The Morning Mayor in New York

A farewell to the 'Good Guy' Harry Harrison

On March the 19th 2003 Harry Harrison said goodbye to his massive listener ship in the 'Big Apple' and surroundings. He was on air in New York for 44 long years. A part of his last show was transmitted from the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. And that's like justice, he deserved it for 100% . Harrison, who has worked for three of the big radio stations in New York, is one of the few biggest jocks ever heard in New York and his further advantage is that he worked there almost 4,5 decades in a row in one of the biggest towns in the world. WMCA, WABC and WCBS - just to name a few of the many radio stations in the Big Apple - made use of his excellent talent. Hans Knot looks back on the very long career of New York's Morning Mayor Harry Harrison.

He was attached to radio. After a period of 44 years radio presentation in the Big Apple, Harry Harrison, who was know to his beloved audience as the morning mayor of New York, said forever farewell to his loyal audience. Harrison his career did go together with radio in The Big Apple, although it started elsewhere. It was the town of Chicago (Illinois), where Harry was born, where his first steps within the radio industry were made. Already on the age of 14 Harry was addicted to radio. Due to the fact he had to be in his bed for most of the time as a result of rheumatic pains, young Harry listened 'hour by hour' to his little radio. It mend for him the beginning of his great love and affection for this kind of amusing people.

You could say that during his days in bed he did eat all the words that sprung out of his radio set. After his was feeling better he knew already where his future would be. He went to one of his local radio stations, WJJD. There is was were they told him to go for a job at an educational radio station called WBEZ. And guess what? The contacts were made for him by the director of WJJD. If we, radio lovers in Holland, talk about American Radio in connection with the Chicago area in the late fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties of last Century than very quickly the reference to station WCFL is made. We had contacts with some people in Chicago and they sent us some tapes in those days. On that was also Harry Harrison, which we loved from the very first moment. Harry got the chance to do some substitute programs for those on holidays for a few weeks on WCFL. Well a few weeks became more than eight months. And Harry could be heard almost every day during that period. His name was settled in Chicago. 

Housewife Hall of Fame. Almost directly afterwards he also started to work in the television world and not much later he became PD at a radio station in Peoria (WPEO). Also he was presenter of a morning program which became the number one in the regional ratings. Don't forget that it was 1958 at that stage and Harry already mentioned himself the morning mayor there. Within a half year after Harry came in at WPEO the station ran to the number one position in the RAJAR figures. His first giant step was made by Harry when he left the Chicago area in 1959 and headed for New York. There he started to work for WMCA. No he didn't ask for a job, he did not see an advertisement in a newspaper or a trade journal. Harry was simply asked by the directors of WMCA to join the gang in New York. And to say it sharp: They were totally impressed by what he had been doing over in Peoria. 

At WMCA first the afternoon program was presented by Harry Harrison and one of the items of this program was called 'The Housewife Hall of Fame'. In a very smart way every day in his program a housewife was put into the spotlight as she had done something very special, which needed the attention of the rest of the radio audience. Of course the spotlighted woman was put into the Housewife Hall of Fame. Of course, thinking back, this was the very best way to attract a lot of new listeners in New York; the housewives who had to buy the goodies as advertised on the radio station.

Of course a big change for it were the women who got the most attention and not the male listener, which was common up till the sixties of last century. Of course from then on Harry Harrison also became a part of the WMCA Good Guys, as the team of deejays on the station became known and which was promoted in a lot of outside promotional material as well in the jingle package of the station. It was in 1965 and 1966 that Harry shared the podium of the stadiums where the Fab Four, the Beatles, did their live gigs for enormous crowds. He could mention him the Fifth Beatle. But again this is the play of radio cause even in Europe some deejays were running around, like Kenny Everett, as they were there too in the USA touring with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Nevertheless the Mayor of New York was for his listeners the Fifth Beatle.

