator George McGovern sometimes played a tape recording of one Williams call-in at his rallies.
"He was a veteran from East Boston," Williams says of the caller. "He wanted to tell me about what it was like in Vietnam; he had just gotten back. You could tell he was choking up."
The tape, which some doubted was authentic, made network television news. Williams says it put his name on Nixon's "enemies list." Station management was not pleased.
"Even other radio stations were playing the tape, and we couldn't play it on 'BZ, where it originated. I made my point, but I was on the way out. . . . That call was their excuse to eventually fire me."
Williams stops and tinkers with a cordless phone on the couch. "The prestige of that station," he says without looking up. "If I could go back, I would."
Dan Rea, the veteran WBZ-TV newsman, was hired in 1974 by WBZ radio as a conservative counterbalance to Williams."Jerry, I think it was fair to say, didn't like me," Rea says. "His passion sometimes allowed him to become intolerant of other viewpoints."
Rea says Williams's impact on talk radio was significant and has been significantly underappreciated.
"We tend not to honor those who have contributed for a long time," he says. "If Jerry had worked as a waiter at a restaurant for as long as he worked as a broadcaster, he would have been feted."
A radio host's career -- even one like Williams's -- is less stable than Argentina's economy. After he left WBZ in 1976, he talked along the East Coast, starting with Hartford.
"I think I did a year in Hartford, God help me. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, nobody was on the streets."
He broadcast in New York, Boston again (at WITS), Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
In 1978, Larry King asked for advice -- Mutual Radio had offered him a syndicated show, but the hours were unusual.
"I told him if he didn't take the job, I would," Williams says. "He was the only overnight talk host in America."
In an e-mail message, King says: "Everybody who has ever done talk radio owes Jerry Williams a debt. He was the first of the great muckrakers."
Williams sips from a glass of cranberry juice and considers the words.
While King was on the way to fame, Williams went to Miami's WNWS in 1980, seeking palm trees and warm breezes. He got gas pumps and concrete walls. "This station I was with had an industrial feel about it. You'd walk outside and there was a gas station."
It had cheap carpets, too.
"I ordered carpeting for my office, something like 15 to 20 dollars a yard. When I came in the next morning, they had replaced it with outdoor carpeting. I grabbed the general manager's desk and tipped it over on him and said, `I'm leaving.' "
Williams's career path took its sharpest turn after he returned to Boston in 1981 and went to work at WRKO- all the way from liberalism to a fiscal conservatism rooted in his dislike for Dukakis, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Boston Mayor Kev in H. White.
"He never became a big-L libertarian, but he became a more conservatively oriented, old-fash ioned liberal," Brudnoy says. He had the 6 to 10 p.m. shift, after Williams.
"We just rocked, and it was really nice," Brudnoy says. But they got off to a rocky start.
"I don't think Brudnoy appreciated the fact that I was going to be on," Williams says. "He kept taking calls about me that were ugly, and he would not say one word in my defense. There was quiet, quiet as another caller put another needle in me, another knife. Finally, I went to him in the office and said, `David, I'm really sick of it.' And he said, `Oh, I didn't mean anything by it.' I pulled the telephone out of the wall and threw it at him. . . . But he's always treated me nicely since that period of time."
Williams' first words on the air at WRKO, or Talkradio 68, were: "I'm back, Kevin, I'm back."
He says that "it annoyed the hell out of" Mayor White.
So did an irreverent 1982 interview with the "mayor" that actually featured an impersonation of his honor by a San Francisco comedian. The City Hall switchboard "lit up like a Christmas tree in July," a White aide said at the time. The hoax cost producer Paul Yovino his job. Williams says that he pleaded with management to spare Yovino and that he offered to resign himself.
But Yovino says he felt abandoned, and when a reporter asked about the incident at the time, he says his answer was aimed to wound Williams:
"I said, now I know what it must have been like to have been part of the Nixon administration during Watergate and to be left twisting in the wind. Jerry read the whole story on the air, and he was crying." It was written by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, who would one day have Williams's drive-time slot on WRKO.
Yovino says he does not regret the White episode, "even though it ended badly for me." He does regret that modern talk radio values shouting over substance.
"To stay on the Vietnam War, the Big Dig, to stay on Kevin White day in and day out, it's just frowned upon by management," he says, "because I think the attention span of the average listener is minuscule."
Williams says he does not listen to radio now, because it is talk without conversation: "A caller has to be engaging. It's what we're not getting these days; whether it's two women or four guys, nobody is engaging one another."
He used to attract hordes of female listeners during a week of sex-survey shows. The idea came from a Cosmopolitan magazine quiz on women's sexual preferences. The questions, especially in 1982, shocked listeners who expected afternoon airwaves to be filled with nothing dirtier than conversation about trash pickup. Topics included masturbation, bondage, sadomasochism, and preferred positions. Men were forbidden because "men lie."
"Women would call Jerry Williams up and tell him things they wouldn't tell their priests," Burns says.
The phone lines sizzled and so did critics, who demanded that Williams stop. He made it an annual event.
