Legendary radio personality Eddie Gallaher died recently at the age of 89. For nearly 60 years, he practically owned the morning airwaves in the Washington, DC area. My mother told me about Gallaher’s death during my visit with her in Easton, Maryland over the Christmas holidays.
I was reminded of his long-running radio show on CBS flagship station WTOP, after accidentally tuning in to a local station in Easton that identified itself as a “Music of Your Life” affiliate.
As I soon found out, this nostalgic radio format plays mostly ‘40s and ‘50s music by the likes of Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and Sinatra. Their often-repeated slogan is, “The radio station you grew up with is back.” My mom and I enjoyed the old songs, and they got us talking about the glory days of radio.
I am old enough to remember when sitting in the living room in the evening and listening to the radio was a popular family pastime. But I am also young enough to have grown up during the transition to television, and the stormy eruption of rock ‘n roll. Consequently, as a teenager, I was as comfortable relaxing to Tin Pan Alley standards as I was to dancing to Chuck Berry and Elvis. Mom was (and still is) partial to Bing Crosby.
Gallaher’s morning show was a habit every day as I got ready for school. His soothing voice was comforting, and so was hearing my mother singing along with Crosby’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” Day’s “Secret Love,” or Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” But when the school bus brought me home in the afternoon, I headed for my room to spend an hour or so with Hoppy Adams on WANN in Annapolis, a black music station that played Little Richard, the Flamingos, and Clyde McPhatter.
In my senior year of high school, I discovered jazz on the Felix Grant show on WMAL. Grant was not only a great authority on jazz, but he was also a supporter and cultivator of new talent. He was one of the prime forces behind the Brazilian bossa nova craze, a musical style that resurrected the career of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.
When I headed off to the University of Maryland the following year, I listened to Grant in the evening, and stayed up late with Jim Meyers & Company, an all-night show on WTOP that featured jazz and standards, as well as live performances by Meyers on piano and wife Ruby Lee on vocals. A great portion of my record and CD collection was built around the music these announcers played.
And there were plenty of other stations, all AM, that beamed in late at night. I sat spellbound while Bob Prince on KDKA in Pittsburgh did the play-by-play, as Harvey Haddix hurled a 12-inning perfect game for the Pirates. He lost it in the 13th. Dick Biondi blasted out the latest rock records on WKBW in Buffalo. So did CKLW, a Detroit station with a powerful tower across the border in Canada. I even enjoyed the Grand Old Opry on WWVA in West Virginia.
Listening to the radio was so important to me, that I once chose to drive home from Colorado to Maryland at night, and sleep during the day (it took me four days), so I could hear my favorite all-night jazz show on KMOX in St. Louis.
Those days are just about gone. Most radio stations are owned by large media corporations, and feature a generic format and playlist that is as familiar as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. Most stations have no local news. In fact, you can listen to these stations all day and have no idea what city, town or state they come from. The DJs just shout their babble at you, the national advertising thumps away, and you hear the same 20 or so songs wherever you go and whenever you tune in.
Eddie Gallaher was quoted in the Washington Post as saying of his style, “I talk to one person out there instead of thousands, and I am honest with him.” Folks like Gallaher made radio feel like an old friend dropping by. It is sad to see him, and so many others like him, slip quietly into history.