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Remembering Ruth Meyer, a Trailblazing New York Radio Programmer

At a time when women were at home playing the role of housewife (think 1950s sitcom standards The Ozzie and Harriet Show and Leave it to Beaver) Ruth Meyer was playing the role of accomplished radio manager.

A disciple of Top 40 pioneer Todd Storz, Meyer, sadly today, is largely a lost figure in the industry—except to those who knew her best.

Hired in 1958, for much of the next decade, no one wielded more influence in the market (including Rick Sklar at top rival WABC) than Meyer as WMCA program director.

Meyer died on January 21. She was 80.

“She was a super person,” Harry Harrison, WMCA midday jock under Meyer, says. “She and Steve Labunski [general manager] brought me to New York at WMCA from Peoria [Illinois]. It was late 1959.” (A saddened Labunski was informed by FishbowlNY of Meyer’s passing.)

Meyer first got to know Harrison’s style when he did voice-overs when she worked for radio stations in Kansas City.

“When they were looking for DJs, happy to say, they thought of me.”

At the time, Harrison had one other offer on the table.

“If I remember, the money was better in St. Louis,” Harrison chuckled.

Thankfully, Harrison chose New York and WMCA. (Harrison still has the telegram that Meyer and Labunski sent him offering the job.) He would be a mainstay of the famed “Good Guys” jocks throughout the 1960s, until leaving in 1968 for WABC.

“She put together the ‘Good Guy’ team, of course. She thought up winning ideas [and] promotions,” Harrison says. “She wrote all the lyrics for the famous …’Good Guy’ songs that we sang.”

Overnight announcer Burt Sherwood predates the Good Guys, starting at WMCA in 1953.

“I had a great relationship with Ruth. We were good friends right up to the end,” Sherwood says.

Sherwood overlapped with Meyer until 1961.

“If you had known [her], you loved her. She had a great of sense of humor,” Sherwood recalls. 

Herb Oscar Anderson, although the WMCA morning man in 1959 and 1960, missed out on the “Good Guys” camaraderie.

But he didn’t miss out on the magic of Meyer.

“Ruth knew what she was doing,” Anderson says. “She was a great addition to the radio business.”

Anderson, who would go on to his biggest success during an eight-year run at WABC, recalls being at loggerheads with Meyer on several occasions.

“She wanted to be from block A to block B…Of course, a lot of personalities at the time, they just resisted with every known means available to them,” Anderson remembers.

Anderson, who hosts a weekly one-hour show in Vero Beach, Florida, was one of those personalities who didn’t always see eye to eye with Meyer.

Despite that, Anderson recognizes her special qualities as a manager.

“I really respected her very, very much,” Anderson says.

Going one step further, the morning jock was quick to add that “as a station owner, I probably would have gone out and hired her.”

Joe McCoy didn’t hire Meyer. In fact, he didn’t even work for her. But, as the longtime WCBS-FM program director, he built a staff with many notable jocks from the WMCA “Good Guys” days.

“I always thought that WMCA was more New York to me than WABC was,” McCoy reflects. “I thought the only person on ABC that was really New York was ‘Cousin’ Brucie. When you look at ‘MCA and the things that they did with those little corny songs…it just reminded me that it was New York.”

Because of that connection with listeners, WMCA as a 5,000 watt “David” became a strong alternative to 50,000 watt “Goliaths” WABC and WINS (pre-1965 when they switched to all-news).

“I’m glad people felt it was fun radio, and we sounded like we had a great time. It was true,” Harrison admits. “I think WMCA and the ‘Good Guy’ years were her best and her happiest.”

Known as the “First lady,” Meyer’s achievements are even more outstanding. Being a woman in a radio management position was rare, if not completely unheard of.

“She was somebody who was really ahead of her time…I can’t even think of any other female program director [at the time], certainly not in New York,” McCoy says.

After her successful tenure of Top 40 at WMCA, Meyer was at the forefront of the Country changeover at WHN in 1973.

It was there that she hired Steve Warren, who during his brief time in New York had gotten some part-time announcing. He would become her music director and build a close friendship that would last until her death.

“There was not a soul in New York City that knew anything about Country music, but they were going to do it anyway. I had grown up in Kentucky and Indiana, and worked for several Country stations.”

Along with Warren, Dan Taylor, the CBS-FM morning host, was eventually part of the WHN lineup.

“It was a great time, a great honor, a great lady,” Taylor says. “…We certainly spent a lot of time over dinners talking about lots of stuff in the industry and people that she had known from the ‘MCA days.”

Taylor says her ability to compliment staffers separated her from other managers.

“If you did something on the air, she would take the time to walk into the studio and say, ‘That break you just did, that was really, really great.’ That’s the one thing I’ll always remember about Ruth. She really respected the talent on the radio,” Taylor says.

Warren recalls his first meeting with Meyer that endeared him to his future boss.

“She always remembered hiring me because it was sort of a maze to get through the studios to get back to her office. …After we had the interview, she said ‘Do you know how to find your way out?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I left a trail of breadcrumbs behind me.’ For the last 35 years, she called me ‘Breadcrumbs.’”

Warren says over the years, when sending Meyer a birthday card he would simply sign it with the initials “B.C.”

Their bond, built that day in 1973, stayed strong after WHN.

“She had a great craving for food and dining and cooking, as did I,” Warren recalls. “So we became dinner partners for the years that we were both still here in New York together.”

But it didn’t stop there. After Meyer went home to Kansas City to care for relatives, Warren made sure to visit her, an estimated dozen times in the last 15 years.

Warren has kept active in broadcasting with several radio gigs including a stint at WNBC. He is currently heard daily as news anchor at the Howard Stern channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, while also running his own radio programming company.

Warren, who maintained phone contact with Meyer once or twice a week, spoke to her for the last time this past Thanksgiving, prior to her health deteriorating.

Meyer actually had dealt with some serious scares later in life.

In 2005, she was the passenger in a car accident that killed her longtime friend and WMCA morning man Joe O’Brien. Warren says that crash caused lingering equilibrium issues for Meyer. Ten years earlier, Meyer suffered a stroke that left her vision affected.

In the above picture from a 1990s event, Meyer, in red jacket, is flanked by a pair of “Good Guys,” O’Brien, wearing hat, and Gary Stevens.

Until the final weeks, Meyer had been in an assisted living apartment.

“She was having trouble sitting up. She couldn’t stand up, couldn’t keep her balance…So she was actually at the hospital,” Warren says.

Warren is planning a spring memorial for New York friends, colleagues, and family.

He says, in 1979, she was instrumental in launching The Source at NBC Radio.

Taylor relates a story from that time period, as told by Meyer, about Don Imus, who was back at WNBC after his exile from Cleveland. Meyer said he came into her office complaining that no one could keep him in check.

“Ruth in her inimitable way just said, ‘Don, I can control you.’

“[Imus] says, ‘Oh really, how?’”

‘Every time you screw up I’m going to play the Cleveland weather report in your headphones,’ Meyer responded to Imus.

“That was just Ruth. …She could handle any situation with anybody and in the fewest amount of words– put it right in their place,” Taylor reflects. 

“She is a person who has never received enough credit…The creativity of Ruth Meyer and WMCA was just fantastic,” McCoy says. “The fact that they picked up on the ‘Good Guys’ after ‘ABC dropped it and they really hit it home… That was a pretty gutsy call to do something like that.” 

The legendary Harrison holds a special place in his heart for Meyer.

“She was very important in my life, because she brought me to New York to work, but not only that, I met my wife here…and we had our family here.”

 

Photo Credits: Picture 1– musicradio77.com
                                  Picture 3– Mary Hennessy Shaw

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