Seat belts caused even more controversy than sex. Williams was incensed by a state law requiring seat belt use and blamed it on Democrat Dukakis.
"What we said about the law," says Williams, "was true: It would raise [insurance] rates, police could look in the car, we were going to have an intrusive law. Those were my reasons; wear them, but do it voluntarily."
He repeated those reasons tirelessly in 1986, working his supporters into a frenzy. They collected signatures to put a repeal question on the November ballot. Williams's on-air response to one seat belt advocate was typical: "We're going to win this fight for freedom, you dummy!" And they did, with just over half the voters favoring repeal. (The law was reinstated in 1994 by a wide margin.)
His Dukakis fixation took him in 1987 to New Braintree; the governor wanted to build a 500-inmate prison in the small central Massachusetts town. Williams led a rally of about 5,000 people at the proposed site and complained that newspapers underplayed the story. Dukakis did not go ahead with his plans, and the next governor, Republican William Weld, canceled the project.
"He was a talk show host's talk show host," Burns says. "The man had elegant timing and an incredible sense for what would be the hot button."
By the late '80s, the state's economic rebound, called the "Massachusetts Miracle," had fizzled. The recession fueled anger, and talk radio set it ablaze. Williams, Howie Carr, and Barbara Anderson (the executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation) started regular Tuesday sessions on 'RKO
and called themselves "The Governors" after a columnist wrote that they acted as though they were running the state. They took on bureaucracy, no-show jobs, welfare spending, and elected officials who found cushy niches for friends and relatives. Carr pummeled government workers as "hacks," Anderson preached fiscal stinginess, and Williams piled on well-paced outrage. Sometimes they condensed complicated issues to simple rants, but it made for good radio, and nervous legislators monitored every word.
Williams "was going against government," Carr says. "I don't think he was going against most people around here."
The Governors backed a tax-cutting referendum question in 1990, but this time, Williams lost. For a couple of years afterward, The Governors continued sparring with the state's political establishment, but the arguments were flabby, the punch lines soft.
"After a while, I was kind of not looking forward to The Governors," Anderson says. "It was the same thing over and over. We thought that if we could show people what it was really like, that their natural reaction would be to do something about it. Instead, the public reacted with disgust and, it seemed to me, cynicism and despair. They dropped out and just didn't want to hear it anymore."
But they remembered. "For years," Anderson says, "not a week went by that someone didn't come up to me and say, `I listen to you and Jerry and Howie.' People really, really have a warm spot in their hearts for Jerry."
She is not surprised he was fired.
"Jerry wasn't about to retire -- they had to get rid of him. . . . The people I admire are the ones that rage against the inevitable, and Jerry isn't going quietly."
Much of Williams's restlessness has to do with Carr's own ratings success on WRKO, which, Williams is convinced, came at his expense.
"He says nice things about me now that he's got the job. You know what Howie used to do? Every time he mentioned me in the paper, he'd always point out that I was older. He did it all the time, and he'd deny it."
Carr says he has not seen or spoken with Williams for years. Being on Williams's show "was special because I'd grown up listening to him." Radio changed, Carr says, but the man who taught him how to keep listeners from tuning out did not.
"Everything is blended together -- entertainment and journalism. That always bothered Jerry, when I never thought it should." He insists that Williams's demise was not his doing: "My name's Howie Carr, not Father Time."
In 1994, Williams was shuffled to mornings, his on-air time cut in half. Carr built an audience from 3 to 7 p.m., and eventually Williams got weekend exile, where older callers dominated and favored soft nostalgia over hard news.
"He had to know that, near the end, people didn't want to hear another show about the Big Dig, ever, but he did it," Anderson says. "He cared about the truth and he cared about the issues. It wasn't just about what's good for ratings, and I think that's maybe what did him in."
Williams admits that he "might have come to a plateau," but wanted to keep broadcasting, to keep trolling for trouble. It is difficult to imagine him thriving in a radio environment where shouts smother subtlety and name calling based on religion, sexual orientation, or weight is standard. The worst taunt Williams used to muster was "You old biddy!"
A smile crinkles his face when he recites some signature phrases.
Frustration inspired "I'm getting out of the business."
"They're out there" followed callers who did not make sense.
A politician who agreed with him was "not a bad guy."
And one old line -- "I never had a dinner" -- was his semi-serious way of saying he was not appreciated.
"Every week I was going to a dinner for some politician, and I'd say, `I never had a dinner.' I stole that from Red Buttons."
In his waning radio days, the line sounded like an expression of regret. But now, on the mend from his fall, he wants to converse with new people on a new show about the changed world. He wants to talk about all that has happened since September 11.
"I don't know exactly where I was," he says of that awful morning. If the memory lapse troubles him, it does not show, and with the ease of a man who honed his timing in a half-century of practice, he glides into another story. "I do know where I was when Kennedy was shot -- Jack and Marion's, Brookline, one of the great, great delis of all time. There's never been another corned beef sandwich."
So good that it was almost like having a dinner.
Mark Pothier is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.