Extra Chapter 8
Top Forty-radio basked in all its glory in the days after rock and roll swept the nation in the late 1950s. Disk jockeys would choose the records they wanted to play, and they had freedom to develop their personalities on the air. The first reduction of that freedom came after the Payola scandals. Alan Freed, the man who popularized the genre as “rock and roll,” was the biggest fish hooked. He and other DJs were found guilty of accepting cash payments in exchange for playing records. Ultimately Freed lost his job in the wake of the scandal, and he would die a tragic figure at the age of 43.
To avoid another Payola scandal, the play lists were taken out of the hands of the DJs and put in control of the program managers. As a result, fewer new, exciting, different songs aired, because the program managers were less willing to take chances. As profits from radio grew, the corporate bean counters based programming strictly on record sales, reducing both the spontaneity and the individuality of the programming. As the Sixties came along, radio – and the music – turned stale.
Then came the British invasion, led by John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and rock and roll was re-energized. Cousin Bruce Morrow, the top radio personality in the land from his studio at WABC to his shows at Palisades Park in New Jersey, had a bird’s eye view of Beatlemania. Mike in hand, he introduced the Beatles before their historic performance at Shea Stadium.
He was also witness to the death of Top Forty radio as the Baby Boomer generation knew it. Large corporations began buying up smaller stations, and with an eye toward the bottom line and the stock market, the bean counters decided that the quickest and easiest way to bigger profits was to let the most expensive DJs go. One after another, the great rock and roll stations lost their individuality and their listenership as formulaic radio took over. Today bland, dependable niche stations fight for their fair share of the market.
Bruce Morrow, who worked in radio in New York for almost fifty years, was the last major Golden Age radio talent to be let go. After working for three years at WINS, he worked in Miami for a year before signing in 1961 with flagship WABC where he set the trend for thirteen years. He then switched for WNBC, but after three years took a break to work as a business executive. In 1982 Morrow joined WCBS radio where he was a fixture for twenty-three more years. When the suits at WCBS stupidly decided to end the oldies format completely, a disgusted Morrow signed on with Sirius Satellite Radio. Cousin Brucie is back on the air, and Cuz, he has the freedom to do his thing again.
Morrow’s career as a New York City radio personality began in 1959 when he was hired by WINS to be the staff announcer. As Cousin Brucie, Morrow quickly became the most popular DJ on FM radio, and WINS signed him to a contract that put him on the air from six to eleven p.m. six nights a week. Coming on after him was Murray Kaufman, who was ten years his senior. When Morrow proved his popularity, Kaufman’s jealousy got the best of him. Kaufman and the sales manager went to the general manager and convinced him that the station would be better off financially if Kaufman had the prime six to eleven slot with Morrow following him.
Says Morrow, “I thought it was wrong, and I was really angry. Murray the K used his power and influence – and he was kind of a bad guy. He did me pretty dirty. I was a kid. I couldn’t protect myself from him. He was a guy who had no scruples. Here was this bad guy doing things like this, and I didn’t want to be part of it any more. So I looked for another job, and I wound up in Miami.”
On February 3, 1959, while he was working in Miami, a plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens crashed in an Iowa cornfield. All were killed.
“Their careers were so short,” said Morrow. “Buddy Holly’s career was like a huge candle. The Big Bopper had been a disc jockey, and Valens made an album with really interesting things on it. His career wasn’t even a year old, and it was over so quickly. That was terrible, the first rock and roll disaster. It was huge, and because of their deaths, rock and roll became even more important, because people began to realize what the music meant to their lives as part of the culture. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to turn the lights on.
“By 1959 rock and roll was really growing, reaching huge mainstream audiences. It finally had a means of exhibition, called radio, which was essential to the development of this art form, because before radio there was very little business, especially the black acts, who weren’t getting any exposure whatsoever. It took radio to do that, and by the time this tragedy happened, radio was completely dominating the youth market.”
Morrow, newly married, found it tough being away from home. When he saw Santa Claus standing under a palm tree in red Bermuda shorts, he knew it was time to go back to the Big Apple, to find a station and a market deserving of his huge talent. He let it be known he wanted to return, and in 1961 he received a call from Hal Neal, vice president/general manager of WABC, a 50,000-watt station looking to become the flagship of contemporary radio.
