By Mike Kinosian
NEW YORK — As we reported here on Saturday (5/28), longtime New York radio executive William O’Shaughnessy died this past weekend at his Litchfield, Connecticut home; the 84-year-old O’Shaughnessy had been battling urothelial cancer.
TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison issued the following statement: “Bill O’Shaughnessy was more than an accomplished broadcaster and author. He was a living symbol of the radio medium’s most glorious ideals – both in substance and style – and was one of modern-day America’s most influential and inspirational proponents of the First Amendment.”
During my tenure as Inside Radio’s Special Features & Personality Editor, it was my distinct pleasure to interview the genuinely colorful O’Shaughnessy; edited portions of that conversation appear below.
Albeit completely coincidental, call letters of his New Rochelle, New York FM facility supplied a succinct, sagacious summary of a wonderfully warm, amazingly articulate and brilliant broadcaster: William’s (a) Very Inspiring Personality.
Palpable elegance emanates from and envelopes this particular (Prince) William – O’Shaughnessy to be precise – from his demeanor and way in which he comported himself to how he made a first-time visitor feel like a lifelong chum.
A more gracious gentleman you will not have found.
Those privileged to spend time with the perfectly coiffed president & editorial director of Whitney Radio’s WVOX-AM & WVIP-FM were guaranteed to be regaled with classic radio nuggets spun in extraordinary style and vibrant flair.
Queries on any subject produced at least a handful of animated recollections, all eloquently crafted by the classy O’Shaughnessy, who frequently and delightfully referred to himself in the third-person.
It’s only make believe
Journey down Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue and you’ll encounter Canisius High School, the Jesuit-run alma mater of O’Shaughnessy and the late Tim Russert.
That’s where O’Shaughnessy first thought seriously about radio. “I loved [air personality] Fred Klestine, who played jazz and big band music,” fondly recalled O’Shaughnessy, whose poignant eulogy of Russert was flat-out chilling. “I edited the school newspaper, wrote a music column and ran the dances.”
Employment as a Mt. Kisco bank teller was one of his first post-high school jobs, although O’Shaughnessy candidly admitted he wasn’t particularly adept at it. “I once gave someone $500 in change instead of $50 and had to get it back. He’d already spent most of it on beer and I only recovered about $300. Mt. Kisco didn’t have its own radio station [until ‘Howdy Doody’ producer] Martin Stone started up a jewel of one.”
Eighteen-year-old O’Shaughnessy earned $65 a week as an account executive at upstart WVIP, which debuted October 27, 1957. “There was a general manager and three salespeople,” he confirmed. “We billed $130,000 the first year and, by sheer guile, I [was responsible for] $80,000. It was a wonderfully heady time with many young, attractive people buzzing around. Stone wrote a spectacular letter of recommendation on my behalf to John Van Buren Sullivan, the major domo of [New York City’s WNEW-AM which then] had a 26-share. Sullivan idolized Jack Kennedy and I was his Kenny O’Donnell – the doorkeeper.”
Contributing mightily to WNEW-AM’s luster was “The Make Believe Ballroom,” splendidly hosted by impeccable Radio Hall of Famer William B. Williams, who was Martin Block’s replacement in that role. “As I grew up, I was crazy about William B. Williams,” O’Shaughnessy explained. “He was a wonderful man. Sullivan always told me to stay out of the studio, but one day I walked in and said, ‘That’s a gorgeous song, Billy.’ He then opened the microphone and said he was trying to tutor and educate this young man from Mt. Kisco. WNEW-AM had 24 [newswire] machines; parked outside were five maroon Chrysler mobile units with red leather seats.”
On the dot
The Army drafted 21-year-old O’Shaughnessy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and as he deadpanned, “My whole time was served overseas – in Staten Island. I got home every weekend and had the three best jobs: I was the commander’s driver; editor of the post newspaper; and tended bar in the officer’s club. I think I learned more editing that paper than anything else I’ve done.”
Most bemoan the current economic climate, yet O’Shaughnessy remained upbeat because it was contention that radio is a foul-weather friend. “Our business always goes up in downturns. It’s easy to get an advertiser on the air – I can get one on in 20 minutes. You can’t do that with newspaper or television. The more local a station, the easier it is to get through a downturn.”
