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volume 6
april 2003

The morning mayor of New York

 





  A farewell to "good guy" Harry Harrison
by Hans Knot
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  On March 19th, 2003 Harry Harrison bid farewell to his massive audience in New York, where he was on air for over four decades, 44 long years to be precise. In those years Harrison worked for three of the greatest radio stations of this city: WMCA, WABC and WCBS. His last radio show was partially transmitted from the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. And that really was doing him justice. Hans Knot looks back on the exceptionally long radio career of New York's morning mayor.
 
1 Photo left: Harry Harrison at WMCA

Devoted to the radio. After 44 years of presenting radio in the Big Apple, Harry Harrison said forever farewell to his loyal audience, who knew him as New York's morning mayor. Harrison's career did go hand in hand with the history of radio in New York, though it started elsewhere. He was born in the town of Chicago (Illinois), and there he set his first steps in the radio industry. Already at the age of 14, Harrison was devoted to the radio. Due to the fact he had to be in his bed for most of the time as a result of rheumatic pains, young Harrison listened "hour by hour" to his little radio set. For him, this experience marked the beginnings of his great love and affection for the art of amusing people by presenting them with music.

During those long days in bed he did eat, you could say, all the words that sprung out of his radio speaker. After he had recuperated and was feeling better, he now knew where his future would go. He went to one of the local radio stations, WJJD. There they told him to go looking for a job at an educational radio station first. They advised WBEZ. And guess what? The contacts were made for him by the director of WJJD. If we, radio lovers in Holland, talk about American Radio in relation to the Chicago area in the late 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s, a reference to station WCFL is very quickly made. During those years we had contacts with some people in Chicago and they were kind enough to send us some tapes. From these tapes we heard Harry Harrison presenting his programs and we loved it from the very start. When some people left WCFL for their holidays, Harrison got the chance to do some substitute programs for a few weeks. Well, these few weeks stretched out to become more than eight months. And Harrison could be heard almost every day during that period. His name was now made in Chicago.

2 Housewife Hall of Fame. Almost instantly afterward he also started to work in the television world and not much later he became Program Director at a radio station in Peoria (WPEO). He was also presenter of a morning program which quickly went to the first position in the regional ratings. It was at that time, we're speaking of 1958, that Harrison started calling himself the "morning mayor". Within a half year after Harrison came in at WPEO, the station ran to a number one position in the RAJAR statistics. A year later, in 1959, Harrison made his first giant step when he left the Chicago area and headed for New York. There he started to work for WMCA. No, he did not ask for a job, he did not see an advertisement in a newspaper or a trade journal. Harrison was simply asked by the directors of WMCA to join the gang in New York, as they were totally impressed by what he had been doing over in Peoria.
  At WMCA Harrison started presenting the afternoon program and one of the items of this program was called "The Housewife Hall of Fame". This program was so clever to put a housewife into the spotlight every day, when she had done something very special to draw the attention of the rest of the radio audience. The spotlighted woman was put into the Housewife Hall of Fame. Of course, thinking back, this was the very best way to attract a lot of new listeners in New York; especially the housewives who had to buy the goodies as advertised on the radio station.
  In fact, Harrison effectuated a big change. For in his program the female part of the audience got all of the attention and not, as usual up till the 1960s, the male listener. Of course from then on Harry Harrison also became a member of the WMCA "Good Guys", as the team of deejays on the station became known and as such was promoted in a lot of outside promotional material as well in the jingle package of the station. Harrison also aimed his programs to the youth. In 1965 and 1966, for instance, he shared the podium of the stadiums where the Fab Four, the Beatles, did their live gigs for huge crowds. He even was called the Fifth Beatle. But, as we know, there were more deejays to fall in this play of radio. The same name was given to or appropriated by a lot of deejays, even some from Europe, who were touring in the USA with John, Paul, George and Ringo — take for instance Kenny Everett. Nevertheless for his listeners the Mayor of New York was the Fifth Beatle.
3 Photo right: Harry Harrison at his last show on March 19th, 2003 (photo: Paul Scharff)

Listening to American radio stations. It was around that time that I myself started collecting radio recordings from the USA. The reason was that in Europe some stations were started on the idea of American Radio, of course polished to European norms. Until those days we had, in Europe, no deejays presenting their programs ad lib. They all read a written script, so they had to tell what the producers had written for them. Our ears went wide open when we heard the format of Top 40 station Wonderful Radio London, or Big L as it was called. This format was the brainchild of Gordon McLendon. The idea of this format was to present the 40 hottest songs over and over again, mixed with a variety of new records as well as revived 45's. In presenting these songs the deejay acquired an important role, linking up the records in a personal way. Then another station came on the air in Europe with a very fast format, Swinging Radio England. The deejays of this station gave a special interpretation to this role, as they were almost shouting and talking very fast, stating they were Boss Radio.

