By Mike Kinosian
In this particular case, the locale is an East Orange, New Jersey drugstore at a time when prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and soda fountains were the top attractions, rather than the virtual mini-shopping malls they’ve now become.
Under the tutelage of veteran proprietors “Joe” and “Sam,” an unlicensed 14-year-old boy is hard at work at the apothecary, compounding prescriptions – something the Board of Pharmacy would hardly endorse.
Absolutely no aspirations whatsoever of a radio career existed then for that teenager, yet he would go on to become one of the medium’s most listened to communicators and a 1999 Radio Hall Of Fame inductee.
An original member of NBC Radio’s TalkNet (which was later folded into Westwood One), the father of five carried on conversation weeknights (7:00 pm -10:00 pm) on The Lifestyle TalkRadio Network. His Made In America Broadcast Network debuted in July 2012, but Williams retired from broadcasting about eight months later (March 2013).
Our TALKERS 2002 list of “Greatest Radio Talk Show Hosts Of All Time” included him at #6; Williams died this past Saturday (2/9) – eight days shy of his 87th birthday.
Given that Williams boasted an impressive radio resume, it would be understandable if his primary influences came from the medium; however, he told me in an interview (when I was special features editor at Inside Radio) thatmore knowledge was gained from druggists “Sam” and “Joe” than he learned anyplace else. “One was Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers and the other never saw the inside of a high school.”
A situation approximately one year into Williams’ TalkNet tenure (12-5-1981) would have a profound impact on his life, as the small plane he was piloting crashed, landing him on the critical list at the Princeton (New Jersey) Medical Center with knee damage and internal injuries. “If I’d pulled up the airplane another two feet, I would not have hit the trees doing 160,” he reasoned. “I probably wish I were a sharper pilot that day. On the other hand, that may have very well influenced my life in other ways; it’s hard to fathom.”
Performing political penance
Before Williams entered the radio business, it was a distinct possibility that politics could have been his career, since he served two four-year terms (including one as mayor) on Franklin Township’s (New Jersey) city council.
When he was handily defeated for the general assembly though, Williams told the person who beat him that he actually did him (Williams) a huge favor. “I probably would have been a congressman the rest of my life and that would have been a terrible piece of penance,” the Newark State College graduate declared before breaking into laughter. “As long as he was running in New Jersey, I contributed to his campaign. Like everything else, it was good to me, but it also had its time. It was over in 1974 when I got my ass kicked.”
That’s when he set his sights on radio and hosted “At Your Service” on WCTC, New Brunswick (New Jersey), quickly followed by “Bruce Williams At Large.” Former WCTC general manager Tony Marano passed away in 20015 at the age of 78. “I always thought of him as ‘the boss,’” Williams asserted. “He was my mentor.”
Words such as “persistent” and “relentless” are elevated to new levels when one considers how Williams landed an on-air job at New York City’s fabled WMCA. “I called over 3,000 times and sent over 500 letters,” he nonchalantly recounted. “No matter what I was doing or where I was, I’d call Mark Mason.”
At the time, Mason programmed “Real People Radio 57” (WMCA). Many of Williams’ friends told him he’d upset Mason with the barrage of calls, but Williams maintained, “You have nothing to lose when you’re at ground zero.”
Let’s get busy
The onslaught must have worked, as Mason relented and asked Williams if he’d be interested in doing a Sunday afternoon (2:00 – 6:00 pm) show, replacing Barry Farber. “In those days, the ‘busy counter’ was everything,” Williams recalled. “The producer was a very nice middle-aged lady who monitored the busy counter. I had everyone I knew call the station all afternoon, so I got some attention when management came in the next day and saw [there were over] 2,000 clicks on the busy counter.”
Three years later (1981), it was off to TalkNet’s national platform and, while cognizant great things were happening, a sage Williams pointed out, “I was fortunate, but knew it wasn’t going to last forever. That’s why I savored that time.”
Numerous athletes and entertainers assume the glory and limelight they enjoy will never end, although Williams emphasized that he didn’t live that way. “There was a time and a season for all that stuff.”
Never losing focus
Part of the routine called for Williams to engage his audience with face-to-face “Evening With Bruce” sessions but he confided to me, “I wouldn’t care to do that again. Those road trips would last three or four weeks. It was great doing it at the time, however, and I liked meeting people.”