Intellectual loquaciousness is O’Shaughnessy’s stock-and-trade and his four ample books, “Air Waves” (1999, 391 pages), “It All Comes Back To Me Now” (2001, 637 pages); “More Riffs, Rants, And Raves” (2004, 781 pages); and Vox Populi (2011, 748 pages) are perfect representations, even though the author confessed he didn’t know how to punctuate. “I write in dots and dashes. Fordham Press put its imprimatur on my books. When I turned in my last manuscript, they hit one key and wiped out 10,420 dots and replaced them with [appropriate] commas and exclamation points. We invited 125 people to one of my New York book parties and 300 showed up. Walter Cronkite, Liz Smith and a few others crashed it, but they were very welcome.”
Few will find a more advanced wordsmith than this dedicated professional who’s lectured at 20 universities; however, O’Shaughnessy never attended one day of college. “I guess I’m self-taught,” the Broadcasters Foundation of America board director and chair of its Endowment Committee downplayed. “It doesn’t come easy. I struggle with it and learned by reading Jack Kennedy. You had to be powerfully affected by [the late President’s] use of language. In addition, I idolized Jimmy Cannon, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. They wrote with strong muscular sentences and then I discovered William Saroyan.”
Utmost reverence though was reserved for O’Shaughnessy’s greatest mentor, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, 82 years old when he died January 1, 2015. “The Boston Globe called him the great philosopher/statesman of the American nation. I’m in the heart of the eastern establishment where [another former New York Governor] Nelson Rockefeller was such a dazzling figure. All the young men of my day were Kennedy Democrats, while I’m a self-styled Rockefeller Republican.”
To infer O’Shaughnessy wasn’t much of a president-picker would be putting it mildly considering Rockefeller and Cuomo were the two individuals he most championed to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Whenever Cuomo’s on a riff, I say he’s wasting it on my meager brain. He’s sure of my love for him. I’ve been asked countless times why Mario didn’t make it and I still don’t know how to answer it. Everyone else in politics tries to push themselves [whereas] Mario always tried to restrain himself. He is the brightest and most decent man I’ve ever met.”
Vacationing in the Bahamas with his fetching wife Nancy, O’Shaughnessy received a call from Cuomo asking for feedback about a possible Supreme Court nomination. “Some of his family members wanted him to [pursue it], but he tried being glib by saying he’d never have to wear underwear in that job,” O’Shaughnessy remembered. “He knew why he was reaching out to me and exactly what I’d say. He would’ve been appointed by Bill Clinton and I don’t like what Clinton ‘giveth.’ He told me I was impossible and hung up. Mario told people he wanted to crap out of this life sliding into home with an inside-the-park homerun. I wanted to be his third-base coach [waving him in].”
Virtually any conversation with O’Shaughnessy was also bound to have lavish praises for former New York Democratic Senators Jacob Javits and Daniel Patrick Monahan.
Combined with bon mots for John F. Kennedy, Cuomo and Rockefeller, it leads one to wonder if O’Shaughnessy ever held political aspirations of his own. “I had an opportunity when I was 29,” he acknowledged. “They were looking for a guy to run against the heir to the U.S. Plywood fortune [Richard Ottinger]. I lived in Bronxville and said I couldn’t do it because I was raising a young family and needed to apply myself to what I knew and know, which is broadcasting.”
Very important calls
One facet of the medium in which O’Shaughnessy especially excelled is the art of the interview. “You have to be interested in people and have to listen,” he counseled. “You must get out of yourself and be interested in the person you’re talking to. [Late actor] Ossie Davis called me one day to say what I did with [AP correspondent] Terry Anderson [who was taken hostage in Lebanon in 1985] was fabulous because I didn’t try to fill in the spaces. It never occurred to me, but Ossie said I’m not afraid of the silence. When I do interviews, I don’t let guests talk about anything they know or what they do for a living.”
Consolidation hadn’t quite kicked in when O’Shaughnessy founded New York Market Radio and as he vividly underscored, “We needed to draw the wagons in a circle. Even then, radio people started talking ‘business-speak,’ using expressions like ‘getting it done,’ ‘do what it takes,’ ‘make it happen,’ ‘the whole nine yards’ and ‘24/7.’ I have the permit for practically the last locally-owned/locally-operated independent stations in the New York area. The others have all fallen to speculators and absentee owners and are being run by market managers who spend all day in airport lounges on their BlackBerry or PalmPilot. They are beholden to corporate masters a whole continent away. I saw this coming many years ago.”
Wall space became exhausted in order to accommodate numerous plaques that “America’s Great Community Stations” – WVOX and WVIP – continued to accumulate. “On high holy days, we don’t do anything except go right to Temple Israel, the largest and most influential Jewish congregation,” noted O’Shaughnessy, a past President of the New York State Broadcasters Association. “We don’t play music or commercials.”
