Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The death of Jerry Williams. The last time I talked with Jerry Williams was in November 1999. The legislature had just tried to kill the voter-approved Clean Elections law, and no one seemed to care. Williams -- who in his heyday could get listeners to his talk-radio show to light up the State House switchboard like missiles over Baghdad -- seemed dispirited by the apathetic response.

"Nobody knows anything. Everybody's boring," Williams told me. "I imagine if the president of the Senate walked out in front of the State House, no one would know who he is."

If you're under 30, or if you moved to Boston within the past 10 years, you might not know who Williams was, either. But the veteran talk-show host, who died today at the age of 79, was a legend, a man who helped invent the talk-radio format in the 1950s and '60s, and who -- in a last, late flowering of his career in the 1980s -- was as powerful and controversial a figure as there was in Boston.

Following a stint in New York, Williams returned here in 1981, taking the afternoon drive-time shift at WRKO Radio (AM 680). A lifelong liberal who had interviewed such figures as Malcolm X, the 'RKO version of Williams was something of a reinvention: he became an anti-tax populist, though never, despite what his critics thought, a true conservative.

(WRKO has put up a Williams bio on its website, along with some sound clips.)

Williams also became the scourge of Governor Michael Dukakis, especially during and after Dukakis's unsuccessful presidential run in 1988. The state budget was imploding and Dukakis, naturally, wanted to keep the truth under wraps as long as possible. Williams -- joined by Citizens for Limited Taxation director Barbara Anderson and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr -- took to the airwaves as "The Governors," mocking Dukakis in particular, and liberals in general.

Williams may also have been just about single-handedly responsible for the victory of a voter referendum to overturn an early version of the state's mandatory seatbelt law -- a crusade that seemed as important as the hunt for Osama bin Laden at the time, but that is now almost entirely forgotten.

Williams occupied a special place in the talk-show fraternity. He was neither as cerebral as David Brudnoy and Gene Burns nor as knowledgeable about politics as Peter Meade and David Finnegan. Rather, he was an entertainer who really cared about issues, and who actually got his vast listenership to care about issues, too.

And yes, it's true that he could be irrational on the subject of Dukakis, one of the most ethical and decent men to have served as governor of this state. And yes, his anti-tax crusades were misguided at best. But he approached politics from the point of view that people really mattered, and that they could take charge of their own government. All that and his annual sex survey, too.

The '90s were not kind to Williams. At one point, the media conglomerate he was working for put him and his erstwhile co-governor, Carr, opposite each other on two different radio stations that it owned. Carr won the ratings bake-off, and Williams was consigned first to a late-morning show, and then to the audience graveyard of weekend afternoons.

Williams finally left 'RKO, but never really gave up trying to revive his career. At the time of his death he was doing a show for WROL (AM 950), a small station in Quincy, a short drive from his home on the South Shore.

I once had an opportunity to do a show with Williams under unusual circumstances. Lew Koch, then a producer for a nationally syndicated talk-show host named Bruce DuMont, called me looking for advice. DuMont, who was based in Chicago, was coming to Boston to broadcast from WRKO on a Sunday night. (DuMont's show, Beyond the Beltway, is apparently still broadcast on WRKO. Who knew?) DuMont was a conservative, but Koch was a liberal. Koch told me that 'RKO was pushing him to put Carr on the air that night to lend a little local flavor; I urged him to get Williams instead.

So there I was, sitting in a studio with DuMont; someone from then-governor Bill Weld's office; and Williams, who sat in a corner looking sour. Weld had recently signed a Draconian welfare-reform bill, and the governor's staffer and DuMont were smugly holding forth about those damn welfare cheats.

Now, if Carr had been there, he would have been sure to chime in about the "gimme girls," his charming term for poor single mothers. But as I said, even though Williams had turned into an anti-taxer in his latter years, he never turned into a conservative.

All of a sudden, he roused himself and started barking. "What are these women supposed to do?" he demanded, leaning into the microphone. No one said a word. Williams continued -- unfortunately, I have no record of exactly what he said, but as I recall, he excoriated Weld for throwing poor women off welfare without making any provisions for child care or health care.

It was a great moment, and I beamed at my little subterfuge.

Perhaps the best-known episode from earlier in Williams's career took place in 1972, when Williams -- then at WBZ Radio (AM 1030) -- took a long, anguished call from a man who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran. Williams had a tape of the call, and he played it occasionally over the years. It never ceased to be moving.

In 1998 came a startling piece of news: a Boston Globe piece by liberal activist Jim Braude, now the cohost of NECN's NewsNight, claiming that the call was actually a hoax perpetrated by longtime union activist Domenic Bozzotto, who'd never served. Bozzotto denied it, but Braude appeared to have the goods. When I asked Williams about it, he told me, "I have never known who it was. What he said was more important than whether he was Joe from Framingham or Domenic from East Boston."

Williams leaves a much-diminished talk-radio scene. David Brudnoy, fortunately, is still going strong on WBZ. These days, though, hosts are either nationally syndicated right-wingers such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly, or local trash-talkers like Carr and his drivetime competitor, Jay Severin, who holds forth on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), or sports talkers Gerry Callahan and John Dennis on WEEI Radio (AM 850).

Six years ago I wrote a piece for the Phoenix called "The Death of Talk Radio." Sadly, it's deader now than it was then. When you hear the homophobic, race-baiting rants and foul language that pass for talk radio today, it's hard to believe that Jerry Williams was ever controversial.

It's also hard to believe that he's really gone.

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