May 8 - 15, 1 9 9 7
[Talk Radio]

The death of talk radio

Part 3

by Dan Kennedy

Newcomers to Boston might find it difficult to imagine how influential the talk-show scene was until a few years ago. Everyone listened -- at home, at work, and most of all in their cars.

And WRKO was where most of the action was.

The day began with liberal Ted O'Brien and conservative Janet Jeghelian arguing over the issues of the day. (The format remains, in a highly trivialized form, on Clapprood & Whitley.)

At 10 a.m., Gene Burns would come on, with an intro ("Brought to you by the Constitution of the United States") and opening monologue so pompous and self-important that only a truly extraordinary host could back it up. Burns did, bringing intelligence and dignity to bear on such tabloid topics as Channel 4 anchor Liz Walker's decision to have a baby out of wedlock, and shining a light on such local arcana as the clean-up of Boston Harbor.

The most influential of all, though, was Jerry Williams, widely credited with inventing two-way talk radio in 1948 in Camden, New Jersey.

A self-described liberal who was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and whose guests included Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Williams had a populist streak that led him, by the 1970s, to embrace much of the anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-bureaucracy agenda of the emerging conservative movement.

From the 1980s until the early '90s, Williams was the king of drive time, holding forth from 2 to 6 p.m. on WRKO. In an angry, bitingly sarcastic voice he urged his listeners to tell their legislators to vote against the latest proposed tax increase, or to register their disapproval of a legislative pay raise or some other outrage.

In 1986 he spearheaded a ballot-petition drive that resulted in the repeal of the state's seatbelt law, which he considered a usurpation of individual liberty. (A new law was passed in the early '90s with barely a whimper of protest, a sign that talk radio had started to lose its stranglehold.) He even killed plans for a new prison in the tiny Western Massachusetts town of New Braintree, winning a promise from a 1992 gubernatorial candidate named Bill Weld that it would never be occupied. Today the would-be prison is an extremely expensive State Police training facility.

More . . .

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.