Curtis Sliwa became world renowned for founding the Guardian Angels in the 1970s. But thanks to his role with the Angels, Sliwa’s radio career was born. He has been a broadcasting veteran for more than 20 years.
Sliwa, who hosts six days a week at 970 The Apple WNYM, recently spoke to FishbowlNY for a wide-ranging discussion about his life on radio.
He describes the first 13 years (1979 to 1992) of the Guardian Angels as “extraordinarily controversial.” Along with having no luck dealing with officials, Sliwa was arrested no less than 76 times during that period.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the precinct, he was given the opportunity to speak out on radio.
“There were really iconic figures in talk radio who would lend me a microphone so that I could do more than just a 30 second sound bite defending myself,” Sliwa says.
He got a platform and gained experience from the holy trinity of radio talk show hosts—Barry Farber, Bob Grant, and Barry Gray. He recalls Farber and Grant visiting a Guardian Angels patrol prior to being a guest.
“Between the three of them, every time I’d be getting beaten up…one of these three guys would pull me out of the crowd and then give me a microphone …to explain what just happened.”
Thus, began the Brooklyn-born Sliwa’s unlikely career in radio.
The next phase, which involved then-WABC overnight host Alan Colmes, was to give some extended air time to Sliwa. It was Colmes’ suggestion to have Curtis and his wife (at the time) Lisa handle the show while he was away. Program director Mark Mason consented.
Following the show, Mason was ambivalent toward the results, and Sliwa says it wouldn’t have gone any further.
“The person who really made the difference was Bob Grant,” Sliwa says. “At that time, he had all the [clout].”
WABC management, as Sliwa tells it, was fine with having Lisa do future shows, but less interested with her husband, until afternoon host Grant stepped in.
“This guy knows where all the bones are buried and who buried them. Nobody knows more about New York than Curtis. I want him with Lisa substituting for me,” Grant told management.
Sliwa says Grant, always extremely confident, was never concerned with who would replace him.
“Most other talk show hosts, they’ll ask [for] people who are very low key or somber who are not going to steal their thunder to substitute for them. Not Bob Grant,” Sliwa says. “He didn’t care.”
Once those fill-in shows popped up, it was now timing that would play a key role in the development of Sliwa’s radio career.
“It was right before the Persian Gulf War, 1991, the first war against Saddam Hussein…The management had asked us to do a Saturday afternoon program.
“…You’re in the right place at the right time. Jay Diamond was morning host at the time at WABC and they had always had problems with morning hosts… They went through morning hosts the way that Charlie Sheen goes through goddesses,” Sliwa says.
Expedited by Diamond’s “imploding,” Curtis and Lisa suddenly were doing morning drive in the nation’s top market. They were asked to hold down the fort while WABC conducted a nationwide search.
“We jumped at it. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” Sliwa admits. “…[There was] no instruction, nobody mentoring us, just swim or drown.”
In part two, the Sliwas eventually get mornings permanently, but in the process that causes permanent damage to the marriage.
Photo credit: Eric Krauss