Memories of Rick Sklar
Assembled by Scott Benjamin
Thirty years ago Rick Sklar left the daily operations of
Musicradio77 WABC to become the vice president of programming for ABC Radio.
In his 15 years at WABC, Rick turned the station into the most listened to in the nation.
He was noted for his promotions, short play lists, attention to production and hiring air personalities that had distinct personas.
Tragically, Rick, a marathon runner, died as a result of anesthesia complications during a foot operation in 1992.
Recently, his daughter, Holly, and some of his former
colleagues offered their recollections to Musicradio77.com
on the most famous program director in the history of radio.
Former Musicradio77 WABC Air Personality Cousin Brucie
Phone Interview, July 28, 2007
"Rick was an innovator and a good writer," Brucie said.
"He also was very community oriented," he added. "He did research through the record stores, but he also talked to the people on the streets to get a feel for what they were thinking."
He was very good with promotions," Brucie said. "What was interesting was that WABC grew so much in popularity that it was hard to keep pace with the promotions."
"We would have a kite flying contest in Central Park and you couldn't see the sky because there were so many kites," he said.in the interview with Musicradio77.com. "The Principal of the Year contest got to the point that there were more votes than there were nationally in a presidential election."
"I think that there was more of a relaxed atmosphere at WABC in the early years of Rick's tenure," Brucie said. "However, I think that he started to feel pressure when the higher executives started to insert themselves into the process."
"Rick also picked up on a lot of ideas from other stations owned by ABC," he said. "If he went on a trip to visit other stations, you knew he would come back with some new idea. It might be a clock to keep track of when to play the number one record or some notion that no song should be more than two minutes and 32 seconds long."
"However, Rick also would allow the air personalities to be creative," Brucie said. "He was open to us taking chances, and if we made a mistake, we could correct it."
"I spoke to Rick on the phone the night before he died," he said. "He said he was having an operation on his foot and I was shocked when I learned what had happened. I still talk to people about the great work that we did together at WABC."
Essay By Holly Sklar On Her Father
July 14, 2007
"The thing you gotta know is, everything is show biz."
-Mel Brooks, THE PRODUCERS
Rick Sklar, my dad, grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s & 1940s, much like writer/producer/director Mel Brooks, and just like Mel, he believed these words as if they were religion.
To my dad, radio was a way to put on a show, and in some ways, it was more powerful in its impact than other forms of show business - say, live theater or the movies - because it allowed listeners to create a picture in their heads inspired by what they heard. To my dad, radio was theater of the mind; it captured his imagination as a child, and even when he grew up, it never let go.
When Dad was a kid, radio wasn't yet dominated by music, but instead was programmed chock full of dramas and comedies. The emphasis was on storytelling. And the shows were mostly done live, which gave them an added zing of excitement, a sense of danger: stuff could go wrong. There was no seven-second delay: things went out on the air instantly.
Though radio had changed into a recorded music-centered medium by the time my dad grew up and entered the field, he never lost sight of that sense of live theater-of-the-mind when he became a radio programmer. That sensibility informed all the on-air elements audiences came to love about WABC.
He nurtured personality radio so that colorful, distinctive DJs and their listeners formed an indelible connection to one another. He encouraged the injection of personality between the records, even as the playlist was tightly monitored to deliver audience favorites. He designed the contests and promotions with a deep sense of the theatrical. Witness the larger-than-life aspects of the Mona Lisa contest, in which listener-created reproductions of the painting were so big and so numerous that they had to be displayed inside a sports stadium, and were judged by the internationally celebrated yet controversial artist Salvador Dali. The fondly remembered on-air promotion of W-A-Beatle-C is another example of this theatricality: the actual Beatles, then the most popular band in a Beatles-mad world, introduced themselves and fervently proclaimed their love of the station.
