IT IS 7:35 on any weekday morning in the 1970s, and people in five states are listening to WBAL radio in Baltimore. The news winds down and the next voice you hear is that of Don Spatz. Following the broadcast, if the pattern holds, as many as 50 people will write a letter to Mr. Spatz. His few minutes on the air each day move listeners to respond with thousands of letter a year.
Who was Don Spatz, and how did he strike such a chord?
Don Spatz is -- he still lives in Baltimore -- a former radio drama writer, music critic and public relations director for the Peabody Conservatory. Beginning Oct. 16, 1960, WBAL began broadcasting his daily five-minute program of anecdotes and commentary -- and to the astonishment of the station management (which had seen commentary shows come and go in a matter of a few years, or more often, months), the Spatz show would run for more than 30 years. Why?
His comments, in the tumultuous '60s when the social fabric of the nation was being torn apart, had a quiet, reassuring and redeeming quality. He sifted through the variety of human experience and picked out, somehow, moments of heroism. In the decades that would come to be characterized by coarse behavior, he wrote about unselfishness and civility. In the "me" years, he focused on "we" -- what he called "the noble instinct people have that unites them and lifts their spirits."
Don Spatz spoke of "character" -- which he defined as "what you are when no one is looking." His heroes included the mail carrier who turned a dusty roadbed into a garden by planting flower seeds along his route every day; a truck driver who volunteered his services one day each week to destitute farmers; the boxer who prayed before each fight that no one would be hurt.
He liked to tell the story of the young stranger who stopped to help a poor black man struggling with a heavy load on a cold winter's day. The stranger turned out to be Theodore Roosevelt; the black man was Booker T. Washington. All pure Spatz.
The last Spatz show was broadcast the morning of March 1, 1981. Jeff Beauchamp, who at the time was station manager and is today vice president and station manager of WBAL radio, recalls how the end came.
"Together -- Don and the management -- we made the decision. We all recognized that the radio audience was changing and the station format would be changing, too. We all agreed that the time had come to end the show. On that very last show Don thanked his listeners and said good-bye. And so it was."
All of that was more than 12 years ago -- in different times, in a different social, political and economic climate for radio. Today, there are many commentators on radio who are literate and interesting, even humorous (Garrison Keillor, for one).
But then, only 12 years after Don Spatz, there is Howard Stern.
Think about that.