Saturday, December 09, 2017

W.R.I.P.: Obituary for a Radio Station

By Nicholas Stix

This Radio Station Did Things Its Way
By “Robert Berman” (N.S.)

‘It could have kept on growing, instead of just kept on. We had a good thing going, going — gone.” The words and music are by Stephen Sondheim, the voice supplied by The Voice, aka Francis Albert Sinatra.

The song is playing on WQEW, 1560 on your AM dial. The station’s owner, The New York Times, has just announced that it has leased the station to the Disney people, who will install a kid-oriented format, come January. Thus will the last New York station devoted to the Great American Songbook of Rodgers & Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, et al., go silent.

When the old “Sinatra Station,” WNEW-AM (1130), was sold in 1992, after playing American popular standards for 58 years, some old WNEW associates were able to swing a deal whereby The New York Times turned one of its two classical stations into a pop standards format. The Times promised to stick to the new-old format. As popular as the old WNEW, WQEW continued to make a profit, despite its aging demographics.

My earliest memory of WNEW was of skipping school, sneaking home and hearing Sinatra sing, “In me you see … a … man alone, behind the wall … he’s learned to call his home …” That was circa 1972. At that point, I didn’t know Rodgers & Hart from Horn & Hardart. But I learned, thanks to WNEW’s on-air personalities, Jonathan Schwartz, “Milkman” Bob Jones, and the late William B. Williams. They immersed me in Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn, and introduced me to the likes of Joe Williams and Al Hibbler.

And then there’s Miss Ella. It was a recording of a performance in which she forgot the lyrics to “Mack the Knife,” and started making them up (“Ella… and her fellas, making a wreck, oh what a wreck, of Mack the Knife!”) that made me fall in love with Ella Fitzgerald.

Jonathan Schwartz’ Sunday show has introduced thousands of listeners to a new generation of great cabaret singers such as Amanda McBroom, Ann Hampton Calloway, and the late Nancy Lamott, and bridged the world of rock with that of Tin Pan Alley. And station manager “Record Man” Stan Martin has presented live performances by no less than Tony Bennett, for my money the world’s greatest living singer.

But it always comes back to Sinatra.

I’m not nostalgic for the late Sinatra’s world. My mother was the bobby soxer. I’m only 40. I started out with the Beatles, the Supremes and Bob Dylan. But it was the ability to carry a Harold Arlen torch song, without drowning it in theatrics, and the way he made notes swing upward in songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” that Sinatra taught me about greatness.

[A Newsday editor butchered the following paragraph. As I have not been able to find the floppy disc with the original, 19-year-old ms., I did what I could to fix it.]

Teaching college courses, I have abused my students with this music. I sing American classics and make them write essays on them, and have developed an English as a Second Language methodology whereby immigrants learn English through singing the Great American Songbook.

The New York Times has placed the station’s personnel under a gag order.

But it can’t gag the station’s fans. On Wednesday, a swing band played as protesters young and old danced together, squeezed within narrowly placed NYPD sawhorses, in front of the Times’ West 43rd Street headquarters. Protective police brass periodically barked to any dangerous agitators outside the sawhorses, “Move along.” Apparently, the Times has discovered that it can make beautiful marching music with drum major Rudy Giuliani.

The Times notwithstanding, its station is determined to go out in style: Jonathan Schwartz’ commentary is evn more incisive than usual, and he has doubled his perennial Sinatra Saturday feature for Voice’s birthday tomorrow to eight hours.

But I’m no long-lost loser, carrying a torch for a sound that got away. I’m not ready for that final disappointment. For, at this moment, some WQEW people ae trying to patch together a deal for yet another home for the American classics. As Dorothy Fields wrote for Jerome Kern’s music, “Nothing’s impossible, I have found, for when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, take a dep breath and start all over … again.”

[Postscript, December 9, 2017: Newsday’s editors gave this essay a beautiful spread, with an original drawing of a grave for the station, with an old-fashioned, wooden radio serving as the tombstone, call letters “W.R.I.P.,” with an electrical plug planted in the grass, standing up with musical notes floating from it towards the moon. “This Radio Station Did Things Its Way”; December 11, 1998.

(Newsday’s New York City subsidiary, New York Newsday, had whitelisted me in 1991.)]

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