The Quiet Man


I really loved being on the radio. Those were the days, and nights, when I first ran into Big Louie, his own bad self, The Chief Mustard Cutter of the Louie-Louie Generation. His theme song, Louie-Louie was the star of most of the record hops in those days. Any time the party got dull…it was Louie to the rescue.

But there was another kind of music born in the sixties. It’s mommy was the blues, and it’s daddy was rock and roll, and the people in power said it was conceived in sin. It was music on fire. Hendrix, Morrison, Clapton. When I heard it for the first time it took me a week to get my eyes closed. Today, you’d call it Classic Rock. And there’s something most people don’t know about it and…you should. Most people don’t know about the man who got that music on the air. His name was Al Heacock. And he was a man in the best sense of the word. Here’s the story. I know it because I was privileged to work for Al…and he was my friend.

Once upon a time…all the way back in the sixties…AM radio was still king. Big 50,000 watt flame throwers like WBZ in Boston, WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, and KFI in Los Angeles ruled. Almost all of them were built on tight top forty foundations. In fact, the play list at WABC was frequently more like the top twenty, with the emphasis on the top three. “All Hits All The Time.” Jingle, jangle, jingle. The FORMAT was the GOSPEL. Except at Boston’s WBZ. Now it can be told…this is something that most radio professionals won’t believe…but it’s true. WBZ never had a format. The guys on the air played whatever we wanted to play, including records from our own personal collections, and tapes from local artists. And in between every single record/tape, we had fun. Oh we had fun. And people loved it.

Today’s top radio stations pull around a ten rating in a major market. WBZ consistently pulled north of a twenty five. The mouths at WBZ belonged to Carl deSuze, Dave Maynard, Jay Dunn, Jeff Kaye (and later Ron Landry) Bob Kennedy Bruce Bradley and me. But the brains, and a lot of the heart of the station belonged to the Program Director, Al Heacock.

Al was smart. He was a quiet guy who made a lot of money in the stock market. But he really didn’t care about the stock market. Al cared about his radio station, WBZ. It was a station with “tude.” When we broadcast from our mobile studio, which was most of the time, we proudly wore our station blazers. It wasn’t unusual at all for one of us to drop in on somebody else’s show and kibitz for a while. When you walked down the beach, you didn’t need to bring your own radio, because everybody around you would have ‘BZ turned on and turned up to stun. If you stopped your car for a red light, you could always hear ‘BZ coming out of the speaker in the car stopped next to you.

For those of you who never heard the station, and for those of you who work in radio and are curious about the legend that was WBZ, here’s how Al programmed his music: Each month there was a staff meeting. At the meeting he would always remind us to play some of the top tunes he left in the rack in the studio each week. And then he’d say, “I don’t want to hear two records back to back. We pay you guys to entertain. Entertain.” What a joy it was, what an honor to be one of Al’s guys on WBZ.

Here’s what that means to you. If it weren’t for Al Heacock, a man who knew how to say no…and stick to his guns…Classic Rock might never have been born. The rest of that story coming up.

Dick’s Details Quiz – All answers are in the current podcast.

1-    What does a major league catcher do about 150 times during a game ?

2-    What kind of glue do Eskimos use ?

3-    We think best at 60 degrees. What do we do best at 90 degrees ?

Dick’s Details. They take your mind off your mind.

Al Heacock knew that there are times when you’d better say yes if you want to keep your job, but you’ve got to say no if you want to keep your self respect.

Boston has always had a strong Folk Music tradition. At WBZ we were consistently playing original tapes of unreleased songs like “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “The Urge for Going” by Tom Rush, all kinds of stuff by Dylan, and Baez, and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes Collins. I was doing a weekly MC gig at the Unicorn Coffee House, a major Folkie spot in town. And I noticed that some of the artists were beginning to go electric. I invited Al to attend one night, and he got it. Right away. The next day, he instigated ‘BZs only mandatory music rule: “One ‘Liquid Rock’ song per hour.” Al called the music Liquid Rock. Almost immediately the new music picked up a different name… “Underground Rock.” The name was the only thing Al got wrong.

