It was 45 years ago that a band called “The Buggles” had a hit record, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The song was big, as you’d expect, on MTV, which at the time played music videos.
The song was wrong. Video didn’t kill the radio star, the internet did. (It also pretty well killed MTV, too.)
Truth is, the radio stars were mostly gone before there was MTV or an internet. Once upon a time, local AM radio stations served most every town in the country. They provided local programming from local studios. Many stations were members of networks — CBS, NBC, Mutual — that offered programs local stations couldn’t. There were network news programs and commentators such as Gabriel Heatter, Walter Winchell, and Alexander Woollcott, and make no mistake, they were household names as big, and for a longer time, as the star-du-jour of the modern day.
Radio was, and to some of us still is, an object of affection. I was fortunate in that in my small city I was in a news-media family. My maternal grandfather published books and a magazine (albeit about goats — but he owned a printshop, okay?), and my father was a well known newspaper reporter. We were always at places where the radio folk — Mahlon Aldredge, Dick Cottam, Eric Engberg, many others — would be. The University of Missouri Journalism School was where many famous radio and later television people got their start. In sixth grade, I read “This Is Your Announcer,” by Henry B. Lent, and thought radio was a fine thing. I couldn’t understand how my father could write all the time. I hated writing. But being paid to talk? I loved to talk. Plus, radio was really neat (a slang usage of the day, equivalent to “cool” now).
Though the first generation or two of radio stars had died, there was one, out of Chicago.
When on a summer’s midday I would have lunch of homegrown things out on the breezeway at my grandparents’ house, the radio would be on. We would be awaiting the St. Louis Cardinals game, in the early years from Sportsman’s Park, then from — in the words of Harry Caray (who later would do announcing duties for lesser teams) — “beautiful new Busch Memorial Stadium, where this afternoon the Cardinals will face . . .” But before the game began, there was Paul Harvey. His “news and comment” show on ABC was just about the last of its kind. Friendly and warm, he was not as devoted to the facts as one would have hoped. He later added a daily five-minute canned show called “The Rest of the Story.”
He died in 2009, the great Gil Gross having filled in for him for months before. Gil was devoted to the facts and lo and behold, the show didn’t suffer as a result.
By then there was another radio star, Rush Limbaugh.
Through good fortune (or sheer dumb luck), I knew all of these guys (well, not Heatter, Winchell, or Woollcott) to some extent. I was mentioned by name by Paul Harvey in December 1981 after I had caught on shortwave (and rebroadcast on WOR Radio in New York, an ABC affiliate) Radio Moscow’s announcement that Poland had not been invaded, it had merely closed for the New Year holiday. I met Harry Caray and Jack Buck, his color announcer at the time, on a few occasions, at beautiful new Busch Memorial Stadium (currently the destroyed and replaced old Busch Memorial Stadium). Rush Limbaugh for a while mentioned me on the air frequently and called me a friend. (We parted ways over one Donald J. Trump.) I worked for a few years in the same newsroom as Gil Gross, one of the best radio newsmen I’ve ever known. We were in touch last year. A prince of a guy.
All of which brings me happy thoughts, but the enduring radio star I’d like to remember today is another whose newsroom I was honored to share.
Charles Osgood died yesterday. His desk in the old CBS Radio newsroom was about 10 feet from mine. He was not flashy or flamboyant, not loud, and unlike some others he didn’t expect to be treated as a star. The newsroom lightened considerably when he arrived at about 4 a.m. to begin his day. There were heavy hitters in that newsroom, and some of them expected star treatment. Charlie Osgood was a nice guy, happy for his good fortune and perennially cheerful. I think he would have objected to star treatment.
