At age 4, my father made a tape of me with his handheld cassette recorder asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. The answer was a radio station’s music director (or maybe, at that age, it was “the person who chooses the records”).
My father, Sherwood Ross, was public affairs director for Sonderling, the company that owned legendary R&B stations like WDIA Memphis, WWRL New York, and his home base of WOL Washington. I’d already been to the station a few times, and the only thing I liked more was when a stack of records came home. So that my career was set in stone at that point wasn’t so surprising.
By that time, my dad had already been a Chicago Daily News reporter, a speechwriter for Chicago’s Mayor Richard J., Daley, the public affairs person for the city’s water commissioner (in which he held a press conference in a sewer), the author of a published biography of a U.S. Senator, and news director of the National Urban League (and Whitney Young’s speechwriter).
Two years ago, my father had an accident near his home in Miami that left him in a coma for a month. He recovered consciousness, rare enough after that amount of time, but never really regained clarity. On June 21, he died at age 85.
WOL was, inarguably, the most phenomenal R&B station of its time. I’ve just reread the Washington Post Sunday magazine article written at the time, by a pre-Watergate Carl Bernstein. It is likely difficult to understand the magnitude of WOL for those who weren’t there, but if you remember the ‘90s impact of WPGC, WOL was even more of a force for having been the city’s first true black music powerhouse, and for its commitment to the community. More than a decade later, WOL would become the launchpad for Cathy Hughes’ Radio One. As an AM station in 1980, WOL wasn’t a ratings force anymore, but it was still an icon.
At WOL in 1966-67, my father’s daily afternoon “War on Slums” gave listeners the opportunity to call in and complain about landlords who weren’t providing heat, making needed repairs, etc. (The article said that the District government had to assign additional building inspectors.) It puts in sharp contrast what today’s radio does and doesn’t do for its audience.
He was a participant in the 1966 “March Against Fear” voter registration drive in Mississippi where James Meredith survived an assassination attempt. I knew that his picture alongside Meredith had made the papers at the time. In the early 2000s, one of the proudest moments of my life was visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and seeing dad’s picture unexpectedly.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, my dad became a pioneer in public relations. His clients were major publications — Psychology Today, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Business Week, and many others — his job was getting their stories quoted with attribution in the newspaper. Today that happens automatically. At the time, it was groundbreaking.
The last decades of my dad’s life were devoted to his poetry and playwriting, and to his own music. He hung around New York’s folk scene in the early ‘80s; I knew Suzanne Vega as a name on a flier on the refrigerator long before “Luka.” He became entrenched enough to be part of the Fast Folk compilation series that spawned Vega’s career and others. His “hit” was “I Sliced Pastrami for the C.I.A.” I know he got at least one spin on the “Dr. Demento Show.”
My dad remains present in my love of music, my career in radio, and my writer’s gene. (My brother Karl, who did a heroic job on dad’s behalf over the last two years, set off on another career path and ended up in journalism anyway, such was the pull.) A few years after that tape recording, my dad set another aspect of my career in motion. When I was 8, he took us to Maritime Canada, and my fascination with that country was born, something that led directly to work I’ve done in radio there for the last decade.
I published an abbreviated version of this posting in Facebook late last week. I was consoled and gratified not just by the expressions of sympathy, but by the number of people for whom my dad’s history resonated. As with WOL itself, these were not people who personally remembered my father. I had hoped word of his passing would reach any former colleagues still in touch with the business, but I’m only aware of one such person. And yet people were moved.
Radio history is sometimes too easily derided, or at least dismissed. Radio is supposed to be about reinvention. Those of a certain age who remain active in the business sometimes feel the need to distance themselves from any sort of nostalgia, lest they find themselves sidelined with those former colleagues who have nothing but nostalgia left. Reinvention still matters, particularly now. But history is a basis for that reinvention, because how is a station that galvanized an entire city not relevant now? Radio needs its role models; I’m lucky to have this one (and others) to share.