At first Scott Muni came on the air at six p.m., and Bruce Morrow followed from ten to midnight. After several years, Morrow’s popularity grew, and ABC then gave him the whole night – seven p.m. to midnight, six nights a week, always live -- no recordings – with one week of vacation a year. He was making great money, but ABC made him work for it. Morrow didn’t mind.
“I loved what I was doing,” says Morrow. “I also did stage shows. I did television, and it kept growing and growing, and rock and roll really came into its own.”
What helped make Morrow’s show so popular was his desire to take his show out of the studio and out to his fans. He did shows from the Raven Hall pool in Coney Island, and then he arranged to do his Saturday night shows from the Palisades Amusement Park. Cousin Brucie would invite ten to fifteen acts to come onto the stage and lip synch their hit records. The acts came for free, and Bruce and the amusement park high above the Palisades gained incredible publicity.
“I started doing Palisades Park in 1961,” says Morrow. “I was there every Saturday for the “Cousin Brucie Show”, a huge stage show with thousands of kids. I have a great photograph of me strutting across the stage in a leopard skin suit. I realized you had to leave them with something to remember. I used to have outrageous suits made, with shoes and underwear to match.” Morrow’s Palisades Park stage shows would continue until 1969.
“From the beginning I was different,” says Morrow. “Most disc jockeys were card readers, doing the same thing. `Here I am on the tower of power with a stack of hot shellac.’ What I discovered was how to talk to people, not at them. Radio can be a very cold device when you talk at people, but if your listeners feel you are talking directly to them, it warms up, and you become a family member, a cousin. This didn’t happen right from the beginning, but by the time WABC brought me back to New York, I had discovered the secret of how to reach people, how to talk on the radio almost as a telephone. If radio is used properly, of all media it’s the most intimate. I tell people, `I’m in the shower with you, I’m in bed with you, I’m going to the grocery store with you, I’m with you wherever you want to go.’ Radio can do that, and nothing else can. It requires a different attention
“A long time ago I discovered intimacy in radio. That’s what made me different. I started doing in-person appearances, including my remotes at places like Raven Hall pool and Palisades Park. People wanted to see me, and I knew I wanted to see them. While they were getting autographs and kissing and hugging, I was getting information from them as to what they liked and didn’t like. I used it as a research tool. It was a very key part of my development on the radio – the tool of actually being with people.
“At that time the teenager was almost an outcast, to be seen and not heard. The parents, who were in control, wanted to stay in control. But the teenagers were stepping out, and there was a huge market waiting to be tapped. The curtain was coming up. As a businessman, I realized there was a huge market out there. The teenager didn’t have any mentors. Even though he might be rebelling against the adult world, he was still looking for an adult constituency that he could trust and listen to. I was determined to be that guy.
“LOOK Magazine at that time did an article on me in which it said I was a `balm for youth.’ The article reflected the development of this huge market that nobody had really paid any attention to. Madison Avenue never paid it any heed. Who wants to sell things to kids? Kids can’t buy anything. Kids didn’t have any influence. Nobody understood that though they might not have had a sustainable income, they had huge influence. Huge. And radio helped developed it. The seeds were planted, and the people who made the decisions where to go with products and how to sway and propagandize us saw very quickly with radio that there was something there, because this teen market was developing like a storm, like lightning. Once radio started to expose this music, black and white, this market started developing, and I was right in the middle of it almost from the beginning.”
This was the heyday for WABC radio. Their lineup was a powerhouse starting in the morning with Herb Oscar Anderson, then Ron Lundy, Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie, Chuck Leonard, and Charlie Greer. They were all on six days a week. Any kid in the New York metropolitan area who had a Motorola transistor radio, and that was every kid, was listening to WABC.
A defining moment for Morrow came late in 1963 when he first heard the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” He had heard other Beatle songs before, but never played them on his show. This time, this song was different.
“I had heard their earlier records before that,” he says. “We were sent these records. In those days we had music meetings. All the jocks would get together, and we’d vote on records. Before the Payola scandal, I would bring in ten records I wanted to play, as would the other guys, and we’d vote on them. When the scandal hit, the program director, the guardian of the radio station’s license, began bringing the records in to be voted on. We might as well not even have a record meeting. He would pussy foot around us, and new records never would get exposed. All we were doing was playing records that hit the Top Fifty on Billboard magazine. A record would have to prove itself before we’d play it. Because everybody was scared stiff. They were worried that maybe they had cameras in the men’s room. It was terrible. The program director was completely afraid. The general manager was afraid for his job. And the owners were afraid of losing their licenses. So that changed the nature of the business. The record had to be a hit to be played. So like I said, the program manager came in with the early Beatles songs, `She Loves You,’ ya, ya, ya, and `My Bonnie,’ and we all turned them down. A British group singing our idiom of rock and roll? They got to be kidding. The program director was not unhappy because he didn’t want to take a chance anyhow. We didn’t realize that by the 1960s rock and roll desperately needed a very heavy shot of adrenaline. It was getting tired. We were playing the same kind of stuff since the mid-50s, and it needed a good shot in the arm.