(It has nothing to do with our story, but I have to tell the anecdote anyway: Among our news anchors was the legendary Douglas Edwards. He was CBS Television’s first news anchor, predating Walter Cronkite. Still doing some television newscasts, he anchored the 15-minute, 6 p.m. “World News Roundup” on CBS Radio when I was there. He was always impeccably dressed, in three-piece suit, white shirt, and tie, even on days when he was not on television. The newsroom had large ventilation grills high in the ceiling, one of which was over Doug Edwards’s desk. One evening, a few minutes before air, that grill let loose — thank goodness it was hinged on one side. But poor Douglas Edwards had probably 25 years worth of dust and lint dropped smack dab on top of him. It was a scene out of a situation comedy, or would have been had the victim been anyone else. Edwards — I was told; I was a morning guy so I wasn’t there — stood up with utter dignity, shook off what dust and debris he could, and went into the booth and did his newscast.)
Charles Osgood was as comfortable on the radio as anyone I’ve ever seen. His expression was that of a man who had just thought of something very funny but hadn’t yet formulated it well enough to tell, or maybe out of politeness he was keeping it to himself. It is always a joy to be around such a person. The weight of the day fell on his presumably long-suffering, serious producer, Phil Chin, not that Osgood was a tough man to work for. The standard of excellence was high.
Charles Osgood wasn’t his full legal name. He was Charles Osgood Wood. I always thought that having the initials C.O.W. would make a person either very cheerful or very bitter. He chose the former. Each year he would throw a day-long, elaborate picnic for, really, all of CBS News at his lovely farm in New Jersey, I think Saddle River. A good time was had, people pretty much behaved, and sometimes it would end with him playing piano. He was an accomplished musician.
The obituaries will by now have said that he was a fine poet. He might have been. I’ve never read any serious poetry by him, and I’m glad I haven’t. I’d be a poor judge, anyway. But his doggerel was a delight. Possibly the most famous was written on the fly one morning for his daily short commentary show, “The Osgood File.” The U.S. Census Bureau had announced a new category it would now enumerate, “persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters,” or — really — POSSLQ. This hit Charles Osgood just right and soon he had taken to air with the poem, “There is nothing that I wouldn’t do, if you would be my (phonetics here) possel-kew.” It later was the title of an anthology of his scripts, of which several were published.
Not that he was just a humorist. He reported serious news as well, and as seriously, as anyone alive.
My favorite of his morning commentaries came the day researchers announced that eating parsnips might be harmful to one’s health. He went on the air to say it was about time the scientists told us not to eat something we didn’t want to eat anyway! He actually broke up laughing on air when he was describing something that never happens. I will have to quote from memory: “No one goes into the kitchen, lifts the lid off the pot, and says, ‘Mmmm, parsnips.’” It was at “Mmmm, parsnips” that he could contain himself no longer. I imagine that if you opened the window you would have been able to determine who was listening, because anyone who was would have joined the laughter.
It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened. I have a tape of a feature story he did while still at “local,” WCBS Radio in New York. It was about a group of first-graders who had put together a recipe book. They had obviously made up the recipes and, to be fair, they were hilarious. As the story progressed you could hear him coming closer and closer to laughing. Then there was no stopping it. You could almost hear the tears streaming down his face as the dam burst. Other air personalities tried to rescue him, but there was no help possible. It was glorious, all the more so because in those days radio was not the fast-and-loose smoldering compost pile it is today.
I cannot say that Osgood and I were friends. I was a news editor at one of CBS’s networks. People like me came and went all the time. Though we had occasional newsroom interactions, I can’t be sure he knew my name. It is to his credit that it never mattered.
He was maybe the last great radio star. He lived through television — oh, yeah, he did host the Sunday morning CBS television show for more than 20 years — and the internet, and still most everyone knew his name.
When a radio person dies, I always think of something I heard on the radio that brought a tear to my eye as I drove up the West Side Highway in Manhattan on the way home from work one day. Gil Gross, whom I hadn’t met yet, had just delivered on WCBS the obituary of a longtime announcer at WQXR Radio, the classical station owned at the time by The New York Times. Then Gil ad libbed, extemporized, and summed up a life in radio. This, again, is from memory.
“The nature of radio is that what you do, no matter how good it might be, is lost the minute you say it. Your life’s work is sent into the air, then it is gone.”