Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Uncle Harry

Harry West might have been the worst DJ I ever worked with, and we were at the same place for nearly eleven years.  His mechanics left a lot to be desired.  He always had a problem with show elements and timings.  There would be entire breaks where he would repeat his own name several times, yet not mention the station call letters.  His comedy was hokey and corny.  Harry could be very resistant to change.  There are times I watched as Harry went over a program director's head, to his friend, the company president, at the home office in York.

On the other hand, Harry had warmth, charm and charisma.  People loved him.  You can't teach that.  You can't bottle that.  I've never seen someone enter a building with such boundless enthusiasm at pre dawn hours.  During his WARM hey day, Harry loved what he did, and it showed.   He couldn't wait to get on the air every morning.

The days were long.  Harry did his morning show six days a week.  Most Saturdays, after he got off the air, he did what we in the business call "remotes," or live broadcasts from a sponsor's place of business.  Harry was a radio machine.

Harry made stars out of AccuWeather's Elliot Abrams, and Elliot Katuna of Jean King fame.  If you wanted to get noticed, you had to advertise on Harry's show.  There was always a big demand for commercial time, and I'm sure he made the station a fortune over the years.

It would be impossible to talk about Harry without his work on behalf of people with disabilities.  He lent a famous face, and voice to the cause, and his contributions were legendary.

In his later WARM years, Harry was given the assistance of board operators (people who ran the controls) and producers (who kept track of the format, commercials, and guests).    Most of these helpers were kids, and Harry could not have been more gracious and patient.  They were equals.  I never saw Harry talk down to any of them.

I did the news on Harry's morning show for my last six months at WARM, ending in September 1991.  I'll level with you.  It was an uncomfortable situation.  The long-time news director was bumped to afternoons to make way for me because management wanted a more contemporary sound in the morning.  I was pulled off the road to take the anchor job, and I wasn't thrilled with that.  I felt out of place.  Dare I say, intimidated.  At that point in my career, I just wasn't a radio morning news anchor.  The station in general was going in a bad direction-- too many changes, too fast, with no sense of purpose.  Through it all, Harry was great to me, and I'm glad we worked together.

In my early WARM days, I was working the overnight shift, back when the station was still playing music and had live talent around the clock.  If you notice now on WNEP, I play around with the way I read the lottery numbers.  Here's the reason.  I was reading the lottery numbers on WARM in the middle of the night, and there were fewer games back then.  Harry heard me on the way in and told me I was monotone.  Constructive criticism.  I valued the input and the lesson stuck with me, nearly forty years later.

After I left, the station didn't do right by Harry.  Changes in the morning show clearly weren't working.  His contract ran out and he left.  I ran in to him in later years, during stops at WILK, WDLS, WEJL, and WICK.  It wasn't the same.  Harry's joy was gone.

In fact, the Harry situation led to a falling out between WARM's Ron Allen and myself.  Ron was program director when I started in 1981.  He hired me, my first boss.  I ran in to Ron at a Red Barons game as the Harry debacle was unfolding.  Ron was one of the elder statesmen, with some influence at the Avoca studio.  I gave him a little grief over the way Harry was being treated.  Ron wasn't happy, and I get that.  I didn't have a dog in that fight, but I still felt I had to speak up, even though I had moved on to another job, outside of radio.    Why?  For a kid who wanted to be in radio, Harry was the man.  He was the guy who told you if school was snowed out.  He played the best music and told you what he thought.  He was the weather source, and he could make you laugh..  I can still remember brushing my teeth, listening to my bathroom radio, and Harry talking about the death of Pope Paul, and then John Paul I.  Harry knew how to set the stage for the newscasts.  Harry deserved better from management.

Harry died last week in Pittsburgh.  The man was a star.

The word "legend" is tossed around too frequently.  Not here.  Not now.  Harry West was a legend.