“What we also didn’t know was that Europeans loved American rock and roll. These British groups would take the foundation – Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and if you dissect those early Beatle records before they developed their own sound, it was all American rock and roll. What’s why it wasn’t that foreign – if you forgive the pun – to us. It had a lot of the elements we were used to, yet had the new adrenaline in it.
“Then early in 1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came in. Before it arrived, we had been watching what was going on in Europe. This group, the Beatles, whoever the hell they were, these long-haired wackos, were singing American music and causing riots, literally riots everywhere they went all over Europe.
“So the eyebrows went up, and we started listening, and by the time “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came in, it was very obvious there was something to this music. The first time I played it on the air, I played it eight times in a row. And normally you weren’t allowed to play a record even twice. I said, `As long as the phones ring, I’ll play it.’ And the place went crazy. The response was huge. And on February 7, they arrived at Idlewild Airport on Pan Am 101, and they came down the stairs, and Beatlemania started.
“All the DJs fought for their attention. Murray the K called himself `The Fifth Beatle,’ which they did not like, and there were four or five other `Fifth Beatles’ who popped up around the country. Murray carried on like he was part of the group, but that was not true. Because of its power WABC had the very first crack.
“Let me tell you how crazy it got. They get to the airport. I’m stationed there with our news director to broadcast their arrival. The place was going wild, really controlled mayhem. A few hundred kids were on the tarmac, and thousands more were up on the roof. The police controlled it pretty well, but it was enough to allow for some good pictures and to start the hype. And believe me, Beatlemania was hyped. Because most of us geniuses thought it would last six months. And we also knew that radio had gotten very boring, and we could use something to continue the action. Little did we know the Beatles were going to change the entire face of the culture.
“They walked down off the plane, and they had their first press conference. A makeshift press area was put up in the Pan Am lounge, and the boys were very scared. They didn’t know what was going to happen here, even though they had had great success in Europe. This was the big time, the Big Apple, and they were in the United States where the streets were paved with diamonds. When they were looking down from the plane window onto the city Paul McCartney said to John Lennon, `I don’t see any diamonds. Where are the diamonds you were telling me about?’
“Their timing couldn’t have been better. Their PR guy, Brian Epstein, would not bring them over here until they had a number one record in the states. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit very quickly, so they were coming over as conquering heroes, the first of this onslaught of British groups that we knew about.
“So they were at this press conference, and they were very nervous, and if you remember that conference, they were very snippy. They were acting like wise guys. But they were scared, really scared, and the press was after them. You have to remember the press at that time – and they were inundated with press – really represented mom and dad. So the questions were pitchforks. `When are you going to cut your hair?’ That kind of garbage. The reporters didn’t understand the cultural importance of this group. Nobody really did. But once they arrived, we knew something was going on. It was crazy.
“And I was asked by Sid Bernstein, the promoter of the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium, to host the show with Ed Sullivan. Now Ed Sullivan was the very first one to expose the Beatles on national television. And Ed Sullivan didn’t know the Beatles from salmon croquettes. Ed Sullivan didn’t know whether he was alive or not. He didn’t know if he was uptown or downtown.
“There’s a great story: Ed Sullivan called Walter Cronkite and asked him if he ever heard of this group in England called the Beatles. Walter said, `No.’ And then Walter said, `Wait a minute.’ And he called over to his daughter, who was sixteen, `Did you ever hear of the Beatles?’ And Ed could hear the kid screaming on the phone. The kid went crazy because she was listening to them on the Cousin Brucie show, and all the tabloids and teenage papers had spreads on them. So Walter said, `Ed, I’ll put my daughter on the phone. If you put them on your show, she gets two seats.’
“She was at that show and was prominently displayed in the audience. And that’s how Ed Sullivan found out who the Beatles were and booked them.