As program director of WABC, my dad was a proverbial kid in a candy store - or rather, a kid in control of a candy store. And in many ways, he remained an overgrown kid. He used to monitor the station on the weekends when we were out and about, and if something went out live that required his attention, he had a telephone wired in our car - (one of the earliest car phones, no doubt) - with a Batman sticker on it, which he'd use to call into the station. (Naturally he referred to this as the Bat Phone.) Though dad was often initially exasperated when a DJ said something he officially shouldn't have - e.g., Dan Ingram putting on a Stevie Wonder record, keeping the volume low, and saying, "Stevie, the mic's over here" before turning it up - in hindsight, my dad came to appreciate such irreverence and creativity. At the time, of course, he was the one who had to field complaints from those listeners or sponsors who were offended, while also calming down the station's corporate masters. But in the end, he knew that kind of tightrope spontaneity was part of what made listening to WABC so much fun.
Fun was at the heart of my dad's WABC experience, even though there were real-world, corporate, political, managerial responsibilities that must have been less than pleasant for him and others. He had his share of conflicts, especially with talent, and often about that incredibly short playlist. But if friction polishes a diamond, then that's what WABC was: a shining gem in the radio firmament. And that's why, even today, it's still so fondly remembered.
My dad was a showman first and foremost, and that informed all his decisions while he was at the helm of WABC's programming. I believe his choices were an integral part of shaping the WABC listener experience, along with those of the on- and off-air staff. And I believe he's a big part of why the station lingers in our minds and lives on in places like the Muscicradio77.com website, or in the sound of Cousin Brucie's ongoing satellite radio oldies show. (Ah, satellite radio Dad was clearly too far ahead of his time on that one.)
I know if he were around today, my dad would want to thank all of you who have been a part of the Musicradio WABC story, whether on-air talent, those who worked behind the scenes, or those who listened. I think he'd especially thank the listeners. Without the audience, he knew the show couldn't go on, and it was the audience, after all, he doggedly chased. Maybe that's why the station he programmed for so long had the largest audience in top forty radio history.
-Holly Sklar, Los Angeles, July 2007
Essay by former WABC Assistant Program Director Jeff Berman
July 30, 2007
From 1966 to 1968, Rick Sklar was my boss and one of my most important and influential mentors. He and his family remained my friends long after I left WABC.
When Rick first interviewed me, he explained that the position I was being considered for actually had three titles Assistant Program Director, Production Director and Director of Community Services. I told him that although I was confident in my production skills, I had very little knowledge of community affairs, FCC law or local politics. Rick started his mentoring process even before I was hired. "Don't worry." he said. "We've been flying people in for interviews for the past six months. We've heard the work you've been doing for some of ABC's owned and operated stations. You've got great production instincts. We can teach you the other stuff in a very short time." Over the next two and a half years, he did just that and then some. Rick guided me through the often-unpleasant complexities of WABC's interdepartmental politics. He showed me how to make the station look good for the yearly FCC filing. Although, in effect, he insisted that I be less romantic and sentimental about the business of maintaining a tight, money-making station format, Rick also gave me a great amount of freedom to use my imagination in designing numerous award-winning public service announcements and programs and to build creative bridges between the news, programming and time sales departments.
Because of the tight restrictions of the WABC program format Rick originated, there was actually very little production work for me to do . and what work there was seemed painfully limited in complexity and scope, except for the occasional contest promo and a few simply produced public service spots. By Rick's edict, I could only use instrumentals of past hits as music beds for the station's PSA's. This severely restricted my ability to produce spots with any degree of taste or sensitivity. To add to the limitations, there was no actual station production room. The studio which was sometimes used for that purpose was dismally ill-equipped with two ancient dinosaur RCA 1/4 inch tape decks, the like of which I'd never seen before, nor have I seen since. No wonder they were virtually impossible to edit on! To make matters even more frustrating, the station had no production music or sound effects library. In retrospect, an appalling lack of resources for someone like myself, who came to WABC with an extensive background in multi-machine and multi-track production. Rick and I finally persuaded the engineering staff to jerry-rig two studios together with tie lines. After about a year of working at the station, I asked Rick if he would mind my doing some production work for WABC-FM at no additional salary in order to keep my production skills sharp. Luckily, Rick recognized my strong need for more creative work, and agreed to the arrangement.
