Live from our nation’s capital last week on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 am to 8:00 am – Leahy spoke to Talkers Magazine founder Micheal Harrison in the second hour about his long career in talk radio and his trade magazine publishing business in which he utilized his foresight to focus on the future of talk radio.
Towards the middle of the third segment, the men discussed the history of AM and FM radio and how talk radio grew bigger in the 1990s as politics became an audience target after the repeal of the fairness doctrine.
Leahy: Our guest is Michael Harrison one of the founders of Talkers Magazine.com. Michael welcome.
Harrison: It’s great to be here thank you for having me, Michael Patrick. Are you enjoying the swamp? (Laughs)
Leahy: Oh, it’s quite interesting. I’ve watched your career with great interest. Because you’ve created something.
Harrison: Well, thank you.
Leahy: You’ve created Talkers Magazine. When I was a kid I’ve always loved radio. Loved listening to it. I grew up in upstate New York almost near the border near Plattsburg and I remember as a kid listening to the ballpark. Of course at night when it’s AM you’d hear from all the stations.
Harrison: I have a similar background. Magical.
Leahy: Iowa Hawkeyes playing thinking about what’s it like in Iowa.
Harrison: Yeah, Iowa. I grew up in New York.
Leahy: In the city?
Harrison: In the city when I was very young, then out on Long Island. And we would pick up stations from all over the country. And I was a radio kid as well. There was something very ‘Wizard of Oz-like’ about it. Very magical.
And it was the static and the noise of the ionosphere as it would bounce in from Ft. Wayne to Indiana used to come into New York. Even Buffalo seemed like far away. Everything seemed far away when we grew up. And AM radio was that magical connector.
Leahy: FM didn’t really start coming into the foreground until the what ’80s?
Harrison: It was around in the late ’60s. It was in dentist offices and place like that. It was the ’70s that FM started to come around. During the decade of the ’70s, it went from that alternative weird radio to being the dominant form of music broadcasting at least.
Leahy: It’s the quality of the signal that makes the difference.
Harrison: Oh, FM was superior. It was in stereo. It was clear. It just wasn’t in cars. And it was the transfer of car radios from AM to converters to AM/FM that really was the basis of FM taking off.
Leahy: So tell us a little bit about your career in radio.
Leahy: And how you started Talkers Magazine.
Harrison: Oh gosh. I was a kid growing up in radio. I loved radio just like you growing up in New York. I listened to all the top 40 stations and the great disc jockeys and the original rock and roll.
Leahy: And did you listen to Cousin Brucey.
Harrison: Cousin Brucey and I are good friends today. I grew up with Cousin Brucey and knowing him today…
Leahy: You were living in the same neighborhood?
Harrison: No, no, when you grew up listening to somebody on WNBC that was the same head neighborhood. In our heads, we were all cousins. So, there’s a great personal connection to that whole radio culture. Not just with the DJ’s but with the music or the artists. And to make a long story short, and this is a long story and I’m not going to waste your time. I got into radio while I was in college on Long Island.
Harrison: I went to Hofstra.
Harrison: Yeah. I’m still involved with Hofstra.
Leahy: Hofstra. The guy who was the college coach there was Butch van Breda Kolff.
Harrison: They have a great history there with sports and certainly their communications department.
Leahy: His son Jan van Breda Kolff played at Vanderbilt, was a coach at Vanderbilt. He’s not coaching anymore.
Harrison: I’m very proud of my Hofstra roots and Hofstra community.
Leahy: Great lacrosse teams there too.
Harrison: But their radio history and their theatre history in the arts are tremendous as well. So I started my radio career on Long Island and career has been 52 years as a professional broadcaster. I have been a disc jockey. (Leahy chuckles) I have been a pioneer of album rock radio.
I worked at WNEW FM in New York and WLIR on Long Island and many great rock stations. I’ve been a DJ. I’ve been a program director. I’ve been a station owner. I’ve published several trade magazines.
Leahy: So you were a station owner?
Harrison: I’ve been a station owner.
Leahy: Which station did you own?
Harrison: I owned WSPR in Springfield, Massachusetts for several years. It was one of the early talk stations.
Leahy: Now, do you still live in Springfield?
Harrison: I still live in the Springfield area, but I also live in Florida.
Leahy: So is Springfield when you bought that station is kind of when you moved into the talk arena?
Harrison: No, I had been doing talk in Los Angeles for 10 years before that at a rock station.
Leahy: Really? Where were you on in Los Angeles?
Harrison: KMET which was a metro media rock station on FM. And I was a DJ there originally. I was a program director and I did a talk station on the weekends for ten years called Harrison’s Mic. I was the first FM talk show host in a major market and a major station talking to young people at that time about issues at a rock station.
Leahy: This was what ’80s? The ’90s?
Harrison: That was 1975 through 1986.
Leahy: Oh. So this was before Rush Limbaugh.
Harrison: Totally. I didn’t become the publisher of Talkers and the wise old owl of the broadcasting industry by being a johnny come lately.
Leahy: So you were a talk radio guy before there really was talk radio?
Harrison: I was a talk radio guy years before there was. People would ask me, what gave you the idea to start Talkers in 1990? Talkers is 30 years old now. What gave me the idea is that I was lucky enough to have that foresight that talk radio was going to be big in the ’90s. I had been very involved in trade magazines. I was one of the architects of Radio and Records. I was the radio columnist for Billboard Magazine. So I brought all of my radio experience and all of my trade magazine publishing experience to the table in 1990 with Talkers. And I just had no doubt in my mind that talk radio was the future of radio.
Leahy: So did you see Rush Limbaugh? When did you realize Rush Limbaugh would become so big?
Harrison: I realized it during the first couple of years of his career. As a syndicated talk show host.
Leahy: And he started the syndication in what, 88?
Harrison: 88. Shortly after the fairness doctrine was repealed.
Leahy: Tell us about the fairness doctrine.
Harrison: That’s a complicated story too. But basically there was a rule about the fairness doctrine which made it very difficult to talk politics on radio because if you talk politics you had to have, it wasn’t the equal time rule but it was similar. You had to have the same amount of time on the other side.
Leahy: It was boring.
Harrison: Well, it was very hard to do that because sides are not that clearly defined. You could have the left of the right. And the right is left and right. There are a left, right and center to everything. So it’s not that easy to define. So what happened is before the fairness doctrine was repealed stations stayed away from politics. They didn’t talk about it at all for fear of being fined.
Leahy: Get in trouble.
Harrison: Get in trouble. So when that got away all of a sudden it opened the door for people being able to target audiences based on political preference and that was the beginning of Rush Limbaugh.
Leahy: And he’s been a supernova ever since.
Harrison: Oh yeah. He’s still very important. As long as he wants to do radio and he’s able to do it as well as he does he’ll do it. Also, you got to tip your hat to the guy. He’s overcome all kinds of adversity personally to do that. And he still does it.
Listen to the full second hour:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Michael Harrison” by JohnFredericksShow.