He gave me two hours on Sunday evening for the first big time “Underground Rock” radio show. He called it, “Dick Summer’s Subway.” Then Dylan went electric, Eric Clapton formed “Cream” and Woodstock forged a new musical and political conscience for America…and it went roaring out on WBZ’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Massachusetts to Midway Island in the Pacific. (I have an air check.)

And the suits at Group W Radio in New York were aghast. It wasn’t top forty. It wasn’t anything they recognized. They didn’t like it. They wanted it stopped…right now. Al just very quietly said no. He stood up to the top brass, and said no. For a while, even the suits didn’t want to mess too much with Al’s 25 rating in Boston. Then Arlo Guthrie did a song called “Alice’s Restaurant,” featuring a line about the “mother rapers and the father rapers on the Group W bench.” The lawyers at Group W headquarters in New York freaked.

The President of the Group took a flight from New York to talk sense into this crazy program director Heacock. “Get it off the air now” was the order. Al very quietly said “no.” It was a classic Radio Guy vs. Big Suit. And Mr. Suit blinked. The order was changed to “well at least edit that line out” Al very quietly just said “no.” If you’re a radio professional, you’ll realize how far out of line that was. So Mr. Suit decided to drop in on me personally one Sunday night, “for a friendly visit.” The engineer saw what was going on, and called Al to alert him to the situation. Ten minutes later, Al was at the studio. He asked Mr. Suit to join him for a quick meeting…out of the studio. That’s the last I heard of the problem.

Shortly after, Al was transferred to WINS in New York. A few months later, Group W turned off the music at WINS, and started a highly successful all news format there. And just a few weeks after that, Al was found dead in his shower. They called it a coronary. But I think the suits just broke his heart.

A few months later, the great Tom Donahue climbed on “Underground” music on his FM station out in San Francisco, Classical Music WBCN went FM rock in Boston, WNEW-FM went rock in New York, and in a little while, FM killed the AM king. It probably would have happened anyway. But the point is that when you hear “Stairway To Heaven”, or “Light My Fire” you’re listening to one of the many echos of that quiet but firm “no” WBZ’s Al Heacock said all those years ago.

13 Responses to “The Quiet Man”

  1. Mike Walsh says:

    Ah…thanks for the memories… I do miss “Your on Contact You’re on the Air, and Juicy Brucey, and the Loft, Blue Parrot, Club 47, and the Unicorn!
    And Irving! Those were some special times…


  2. dick butler says:

    Thanks for the way back machine!
    The mind went back to crusin & hangin at 7E’s on Southern Artery and also Wollaston Beach.

  3. Audrey says:

    Funny you should write that particular blog at this time. Just yesterday I discovered one of my old diaries (probably the one and only one I kept for a few months long ago) and on one page in July 1967 I read where “Dick Summer and Jay Dunn sang happy birthday to Peter on the air at 12:30 PM”. …. and then I read that you used to drop in on one-another’s shows from time to time. Coincidence? I think not.
    Thanks for the memories. I’m glad I found WBZ. It was a positive influence for me.

  4. Audrey says:

    oh – Peter was the man in my life at that time ……..

  5. “One measure of leadership is the caliber of people who choose to follow you.” — Dennis A. Peer, author

  6. Jeff Silver says:

    Dick, you had told me about Al before. It’s sad that most of us can name all the on air personalities of BZ back then but most of us had never heard of Al. What a great story with a sad ending. One good thing which came out of all of Al’s efforts is BZ shaped the musical tastes of a generation. I think FM radio is now where AM was in the very late 60’s and 70’s. On its way out. The closest thing we now have to the old BZ is Sirius/XM.

  7. Jeff Silver says:

    after BZ changed formats there was WBCN as you said. Once BCN was taken over by CBS it lost its way as BZ did after Al left. BCN is now off the air and I was not even sad when that happened. The music of today, Rap, hip hop and urban rap. Isn’t real music. Of course our parents probably said the same thing about our music.

  8. I think Al was both ahead of, and behind, his time. There was an enormous trust evident in his style… Atypical for station management after the 1950’s payola investigations.

    But, while he held on loosely at one major station in the Northeast, the industry as a whole was cosumed by what Phil Yarborough rigidly controlled via hotline from the West Coast… The so-called “Drake format,” Top-40’s boss radio.

