The Best Talk Station Ever: What the Radio Industry Can Learn from WMCA, Circa 1980

| August 25, 2014

By Bill Brady
Futures & Options, Inc.
President/CEO

 

bradybillwmca - oldJUPITER, FL — WMCA was the “little engine that could.”  In the 60s, it battled WABC for “top 40” supremacy in New York.  By the 70s, WMCA was “New York’s Conversation Station” and was giving legendary talk and variety station WOR a run for its money.  As a 5,000 watt station at 570, WMCA was always punching above its weight class against 50,000 watt flamethrowers WABC and WOR in the sprawling New York metropolitan area.

In 1980, WMCA had assembled a veritable All Star team of talk talent in the prime of their careers.

The irascible Bob Grant did mornings followed by Sally Jessy Raphael (9:00 am -12:00 noon), Barry Gray (12:00 noon – 2:00 pm) and Bruce Williams (2:00 pm -4:00 pm) middays, Barry Farber in afternoon drive (4:00 pm – 7:00 pm), the CBS Mystery Theatre early evenings, Candy Jones, Mets baseball and Islanders hockey at night and Larry King overnight.  Art Rust, Jr. hosted Sports Talk on weekends.

grant bobrafael sally jessygray barrywilliams brucefarberbarry (2)king larry 1980rust art jrGrant, who was already a news/talk star from stints at KABC and WOR, would go on to afternoon drive dominance at WABC.  Sally Jessy Raphael left for NBC Talknet, ABC Radio syndication and daytime television stardom.  Barry Gray defined New York talk and is considered by many industry observers to be the “father of talk radio.”  Bruce Williams became a giant in syndication with Talknet.  Farber was the conservative lion long before Rush Limbaugh and was on New York radio for decades, ran for Congress and Mayor of New York and had syndicated radio and TV shows.  In 1980, Larry King’s overnight radio show was at the height of its popularity before he would spend 25 years in prime time on CNN.  Art Rust, Jr., was a fixture on WABC for a number of years in the mid-80s.

Though not the news authority in the market, WMCA featured veteran newsman Bert Knapp and roving street reporter Danny Meenan.  Knapp’s authoritative anchor style and Meenan’s energetic on-the-scene reports kept WMCA listeners from tuning away to get their news fix from all news competitors WINS and WCBS.

WMCA in 1980 was a juggernaut programmed by Mark Mason who would go on to become the dean of New York spoken word format program directors with Talkradio 77 WABC, Sportsradio 66 WFAN and All News 1010 WINS.  From 1979-1980, WMCA delivered a solid 3.0 share, Monday-Sunday 6:00 am – 12:00 midnight, 12-plus, and finished as high as 8th in the October/November 1979 book with a 3.2 share.  Today, New York’s two 50KW news/talk stations, WABC and WOR, combined do not equal the ratings of 5KW WMCA in 1979-80.

What can radio learn from WMCA in the early 80s?  There’s a lot more to the news/talk format than conservative talk!

WMCA had conservatives in Grant and Farber, a liberal in Barry Gray, lifestyle talk with Sally Jessy Raphael, consumer advice with Bruce Williams, drama and entertainment with the CBS Mystery Theatre and sports with the Mets, Islanders and Art Rust, Jr.

Many, if not most, of today’s news/talk stations have only the conservative audience.  WMCA didn’t have just one cume audience — it had seven!  WMCA attracted conservatives, liberals, information junkies, women, consumers, sports fans and drama/entertainment aficionados.  It gave people a lot of reasons to listen.

Beyond their credibility with their chosen subject matter, WMCA’s hosts all had presence, commanded attention and were great show people.  From a programming standpoint, I remember WMCA in 1980 as a tightly programmed, well-oiled machine at the top of its game.

WMCA also had a culture uncommon in news/talk radio today.  It took real risks and truly served the public interest.  WMCA owner, president and general manager R. Peter Straus broke new ground when WMCA became “the first station in the country to run editorials on political and civic issues” said his The New York Times obituary in 2012.  “Mr. Straus was also the first to endorse a presidential candidate, backing John F. Kennedy in 1960.  He was also the first to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation” according to The Times.  Reflecting the attitude of a different time in radio, Straus once said, “We thought the mission of a broadcaster was to say something important.  We weren’t going to change the world, but we damn well had to try.”  (Source: West Milford, NJ, Messenger)  Mr. Straus’ wife, Ellen Sulzberger Straus, pioneered WMCA’s “Call to Action” which investigated and unraveled issues faced by everyday New Yorkers with “government agencies, corporations and landlords,” The Times said.

WMCA’s programming was predominantly local, not syndicated.  Unlike most sound-alike news/talk stations today, WMCA didn’t sound like everybody else, or like anyplace else.  It didn’t sound like Des Moines, Denver or Davenport, Iowa.  WMCA was distinctly New York.

There’s more than one way to do news/talk — and there is most certainly more than one audience for it.  Too many programmers today are programming for other programmers.  Anybody in the news/talk game in 2014 would do well to study how WMCA was programmed in 1980.  Yes, some things have changed — but almost every news/talk station in the country would do well to emulate WMCA, circa 1980, and make the necessary changes to become more appealing and meaningful to a broader cross section of people.

 1-tbugk

Bill Brady is president/CEO of Futures & Options, Inc., a media investment, ownership and consulting firm based in South Florida.  His background includes management positions with Clear Channel, Citadel, Comcast and the Miami Herald.   He can be phoned at 561-529-2598 or emailed at wjbrady1@aol.com.

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