Memories of Joe Somerset

| September 3, 2013

By Curt Hahn

 

hahnwriterPUERTA VALLARTA — My friend and mentor Joe Somerset passed away Thursday night due to complications following a fall Sunday night at home.

It was 1958 when Joe and I met.  I was a Brown sophomore, he was the program guy at WPRO radio, which had just been purchased by a new company out of Albany, New York — Capital Cities Television.  Joe had joined the company in its infancy and brought his radio knowledge to this young TV-oriented company.

WPRO took the Providence market by storm with its top 40 format.  I worked weekends, overnights, snow days and holidays.  Rarely did I hear from Joe, unless I’d done something remarkably stupid.  He was certainly the most non-directive program director I ever worked for.  The instructions were simple: follow the format!

Flash forward about eight or nine years to when I was leaving the Air Force, getting married and looking for a job.  Joe was there for me and I rejoined Capital Cities as a PD.  From Huntington, West Virginia to Albany, to New York City to Detroit, through those assignments over some 14 years, Joe and I worked together and I learned from him.

But not so much about the day-to-day about radio.  Joe taught me about radio’s most valuable ingredient: the listener.

It’s true that Joe worked for Gordon McLendon in Dallas when top 40 was born.  It’s also true that Joe pioneered the “beautiful music” format in San Francisco at KABL (“in the air, everywhere”).  He certainly knew the mechanics of radio.

Promo, promo, promo.  Call letters, call letters, call letters.  A very tight playlist back in those days.  On a six-hour overnight shift you’d go through the rotation at least three times!

Joe’s genius was in his understanding of the listener.  He had such a great insight into people, their habits, why they listened, where they listened and he never stopped probing those habits.  Not with big research projects, but by observation and conversation.

He was a very kind and thoughtful man.  Rarely did I see him angry.  He wouldn’t indulge himself with that.  He liked to think of himself as a curmudgeon.  But he was too kind to really be one.

Devoted to his wife and son, Joe was a solitary, quiet guy.  He always had time to listen.  He listened more than he talked.  And he wrote.

He wrote some of the greatest vignettes and license applications (back in the day when that mattered) I’ve ever read.  Imagine Lowell Thomas intoning Joe’s copy extolling New York’s Capital District and its heritage in a 60-second scene-setter, an essential part of the beautiful music format presentation at WROW.

The opening narrative of the FCC license application for the purchase of WPVI-TV in Philadelphia that began with a wonderful word picture of Ben Franklin strolling down a street in the City of Brotherly love.  It was great prose and told of the great stewardship CapCities would bring to the station.

Later in life, back in his hometown of Boston, he wrote and published two novels.  Wrote them out on a legal pad.  Then took the completed work to his MacBook — or what he called “that damned machine!”  Joe loved Boston and knew the streets and alleys like the back of his hand.  He’d been a messenger boy on bicycle as a kid.

He was a private person.  He loved talking about his messenger boy days and Boston “back then.”  He and Weymouth, his wife of 50 years, shared stories about the days when they produced summer theater in Connecticut.  But you’d get only a glimpse here and there about their personal life.  They both preferred to listen.

There’s no one in my life that I’ve known longer, except my brother who happens to be Joe’s age.  What a big empty space that leaves when someone you’ve known “forever” won’t be there anymore.  But there will be those memories of one superb “radio guy” whose quiet manners brought him great success and satisfaction without the spotlights.

Joe, thanks for your kindness, friendship, insight and the challenges.

tbugk

Curt Hahn is a former Capital Cities executive and former owner of WNNZ, Springfield, Massachusetts.  He is retired but can be reached at curthahn@gmail.com.

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