Five Things Every Air Talent Can Learn From Dan Ingram 

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(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.

During his long tenure at WABC, Dan was easily one of the most imitated DJs in America and all over the world. After all, what jock wouldn’t want to sound like “Big Dan.” WDVD/Detroit PD Robby Bridges spoke to Dan once, and Dan told him: “He always envisioned his show as ‘second-person singular.’ The intimacy of radio at its best is you are entertaining the listener one on one — so never ‘you guys’ or ‘everybody’; always ‘you’ Once you listen to Dan’s airchecks, you’ll quickly hear that Dan Ingram was an artist. An entertainer. A master of his craft who understood how to use radio to its maximum.

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.

  1. 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.

Gary Berkowitz is President of Detroit-based Berkowitz Broadcast Consulting, specializing in ratings improvement for AC radio stations. www.garyberk.com. Gary can be reached at (248) 737-3727 or [email protected]

5 COMMENTS

  1. One thing every air talent should NOT do. While imitation is the highest form of flattery; Ingram, like all of us, was unique. Don’t do Dan, do yourself. As I was once learned, “You’re an actor playing the role of yourself.” If you understand that concept, you will be a true entertainer.

  2. Nicely done Gary. I would only suggest that while radio has changed,m the needs of the listener for fun and companionship has not. There is a common theme to almost all the blogs about dan and the comments—all the authors seem to have sat-in with Dan and that was a life changing event for them. Now that is the power of a star.

  3. Had the HONOR and PRIVILEGE to work alongside of Dan at WABC in 1975, 1976, as a staff member of Contest Control. Always had radio in my blood having been a DJ in Maryland in 1973 doing 6 to midnight at a top 40 station. Listening to Dan on the radio conjured up pictures in the mind of the average listener, but watching THE MASTER PERFORM HIS MAGIC in the studio on a daily basis was an experience I will always treasure. RIP Dan, I know you’ve been reunited with your buddies Ron and Chuck and I Believe if there’s a “Rock and Roll Heaven” Radio Station they got a hell of a staff.

  4. Great article Gary, and so true. Having listened to him and sat in that control room with him as a kid too, I can easily second that he was THE BEST. And, at least to me and others, a really wonderfully kind person.

  5. A complete radio station operational instruction manual in one page — too many in radio ignore the fact that the listener (he or she – singular) is # 1! Thank you, Gary, for reminding us all, especially those just on the way up.

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