Al Brady Comments

Al Brady became program director of WABC in the Fall of 1979. 
At that time WABC was mired in problems. 
The music audience was deserting AM for FM and the disco craze
of the late seventies had exacerbated the problem as
WKTU, an FM Disco station, took the ratings crown
away from WABC for the first time in years.

This is one of those classic "hindsight is 20/20" discussions.
As we now know, no one was going to save WABC as a music station.
  While Disco was getting the credit (or blame) for knocking WABC
out of the top spot, the reality was that it was inevitable.

To its credit, Musicradio WABC did not go down without a fight.
  Al Brady was brought in to stop the bleeding and made a number
of moves that were very controversial. 
Among them was the "Thanksgiving Massacre of 1979"
(as it has come to be called by Musicradio WABC fans). 
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,
Al fired long time WABC DJ's Harry Harrison,
Chuck Leonard and George Michael.

I had an opportunity to ask Al about his time at WABC and he sent me the following:


When I joined WABC in 1979 I was coming off huge successes in Boston (WHDH) and Washington (Q107) and pretty much had my pick of where I wanted to work.  However it was no contest.  When Al Racco (WABC GM) and Chuck DeBare (President of AM for ABC) approached me about the programming job at WABC, I didn't even ask them how much they would pay me. I just said that I was sure they'd do the right thing, and how soon could I start.

I was so excited about the job and returning to New York (I had already worked at WOR/FM, WWDJ, WXLO, and WNBC) that I probably didn't do a thorough enough analysis of what had happened in the market and to the station.

WABC had always been able to withstand challenges (WMCA, WOR/FM, WCBS/FM, WWDJ) because no one had ever been able to break into WABC's cume. Almost all Top 40 stations were completely cume driven and had very low time spent listening numbers. (Is that why WABC played the top 4 songs every hour or so or is the fact that they played the top 4 songs every hour or so the reason for the short time spent listening? We'll probably never know.)

With such a low TSL number, any damage to the cume audience would have devastating effects on the Average Quarter Hour Share (one of the least reliable numbers in a rating book, BUT the one that really counts).

By the time I arrived at WABC in the fall of 1979, WKTU with its incredibly successful Disco format (I remember an 11 share out of the box) had done what no one had ever been able to do--pull cume away from WABC. In it's heyday, WABC cumed more that 5 million people per week. In the fall of 1979, it was falling close to the two million mark if my memory serves. Maybe more, but it was falling dramatically.

My assessment of the situation was that since such a large number of people seemed to have abandoned the AM dial (New York was one of the last markets where music survived on AM) I had no choice but to try to increase the time spent listening so I could keep a decent share of audience and since so many teens had abandoned the station in favor of WKTU (and to some extent WBLS) I also had no choice but to try to improve the 18-34 numbers, since I didn't think the teens would ever come back to AM.

I thought it was time to try to bring the station up to date to some degree. I took out the timing clocks and added some more titles to the oldies file (they weren't playing Stairway to Heaven because it wasn't a single and they were still playing edited versions of songs). I encouraged the jocks to take a few more liberties, especially Ron Lundy, because Ron, at one time, had been a tremendously funny jock.

I thought all the jocks could make a modernization move except for Harry Harrison, George Michael and Chuck Leonard. They were all legends, and I have been vilified as the guy who released them, but I still think it was the right thing to do and would do it over again if the situation was the same. Remember, this was a business decision and didn't and doesn't reflect on any of them as individuals. It's interesting to note that Marvin Kitman tore me apart in his newspaper column about how the Harry Harrison thing was handled, but the guy who came most strongly to my defense was Dan Ingram. I did, indeed, let Harry go the day before Thanksgiving, because I had been given information that someone had leaked to the press the news that he was about to be let go. I didn't want Harry to find out about it by reading the paper, so I told him, and, by the way, as with all three he got a very substantial buy out of his contract.

While I think those decisions were correct, I don't think the decision to move Dan into morning drive was correct. The style was clearly better suited to afternoons and the expectations were too high. I will add, however, that everyone in the company including Dan and his agent Don Buchwald (now Howard Stern's guy) were very positive about the move. As a matter of fact Dan switched shifts for the same salary.

I thought Ron was fine. I thought Johnny Donovan deserved a full time shift. Bob Cruz was a great talent (yes, I know he sounded like Dan. That didn't hurt). Howard Hoffman was a genius at personality radio and Sturgis Griffin was a solid, dependable guy who while not in the personality league with the others did just fine in the overnight hours.

What people don't remember or choose not to remember is that all of this worked. The downward spiral stopped, the time spent listening went up, and the 18-34 numbers did, indeed, show improvement.

It wasn't a huge win, but it positioned the station to further steps that would be necessary to remain viable on the AM dial.

I was the guy who first approached (Art Adler) about getting the Yankees rights. My idea was to move the music in more of a gold direction and supplement with Yankee Baseball. Would it have worked? We'll never know. My guess is that it would have for a very short period of time. The move to talk was inevitable. By the time it switched in the early 80's there just wasn't any contemporary music on the AM band and even the MOR stations were moving more and more toward talk.

My decision to leave WABC after such a short period of time was totally based on what I considered to be insurmountable obstacles from corporate dictates and completely unrealistic expectations.

My charge was to create another "WHDH" like I had done in Boston, but "by the way, we need to keep our teen base". Well, they didn't have a teen base any longer and WHDH was very much a full service radio station. Something no one was really willing to let happen to WABC when they all realized what it would entail.

In hindsight, I might have done some things differently, but of one thing I am absolutely convinced. No matter who was at the helm. No matter what they did to the format or jocks. The ride as an AM Top 40 was over (probably even before I got there).