“Fifty million people watched that show that night, and I’ll tell you where I was: I was outside the theater. ABC asked me to cover this thing. The streets were full like New Year’s Eve on Broadway, and they piped out the sound. And the place was wild. I was outside, where it was exciting, because I was with the people that night.
“I was involved right from the beginning, playing the music and talking to them and doing interviews and having them on my shows. As a result, I was asked to introduce them at their Shea Stadium show.
“Shea Stadium was jammed. The feeling was there was going to be a disaster. I was in the dugout with them and Ed Sullivan, and John Lennon said to me, `Cousin, this looks very serious.’ I said, `It is.’ He said, `Can anything happen?’ I said, `No, don’t worry about it.’
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a crowd where you could feel its power. This crowd had this power. Con Ed could have turned off their generators, and the energy from the Shea Stadium crowd that day could have turned the dynamos. You felt it in your gut, your belly. It vibrated in your chest. The sound was amazing. You could feel the electricity, and the boys were very scared.
“Sullivan and I were to introduce the Beatles. I introduced Sullivan, and he and I introduced the Beatles. We walked up to the stage like it was a scaffold. Sullivan was in front of me, and he turned and said to me, `Cousin Brucie, this can be very dangerous, can’t it?’ I said, `Yes, Ed, very dangerous.’ He said, `What do we do?’ I said, `Pray.’ He turned back, and he very slowly walked onto the stage, scared stiff. I wasn’t exactly ready to dance the polka either. It was a frightening thing. I worried there would be an avalanche of people. There was such pent-up emotion, people could have been killed. Eighty percent of the audience was fifteen, sixteen year old girls.
“Anyway, we introduced them, and the place went – I mean, forget it. I have never heard a sound like that in my life.
“Nobody heard their performance. You heard, `yeah, yeah, yeah’ once in a while and some percussion, but that was about it. They couldn’t hear themselves. It didn’t matter if they didn’t sing at all. They just had to move and play. But what they didn’t understand – none of us did – was that the kids weren’t there just to hear them sing. They have records. They have radio. They were there to share space. They wanted to be able to say they were with the Beatles live. That’s all that counted. It was a sociological event.
“While they were singing, the police commissioner came over to me with a couple of his men and asked if I would walk with them to help calm down the kids. There was chicken wire all over the place to keep back the crowds. They did everything they could to maintain order. I walked around, skirting the infield to the sides of the seats, talking to the kids. The cops showed terrific restraint. NYPD earned their badges that day. Because nobody got hurt. Nobody died. It was a phenomenal event. I have never experienced anything so electric, so dangerous, so exciting as I did with Beatlemania that evening at Shea Stadium.”
The “Cousin’ Brucie Show” continued on WABC until 1974. By this time, radio began to change. Big Business was taking over. No longer would Morrow be paid based on the good-will and the fame he brought the station. With six months left on his contract, he was told that in the future his pay would be based solely on ratings. Morrow saw the writing on the wall. The WABC juggernaut was in its final days. Morrow left for what he hoped would be greener pastures. He took a job with WNBC.
Bruce Morrow: “By 1974 the word `business’ had become very proper. When we first started in the fifties, it was the radio business and the music business. By 1974 it had become the business of radio and the business of music. The independent labels were bought up by the majors. The majors were complete businesses. The blood and guts, the feeling in the belly was gone. The guys who I call the SOBs, the Sons of Business, had taken over. Nobody wanted to take a chance any more, and when people stop people from dreaming and from taking chances, this is the beginning of the end. And it’s a very big business today.
“Big business became very, very gluttonous. It affected me greatly. I no longer could expose new groups properly. The business of radio stopped all my pocket shows showing these groups. There was no freedom at all. The end of freedom began with the Payola scandal, but it got worse over the years.
“The end of my career at WABC was very sad. They decided they were going to base my pay on ratings, because of the change in the business. I had served them loyally for thirteen years. I had helped build WABC along with Ron Lundy and Chuck Leonard, people who mattered to people in the audience. We built WABC to be the largest, most popular radio station anywhere, anytime. It was huge, the foundation of rock and roll on the radio. And the SOBs had the nerve to say, `As your ratings go down, your salary goes down. If the ratings go up, we’ll give you a bonus.’ Bullshit. I had six months left on my contract, and I was offended. That’s not the right word. I was completely pissed. I thought this was offensive, and I was just really hurt. I was brought up to believe that if someone bakes the bread, he deserves at least a slice. Along with several others I had served this place for many years. I thought this was the most offensive, disgusting, American corporate bullshit I had ever been involved in in my life.