It was around that time that I started collecting radio recordings from the USA. The reason was that in Europe some stations were started on the idea of American Radio, of course polished to European norms. Until those days we had, in Europe, deejays did not ad lib, they read a written script. They had to tell what the producers had written. Our ears went wide open when we heard the format of Top 40 station Wonderful Radio London, or Big L, as it was mentioned. This as a brainchild format from Gordon McLendon who put on the idea of this format, whereby the 40 hottest songs came around, mixed with a variety of new records as well as revived 45's, a lot of the time. Also another station came on the air in Europe with a very fast format, Swinging Radio England. The deejays were almost shouting and talking very fast, stating the were Boss Radio. Well that was for me the start collecting everything possible about American Radio. The first reel to reel tapes with radio friends were exchanged and after some time also recordings from the Morning Mayor came onto my Philips recorder. Even we tried to listen to some American stations here in Western Europe. Late at night our time, when most of the European stations were of air, we would put a long wire to the transistor radio as well as using the central heating to get a better signal. Yes, we succeeded in listening to some powerful stations, but don't ask me in what terrible condition. But we did listen!

From WMCA to WABC. About his time on WMCA Harrison told once in an interview that it was one of thousands memories: 'We had the most beautiful promotion spots, we had all kind of small ideas to get the attention from and to the audience. They had to be a part of the program and the station.' Of course they had to do something for it. Whenever you read something about Harry's career almost every time the story comes back about a massive pick nick which was promoted on WMCA. The deejays told the audience it would be on a certain day but the listeners had to discover where the happening should took place. Every now and then (more now than then) tips were given in the programs so it was very easy to find out were the pick nick should take place. Thousands of listeners showed up and the police had to be asked for assistance to regulate the heavy traffic in the surroundings and to be for assistance to keep everything within the lines of the act. On WMCA Harry Harrison worked together with other big names like Jack Spector (he could be heard with a taped program on Radio Caroline in Europe in the sixties) B.Mitchell Reed, Johnny Dark, Dan Ingram and many others. And all that came from a very powerful 50.000 Watts transmitter with the sparkling driving force of Program Director Joe O'Brien.

Harry would stay at WMCA until 1968 followed by a job within the most inventive compound deejay team, the one of WABC. There Harry Harrison presented first the Breakfast show. It was Program Director Rick Slar who had a big problem when his morning deejay and another big star in New York Radio, Herb Oscar Anderson, decided to stop working for the station to find a job elsewhere. Rick decided to hire Harry Harrison for this empty space in his program schedule. And again it were the female listeners who were there in big amounts to listen to Harry's warm way of presenting and his jokes. Many of these woman phoned the radio station trying to get Harry on the phone. As this would be the only possibility to hear Harry speaking without those ten thousands of other women on the other side of the radio set. And once again he had many items, which came back during his breakfast program on WABC, including Zipper Routine. And at the top of his popularity on the breakfast show Harry Harrison had a daily audience of around 4 million.

Up till the end of 1979 Harry Harrison stayed at top station WABC in New York. It were above all the second part of the sixties and the first part of the seventies of last Century that WABC was absolutely the top station in The Big Apple. When we, within our circle of radio addicted people in the Netherlands, did talk about Top 40 Radio, almost every time the same names came around. And that was when we talked about radio stations like WABC New York, KLIF Dallas en KFRC in San Francisco. And when we talked about deejays there were a lot of names including Harry Harrison and his personality was not the last to mention but one of the first. From what we heard on the reel to reel tapes sent to us, later on cassettes, Harry was a very relaxed guy. He knew exactly how to speak to the listener instead above the heads of the listeners, as many others did. It was as he was there for the only one who he did speak to at that certain moment; as a part of your family. He knew to bring a perfect balance in his shows whereby he would attract not only the younger listeners but also the housewives. Due to his powerful presentation, and then I don't talk about
fast or screaming, he knew to get loads of listeners who stayed listeners through more than 4 decades. 

But back to WABC, who's downfall came in the second part of the seventies. Not only for WABC but for a lot of other stations which were transmitting on AM. And the drop in audience, from whom the most chose the FM transmissions which a brighter and stereo signal, was for Harry the reason to quit WABC in New York in 1979. Four long months followed whereby the inhabitants of New York couldn't listen to their morning mayor.

