RIP Don K. Reed, a Regular on a Splendid Radio Team
I hail from the generation where, if you were a serious popular music fan, you were also a serious radio fan. You probably complained constantly about what your favorite stations played, or didn’t play, but they were family, so it was okay, because that’s how families work.
My first faves were WDRC and WPOP in Hartford, the top-40 stations where I grew up. But my longest radio relationship started years later, when WCBS-FM (101.1) in New York decided in 1972 to stop being a scattershot freeform rock station and take a gamble on something radio had never thought could be a real format: oldies.
Fifty years later, WCBS-FM still does that, sort of, except it’s back to not calling the music “oldies” any more and the music is now from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, not the ’50s and ‘60s.
The people who loved the early WCBS-FM will tell you the station today is terrible. It isn’t. It has just updated itself, as all popular culture does, and in the most recent radio ratings it was the №1 station in New York. I hope the current audience likes the current station as much as I liked the old one.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t get wistful about the old WCBS-FM, to which I listened regularly for more than three decades before it abruptly switched to the puzzling Jack format in 2005.
And it means I’m sad to hear the news that Don K. Reed, one of the long-time hosts on the old WCBS-FM, has died.
He was 77 and had recently been hospitalized. He is survived by his wife Delores, and other than that, he never had the kind of high profile that many media personalities develop. Except that pretty much everyone who knew him says he was a great guy.
“It is a terrible loss,” said his long-time WCBS-FM program director Joe McCoy. “Don was one of the real good guys of radio.”
He grew up in Brooklyn and worked in the late ’60s at WLIR-FM on Long Island before he joined WCBS-FM in late 1971. That was about six months before he station switched to oldies, and Reed stayed there until almost everyone was fired in 2005 because one day management dropped oldies and became Jack, which to this day still puzzles most listeners.
That gave Reed some 34 years at one station, which in the radio game is a Cal Ripken kind of number. Some listeners may not have even realized it, because on a station anchored by New York icons like Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, Cousin Bruce Morrow and Bobby Jay, Reed flew under the radar.
In the tradition of Jack Spector or Bill Brown, he never seemed to raise his voice. When we think of early rock ’n’ roll jocks, we think of the full-throttle blast of Murray the K, Jocko, Cousin Brucie or Wolfman Jack. We think of the wry, witty patter of Dan Ingram or Bob Shannon. That wasn’t Don K. He was conversational. He was the calm voice of the midnight shift, which is what he mostly worked.
Perhaps his best-known show, however, was the Sunday night Doo-Wop Shop, which he hosted until the station decided in 2002 that it made WCBS-FM sound too old.
That’s the evolution thing again. When WCBS-FM switched to oldies in 1972, its playlist tilted heavily toward the vocal group harmony records that were such a central part of New York radio in the 1950s. When Joe McCoy began programming the station in 1981, he started phasing out slower vocal group records like “Sunday Kind of Love” and featuring more mainstream top-40 hits from the ’60s — Beatles, Motown, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, etc. — while still including more popular ’50s artists like the Platters, Five Satins, Mello-Kings and so on. It was a good blend, and a smart one. WCBS-FM reached №1 in New York a couple of times during McCoy’s tenure.
The station still periodically asked listeners to vote on their favorite vocal group records, and the 1996–97 survey reflected both listener tastes and the station’s playlist. The top five were “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins, “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Tonite Tonite” by the Mello-Kings, “I Only Have Eyes for You” by the Flamingos and “Morse Code of Love” by the Capris.
And every Sunday night the harder-core fans could tune in Don K. Reed, who played nothing but vocal group records for five hours and brought members of those groups into the studio for live interviews.
His interview technique was consistent with his on-air personality. When an artist or group entered the studio, Reed would ask what they would like to talk about and which of their records they would like him to play. So the interviews tended to be relaxed and cordial — and, in the spirit of rock ’n’ roll radio fans everywhere, there were complaints at times that he wasn’t asking more pointed questions.
Some fans also thought he didn’t sound as impassioned about the music as they felt, which was true. The funny thing is, Reed got noticeably more animated about it off the air, talking about how he first came to love it while he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s.
Off the air he’d talk about his own favorite songs, and how the favorite records of collectors often were the most obscure.
“That’s a dilemma for artists,” Reed mused. “They like the idea someone loves their music that much all these years later, but no one sets out to record a rare collectible. You make records to sell records.”
Reed returned to WCBS-FM a few times after it dropped the Jack format in 2007, but he didn’t get back to a regular gig until he reopened the Doo-Wop Shop in 2011 for the streaming service Belmonts Radio.
Like several other former WCBS-FM hosts, including Jay, Reed went to the streaming service less for money than to stay active in something he’d done all his life and still enjoyed. Radio can be a cruel business for hosts who make the mistake of getting older, regardless of their continuing skill.
Discarding hosts is cruel for listeners, too. It feels like taking away a member of the family — the same way in which this news about Don K. Reed feels like a family member has died.