Local sound of radio fades a little more on a sad note

January 06, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AFTER half a century in the broadcasting business, Harry Shriver, general manager at Baltimore radio stations WCBM and WWLG, was informed Monday that his day, and maybe his era, were over.

He was fired with a note. The note was written by station owner Nick Mangione, and then delivered to Shriver by Mangione's son, Nick Jr. Shriver says it was a nice note, as such things go. It thanked him for his service, and noted his many achievements in Baltimore radio, and then kissed it all off.

"Disappointing," Shriver said. He meant not only the firing, but the manner. Half a century in radio did not merit a handshake or a look in the eye.

"I know, I know," Mangione Sr. said yesterday. "I made some people unhappy, and I'm sorry. Harry Shriver is a helluva nice guy. I can't think of a better guy in the business. But you should look at my books, where expenses are up 30 percent, and where do we find listeners?"

So it goes in AM radio. And at age 67, that's how it went for Harry Shriver, the man who once brought to the airwaves the sound of Johnny Walker and The Flying Dutchman and Joe ("your knight of the spinning round table") Knight and Commander Jim Morton, who turned Charley Eckman into a broadcasting force of nature and who -- for better or worse -- unleashed the right-wing screeds of Les Kinsolving and Tom Marr, and helped invent the politically contentious Conference Call show, on the air since 1962.

"Well," Shriver was saying yesterday, "you can't be boring. There was a time when AM radio was everything. It was bigger than FM radio, bigger than TV. Now it's a different game."

In Shriver's heyday -- from 1956, when he arrived at WFBR radio, and then ran it for 18 years until 1988, when the station was sold -- he had an operation that never had great wattage but always had heat and humor.

He brought in Johnny Walker, who dealt in single entendres. Walker was Howard Stern before anybody knew about Stern ("although," Shriver says, "by today's standards, practically a choirboy"). He brought in Commander Jim Morton, whose nighttime dating show mixed romance with comic-ironic sensibilities.

Also, for eight years, the station broadcast the Orioles. For years, WBAL radio had carried the baseball team, and seemed oblivious to promoting them. Then, with WFBR's younger audience, WFBR promoted the Orioles like crazy, and helped breathe new life into a franchise that was then an on-field success but a box-office dud.

"But then," Shriver says, "the smartest lawyer in the world [Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the Orioles] pulled the rug out from under us. And that was it. We went to all talk at that point," because FM radio's cleaner, stereo sound was dominating the music market.

The AM stations have now almost all reverted to talk, with Rush Limbaugh and a bunch of bullying, posturing wannabe's spread across the dial. The local touch, reflecting a community's interests and its inside jokes and its idiosyncrasies, gets lost as syndicated voices are brought in.

At WBAL, for example, they sacrifice the entire midday to the syndicated Limbaugh. Thus, the state's biggest station, the 50,000-watt alleged voice of Maryland, hands over its airwaves to a man who wouldn't know a local issue, or personality, if one reached up and choked him.

"Radio has become a commodity to be bought and sold, like orange juice and pork bellies," Shriver said yesterday. "It's no longer locally oriented, it's bottom-line-oriented so big conglomerates can meet the debt service. The Mangione stations were different. They were owned by local people, who seemed to understand."

Thus, love his station's talk-show voices or loathe them -- at least most were local voices, generally attuned to matters affecting this community.

"But it's tough," Shriver says. "If you're an AM station and you don't have either 50,000 watts or a major league team, it's a tough sell. Today, the people who buy radio [advertising] spots are in their 20s.

"If you're a salesman for WCBM, the buyer says, `What's that?' You say, `Talk radio.' She says, `A radio station that doesn't play music?' You say, `It's AM.' She thinks of AM as something she heard her daddy talk about."

The ratings have been low, as well. There's a shrill right-wing bent that alienates large numbers of those who might enjoy civilized, moderate discussion instead of bombast. And the other Mangione station, WWLG (1360 AM), has its own tough sell.

It corners a local market -- pop music that predates rock and roll -- but has a weak signal.

"There's the dilemma," Nick Mangione Sr. said yesterday. "We've gotta boost the power, and we've gotta cut the expenses. And that's why I had to let Harry go. It hurts, no kidding. But I had to do it, and it's just the first in a lot of changes to come."

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