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Jerry Williams, dean of talk radio in Boston, dead at 79
By Bipasha Ray, Associated Press, 4/29/03
BOSTON Jerry Williams, considered one of the pioneers of talk radio and credited with making the format a catalyst for political change, died Tuesday. He was 79.
Williams died at Massachusetts General Hospital after a long illness, said Rod Fritz, news director of Boston's WRKO-AM, where Williams hosted a popular afternoon drivetime program in the 1980s.
"He started doing issues-oriented talk shows back in the 1950s, and it just blossomed from there," Fritz said of the man he called the "dean" of talk radio. "He's probably best known for his time in Boston, but he made waves everywhere he went, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago."
Paul Lyle, a board member of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, which Williams founded, said Williams was the first to prove that talk shows could effect political change.
"Whether we agreed or disagreed with him, we know that he did a lot for our industry, opened up doors for us, helped make it what it is today," said Lyle, a talk radio manager in Silverdale, Wash.
Williams started his radio career in Bristol, Tenn., in 1946 and later came to Boston to work for WMEX-AM. He became widely known at Boston's WBZ-AM, where he was on the air for eight years beginning in 1968 to an audience that covered 38 states and Canada.
In 1976, Williams joined WMCA/New York, and the following year he moved to WWDB/Philadelphia, where he became the first FM talk host, according to the Web site of the Radio Hall of Fame, where Williams was inducted in 1996.
Williams spearheaded many drives, including one to repeal Massachusetts' mandatory seat belt law in 1986, arguing that the government should not intrude on people's individual freedoms.
Chip Ford of Citizens for Limited Taxation credits his entry into political activism to Williams' campaign on the seat belt issue.
"He had his finger on the pulse of the average citizen, the taxpayer," Ford said. "And they loved him because he was speaking for them. He was saying things they didn't have the voice to say."
Williams' cantankerous style and populist views made him popular among listeners but often infuriated politicians and public officials. He became an especially harsh critic of then-Gov. Michael Dukakis.
"He would take his prisoners and he would fight his battles to the end," said Lyle. "But he always led with his heart. He was very passionate, very expressive."
He recalled how Williams would leap out of his chair when he got excited or riled up, and flail his hands around as he talked, whether he was behind the microphone or in public.
Williams was able to score important interviews at WROL, Fritz said, such as getting Malcolm X on his show at a time when the civil rights leader didn't like talking to the media.
He was also one of the first people, back in the 1980s, to be "yelling and screaming" about Boston's Big Dig highway project, accurately predicting that it couldn't be finished on time or on budget, Ford said.
"I'll remember him best as a gentle man, a curmudgeon, but a gentle man," Fritz said. "Even if he didn't like you, there was a respect there that only comes from a gentleman."
David Brudnoy, a talk show host at WBZ-AM, worked with Williams for five years at WRKO and remained a friend.
"We sometimes disagreed about issues, but the personal relationship was very warm," Brudnoy said. "He educated me in showing passion and not be embarrassed about showing that I cared."
Williams, who left WRKO in 1998, had been in semi-retirement in Marshfield, doing the occasional guest show. He is survived by three daughters.
Jimi Carter of WROL-AM of Boston, where Williams had done guest shows, said he'd always remember one piece of advice from Williams: "'If you can't be good, be loud."'