    About the time Dick & Jay Dunn were singing to Audrey’s guy Peter, Al was talking to Billboard Magazine’s Radio Editor Claude Hall about something that would change radio’s relationship with the record industry for several decades: Albums were outselling singles… Sure enough, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, the same guys who sue people for sharing music on the Internet) would mark 1967 as the year it happened. And it never really changed back until digital downloads made it possible to take what you wanted from the great musical buffet, and leave the rest.

  9. Jeff –

    Early WBCN was completely free form from the start in 1968. In their desire to be an alternative to Top 40, the air staff resisted all structure, without discriminating between structure that could elevate & support and those which would limit and confine.

    Norm Winer (now of WXRT Chicago) introduced the first mandatory requirement in 1973. Like Al’s “liquid rock” quota, it was only one per hour… A song by a local band, or someone slated to make a local appearance. And it stayed that way until 1977, when Bob Shannon arrived from Dallas with an understanding that by playing commercials at certain times it was possible to “game” the Arbitron ratings company… So he added a second (time windows for commercials) as ‘BCN neared the decade mark.

    Neither change was well received. Shannon recalls: “Oh, what an experience it was. After 6 months and a death threat, I headed back to Dallas to do mornings on KZEW-FM.”

    Yes, radio post 1996 consolidation is ugly, but don’t blame the CBS takeover. The regimentation began with the station sale that brought on the strike in 1979. Hemisphere Broadcasting became Infinity, which then bought Westinghouse and then CBS Radio under the direction of Mel Karmazin, who ran Infinity and now runs Sirius/XM… So, good luck with that satellite stuff.

    Beyond your distaste for hip-hop’s current dominance, what you’re experiencing is an industry which treats radio stations as commercial real estate and forgot that in show business, both parts have to work well, but entertainment gets top billing.

  10. Jeff Silver says:

    Dick you have to come up with easier math problems!! Steve, I thought I knew a lot about radio, but your knowledge blows me out of the water.I’ve met Cha Chi from BCN and ZLX a few times. His knowledge of the history of radio in Boston is amazing too. He has played the corporate game and has kept his job over the years. I have never gotten into MP3’s, Ipods or digital down loads. For me Sirius is the best thing I have heard since the 60’s. I can’t remember actually sitting down and listening to the radio for hours at a time since the 60’s. Plus a lot of the on air people can show their intellegence. A real treat on the radio now a days. I live in western Mass and FM and AM radio here is about as bad as it could get.

  11. Thanks, Jeff — How much YOU care is far more important than how much I know. I’m just a disabled guy with time on my hands, a memory that survived 2 strokes, various jobs at WBCN between 1970 & 1979 and enough of my broadcast reporter/researcher chops left to put pieces together once found via one-handed Googling.

    To paraphrase KSAN’s Scoop Nisker: “If you don’t like the media, go out and make some of your own.”

    Whether you blog (like me), podcast (like Dick) or infiltrate a local station desperate enough to try something else, there are opportunities to “begin to make it better, better, better… Ahhhhhh!”

  12. BTW, Jeff – I’ll gladly talk to you a greater length. Just click my name here and use the email link from my blog profile… But it’s not fair for us to monopolize this thread with off topic stuff.

    The space belong to Dick, the sentiment belongs to Al.

  13. Don Miller says:

    Here we are in May, almost half through the year 2010. But sitting at the bottom of the calender is a day we should think about. It’s Memorial Day. As a kid in school, I looked forward to it as off from school. As I got older I began to realize it was more, much more. It was a day to pay respects to those men and Women who gave the last full measure of devotion.

    Last full measure of devotion. Do we know where that phrase came from? It was from Abraham Lincoln. From a speech in a place called Gettysburg. It was the only time that American battled American .

    But that phrase is as important today as it was back then. But yet we tend to forget about it, and we shouldn’t. I have had the honor to visit The Vietnam Memorial. Shiny black stone with names of those who may not have believed in the war but carried out their orders and gave their last full measure of devotion. Here on Long Island we have two National burial sites. One in Pine Lawn and the other in Calverton.

    Fields of stone each with a story attached to it. But most important is the fact that each marks the resting place of men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion in what ever war they fought in.

    So the next time you see a veteran you might want to think about thanking him or her for what they did, or you might want to visit a National Cemetery and pay your respects to those who gave the last full measure of devotion.