I started the transition away from Top 40. Jay Clark completed it by taking the station Talk. I think we both did the right thing from a business point of view. One can only assess these actions (or any broadcast actions, for that matter) by taking into account the business side of things.

Emotionally, there are things we all wish our favorite radio stations would or wouldn't do, but good broadcasters always make the right decision from a business standpoint. Remember, no ratings means no commercials and no commercials means no money to pay the bills.

I enjoy reading your board to hear all the talk about "those dumb guys....this and that and so on", but I have never known anyone in this business who tried to make a bad decision. We all want it to be right, and we all try to do the right thing. If it was so easy, everyone would be a huge winner, so it must not be that easy. It's only easy to judge. Infinity and Clear Channel and ABC and Emmis, etc. are not populated by stupid or malicious people. Just folks trying to do the best they can in very tough, competitive situations. Just like all of us.

 

The Musicradio WABC Web Site thanks Al Brady for the honest look back
at a very controversial time in the history of WABC as a music station.
While no one was going to succeed by 1979, it's obvious
Al did what he thought was right in trying to save the station from the inevitable.

 

 

Here is the Newsday article that Al made reference to in his comments
(courtesy Lee Chambers)

 

On Firing Harry Harrison
Marvin Kitman
Newsday: December 4, 1979 

 

The star of the day on Nov. 21 was not Al Brady, the new programming boss at WABC Musicradio.  He fired Harry Harrison, the morning man at Musicradio 77 for the past eleven years that Wednesday.  Two other DJ’s got the ax (George Michael and Chuck Leonard) in the following week, which will go down in history as the MoreMusicMassacre of 1979. 

I like what Imus said on his WNBC show the morning of November 27 about the firing of Harry Harrison: “I want  you to understand what kind of radio station WABC is.  In the coming months they’re going to ask you to listen to them, and they’re going to tell you about all the stuff they’re going to give you and what they’re going to do for you. 

“Remember this: they chose to fire Harry Harrison the day before Thanksgiving.  Not the day after.  Not yesterday.  The day before Thanksgiving.  I guess they were giving out turkeys this year.  I mean, my God!   Now, here’s what’s important about that.  If they care that little about a guy who did very well for them over ten years, extremely well, what’s to make anyone think they care anything about anybody who listens?  They don’t.  Frankly, I thought they did. 

“WABC appears to be a shabby, shallow, panic-ridden, heartless skeleton of what it once was.   There are ways to handle these matters that reflect class and ways to handle these matters that are crass…” 

This was an unusual discussion.  I had never heard anything like it on New York radio.  It reminded me of the old circulation-war days in newspapers, when one paper ran editorials denouncing the other papers.  On radio, however, there is a sacred white bugaboo about mentioning other stations.  They act as if other stations don’t even exist, (except at ratings time when they start chopping off heads because of them). 

The Imus statement about a fallen competitor at a rival station was a gutsy, straight out, powerful piece of journalism.  You can be sure it was nothing he did right off the top of his flat head, either.  They have been sitting on him at WNBC since he came back from Cleveland, whatever the station says about complete freedom.  They even tape what he says when the commercials and records are playing. 

WABC Musicradio 77 is a New York institution.  We all grew up listening to it.  As Ron Delfin of Hicksville recalled, at around eight or nine you begin listening to WABC.  And maybe after three or four weeks you can grow tired of that.  

I was not one of Harry’s greatest fans.  I’m a personality radio man, and Harry worked for a music radio station, where they discouraged DJ’s to protect their real personalities.  Johnny Donovan, the robot who does the 1 to 4PM shift, is the perfect WABC jock: dull and dense in six seconds allowed for free talk between the records. 

Harry did manage to get in some cutting remarks about coming home for that cup of coffee.  He also was sexist and had the bad habit of talking over records.  “I heard ‘Grease’ 750,000 times on WABC,” explains H. Flam of Jericho.  “I still resented Harry coming in with the weather report in the middle of the record.” 

Harry also used to sing along with the commercials.  “Higher key please,” he said one morning in May, 1978.  “I can never find my key… The garage key?… Will you tell Harry to shut up and stop singing with commercials,” he finally said to himself, sotto voce.  They talk to themselves on Musicradio 77.  That’s what the morning drive time format could drive a man to. 

So Harry Harrison wasn’t the greatest communicator in the world.  He had his following.  There is a generation of kids who think that Harry Harrison has been on morning driving time since Marconi developed the wireless.  And now he was canned. 

A radio station has the right to fire and hire.  In the capitalist system the weak are supposed to fall by the wayside.  It’s a cruel world.  What Al (the turkey’s worst enemy) Brady displayed was a special kind of touch for the jugular. 

“When WNBC fired me two and a half years ago,” Imus told his listeners that morning, “they told me about it a couple of months ahead of time-long before it ever got into the papers.  They paid me, and then brought me back.  Don’t look for that to happen at WABC.” 

Why did Brady have to be so brutal?  Is he campaigning for dean of inhumanities chair at some big university?  Perhaps the situation in the ratings was so dire that immediate action before Thanksgiving was necessary to save the station from going down, as they say in broadcasting, “the terlet.” 

Some newspapers reported ABC as fifth in the ratings this fall.  But WABC flacks were claiming they were not fifth.  According to their figures, they were still first.  Half the people in the free world listen to the station during any week for at least fifteen minutes or some such nonsense.  Even the stations can’t agree on the ground rules of radio statistics.   

WABC, all concede, has been consistently at the top for the last ten to fifteen years.  It was the most copied station in the world.  Even French radio is a knock off.  It was the model for the New York market since many of us were born. 

Firing Harry Harrison (and the others) is a funny way to act if you’re on top.

 

WABC Musicradio 77