No doubt about it. Jerry Williams was the real deal. As a young broadcaster in the early 1950's Jerry Williams recognized the enormous potential of two-way talk radio. Rock & roll was great for young audiences but with the demise of network radio and the emergence of television what would radio have to offer adult listeners? Before just about anyone else, Jerry understood the fascinating dynamic at play between callers, the host and the audience. And for the better part of the next four decades Jerry Williams would play a major role in shaping and molding the format we now call talk radio. "Burning Up The Air" chronicles the life and times of this legendary radio icon.
My introduction to Jerry Williams came on July 29,1968 when the highly touted "Jerry Williams Show" debuted on WBZ-TV in Boston. I remember it like it was yesterday. Although that television show would be short-lived, the host sure made one hell of an impression on this 17 year old. Within a matter of weeks I found "The Spirit of New England" WBZ--1030 on my AM radio dial and I quickly became hooked on Jerry's nightly radio program. By this time, Jerry Williams had already spent more than 15 years in the business. He was a master at his craft. One of the co-authors of "Burning Up The Air" is Steve Elman. Steve had the distinct privilege of producing "The Jerry Williams Show" for a time during the programs eight year run on WBZ radio from 8:00 P.M. to midnight. This was appointment listening for sure. What made the "Jerry Williams Show" so compelling during those troubled times was that WBZ's booming 50000 watt signal reached 38 states at night. This was in effect a national issues-oriented radio talk show, most likely the first of its kind anywhere. "Burning Up The Air" recalls all of the hot-button issues that were being discussed on the program during those tumultuous years. From the Vietnam war and the anti-war activists to Dita Beard and the ITT scandal and on to Tricky Dicky and Watergate, Jerry Williams covered it all! In fact, he was even a proud member of Richard Nixon's "Enemy's List". More than three decades later I would have to point to those shows as the best talk radio I ever heard! Sadly, in 1976 WBZ chose not to renew Jerry's contract. For the next five years Jerry Williams was in radio limbo searching for just the right situation to get back on top. It was one of the most difficult periods of his life.
The worm would finally turn for Jerry in the summer of 1981. WRKO radio in Boston was dumping music in favor of a new all-talk format and they wanted to feature Jerry Williams in the afternoon drive slot from 2:00 to 6:00. This was a time slot that Jerry had always coveted. He jumped at the opportunity to return to the Hub and within a matter of months Jerry was on top of the heap once again. But in this incarnation of his program the focus was radically different. Jerry would primarily discuss local issues. In those days his primary targets were Boston mayor Kevin White and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Of course when circumstances dictated Jerry was still quite capable of discussing topics of national concern. The other co-author of "Burning Up The Air" is Alan Tolz. Like Steve Elman before him, Alan would produce the "Jerry Williams Show" during a good portion of its highly successful run on WRKO. You will learn just what issues made the show tick during the 1980's. There was the attempt to make wearing seatbelts mandatory in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the proposal to build a maximum security prison facility in the rural community of New Braintree. Once again, this was compelling radio that reached a huge audience. The program would continue to be a ratings success until late in the 1980's when Jerry's increasingly acerbic style began to wear on listeners. Within a few years Jerry was consigned to weekends only on WRKO and his run on The Talk Station would finally come to an end in October 1998.
While most of the focus of "Burning Up The Air" is on Jerry's radio career, the authors chose to spend a fair amount of time discussing his personal life. I was quite surprised and extremely disappointed to learn that in many ways it was a mess. It would appear that Jerry always put his work and career ahead of the interests of his wife Teri and his three daughters. He was simply never there for them. Likewise, he seemed to have no qualms about cheating on his wife and even on his live-in girlfriend of many years. It was a side of him that I knew nothing about. It also appears that Jerry was very tight with a buck. But one must try to seperate the private life from the public persona. As a lifelong fan of the man I greatly appreciated the work that Steve Elman and Alan Tolz put into this book. For them, writing "Burning Up The Air" appears to have been a labor of love. For both of these men had the distinct honor of working with one of talk radio's true pioneers. Jerry Williams was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in the fall of 1996. There will never be another quite like him. I found this to be an extremely well written book that I enjoyed from cover to cover. It belongs on the shelves of every public library in the Bay State! Very highly recommended!
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti (drifter51)
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
At the peak of his influence on WRKO Radio in Boston in the mid-1980s, when he helped repeal a seatbelt law and ran a oneman wrecking crew against Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign, Jerry Williams was dubbed "The Dean of Talk Radio." What few knew was that Jerry wasn't merely the Dean, he was also arguably the Inventor. It was in 1957 that the Brooklyn-born talk show host first put listeners on the air at the old WMEX in Boston—after primitive time-delay technology made it possible to bleep callers' naughty words. From then on, while guys named King and Limbaugh were cutting their teeth at the microphone, Williams set standards for the form. He stood up for civil rights when such talk could get you killed, questioned Vietnam long before Walter Cronkite, savaged Richard Nixon while forty-nine state were reelecting him, and put frank talk about sex on the air when Howard Stern was still a DJ. Today's kings of talk acknowledge their debt: "Jerry Williams changed American broadcasting with the force of his personality . . . He showed me what one man and a microphone can do."—Phil Donahue Elman and Tolz, who produced Williams's shows at high points in his career, had total access to the Dean's files and memories. The result is an enlightening biography that gives readers an inside view of the glories of radio and the pitfalls of fame. "As we dug through the clippings and the letters, the scrapbooks and the tapes," they write, "we heard a message, and it was a surprise: it was ...