Rick was particularly sensitive about the subject of payola, owing in part to his earlier experiences at WINS in the days of Alan Freed. All WABC programming personnel were expected to sign affidavits every six months stating that they had no involvement with people from the music industry. Record pluggers had to stay at least five feet away from his desk in order to avoid any possibility of money or gifts changing hands. According to Rick, he actually became program director at WINS because of the shakeup caused by the payola scandal. After the Program Director's forcible removal, Rick told me that he simply walked down the hall from his own office, perched himself in the Program Director's chair and proclaimed himself the new Program Director!
Rick enjoyed involving me in the public contact aspects some of the brilliantly successful contests he designed for the station. In one instance, he cast me as "Agent 77". I donned a Sherlock Holmes outfit, complete with cape and deerstalker hat, for the role. A gorgeous blonde was hired to play my sidekick. We were driven around New York in a limousine during the early morning hours, giving away prizes to surprised contest winners while they were still in their bathrobes and pajamas.
My office was next to Rick's. One day (in 1968, I believe), I heard Rick yell out, "Son of a bitch! What the hell is this?" I ran into his office. He was holding the latest ratings in his hand, staring incredulously at them. "What's the matter, Rick?", I said. He was almost trembling with rage as he showed me the fateful numbers. For the first time in broadcasting history, an FM station, WOR-FM, had shown up in the ratings. Rick must have realized some of the significance . the beginning of the end of AM radio as a commercially viable music medium.
Years after I left WABC, I became Rick's neighbor on Manhattan's upper west side, where we continued our friendship. Rick and his charming wife, Sydelle, often invited me to intimate gatherings of their family and close friends. Rick also made a custom of asking me to join him and the staff for outings on the station's powerboat. During those outings, he would invariably ask if I would consider re-joining the station, possibly as his successor. I was honored by the invitation, but declined. I told Rick that I was enjoying the excitement and freedom of building my own fledgling audio postproduction company. In retrospect, Rick was offering me much more than he knew. Going back as WABC's Program Director would have proven, gauged solely from a financial standpoint, to be a tremendously smart move. Just a few years later, the Capital Cities buyout made instant fortunes for many ABC executives who, like Rick, had generous stock option packages.
I will always miss Rick and be grateful to him for entrusting so much power and responsibility to a 22-year-old kid and for his wisdom, patience and friendship.
Happily, I'm still in contact with Rick's wonderful and gifted children, Holly and Scott.
Essay by Former Musicradio77 WABC Air Personality Harry Harrison
July 13, 2007
When I arrived at WMCA about 1960, the talented Herb Oscar Anderson was doing the morning show.
Then when WABC was putting together their new air team, Herb was approached to move to "77." I remember him telling me that if he didn't take the job, they had said that they liked me, too. Herb did go to WABC, but I didn't know then that years later, I, too, would be doing mornings at 77.
When Scott Benjamin contacted me about this tribute to Program Director Rick Sklar, it brought back many memories of my years at WABC.
I had left WMCA in 1968 due to management changes at the time. I asked to be release from my contract and I really didn't know where I was going to go.
I called Rick, but Herb was happy then in his morning slot. However, soon Herb decided to leave and Rick and I got together and he offered me the morning show. I always appreciated Rick's confidence in me and I was happy and excited to be joining the great DJs on the air at 77 - Ron Lundy, Dan Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Chuck Leonard and Charlie Greer.
Rick was a super programmer and a very astute judge of talent and what the audience wanted to hear. He was careful and particular in his choice of DJs, music and its rotation, jingles and everything that went on the air.
Rick's own personality was rather reserved, but his promotions were always big, bold, fun and creative. I'm sure you may remember many of them even today, as I do.
I had been at WABC only a matter of months when my lung collapsed on a Saturday morning while I was on the air. I was in a lot of pain, but I finished my show.
After seeing a doctor, I was admitted to a hospital. I remember how concerned Rick was. He called my wife, Pretty Patti, every day to check on my condition and to see if he could help us in any way. I really felt that he cared about me as a person as well as his "Morning Man" on WABC. My friend, Ron Lundy, filled in for me on my show until I was able to get back on the air.