Well, this was really American radio and for me that was the start of collecting everything I could acquire about it. The first reel-to-reel tapes with radio friends were traded and, inevitably, after some time I listened to recordings of the Morning Mayor on my Philips recorder. My friends and I even went as far as trying to tune in to some American stations directly here in Western Europe. Late at night our time, when most of the European stations were off the air, we would connect a long wire to the antenna of our transistor radio or try using the central heating to get a better signal. And, yes, we succeeded in listening to some powerful stations. Don't ask me about all of the noise, but we did listen!

4 From WMCA to WABC. To the format of American radio the promotion spots werpicknie an important ingredient. WMCA, surely, had some of the best of those. At the time we started listening to the American radio, Harrison once said in an interview: "We had the most beautiful promotion spots, we had all kind of small ideas to get the attention from and to the audience. They had to be a part of the program and the station." Harrison and his colleagues proved inventive in this respect. Whenever you read something about Harrison's career almost every time the story comes up of a massive picnic which was promoted on WMCA. The deejays told the audience it would be on a certain day but the listeners had to discover where the happening would take place. Every now and then tips were given in the programs so it was very easy to find out were the picnic was to be. Thousands of listeners showed up and the police had to be asked for assistance to regulate the heavy traffic in the surroundings and to keep everything within the lines of the act. On WMCA Harry Harrison worked together with other big names like B. Mitchell Reed, Johnny Dark, Dan Ingram, Jack Spector — who could also had a taped program on Radio Caroline in Europe in the 1960s — and many others. And all this was aired by a very powerful 50.000 Watts transmitter with the sparkling driving force of Program Director Joe O'Brien.
  Harrison would stay at WMCA until 1968, when he took up a job with the most inventive compound deejay team, the one of WABC. Here Harry Harrison first presented the Breakfast Show. It was Program Director Rick Slar who had a big problem when his morning deejay and another big star in New York Radio, Herb Oscar Anderson, decided to stop working for the station to find a job elsewhere. Slar decided to hire Harry Harrison to fill the empty space in his program schedule. And again it were the female listeners who were there in big amounts to listen to Harrison's warm way of presenting and, not in the least, to enjoy his jokes. Many of these women phoned the radio station, trying to get Harrison on the phone. As this would be the only possibility to hear Harrison speaking without those ten thousands of other women on the other side of the radio set. And once again he had many items, which came back during his breakfast program on WABC, including Zipper Routine. At the top of its popularity, Harry Harrison's Breakfast Show had a daily audience of around 4 million listeners.
5 At WABC. Till the end of 1979, Harry Harrison stayed at WABC in New York. During the second part of the 1960s and the first part of the 1970s, WABC no doubt was absolutely the top station in The Big Apple. When we, within our Dutch circle of people dedicated to the radio, did talk about Top 40 Radio, almost every time the same names came up: those of radio stations like WABC New York, KLIF Dallas en KFRC in San Francisco. And when we talked about deejays there were a lot of names going around, but we always included the name of Harry Harrison and his name was not the last to appear in our conversations but one of the first. From what we heard on the reel-to-reel tapes sent to us, and later on cassettes, Harrison was a very relaxed guy. He knew exactly how to address his listeners on the right level. He did not "lecture," as many other radio presenters did. Moreover, he succeeded in suggesting that he was speaking for each individual listener personally, as a part of the family. He knew how to keep a perfect balance in his shows, whereby he would attract not only the younger listeners but also the housewives. Due to his powerful presentation, and then I don't talk about a fast or screaming style, he got a huge following of listeners who stayed with him for over four decades.
  For WABC the downfall came in the second part of the 1970s. The same thing happened to a lot of other stations which were transmitting on AM, while many people preferred the new FM transmissions for their brighter and stereo signal. The resulting drop in audience was for Harrison the main reason to quit WABC in New York in 1979. Four long months followed during which the inhabitants of New York couldn't listen to their morning mayor.
6 Photo left: Harry Harrison talks to a fan after his last show (photo: Howard Adamsky)

