Around New York, radio listeners knew Dan Ingram for some 40 years as one of the most entertaining disc jockeys of the top-40 rock ’n’ roll era.
But when several hundred of his friends gathered Friday to celebrate the life of Ingram, who died June 24 at the age of 83, they remembered a different Big Dan.
They remembered a union activist, who fought behind the scenes inside the radio business to secure better wages, working hours and benefits for his fellow radio personalities — almost all of whom made less money and were less successful than he.
Jim Kerr, himself a multi-decade New York radio fixture who currently hosts the morning show on WAXQ (104.3 FM), remembered arriving in New York in the early 1970s. He was a 21-year-old kid who’d been hired for the fledgling rock format at WPLJ, which was the FM kid sister to the goliath WABC, where Ingram ruled afternoon drive.
The background here, Kerr noted, was that WPLJ in those days was an afterthought. It had a tiny studio and virtually no promotion. Its DJs were paid scale, that is, minimum contract wage, while WABC stars like Ingram were paid a lot more because WABC is where the profits were.
When Kerr went in to introduce himself to Ingram, he said, he was shocked when Ingram settled in for a half-hour conversation. He offered some advice, Kerr said, but mostly asked about Kerr, where he came from, how he felt about radio. It was the kind of reception from a star that no rookie in his right mind would expect.
But that kind of interest was precisely what speaker after speaker at the memorial service said Ingram consistently showed.
Dennis Hughes, an old Ingram compadre from SAG-AFTRA, recalled how Ingram would attend union meetings and, unlike many attendees, debate the issues and make proposals.
“Dan was in the trenches,” said Richard Larkin of SAG-AFTRA.
Larkin also related how, several years ago, the jocks at one popular New York station were involved in a “very difficult” contract negotiation in which they were asking for a five-day work week, with no weekend shifts for full-timers.
Larkin never identified the station as WCBS-FM. He just said the case involved all the jocks who worked there, including Harry Harrison, Ingram, Bobby Jay, Bob Shannon and others.
Ingram was working only weekends, so he wasn’t directly affected by the five-day negotiations. Nonetheless, Larkin said, “He was fully involved,” to the point of saying that if the DJs had to strike to make their case, he would support it.
Ultimately, Larkin said, the jocks won a contract that over three years moved full-timers to a five-day week. “Our success,” he said, “was largely due to Dan.”
Kerr said what impressed him most about Ingram’s work in contract deals was that “he wanted to be there for the part-timers, the weekend jocks, the fill-in guys working for scale.”
Ingram’s son Chris told the gathering that Ingram “took the right to organize very seriously.” His father, a big band singer, was in the Musician’s Union, and Dan Ingram, said Chris, was very aware of the work that others had done in the past to make Dan’s own position possible.
Not by coincidence, Friday’s celebration was held at SAG-AFTRA headquarters in Manhattan, and considerable praise was directed to Maureen Ingram, Dan’s wife of 26 years and herself a long-time union official.
Note of Ingram’s radio career was made throughout the event, with a handful of vintage airchecks and photos of Ingram with radio people like Don Imus and his long-time colleague Bruce Morrow.
Chris Ingram noted that Dan always said he picked up the art of communication from Arthur Godfrey, and mid-day host Dan Taylor of WCBS-FM recalled Ingram’s fondness for jazz and big band music. Vince Giordano sang an acoustic version of “Long Ago and Far Away,” one of Ingram’s favorite songs.
But in general, Ingram’s on-air radio stature and reputation were treated as a given. This event focused on the things he did off the air, and how much they meant to the people he did them for.
Given Ingram’s reputation for a fast tongue and quick wit, there were naturally some moments of humor.
Kevin Scullin of SAG-AFTRA, speaking for long-time Ingram pal John Sucke, read a top-10 list of things he imagined might be overheard at this gathering.
Number nine was, “I always listen to his sister Laura’s show on Fox News.”
Number one was, “Nice turnout. Who knew so many people would remember radio?”
Unmentioned in any specific remarks Friday was the fact that the whole union movement has been under fire in America for some years. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling this summer, striking down mandatory dues for public sector unions, was a serious blow, and President Trump just last week said he wanted to scrap contractually agreed raises for unionized federal workers.
That backdrop gave the praise for Ingram’s work a sharp if unspoken edge.
If Ingram’s radio fans had to pick music by which to remember him, it might be “Please Mister Deejay.” To this group of friends, it would more likely be “Brothers In Arms.”