Rick was a major reason for the success we all had at WABC. We did our shows within the format of the station, but Rick let us all do it with our own different personalities.
In the early '80s, Rick called me about his new project - called Super Radio. It was a forerunner to today's satellite radio. We discussed me doing a morning show, but at that time I was happy and doing well at CBS-FM. Super Radio never made it on the air.
Later, Ron, Dan and Bruce would join me and we'd have many more successful years together at 101.1.
Rick Sklar was a legend. He was one of the most talented and successful programmers in radio history. I always liked what Rick's daughter, Holly, was quoted as saying in an "R&R" article years ago - "My father was very methodical, but was also a showman. I think of him sort of as the P.T. Barnum of radio, or May Ziegfeld. WABC was the stage where he and some very talented people got to put on a show every day."
Thanks to Rick and our great WABC listeners, I was very fortunate and very happy to be part of that big show every day for many years.
How big a show was it? With Rick Sklar as program director at it's peak, WABC's weekly 12+ cume was over 5 million listeners.
Former ABC Television Publicist Marty Grove
Phone Interview, July 8, 2007
Marty said he initially met Rick while he was working in publicity and promotions at rival WMCA in the early to mid 1960s.
They became friends after Marty became a publicist at ABC television. Rick served as an usher at Marty's wedding.
"I think he was able to perceive how people would react to a contest," Marty said of Rick's success with promotions.
"He structured it so that people could vote as many times as they wanted," he said in the interview with Musicradio77.com. "There would be an avalanche of mail."
"Truck O' Luck, Mona Lisa and Principal of the Year; they all were successful contests," recalled Marty, who has lived in California since the 1970's and is now a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter and does video movie previews that are shown on airline flights and at transportation terminals
"Rick also was a quality control person," he said. "He would listen to the PAMS jingles on a transistor radio before he would make a full commitment to them. He wanted to experience them as a listener would."
Marty said that he and Rick used to go to lunch, sometimes at Japanese restaurants in Manhattan and spent their meal time frequently talking about radio.
"I don't think that he micromanaged," Marty said of Rick's management of Musicradio77 WABC.
"I know that Cousin Brucie wasn't happy with the short play list, and there probably were others who felt that way," Marty said. "'But when people turned on the radio they wanted to hear the popular songs during that short listening span."
"He wanted everything to be played on the basis of research," Marty said of Rick's use of the sales from records stores to determine the weekly survey.
"Rick also was a reserved person who didn't berate people," he said. "I think to some extent he created a family atmosphere at WABC."
Marty said that although Rick enjoyed being a vice president with ABC Radio and later a consultant to stations across the country, he doesn't believe that he enjoyed that work as much as being the program director at WABC.
"The day to day combat is what he preferred," he said. "He thrived most with the day to day involvement at one radio station."
On another topic, Marty said that Rick was "a great example of a family man."
"You would see Rick and his wife, Sydelle, interacting easily with their children when I had dinner at their home," Marty said.
"Rick was busy, but he was very devoted to his children," Marty said. "He even took his son, Scott, to Florida to see the launch of one of the space ships."
Essay By Longtime Radio Newscaster Bob Gibson on Rick Sklar
July 15, 2007
I first knew Rick Sklar, casually, shortly before his elevation to program director at WABC in 1963.
He had a tall order to fill in turning that network flagship station into a winner, and though it took a few years, he did it!!!
Rick and I had occasional conversations through the years but were not really in touch again until 1987 when this man who had done so much for WABC through the '60s and '70s and early '80s, was now consulting and one of his stations, lo and behold, was WMCA.
The station, then owned by Federal Broadcasting of Detroit, was looking for an afternoon news anchor at the time and when by the friend, the news director, Keeve Berman, spoke to me about this, he urged me to get in touch with Rick Sklar.
That's exactly what I did, and several days later I got a call and Rick and I finally had a chance to talk again for the first time in years.
I had other commitments at the time, but agreed to go to work for the station with the understanding a personal contract agreement would follow.
