(By Gary Berkowitz) Monday morning’s headline was shocking. Dan Ingram was dead. Dan has been called the “World’s Greatest Top 40 DJ.” I would have to agree since I got to listen to him daily growing up in New York City where WABC was our local station.
For those of you who do not know who Dan Ingram was please allow me a brief introduction. He spent over 20 years doing afternoon drive at what was arguably the most successful and highest -rated Top 40 station of all time, WABC in New York. While doing that, Dan was also one of the leading commercial voices in America. If you’ve never heard Dan, it would be worth your time to spend some time with the many airchecks that are all over the Internet.
Radio has changed a lot since “Big Dan” was on WABC, but there are many lessons that today’s personalities can learn from Dan and his success. Here are my top five.
- Dan Ingram always sounded happy. How he felt “personally” did not often come across on the air. His larger-than-life personality and smile was part of every break, every time. Jon Wolfert, President of JAM Productions in Dallas who worked closely with Ingram, said, “I think that he did let in some of his personal feelings about songs, events and situations, but he did it in such a humorous way that it never got in the way. Doing that made you feel like you were listening to a real person who was living in the same world you were. The beauty of Dan is that he did his show on several levels at once; the casual listener, the radio insider, the advertising world. But no matter which group you were in, there was always something there for you to smile at.”
2. Ingram was PPM friendly before PPM was even a thought! WABC had fairly strict guidelines about talk. That did not get in Dan’s way. He became the master of inserting huge personality into every break, even if it was :08 long. He seemed to “bask in the glow” of how good and effective he could be with these short but great “breaks.” Dan understood the “magic of brevity.”
3. Nobody was more creative with station imaging than Dan Ingram. He wrote the book on how to use jingles to add fun, excitement, and forward motion to your show (while doing a killer job identifying the station for ratings). Dan Ingram clearly knew that “keepin’ it moving forward” was paramount to his and the station’s success. When you listen to an Ingram aircheck, listen for his meticulous use of the station jingles. From name sigs to quick shotgun cuts, he moved beautifully from song to song and sometimes commercial to commercial with WABC jingles.
4. Nobody prepped like Ingram. When he was on WABC they had board ops. I had the chance to visit him one day while I was in high school. For me, that day was so impactful that I can still remember every minute of the visit. In between songs, Dan would call out all the cart (cartridge) numbers that he wanted to use next, as well as the jingles he wanted to insert. He would clearly tell the board op when and how he wanted the sequence to happen. This made the engineer as important as Dan, as they had to work as one to make the sound happen. Only the best board ops could work with Dan. He was quick, tough, and fast and knew what he wanted. If the engineer could not keep up with him, they would not work that shift again! Jon Wolfert puts one more spin on his prep. “During the songs he’d set up the next break with the engineer as you described. But he never came into WABC with his ad libs pre-written. He’d show up five minutes before air time, having thought of an opening topic in the elevator on his way up to the 8th floor, and just sit down and do it. That was the gift. You can’t learn to be Dan. But it certainly is a worthy goal.”
5. Ingram knew that “Fun and Companionship” was what it was all about. That’s why his material was always about the music, artists, the station, and of course, as Joe McCoy (Dan’s PD at WCBS-FM in the 90s) put it, “The king of the double entendre.” McCoy went on to say that Dan was “the thinking man’s DJ.” “He played with people.” If Dan was not happy with something at the station, he found a way to make a joke out of it with his quick, “smile in voice” way. No matter what was going on in the world, Dan knew that his listeners expected a fun, uplifting experience. McCoy also added that “some of Dan’s best moments were on the jock-crossover breaks. They were often better (and more fun) than any of the music they played.” Ingram knew that “Fun and Companionship” was what it was all about.
Yes, radio has changed. But there’s a lot to be learned from the pioneers of contemporary radio. Dan Ingram was just that. A pioneer who paved the way for all of us. Rest in peace Kemosabe and thanks for everything you gave and taught us.