AM Talk Radio In Pittsburgh: My WJAS Memories

Monday, 11 November 2013 08:44 AM Written by 

Adrian McCoy and Maria Sciullo did an exceptional job over the past few weeks chronicling the past, present (and future) of Pittsburgh AM radio. Memories, not surprisingly, abound on the subject regardless of what aspect of local radio is involved.  

The section of the series dealing with AM talk stirred memories with me going back to the late 60's and early 70's when Pittsburgh, like the rest of the country, faced great social upheaval over Vietnam, race and the Counterculture. It's no surprise some of that manifested itself on AM talk formats, Mike Levine dealt with this on KDKA when he returned from New York in 1970, but one station became a true hotbed: WJAS, not yet the music station it is today.

JAS's all talk format centered around hosts dubbed "Communicasters:" Joe Gearing, Ira Apple, Bill Ross, Perry Marshall, Ted Payne and (for a while), Buck Buckley. Most JAS hosts were moderate to liberal. At the time Western Pennsylvania was heavily industrial with much of the social conservatism rooted in blue collar Democratic neighborhoods.

TV's iconic sitcom All In The Family wouldn't debut until 1971, but arguments on JAS anticipated those on the show. I never heard Perry much, so I can't say how much he was caught up in the wilder side of these chats.  But Payne and Apple, the most overtly liberal hosts, routinely jousted with local callers.  If you think some of the exchanges on Lynn Cullen's old shows were wild (and some were) some of these were even more intense.

I recall fiery disagreements between Payne and callers enraged over anti-war protests and counterculture provocateurs Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Others expressed wariness and hostility (complete with crude racial slurs) toward local Civil Rights activists and black athletes like controversial Pirate Pitcher Dock Ellis.

Payne directed his wrath at President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. Apple, a bit more relaxed, sometimes dealt with anti-Semitic sentiments from callers who disagreed. Buckley supported the Vietnam War but his other views were all over the map. Over time he grew sour on the air, rudely cutting off callers who were polite and civil. One day he disappeared. I don't think he was missed.

Some of the hottest JAS conversations took place on a weekly show hosted by Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh's fiery "labor priest" and an early Civil Rights activist.  While Pittsburgh was a labor town, not all callers appreciated Rice's activism. I remember one caller, incensed by the ongoing Chicago Seven trial, snarling, "Monsignor Rice, you no good (silence as seven-second delay kicked in)." The genial priest returned chuckling, noting "Oh my, that caller must have been having a really bad day."

Those of course, are just my personal recollections. I was at Pitt at the time. If if the PG series stimulated more interest I wholeheartedly recommend Pittsburgh native and radio executive Ed Salamon's photographic history, Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio, available in just about any decent sized bookstore.

The videos on the page below capture a panel discussion Salamon hosted in 2010 when he returned to promote the book, just-released at the time.  Included in the panel is Perry Marshall, who died in 2011.  The entire series can be accessed through the link below.

I have a few more things to say about AM music. We'll get to that soon.

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