One liners. Like many of his contemporaries Harry Harrison made use of one liners. Little sentences, which had to come back partly on a regular base like: 'Everyday has to be unpacked like a special present'. Well halfway March 1980 is was a present for the lovers of Harry for he came back on the radio. Again in New York and this time WCBS-FM was putting Harrison on the pay roll. Together with a special team he was on Mondays already on the air to awake the whole of New York at 5 o'clock. On the other weekdays an half hour later and that every working day up till 9 o'clock local time. From that point on it was not only attention to special good golden oldies, but also news, sport, traffic information and above all humour and respect to you the listener. From that point Harry was back as a morning ritual in many families in the Big Apple and you could say he was sitting next to you at the morning breakfast table. Strange enough, when I did get tapes from friends in New York, I did to listen to them during late evenings. But still most enjoyable. 

I already wrote about 'unpacking the day' but Harry had more of those one liners who came back as part of his program. Like him a lot of colleagues did so. For many it was and is highly irritant if they use one liners. But for others, including Harrison, it was a good part of the shows and not irritating at all. No over use and using at the correct moment must have been why. Another one he put on the air was 'Stay well, stay happy, stay right there'. This at the end of the show and really, when hearing that, you felt like keeping on the radio till Harry came back on the same frequency. 'Harry Harrison, wishing you the best. that's exactly what you do deserve.

Go and book an hotel - Dutch top deejays were all given the order by their bosses to listen to the competitor but next to that to make a few weeks free to get on a plane and book an hotel in New York, Dallas, San Francisco or Chicago. That happened in the sixties, seventies as well in the eighties of last century a lot. No, the deejays wouldn't go round visiting the nicest places, parks and other attractions in town. They had to visit some of the important radio stations and take as much time to be at their hotel room. They had to record as much as possible radio programs from the most favourite stations. There is the story of one of the top deejays in Holland, Tom Mulder, who brought back a popular game on the radio on his station Radio10 Gold, some years ago. His former bosses on Radio 3 (TROS) would like to sue him cause he had stolen the idea which he used first on the TROS. There the TROS thought it was copyrighted. Mulder, who had given away a banana box filled with cassettes of American Radio to the friend of 'The Society of Jingles and Tunes' asked a copy of a certain cassette to prove he didn't stole the idea from the TROS, but heard it first on the radio in the Big Apple. And guess what? The game is still on Radio 10FM, as the station is now called.

But going back to Harry Harrison I was asking myself what was the big point in the success during the past 44 years. One time he answered the question himself in an interview by stating: "I think it's the fact I stayed myself on the radio and my audience saw that I was like them and so a part of their family. Of course I'm like most of the New Yorkers. I'm going to the cinema now and then, to a sports game, read books and magazines and do everything my listener also do. And above all I talk to my listeners about my daily routine and the things I do in private time.' And Harry is correct, saying so. He enjoys live, together with his beloved wife Patty and children and with his dogs, one of his hobbies.

Second Mayor of New York But even Harry thought he was like every New Yorker, there were people who really thought he was far more than that. In April 1997 it was the then Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guilani, who invited him to come to the City Hall on the 25th of that Month. From that day on all the New Yorkers know that April 25th is the day of the morning mayor, the official Harry Harrison Day. Through the 4,5 decades Harry has given thousands of artists a chance to be played in his shows, he met a lot of them personally. And now Harry has decided to slow down a lot he will staying in the memories of millions as one of the best in the world. Even in Holland, with the tapes and cassettes we listened to, Harry Harrison is one of the Good Guys we loved to listen to since the sixties.

Well Harrison has now gone off the air, but still the radio station where he made his big career are still there. WMCA still has the same call letters as they had, way back in 1925 and uses since 1928 the same frequency, the 570 kHz. In 1970 their format was changed into 'All talk'. Since September 1989 WMCA is a religious station. WABC, also very well known as 'Music Radio 77' uses the 770 kHz and is nowadays a News Talk Station. WCBS transmit a golden oldie program on FM in New York with the slogan '1001 songs of the century'.

Some people already reflected and thanks to Howard Adamsky for the photo he also did comment on the subject 'hiring a hotel room': 'The Dutch deejays going around only to be locked away in their hotel rooms to gather intelligence and record shows was fascinating. Something I never heard of but I guess gathering competitive info is a part of every business.'