Rick knew then what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it to make WMCA a better operation. He was also, in some instances, a man of few words.
A couple of examples: When I got my tape back from Rick after being hired as a regular freelancer," written across the box was simply "Okay!!!"
Months later, when Rick was away, one of the major stories was the passing of Jackie Gleason. Because of Gleason's larger-than-life reputation and the fact that he was native New Yorker, I put together a three and a half minute tribute piece, with a number of funny tape inserts, that was used in just two of the afternoon newscasts.
On his return the following week, I sent Rick a note mentioning how this was handled, and giving him a copy of the piece that aired about Jackie Gleason. He response in writing was, "Well done!"
With Rick, you always knew where you stood and if he did not spend 10 minutes saying something that could have been said in 35 seconds, we were both the better for it.
During my 10 months at WMCA, Rick and I had many a conversation about our early days in the business and naturally about his book, Rocking America, which was published in 1984. Like most of us, Rick had a burning desire to get the job done right and always with significant attention devoted to detail.
Rick Sklar was a one-of-a-kind as a broadcaster . . . a much-loved husband and father. . . and someone I shall never forget!
While I've never met his two children, I can honestly say that I do feel just a little of their pain every time June 22nd [the date of Rick's death] rolls around."
Phone Interview with former Musicradio77 WABC Air Personality
Frank Kingston Smith
April 9, 2004
On a Saturday morning at 9:05 a.m. in May 1971, Frank, who was then working at WIBG in Philadelphia, received a phone call while he was sitting in bed "from a guy with a namby, pamby voice, saying that he was Rick Skuh- Lar.
"Rick always said his name as two syllables," he recalled.
"He asked if I wanted to work for him, and I hung up," Frank continued. "He called back 30 second later and after I still didn't believe him, he gave me the phone number for WABC and told me to ask for Rick Sklar's extension."
"In three years at WABC, he only went over one air check with me and that was because I had commercials for two different department stores running together," he added. "But we had so many department stores on that hour, that it was hard to avoid that."
"He also would take care of his guys," Frank said. "If there was someone ranking on them, he would take their side, and people would complain about the darnedest things."
"He was a disc jockeys' programmer, not a sales department programmer," he continued. "Some program directors are frustrated former sales managers or frustrated general managers."
Essay by former Musicradio77 WABC Air Personality Frank Kingston
July 6, 2007
Rick Sklar was one of the sweetest men I ever knew.
He was a gentle soul who knew how to handle radio folk, which is a whole lot more than many program directors in history.
I don't believe he ever demanded that any one do anything. He asked questions about why something was done in a certain way, and he'd make suggestions. Everything he ever did seemed logical. I always admired him for the feeling he had for the way radio should sound.
When I was about to move back to Boston in 1974, he had me out to lunch to ask me not to leave. I had a lot of things going on in my life, and I thought it best to be back in Boston. I think he was genuinely hurt that I was pulling out.
When I heard about the surgical accident, it was already several days after the fact, and I know that the Jews bury the dead very quickly, usually within 24 hours.
I spoke briefly with Dan Ingram, who was really shaken. A terrible way for such a man to go.
I missed him every day of my career.
Phone Interview with longtime radio executive Harvey Mednick
Aug. 20, 2007
Harvey said that Rick used to say "that talk radio is music radio slowed down for old folks."
Harvey was the creative services director at KABC in Los Angeles, an ABC owned and operated talk station at the time, when they met in 1973.
"We shared information and ideas," Harvey said, noting that at one point they served together on a steering committee for a National Association of Broadcasters programming conference.
"He was terrific," Harvey said of Rick. "He was very warm and very friendly. Rick was extremely bright. He understood contemporary music and its audience."
"Rick was a very forward-looking person," he said, he didn't dwell on the past.
"He left us way too soon," Harvey said. "I still talk to people about his contributions and his strategies."
Note: Additional information on Rick Sklar is available at
DaveMartin.blogspot.com/2004/09, at www.claudehallonline.com
and this web site's Rick Sklar page.
WABC Musicradio 77 Home Page