I’m just back from a week in Las Vegas, and have lots of stories from the trip to share with you, but I awoke this morning to a bit of news that must come first.
My radio hero, Dan Ingram, has died at age 83.
Ingram was the greatest Top 40 radio personality I’ve ever heard. I grew up listening to his afternoon show on WABC/New York during its heyday as a music station. Ingram’s greatest talent was saying something funny over the intro to every song, finishing his thought at the exact instant that the vocals started — what’s known in the business as “hitting the post.” In that era (the 1960s and 1970s), the records were short, so DJs had to think up something new to say every two-and-a-half to three minutes — and keep it up for four hours, six days a week. Marvin Kitman, then the media critic for Newsday, was as in awe of Ingram’s talent as I was, once dedicating an entire column to him, entitled “The Six Second Wit.”
You could almost hear the smirk on Ingram’s face as he spoke directly to the listener as if he or she was the only one tuned in. He called us “Kemosabe,” as he told us his Word Of The Day, for which he gave a punny definition. He’d announce The Honor Group Of The Day, always a different group of working people, like plumbers, or teachers, or car mechanics, who made up Ingram’s vast fan base. In the summer, when his Saturday afternoon show was blasting out to the beaches on the Jersey Shore and Long Island, every half-hour or so he’d remind you to “roll your bod” so you didn’t get sunburned. I have vivid memories of being on Jones Beach — where you could walk along and hear WABC playing on every transistor radio — as the entire population of beachgoers followed Ingram’s suggestion and rolled over in one giant wave of sandy flesh.
When I was first starting out in radio, I blatantly imitated Ingram’s style, challenging myself to come up with clever stuff to talk up songs and hit those posts and make puns out of their titles. I’d even drop in the word “grand,” like he did. I was not alone in copying schtick from a favorite DJ — that’s how many of us began our careers before finding our own voices. In fact, I so admired Ingram that when I heard he’d started at WABC when he was 26 years old, I made it my goal to get a job at a big New York radio station by the time I was that age. Mission accomplished: I became the morning man at NBC’s WYNY/New York four days before my 27th birthday. However, my reign on that city’s airwaves didn’t last nearly as long as his. I was there a mere 9 months, while Ingram was on WABC for 21 years — and when that station abandoned music for talk radio, he eventually ended up at oldies station WCBS-FM for another 12 years. Throughout, he also had a career as one of the most in-demand commercial voiceover artists in New York, and even spent a year as a TV announcer, for David Brenner’s short-lived late-night talk show, “Nightlife.”
On his 20th anniversary at WABC, the station allowed Ingram to do a retrospective of his time there, in which he discussed his career (including stops at KBOX/Dallas and WIL/St. Louis) and joked about his show’s popularity. He remembered the time WABC program director Rick Sklar came into the studio to tell him that the new ratings showed he had a record-breaking 28 share, to which Ingram replied, “Why do you tell me such bad news while I’m on the air? That means 72% of the people aren’t listening to me!!” And that was just in the New York area. WABC referred to itself at the time as “the most listened-to station in the nation,” because its big booming AM signal could be heard in dozens of states. That led Ingram to joke to his listeners in 1971: “I just got some terrible news. I read the ratings, and WABC is only the 13th ranked station…in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania!”
Tapes of Ingram’s 20th were bootlegged by DJs all over the country. His influence even reached the USSR in 1975, when NASA and the Soviet space agency embarked on a mission to dock an American craft with a Russian one for the first time in space. During the downtimes of the mission, NASA needed some audio to feed up to the astronauts to ensure that the connection wasn’t broken as it was shared with the Soviets. For some reason, the audio they chose to send was from WABC — in particular, Ingram’s show. At the time, Russians didn’t have a lot of access to American pop music, so someone in their control room rolled tape on the feed, and then made copies, which became among the most-sought-after recordings in the country!
Then there was the time Ingram was doing his show as a major blackout hit New York and the entire northeast on November 9, 1965. In the minutes before the lights went out, the records and jingles and commercials started slowing down, leading a bemused Ingram to say, “Everything sounds like it’s running in slow motion….The lights are dimming in the city; you wouldn’t believe what’s going on in this studio, folks!….The electricity is slowing down; I didn’t know that could happen!” When the studio finally lost power, Ingram and his engineer grabbed a bunch of records and drove out to the WABC transmitter in Lodi, New Jersey (where the electricity was still on), and continued broadcasting for eleven hours.
Ingram was the only Top 40 DJ I knew of who had both an opening and closing theme song. The opener was an extended version of one of the station’s brilliant jingles (done for many years by legendary production house PAMS). His closer was an edit of a big band song called “Tri-Fi Drums” by Billy May, which rolled at 5:59pm every afternoon as he said goodbye for the day — regardless of what else was on the air! It could be in the middle of some big Top 40 hit, which would be faded down by the engineer as Ingram’s theme rolled, back-timed perfectly to hit the top of the hour news from the ABC Network. It was the only time in the broadcast day that anything was allowed to interrupt a song. I tried that at one of the stations where I did a morning show (my closer was “Rockhopper” by Powder Blues), but my program director wasn’t amused by the way it sounded and made me stop after three or four days.
There were great radio DJs in every major city in America during that era, but unlike many of them who wrote out their material ahead of time, or subscribed to joke sheets like The Electric Weenie (I’m not kidding!), Ingram winged it through his shows, letting his natural sense of humor and wit shine through — over and over and over again. That’s an art that is no longer practiced. There are no young DJ-wannabes riding along in their cars and talking up every song (although I still do!) because they want to emulate their favorite radio personalities. Music stations are now sadly personality-free, a complete departure from the era I grew up in, when talents like Ingram shone so brightly.
I mourn for that lost skill set, and for the man who executed it better than anyone else, Dan Ingram.
I never met him, but he inspired me, made me laugh, and taught me what it was like to be a real broadcaster. Goodbye and thanks, Kemosabe!
There’s lot of Dan Ingram audio on YouTube. Listening to it made me both nostalgic and happy, hearing him work his magic among the records, live commercials, jingles, etc. Here’s but one sample, from January, 1969…