Top-40 Radio May Driven Us Nuts Back in the Day, But It Did Give Us Dan Ingram

What we sometimes forget about the Golden Age of Top-40 Radio, from the late 1950s into the early 1970s, is that back when we now-old folks were actually listening to it, we complained about it all the time.

It’s too chirpy. They play the same songs over and over. And the commercials! Arrgh! Make it stop!

Dan Ingram.

But we listened anyway, and somehow the memory overrode the grumbling, and a huge part of the reason was hosts like Dan Ingram.

Ingram, who died Sunday night at his Florida home at the age of 83, had long been widely hailed as the quintessential top-40 radio jock, the one against whom others were measured.

“He was probably the funniest DJ on the radio during his prime,” says Joe McCoy, who as program director of New York’s WCBS-FM in the 1980s and 1990s frequently brought Ingram in. “You literally sometimes understood what he was really saying about five minutes after he said it.

“Most DJs will tell you that they wanted to be like him. But there was no one like Dan Ingram.”

For those who had their top-40 experience outside the monstrous signal of New York’s WABC, Ingram delivered quicksilver wit in a droll, bemused tone. The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You,” for instance, was tagged “the porcupine love song.”

He referred to his show as “the Ingram mess” or “the Ingram travesty.” He addressed his listeners as Kemo Sabe, from Tonto’s line in The Lone Ranger, and as that might suggest, he sometimes pushed ethnic humor in ways that might be problematic today. He might have had to lose his Tonto “voice,” for instance, and he might hear some pushback for saying a picture of Mao Zedong reminded him of his laundryman.

His explanation was that it was humor and that his ethnic bits, like his double entendres, were absent all malice.

They were his way of taking top-40 radio banter to the edge, and that edge was something he spent years assessing. If he could at times sound like some guy reeling off wisecracks in the creamer line at the coffee machine, those cracks really reflected how seriously he took radio.

“I always thought that he said things ‘off the cuff’,” recalls McCoy. “But he told me that he got the next day’s music sheet every day and made notes on each song.“

Ingram was a radio pro, someone who had been studying radio and voice skills since he first cracked a microphone over WHCH at Hofstra in the early 1950s.

He came to WABC on July 3, 1961, and he stayed there until the music stopped on May 10, 1982. He and his long-time pal Ron Lundy were the last deejay voices on WABC before it converted to a talk format — which, in perhaps a mild irony, is where a lot of radio people think the “personality” style that once defined top-40 radio migrated.

Ingram himself didn’t make that migration. He would say in later years that his style worked best as a seasoning to the music, not as a monologue.

That’s how, when Ingram played the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” it became “a midget’s lament at a buffet.” And yes, there were listeners who thought this encapsulated top-40’s problem — too much rapid-fire superficial patter of no real substance.

Howard Stern, with whom Ingram never had a mutual admiration society, thought Ingram was one of the most overrated radio personalities ever, and dismissed the suggestion any of Ingram’s irreverence made its way into Stern’s own style.

A few million listeners felt otherwise, and as the afternoon drive host on America’s largest radio station at a time when AM radio was a primary option for office, auto or home entertainment, Ingram did AM radio the way programmers dreamed it should be done.

One reason was that he executed the bedrock requirement of radio: He kept things moving. The energy of an Ingram show never flagged, from his opening cracks to the closing sounds of Billy May’s “Tri-Fi Drums.”

Another reason, perhaps less noted, is that Ingram’s constant references to songs and song titles sent the message that he was also a fan. He came across as a pal playing music for us, and his cracks about the music never dismissed or trivialized it. It was a shared experience, having fun together.

“He knew the music,” says McCoy, and he also knew radio. When he was driving to work in his early years at WABC, for instance, he made it a point to listen to black radio stations like WWRL.

Black radio was incredibly influential in those years, a gateway for much of the music that helped shape and define rock ’n’ roll.

At the same time, it was walled off from the radio “mainstream” by the segregation of the business. And, okay, the country.

Ingram said in a later interview that he listened to WWRL both for the music, much of which WABC would systematically pinch, and because he heard some great radio there. In 1965 he convinced Sklar to hire WWRL’s Chuck Leonard, the first black jock on WABC.

He wasn’t on a diversity crusade, Ingram said later, though that wasn’t a bad idea. It just made radio sense.

What also made sense, he felt, was to recognize that however important it was to deliver entertainment on the air, it was equally important to understand radio as a business.

He would sometimes joke to listeners on the air that WABC “values your ears because they’re a saleable commodity,” and Sklar recalled that Ingram’s annual contract negotiations stressed his value in attracting those ears.

“I wanted to be paid what I was worth,” Ingram said years later. “The company and I didn’t always agree on what that was.”

His fans did, and anyone who wonders why should visit http://musicradio77.com/ingramhistory.html, a lovely six-hour audio history of Ingram’s career put together by Allan Sniffen and many helping hands on the New York Radio Message Board.

For all the complaining we used to do about our local top-40 radio stations, they did lay down a memorable soundtrack for those years.

Even if there really were too many ads, and not enough of the revenue from those ads made it into Dan Ingram’s pocket.