One-liners. Like many of his contemporaries Harry Harrison made use of one-liners. Short sentences, which were repeated — wholly or partially — on a regular base, like Harrison's favorite: "Everyday has to be unpacked like a special present." Well, halfway March 1980 the day was a present for the lovers of Harrison, for he came back on the radio. This time he could be heard on WCBS-FM, again a New York radio station. Each Monday he was there, on the air already at 5 o'clock, to awake the whole population of New York. On the other weekdays he started a half hour later and he kept his program up every working day up till 9 o'clock local time. With his special team he served his audience some good golden oldies, next to news, sport and traffic information. And again, he showed his typical sense of humor and respect to the listener. From that time on Harrison's program again was enjoyed as a morning ritual by many families in the Big Apple and, you could say, he was sitting next to them at the morning breakfast table. After receiving tapes from my friends in New York, most of the times I listened to them during the late evening. Despite this wrong timing, I still did enjoy Harrison's programs a lot.

I already mentioned Harrison's one-liner "unpacking the day", but he had more of those short sentences returning over and over again in his program. A lot of colleagues used the same style trick, but with many the routine proved highly irritating. Only some, including Harrison, could apply it and turn it into a good part of their shows, by avoiding overexposure and a good timing of the correct moment. Another one of Harrison's favorite one-liners was: "Stay well, stay happy, stay right there." This one-liner always showed up at the end of his show and really, when hearing that, you felt like keeping the radio on till Harrison came back on the same frequency, saying: "Harry Harrison, wishing you the best ... that's exactly what you do deserve."

7 Looking for the success factor. I was not the only one to listen and to learn from American radio. In due time, Dutch top deejays were all given the order by their bosses to listen to their competitors but next to that to make a few weeks free to get on a plane and book a hotel in New York, Dallas, San Francisco or Chicago. That happened a lot in the 1960s, the 1970s as well as in the 1980s. No, the deejays wouldn't go round visiting the nicest places, the parks and other attractions in town. They had to visit some of the important radio stations and take as much time to be at their hotel room. They had to record as much as possible radio programs from the most favorite stations and learn from their examples.
  There is a nice story about one of the top deejays in Holland, Tom Mulder, who went to the States in the 1980s and came back with a load of tapes and with it the concept of a popular game, which he translated for Radio 3 (TROS). Later on he gave the tapes — filling a whole banana box — away to a friend of the Dutch "Society of Jingles and Tunes". When Mulder left Radio 3 for Radio10 Gold, he took the game with him. Then his former bosses threatened to sue him, accusing him of having stolen the idea. They thought the concept was copyrighted. Mulder, however, had to ask his friend for a copy of the particular cassette to prove he didn't stole the idea from the TROS, but heard it first on the radio in the Big Apple. And guess what? The game is still being aired on Radio 10FM, the new name of Radio10 Gold.
  Going back to Harry Harrison, I was asking myself what was the big reason for his success during the past 44 years. At one time he answered the question himself in an interview by stating: "I think it's the fact I stayed myself on the radio and my audience saw that I was like them and so a part of their family. Of course I'm like most of the New Yorkers. I'm going to the cinema now and then, to a sports game, read books and magazines and do everything my listeners also do. And above all I talk to my listeners about my daily routines and the things I do in private time." For me, Harrison is quite to the point by saying so. He enjoys life, together with his beloved wife Patty, his children and his dogs, one of his hobbies.
8 Photo right: Harry Harrison poses with one of his twin sons after his last show (photo: Howard Adamsky)

Second Mayor of New York. Even if Harrison himself thought he was like every other New Yorker, there were people who really thought there was more to him. In 1997 the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guilani, invited him to come to the City Hall on April 25th of that year. From that day on all the New Yorkers know that April 25th is the day of the morning mayor, the official Harry Harrison Day. During almost four decades and another half one Harrison has given thousands of artists a chance to be played in his shows and he met a lot of them personally. And now he has decided to slow down. But his voice will resound in the memories of millions of his listeners who recognize him as one of the best deejays in the world. Even in Holland, with our tapes and cassettes, we knew Harry Harrison as one of the "Good Guys."

Though Harrison now has gone off the air, the radio stations where he made his big career are still there. WMCA still has the same call letters as they had, way back in 1925 and the station uses the same frequency since 1928, the 570 kHz. In 1970 their format was changed into "All Talk". Since September 1989 WMCA is a religious station. WABC, also very well known as Music Radio 77 uses the 770 kHz and nowadays is a News Talk Station. WCBS transmits a golden oldie program on FM in New York with the slogan "1,001 Songs of the Century." A nice website with many memories of Harry Harrison and all of the "Good Guys" can be found at: Musicradio 77 WABC.

   
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