“All I had to do was make a phone call. By then the `Cousin Brucie’ thing had such power behind it that everyone wanted a slice of that bread. I called WNBC and within two hours we were having secret meetings in subterranean restaurants in New York City.
“Three days later we made a deal. I went to WABC and said, `Okay guys, here’s what I will do with you. Break my contract now, and I’ll discuss the new terms you are offering me.’ They didn’t think I was going anywhere. So they ripped up my contract. Two hours later I signed with WNBC. And WABC didn’t know what hit them!”
Morrow’s stay at WNBC wasn’t entirely satisfying either, even though he did some music reports and some television. Morrow met a businessman by the name of Bob Sillerman, and the two discovered a common interest in owning radio stations. They formed a partnership and Sillerman began buying small and mid-market stations in places like Middletown, New York, and Randolph, New Jersey. Morrow did programming and promotion. He also went behind the mike. At their apex, they owned eighty-seven radio stations and a TV station in Atlanta, and Morrow became a very wealthy man after Sillerman-Morrow sold its interests to a company called Hicks News in the mid-1980s.
But Morrow’s life as one of America’s most popular radio personality wasn’t over. Joe McCoy, the program manager of WCBS, called him in 1982 to ask if he could meet with him. At this time Sillerman-Morrow owned ten radio stations, and Morrow was making time behind the mike at each of them. Yet Morrow took the meeting.
McCoy told Morrow that WCBS was letting Jack Specter go. He wanted Morrow to replace him. Morrow agreed to work one Saturday a month, but that was enough to hook him. He had forgotten how much he missed doing radio in New York, how much it was in his blood. He took over a weekend slot every week, and eventually he went back to work fulltime. Morrow worked there sure he would go on forever with Cousin Brucie, until WCBS without warning dropped the oldies format in 2005, saying they wanted to go after a younger market.
“Out of absolute greed and stupidity,” says Morrow. “You have to understand that WCBS took over from where WABC had left off. It became wallpaper, part of the culture, and you just can’t wash wallpaper off.
“WCBS was always in the Top Ten in New York, which says a lot, because there are seventy stations. And it always made money, but as American corporates go, there is never enough money. They are always thinking, How can we make more money? Let’s not pay Cousin Brucie. Let’s not pay Bob Shannon. Let’s bring in a format that doesn’t mean diddley and call it `Jack,’ which is a very good name for it, because it isn’t worth Jack. It’s disgraceful, and it bombed in New York.
“I warned them. I said, `Look, guys, this is not like any other market. New York is not like any other place’ – they had tried Jack in a few markets, and they had a modicum of success. `New York is its own cultural boiling pot. Once you screw with a New York audience, you’re dead. You will never recover.’
Says Morrow, `It’s the old story about the Emperor who went to the Grand Vizier and said, `Why do the people hate me? Why do they want to storm the palace?’ The Vizier said, `Your Majesty, why don’t we dress you as one of them. Go out on the streets and find out what’s wrong?’ He did that, and he came back and became a great Emperor. He understood the people.
“These guys never thought about anything except their numbers. They didn’t care about the people, what was going on with their audience. They wanted to save money.”
Morrow had a year and a half left on his contract. On the day Morrow was let go, WCBS became irrelevant to metropolitan radio listeners as its ratings fell and fell.
Morrow had seven offers from local New York City radio stations and one each from XM and Sirius Satellite Radio. Mel Karmazin, the head of Sirius Satellite Radio, met with Morrow and told him, `We’re not leaving this meeting until we make a deal. What do you want?’ Morrow told him what he wanted, and he got it.
Says Morrow, `I have freedom. At last I can play what I want, say what I want. I love what I’m doing. I love it. I was reborn again.
“The jerks who run media are using demographics from the 1940s. When my daddy was 50 years old he was an old man. He and his friends their whole life looked forward to the `R’ word: retirement. Ridiculous. In 2006 a 70-year-old man in decent health can be extremely productive. That’s what they don’t understand. It’s not 1948 any more. These people are so stupid. There is so much income in the Baby Boomer age group. When you’re in your sixties is when you get your money.
“We are not ready for burial, and this is where they made their error. But it’s all about greed, and they are learning the hard way.”