Black And Blue

Memories Of The 1977 Power Blackout At WABC


It had only been about a month since I had been promoted from Program Director to Operations Director of WABC. The awesome responsibilities had already become immediately apparent. Maintaining ratings was compounded by a NABET union engineers strike, which lasted twenty weeks. The company had put me in charge of training non-union personnel, i.e. secretaries, management, sales people, etc. to run live on-air control boards for the biggest station and the biggest air personalities in the world.

Then I was given the task of preparing the annual business plan. Annual is a misnomer, because we had to do five year forecasts for things that were impossible to predict, such as ratings, talent and advertising costs, etc. Filling out complicated corporate business plans is not exactly the type of thing anybody thinks of when they think of what it is like to be a Program Director. Trust me, it’s not all fun and games.

Overwhelmed with budget numbers, my mind was in need of a break and my stomach was in desperate need of some food. So I asked my assistant, Sandy Sanderson, to join me for a quick break a couple of blocks away on restaurant row. The break was quicker than I ever expected.

Almost simultaneous with the waiter delivering our drinks, the lights went out in the restaurant. Shortly somebody came running in from the street and said the lights were out in the entire block. I said to Sandy “lets get out of here, the station is only a couple of blocks away. We’d better get back and make sure everything is OK. WABC may be in the same power grid.”

We literally ran back to 1330 Avenue of the Americas, huffing, puffing and sweating through one of the city’s worst heat waves. The ABC corporate lobby was in an eerie state of darkness. Sandy and I ran up eight flights of stairs to the studios of WABC Musicradio 77. Because the station was a clear channel emergency broadcast station, its studios were equipped with an emergency power generator. The transmitter was in Lodi, New Jersey. So we were still on the air.

The first thing I did was go to the newsroom to find out what was going on. The entire city was without power. New York City’s 1977 blackout had just begun.

Next, I ran to my office and scanned the radio dial. At that time, WABC was just about the only station left on the air. It was an eerie sound, or lack there-of, kinda like the bomb had just dropped.

Everything from my college days about serving the public interest, convenience and necessity (Communications Act of 1934) echoed in my head. I realized to do so, I had to change the station’s format from Musicradio 77 to Newsradio 77, regardless of ratings. Who cares about ratings in an emergency! Besides, just about all the other stations were off the air anyway.

Even though I had only been Operations Director for a month, I had been at ABC for six years and knew the chain of command. No decision of this magnitude should be made without approval of senior management, provided they were immediately available. So I called our Vice President & General Manager, Al Racco, at home. Al was one of my favorite people and I always admired him as a leader. This night, I realized I had interrupted his quality relaxation time. His words were a bit slurred, but his mind was as sharp as ever. When I told Racco I wanted to change format and wanted his blessings, he said something like “you’re the Operations Director, what the hell are you asking me for! It’s your station. If it’s what you think you should do, then do it.”

Next I ran down the hall to our News Director, Paul Ehrlich. Paul is a Harvard journalism graduate and very astute. I told Paul I wanted to switch to all news. They were the last words he ever expected from my lips, since we had been eliminating newscasts to sharpen our competitive edge as a music station. Paul gave me a quick briefing on the emergency and we formulated our game plan. Not having a large news staff, George Michael would serve as anchor, bringing together reports from our news people, freeing them to work the phones and the streets to gather information. George had the gift of gab and would easily fill the gaps. His personality would help calm any public panic.

I went on the air a couple of times myself with some format announcements.

All this took place in a matter of minutes.

In those days, there was a great sense of comradery at WABC, a real team spirit. One by one, staff members assembled at the station to lend their assistance, even if it simply meant running out for coffee. There were people there from every department. My buddy Chuck Leonard even showed-up early for his shift.

It was mentioned in an earlier post that our Assistant Chief Engineer, Bob Deitsch, ran up the stairs with gasoline for the generator. What was not mentioned was the generator was on the roof of the forty story ABC building!

While to most New Yorkers, the 1977 black out was a nightmare, those of us who were at WABC will remember it as one of the station’s shining moments. WABC was a beacon in a sea of darkness. Our staff did its best to restore calm and provide vital information in our audience’s time of need. George Michael and our news department did a commendable job and were real troopers, as were the rest of our people both on the air and behind the scenes.


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WABC Musicradio 77 Home Page