RIP William O’Shaughnessy, Who Loved Local Radio
Saying the world of local radio has lost one of its great characters and champions may sound, these days, like saying the town just lost its last blacksmith.
More of historical curiosity than contemporary relevance.
But that’s exactly what should be said about William O’Shaughnessy, who owned Westchester radio stations WRTN/WVIP and WVOX and died Saturday at the age of 84 at his Litchfield, Conn., home.
It should be said not just in admiration for his full life, but for the fact he saw a local radio station as a binding thread in the fabric of a community.
These days, with the ascent of the Internet and social media, you almost need a microscope to measure the influence of traditional outlets like local radio and local newspapers.
That doesn’t mean they play no role, however, nor should we underestimate the ways in which their 20th century impact helped shape the world today.
Perhaps the most powerful example of community radio in the 20th century was black radio, which fueled the civil rights movement and gave a largely silenced population a powerful voice.
William O’Shaughnessy was not part of black radio, though he had black compadres like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. His first big-time radio job was executive assistant to the late John Van Buren Sullivan at WNEW-AM, back when that station’s American songbook playlist and aggressive news department made it, arguably, the defining radio voice of New York City.
When O’Shaughnessy was part of the group that bought WVOX, one imagines he saw it as the Westchester version of WNEW, playing classy music and ferociously covering the news of the area it served. O’Shaughnessy was one of his own reporters, driving around in a station car to provide on-the-scene coverage of local doings.
Chuckle at that image if you will in this age of Instagram and TikTok. But understand that not too many years ago, you turned to a local radio station when something was happening in your town. No kid who grew up in those days will forget huddling around the radio at 6 a.m. to see if the snowstorm meant school was cancelled, and that was just one of the information services radio provided. It told you when an accident had closed a commuter road, or a perp was nabbed in a local shooting. It told you about the new show at the town theater and discussed whether the planning board should approve the new strip mall.
O’Shaughnessy argued for the importance of that localism as he rose to become president of the New York State Broadcasters Association and a senior director of the Broadcasters Foundation of America.
In those positions, and on the air at WVOX and WVIP, he also tackled larger issues, prominently including what he saw as attacks on the First Amendment. “The fact I may despise what someone says,” he explained, “does not negate his or her right to say it.”
In 1994, O’Shaughnessy asked me to come to lunch and meet a WVOX intern named Billy Bush, nephew of recent President George H.W. Bush. This kid is going somewhere in the media biz, O’Shaughnessy said, and it’s true the kid clearly had media skills.
Soon he was employing them, though less in politics than in celebrity journalism, where he climbed up to Access Hollywood.
We all might remember what happened there. He was the reporter to whom Donald Trump described one of the ways famous men could introduce themselves to women. The conversation was recorded and leaked. Trump was elected president. Bush was fired.
O’Shaughnessy aired a series of editorials calling Bush’s dismissal unfair.
In fact, O’Shaughnessy was one of the last radio station owners to maintain the by-then quaint tradition of station editorials, often supporting or opposing political candidates and legislative proposals, but also weighing in on cultural and media issues like Bush’s firing.
He called himself a Rockefeller Republican, and he was close with the late New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He was even closer with the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo, with whom he formed a mutual admiration society. Cuomo was, he said, just plain brilliant.
He was also close with other political and corporate leaders, interviewing presidents and cardinals and CEOs and frequently moving in their circles. It was a world he loved, with no apology. One time he invited my wife and me to the upscale restaurant Le Cirque to join him and his then-wife Nancy Curry O’Shaughnessy — whom he bemusedly added was “of the automotive Currys.” I felt lucky to escape without asking for ketchup on the Poitrine De Poulet Rôti. He knew the waiters, the chef, the busboys, the menu, who sat at which table, all of it.
His conversation, then as always, was saturated with names you would recognize, and this inevitably led some to suggest he was a little too in love with that image.
He wrote a eulogy for the late WNEW host William B. Williams, in which at one point he described walking down the hallway at WNEW and having Williams put his arm around him.
Long-time radio host Jonathan Schwartz, also a WNEW alumnus, read it and remarked, in a dry tone, “I can assure you William B. Williams never threw his arm around anybody.”
Jack McCarthy announced New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on WPIX-TV for 41 years. The year after that run ended, O’Shaughnessy invited him to come on WVOX to help narrate that station’s annual St. Patrick’s Day salute.
“I appreciated the opportunity,” McCarthy said after the show. “But every time I started to say something, the station owner cut in to talk about every business owner and celebrity in Westchester.”
That was, in all likelihood, the community radio thing. Money was not a personal problem for O’Shaughnessy, who owned homes in New York, Westchester, Litchfield and Sun Valley, plus a horse farm in upstate Waverly, N.Y., but a community radio station had to scratch for its dollars. O’Shaughnessy, whose very first radio gig was selling ads, understood working the room.
Financial realities also dictated the format of his stations. Given his musical druthers he would probably have had WRTN/WVOX recreate the old WNEW-AM, with golden age standards (except on St. Patrick’s Day) and news. But by the time he was running things, even WNEW-AM wasn’t the old WNEW-AM any more. So O’Shaughnessy moved toward a potpourri of local shows, diverse music shows, syndicated pickups and paid programming. Call it the dream meeting the reality.
Amongst all that, O’Shaughnessy also used radio as a vehicle for interviews with prominent and occasionally non-prominent people. He parlayed many of those into books, using a clear, concise style to recount his associations and conversations with the famous, from multiple Bushes, Cuomo, John and Robert Kennedy and Rockefeller to Howard Stern, Fred Astaire, Joe DiMaggio and Pope Francis.
He projected personal warmth in these interviews, as he did in any encounter. He greeted strangers like welcome friends, and people engaged with him.
That’s how he saw community radio, too, as the figurative friend next door. You could say he outlived that idea. But in an age when so much of radio seems to be run by accountants, we will miss someone who saw it as a business of people.