Larry Josephson Took the Path Of Less Cash and Better Radio
There’s a subplot in Prime Video’s delightful The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where — mild spoiler alert — Mrs. Maisel’s father Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) feels stifled as a professor at Columbia and takes a job as a critic for The Village Voice.
He starts with a surge of exhilaration, like a man who has just busted out of prison and can finally do what he was born to do.
Then he gets his first paycheck, presented with a flourish by an editor he likes, and the very small number on the check suddenly makes him feel like he’s just taken the ice bucket challenge. He now understands in a visceral way what he only grasped in the abstract before: that pursuing his muse will entail a material sacrifice.
As I was watching this scene, I was remembering with sadness the death of radio man Larry Josephson, on July 27 at the age of 83.
Josephson, a brilliant guy who went to Berkeley and landed a job on the ground floor of the soon-to-explode computer business in 1961, soon got tired of sitting in a cubicle at IBM and began volunteering at WBAI, a publicly funded station in New York.
Like Abe Weissman, he felt like he’s found the ticket to freedom. By 1965 he was hosting the morning show, setting the course he would pursue for the next 55-plus years before Parkinson’s Disease cruelly silenced his voice.
Josephson didn’t stay at WBAI all that time. Almost no one, with full respect to the late Bob Fass, stays at the drama-drenched WBAI that long. Josephson spent most of his career as a public radio freelancer, producing and hosting often-exceptional programs that ranged from a documentary on the history of American Jews to resurrecting the career of Bob and Ray.
He is also credited with, and unapologetically took credit for, helping develop the freewheeling style of morning radio that would years later spawn hosts like Howard Stern and Don Imus — and, arguably, most of the ubiquitous morning shows that riff on whatever the host feels like riffing on.
Artistically, that’s no small footnote to Larry Josephson’s resume. Personality morning radio became a multibillion-dollar cash cow, and while Josephson was not the only seminal player in its development, morning radio made a lot of people rich.
Larry Josephson was not one of them. He was the real-life Abe Weissman, pursuing his passion at the expense of his bank account. After his Parkinson’s took a serious downturn in 2018, he opened a GoFundMe page to help pay some of the medical bills that can slam you when you never made the big bucks and never held jobs with benefits.
It raised $27,679, which his daughter Jennie applauded with warm thanks, writing that it makes “a huge difference filling the gap between what insurance will pay for and the private pay care he needs.”
You don’t have to have been in public radio to get squeezed by medical costs in your senior years. But let’s assume Josephson’s frustrating predicament was something he had weighed over the years. It was a calculated risk he took because he wanted to spend his life doing things he considered rewarding and meaningful.
No commercial radio station was going to let him bring back Bob and Ray, even though they were one of the great comedy teams in radio history. That just isn’t what was selling on radio in the 1980s. No commercial station was going to let him do a multi-part series on the history of American Jews. No commercial radio station would have cared about his conversations with economist Milton Friedman or Rush Limbaugh, conservatives with whom the more liberal Josephson had spirited debates. Few if any commercial stations would have carried the episode of his Modern Times show where he discussed the ethics issues raised by Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which the perps seem to get away with it.
Josephson loved jokes, wordplay and puns, which punctuated his morning show and many of his shows that followed. But his greater aim was almost always serious. He saw the world as a flawed, inequitable place that wasn’t what it should be, and he hoped that by shining a light on those inequities and flaws, he might help to remedy some of them.
Without taking anything away from journalists working in commercial media, public media offer far from extensive opportunities to pursue that goal.
And, again, less reward for doing so, a disconnect to which Larry Josephson, presumably like many of his public media colleagues, was not blind. It would have been impossible not to notice how others were better compensated for a concept he felt he had a significant hand in creating.
In January 1987, the Federal Communications Commission was ramping up an inquiry into whether some of Stern’s broadcasts, then on broadcast radio based at WXRK (92.3 FM) in New York, had crossed the line to indecency.
I was collecting reactions from radio people who themselves had faced FCC or content issues, which included Larry Josephson.
He had equally few good things to say about both the FCC and Stern.
The FCC’s move on radio content, he said, “is all tied up with American Puritanism and hypocrisy.”
He noted the 1978 George Carlin “Seven Dirty Words” case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the FCC could ban speech that violated community standards.
“The thrust of the Carlin case was indecency, which was kind of frightening,” Josephson said. “It meant the FCC could target anything it might consider indecent. The Carlin case is a dormant club whenever someone wants to use it.”
He noted that Bob Hope was once accused of indecency over jokes he made to and about Dorothy Lamour in their Road movies, and that a comedian as revered as Groucho Marx “was always part of the double entendre tradition.”
So he defended Stern’s right to speak. He was less enchanted with what Stern was saying.
“As a former enfante terrible, I can say he doesn’t do anything I wasn’t doing in the ‘60s,” Josephson said, except that in Stern’s case he thought it had become pretty vacuous.
“It’s an act,” said Josephson. “He’s not avant garde or dangerous. He’s borderline offensive. He’s telling Jewish jokes.
“I think the really shocking thing about New York or the country today is people sleeping in doorways. He never talks about that.”
Larry Josephson did. But he was not a lecturer, scolding listeners for their inadequacies. He spent a lot of time on the air talking about himself, including his divorces and the death of his 18-month-old daughter Rachel. He was notoriously cranky, complaining about the hour of the day, or his breakfast, or something that irritated him on the subway on his way to work.
On the other hand, when he liked the new Beatles’s single “Lady Madonna,” he played it for two hours straight. Which was pushing it, but did illustrate a point of pride, that his shows had “no flow. We could talk with Holocaust survivors one morning and the next day, the mechanics of gay sex.”
Politically, while he was often linked in the 1960s with fellow WBAI free-formers Fass and Steve Post, he was less doctrinaire. He was as dismissive of what he considered misguided or overzealous progressives as he was of reactionaries, arguing among other things that feminism often went too far.
He built a reputation among his friends and colleagues as a serial distributor of jokes, often with the potential to be seen as offensive. He was from the free-speech school that wanted listeners to judge jokes on whether they were funny, not whether someone’s feelings might be hurt.
On the practical side, he built a studio in his New York apartment that he rented out to make extra money. Visitors and clients included Ed Bradley of CBS, Garrison Keillor, Alec Baldwin and the Rolling Stones.
In the end, by all indications, he felt like he had made the right choice to dump the IBM cubicle and pursue what made him feel more satisfied. Freeform radio wasn’t quite as glamorous as legend would have it, and all journalism at times drives its practitioners nuts. But if Larry Josephson’s goal was to leave some good things behind, he did.