Gatherings were at local theaters and Williams would sit down at the edge of the stage after the show. “I’d talk with people for an hour,” recollected Williams, who borrowed the technique from Liberace. “He wasn’t the greatest piano player, but he certainly had personality. After his show, every old lady with Henna Rinse got an autograph. He was major league – big time.”
One night after Williams did his TalkNet program from NBC’s studios at New York City’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he met his son for dinner. A woman who just completed taping her appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” rushed past them. People were waiting for her with their autograph books, but she went right through the crowd, saying “no time – no time,” prompting Williams to comment to his son that many other people would come out to talk to those who made them famous. “Six months later, nobody knew who that woman was,” Williams quipped. “I know who made what I do possible: It’s the people who listen to me and [affiliates] that carry that show.”
Hardly a “has-been”
Promptly returning affiliate calls helps to explain why Bruce Williams managed to remain a major player, after many others have come and gone. “I learned some important lessons a long time ago,” he remarked. “You meet the same people going in each direction. I was fortunate to be on top of the industry, but you don’t stay there forever. I don’t take this as seriously as some of my colleagues. My office doesn’t have tablets in it. One Moses was enough – I didn’t come off a mountain. I’m lucky and get to do what I enjoy.”
Something that quickly annoyed Williams was hearing a person claiming to have rescued the industry. “There wouldn’t be a business for them to save if it weren’t for [legendary Mutual/Westwood One overnight dominator] Larry King, [TalkNet personality] Sally [Jessy Raphael] and me,” he stressed. “As is the nature of any [other] enterprise though, it’s what a person has done today – not yesterday.”
Happily ensconced in their own private studios during TalkNet’s height were Raphael and Williams, but it wasn’t quite the same in later days. “The reality was I didn’t command the audience I once did,” he admitted to me, “but I don’t think I’m a ‘has-been.’ It’s better to be [that, however,] than a ‘never was.’ I was one of the few people who got to be number one in the business they involved themselves in; not many people are so lucky to do that.”
Dozens of syndicated shows are currently on the market, of course, and Williams proclaimed, “The networks have themselves to blame for that. In the mid-1980s, they gave [affiliates] a certain amount of time to get a satellite dish or they would be gone; Mutual was the only network that didn’t do that. They bought dishes and hung onto [their affiliates] for quite a while. Making a station buy its own dish was the Emancipation Proclamation. All a station had to do was aim it differently and they could take whatever shows they wanted. If a dish belonged to [a network], a station would’ve been locked into them.”
Nothing is more certain than change. One constant, though, was the natural rapport Williams shared with his listeners. “There are many one-trick ponies out there, but I don’t think there have been more than [six] really good telephone takers since this business began,” he contended. “If you get them to veer off their subject matter, they’re in trouble.”
All Williams ever saw on the computer screen was the name of a caller’s city. There used to be an asterisk to let him know the caller’s gender, but he didn’t even have that information at the end. “I don’t do a ton of show prep to be someone I’m not and don’t have a staff or people doing tons of research. I’ve been a hustler all my life; I honestly believe people identify with someone like me. There are so many wannabes who are trying to be other people. I don’t have an on-air persona and a [separate one] off-air.”
Doing a nightly talk show from specially-constructed Manhattan studios became distant memories for Williams, who executed those duties in a more relaxed atmosphere from his Florida residence. “One of my Boston Terriers is my producer,” he jested. “Every once in a while, my dogs get in a fight and the whole world knows about it.”
Such instances notwithstanding, when the clock indicated it was time to hit the air, Williams always showed up and “did the best I can – that’s the end of it,” he matter-of-factly stated. “I don’t do many post-mortems. Every once in a while, I’ll lie in bed and think I should have said [something else] and I’ll correct myself the next day. Unlike many of my colleagues, I invite people to [challenge me] and I’ll put them right at the head of the line.”
Leveling with listeners
There’s a pronounced contrast in the way Williams handled a personal problem with that of another mega talk host who owns Sunshine State property. “[Premiere Networks’ Rush Limbaugh] was addicted to painkillers and he buried it,” Williams observed. “I was addicted to shooting needles into myself and went on the air and told people about it. I’m not criticizing him – I just handled it differently. I was taking Demerol in quantities that would kill a horse. My family was more understanding than they had a right to be.”