Conversely, three weekly Muslim programs are aired and O’Shaughnessy cited “that bright idea” eventuated about three days after 9-11. “Some people like it and some don’t. Broadcasters can be provocateurs and use their genius to encourage dialogue and build up communities. I’d like to keep these stations in the service of the people for as long as we can. WVOX does that for the ‘townies,’ which is what people with community roots [call themselves]; WVIP does it for the new, emerging people without a voice. Our FM used to be WRTN and I was so delighted to get the WVIP calls [familiar to him, of course, from Mt. Kisco].”
Localism of which he spoke is quite a contrast to satellite radio, although O’Shaughnessy stressed Sirius XM Radio’s (then) CEO Mel Karmazin is “a good guy. I once woke Mel up at 3:00 am [when he was head of Infinity Broadcasting] to let him know I couldn’t stop the votes from censuring Howard Stern. When he asked what I should do, I gave him [then NAB President] Eddie Fritts’ number and recommended that Mel tell him he would pull his stations [from the NAB]. I said it was his only shot.”
Votes magically began appearing the next morning not to censure Stern. “That’s why Howard has always [been kind to me] and calls me ‘the white-haired mogul from Westchester.’ When XM wired up Westchester, I got calls from zoning board chairmen who asked about people wanting to put repeaters on rooftops. I was a little late to the game on this. I served on the NAB board – on and off – for 18 years. When there’s a First Amendment thing, I am on the floor, but I’m out walking to the beach when there are technical issues. They bamboozled many people with their fly-by-night stealth tactics. As best I could, I alerted the NAB five years ago to get off its ass and get into this thing. The NAB is paying too much attention to structural stuff.”
Specifically regarding the First Amendment, O’Shaughnessy was noticeably upset about the outcome of the April 2007 Don Imus/Rutgers University women’s basketball team controversy. “It was not Mr. Les Moonves’ finest hour [nor was] it [MSNBC’s] finest hour. Corporate acquiescence in the face of intimidation or coercion is every bit as dangerous as censorship by government fiat or decree.”
Given that he and his lovely Nancy dined out five or six nights a week, there were moments when O’Shaughnessy entertained thoughts of operating his own restaurant. “We love the dynamics of it,” he stated. “You try to find out where God wants you to be in life. I was told a person should change careers every four years, but that’s a [suggestion] I never took.”
An obligatory Mario Cuomo section graced O’Shaughnessy’s fourth book “Again: Run That By Me One More Time,” readied by the charismatic author following his hip replacement surgery. “I happened to choose an Italian doctor over a Jewish one,” the NAB’s former Public Affairs chair pointed out. “Cuomo called to say I was the dumbest guy he knows. Anyone who picks the Italian over a Jew has to be crazy, but my doctor also [operated] on Oscar de la Renta and all the Saudi princes.”
Variety of voices
Every day in his life was different but never what one could call dull. “Some issues are relentless and never go away; [most others] ebb and flow,” opined O’Shaughnessy who would relax by walking around Manhattan; swimming in his pool; and looking at pictures of his grandchildren. “My portfolio as a community broadcaster enabled me to see, witness, experience and feel so many things. Our little 500-watt WVOX has enabled me to preside over many black-tie charity dinners in the grand ballroom of the mighty Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Captains and waiters love me because I get them home on time.”
Being an author or journalist is tempting but in the final analysis, O’Shaughnessy (correctly) saw himself as a broadcaster. “When you hit certain [age] milestones, you begin to wonder if you’ve had an impact on your tribe,” he touchingly reflected in our conversation. “People kid me about calling broadcasters my ‘tribe.’ I’ve been preaching the same damn thing for what seems like forever. I wouldn’t call radio our ‘industry,’ [it’s our] ‘profession.’ Radio achieves its highest calling when it resembles a platform and a forum for the expression of many different viewpoints. My job is to keep that podium from being wobbly. I’m in love with the notion where many different voices are heard in the land.”
Late Greater Media executive Peter Bordes once jabbed Whitney Radio’s head honcho by noting he had 23 stations to O’Shaughnessy’s two, leading the latter to cleverly and rhetorically retort, “How many more do I really need to get a better table at 21?”
Funeral services for O’Shaughnessy took place yesterday afternoon (5/31) in New Rochelle (New York); the funeral mass will be held 11:30 this morning (Wednesday, 6/1) at Litchfield, Connecticut’s St. Anthony of Paduaeet. In lieu of flowers, the O’Shaughnessy family would be grateful for a donation in his honor to the Broadcasters Foundation of America.
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Mike.Kinosian@gmail.com