The death of talk radio
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.