On-air honesty such as that was typical for Williams, who gave up his football scholarship to enlist in the Air Force during the Korean War.
Listeners were told about his situation and he claimed, “Nobody had the slightest derogatory thing to say. I ride my bike ten miles a day and was pumping so hard that I ran into a parked truck, which is pretty stupid. I only have about 15% use of my left arm [and there are severe after-effects from the 1981 plane crash]. I’m in pain 24 hours a day.”
Sweet deal turns sour
Opening one of the largest stores that sold only sugar-free products was perceived by Williams to be a goldmine idea. “It was beautiful – people were beating the doors down on opening day, but we found out they wouldn’t drive six miles [on a consistent basis]. They’d rather eat sugar and die of diabetes. I thought it was a good idea and got to try it, but lost a substantial amount of money.”
Roughly two years later, he held a “Going Out Of Business” sale. “I don’t know many people who’ve been successful who haven’t [also] failed,” he put forth. “We’re blessed to be in a society where failure isn’t a condemnation.”
Quality and types of calls Williams received morphed tremendously over the many years he hosted radio talk shows. “It’s a different person who is calling today,” he opined. “The ubiquitous cellphone has changed things a good deal. It’s now more the rule than the exception [to get a cellphone call]. You’re getting people who couldn’t call before. A significant portion of our audience is on wheels. We get many calls from truckers, who now have a telephone sitting in front of them.”
Politics was discussed, but it wasn’t the foundation of his nightly broadcasts. “There’s no way you can avoid the fact that the talk radio audience is conditioned to political talk,” he acknowledged. “I get [a kick] out of emails from people who accuse me of being a liberal. I’m one of the only guys I know of doing talk radio who got elected twice as a conservative. My idea of a conservative is someone who wants to see fewer laws passed.”
Although he lived in an area that isn’t especially conducive for AM reception, Williams listened to talk radio whenever possible. “Some hosts are interesting; I can take others in moderate doses; and I have serious problems with others,” he summarized. “I was joking with someone that there are even a few who’ll drive me to music radio. If I didn’t like talk radio, however, I couldn’t have survived all these years. I’m very pleased to see Air America doing well. Anything that [succeeds] in this enterprise is good for all of us.”
Among the most logical explanations for Williams’ relatability rested with his non-radio background, which included stints as an insurance salesman; beer truck driver, brewery worker; real estate salesman; barbershop owner; nightclub owner; and pre-school owner. “I have other things [apart from the radio show] that concern me,” he underscored. “We’re in the flower business and I flew to New Jersey on Valentine’s Day to drive a delivery truck. I made 23 deliveries that day. My wife [Susan] and I live in the fast lane. After the show on a big Friday night, we go to Red Lobster and have dinner.”
Having the opportunity to actually change someone’s life had to be the most satisfying thing for someone with Williams’ immense talent. “That’s a pretty high compliment for someone you’ve never met,” he agreed. “This woman was on the highest bluff in the area. She had her car in gear and was about to drive off the edge, but she heard me talking about the sanctity of life.”
More seriously pondering what she was about to do, the woman put the car in reverse and Williams was convinced the reason she didn’t do the ultimate foolish act was because she heard that program. “We influence lives of people we’ll never know exist – that has to make you think,” he insisted. “I want people to look in the mirror to see if there’s a boy or a man staring back. If it’s a boy, go whine somewhere else. I get impatient with guys who take positions that will enhance audience share. I’ve done many things you probably shouldn’t do in radio, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I don’t stroke someone or lie to them; I tell people what I believe. The caller is important, but the overall audience is more important.”
If Williams hadn’t signed what became his last radio contract, he and Susan probably would have embarked on a lengthy worldwide trip. “I can’t abandon my two dogs, so I thought I might as well do the deal and they sent some dog food,” the author of “America Asks Bruce” (containing Questions/Answers from his radio show), “In Business For Yourself, “House Smart/Credit Smart,” and “The Roadmap To Financial Security” (a tape series),” noted to me with a grin. “One thing that paralyzes me is to have to retire – and I don’t mean just from broadcasting. It has nothing to do with money. I’m not wealthy, but I’m not on food stamps, either. We own some stores, a nightclub, and I’m on the board of directors of a bank – but – I cannot imagine what I would do if I weren’t working.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor for TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com.