The Golden Age of AM Radio

by John Delach

By 1960, rock & roll had completely established itself as a new entity. The music was no longer an extension of Rhythm and Blues (R&B), nor was it a part of Country and Western scene. Stars like Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presly and Jerry Lee Lewis revolutionized the kind of music available to mainstream listening, white audiences. However, this acceptance of rock and roll by mainstream stations, also opened these broadcasting venues to include young and old black musicians previously relegated small R&B outlets. The Platters, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, Jackie Wilson, the Cadillacs and the Coasters could be heard on big-time AM radio. Even Little Richard, albeit, his lyrics significantly watered down, found outlets for his outrageousness on mainstream rock.

The coming of age of the enormous wave of post-World War II baby boomers forced many stations to change their programming from traditional pop music formats. Artists like Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme gave way to the likes of these rock and roll singers. The development in the late 50’s and the early 60’s, of the pocket transistor AM radio and the explosion of teenage drivers help to hasten this transition. The transistor allowed teens to take their radios practically anywhere and the explosion of young drivers and Interstate Highways gave them the means to get there.  

WINS (1010), was the first 50,000-watt signal to begin featuring rock programing under the star power of Alan Freed in 1954. When Freed departed to WABC (770), Murray (the K) Kaufman became the host WINS all-night show that he deemed the Swingin Soiree that he opened with the line: “This meeting of the Swingin Soiree is now in session.” 

I became hooked on Murray the K’s “Submarine Race-watchers Fan Club” to the point that I actually became a card-carrying member. I attended his show at Palisades Amusement Park as well as his two rock & roll shows at the Fox Theater in Downtown Brooklyn in the mid-1960s. I don’t remember all of the acts, but my hero, Jackie Wilson headlined one show and at the other, the Isley Brothers brought the house down with their hit song, “Shout.”

The greatest part of Murray the K’s legacy may have been his switch to FM when he discovered that WINS was about to go to an all-news format in 1965. A year later, the FCC ruled that AM and FM radio stations could no longer simultaneously broadcast the same content. Murray became the program director and primetime DJ on WOR-FM (98.7) along with Rosko and Scott Muni who were free to do their own things absent AM’s restrictions.

Little did we realize that this new station and its successors would eventually bring down AM Radio before imploding on itself.

But I digress. When WINS converted from broadcasting rock & roll in 1965 going to all news, they adopted several slogans including “All news, all the time” –  “The news watch never stops.” and “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”

That left WMGM (1050), WMCA (570) and WABC (770). WMGM stopped broadcasting rock 7 roll in 1962. They re-branded their call letters to WHN and changed their format to beautiful music, also known as elevator music.

WMCA began the Good Guys era in 1960. Joe O’Brien kicked off the 6 am to 10 am morning show. Harry Harrison handled the 10 to 1 pm mid-day show aimed at housewives. Jack Spector, whose closing line was “Look out street here I come,” had the 1pm to 4pm slot and Dandy Dan Daniels ran the 4 pm to 7 pm afternoon drive time show.

On December 26, 1963, Jack Spector earned the distinction of making WMCA the first station in New York City to play a Beatles song, live. The song was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and despite its modest 5,000-watts of power, WMCA out drew its more powerful competitors soaring to the top of New York’s Arbitron ratings that convinced John Lennon and Ringo Starr to record several spots for WMCA.

Still, it was a losing battle and it was only a question of time before WABC took back the  Number One Arbitron rating. This was also the era of DJ mobility as both rock stations and their personalities sought better ratings. From 1960 to 1979, WABC featured both Herb Oscar Anderson and Harry Harrison hosting the morning show. Ron Lundy handled the mid-day from 1965 to 1982. Dan Ingram ran the afternoon slot for over twenty years from 1961 until 1982.

The evenings at WABC featured two super star DJ’s, Scott (Scottso) Muni and Bruce (Cousin Brucie) Morrow. We lost Scottso in 2004, but Cousin Brucie, who left WABC in 1974, has done it all and currently hosts a retrospective show on rock and radio on Saturday nights from the latest incarnation of WABC, now a conservative talk- show station.

AM rock radio lost its draw as Boomers grew older. Tastes shifted toward more serious sounds, as FM radio emerged as the new rock leader with better contemporary content while the quality of its sound outstripped AM’s. The FM tide did not last long as, first, satellite radio and then internet radio and podcasts further divided the marketplace. 

Many AM stations gave up their music formats and turned to talk radio. This included the two so called “Shock Jocks” Don Imus and Howard Stern.

For those of us who suffered through the rock and roll rebellion, there remained a single AM station that had not wavered. One place where we could find talented personalities who were not rock oriented and who were dedicated to  ”The Great American Songbook.”

That station was WNEW, (1130). Part Three will explore my relationship with what was then my best friend on radio.