Bob Grant Blazed Trail For Talk Radio Success

Bob Grant, who died on New Year’s Eve, was “the greatest talk show host that ever lived” according to his former WABC radio program director John Mainelli.

In various media accounts, Grant was also deemed a conservative radio pioneer/legend, if not the father of politically conservative talk radio, when news of his passing broke.

The obits tended to dwell on the many controversial/outrageous on-the-air statements that he made, particularly one about Commerce Secretary Ron Brown that got him fired in 1996 from his high-rated drive-time show on WABC.

Those incidents speak for themselves, and reasonable people can agree or disagree about that aspect of his legacy. In particular, whether deserved or undeserved, the race card is an occupational hazard for those in talk radio. The question arises as to whether Grant’s un-PC commentary was anything worse that what you might routinely see and hear today on Comedy Central or elsewhere.

The irascible Grant, who started his broadcasting career in the 1940s, achieved ratings dominance in the high-pressure, high-profile New York City media marketplace before all-talk network syndication was the norm, although he went national from time to time. He “went on to inspire generations of talk show hosts,” the New York Daily News noted.

Radio is a ratings-driven, here-today/gone-tomorrow business, but without Grant’s remarkable long tenure on New York City radio, the media capital of the country, conservative talk would have never flourished as it has on the national and local levels.

In contrast, liberal talk radio has been a failure whenever it’s been tried. Grant was a disciple of another original, Joe Pyne, and footage of Pyne’s contentious TV shows can be found on YouTube. Had he come along a few years later, Grant likely would have achieved the national status of a Limbaugh or an O’Reilly.

The Washington Post observed that Grant’s “combative style became the template for broadcasters like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh,” but Grant was also highly respected by other media figures including Howard Stern.

Perhaps what’s lost in the politically driven recent media coverage of his passing is that Bob Grant was a showman/raconteur with a great sense of humor. The funeral home website explained, “Bob’s radio shows were always entertaining and passionate. Along the way, he interviewed countless political leaders and celebrities and inspired a generation of political talk radio hosts now working around the country.”

Perhaps most significantly, he also had an encyclopedic knowledge of American and world history. Listening to his show, whether you agreed with his conservative/libertarian political views or not, was like taking a Western Civ course in graduate school.

Grant started his New York City talk radio career with WMCA in 1970 and primarily worked at 50,000 watt “blowtorch” stations WABC (where he moved to in 1984) and WOR.

During his heyday, the news and commentary media were almost exclusively a liberal bastion. Against this backdrop, listeners finding a conservative voice on the radio dial for the first time was an almost surreal experience. No doubt many of them thought to themselves, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” Although they didn’t necessarily agree with everything the host said, right-of-center listeners no longer felt that they were figuratively isolated on their own island.

Bob Grant was credited with helping elect certain political candidates, but these officeholders tended to drop him like a hot potato when Grant’s controversial statements would — to mix a metaphor perhaps — land him in hot water. He was a strong supporter of the state of Israel and also pro-choice on abortion, believing it would seem that one’s personal life should be kept private, a notion that seems to have fallen out of favor in contemporary America.

His “get off my phone” catchphrase — which other broadcasters have copied — has been well publicized. But there were others.

He would start off each show with “Let’s be heard!” and end with the inspirational “that slams the lid on things for today… Your influence counts — use it!” For a time, he would also add “Get Gaddafi,” and prophetically enough, President Ronald Reagan neutralized the Libyan dictator with the 1986 US air strikes.

When commenting on a particularly disturbing or outrageous news item, Grant would regularly declare “it’s sick out there and getting sicker,” adding “I gotta get out of here!” Politicians with whom he disagreed were deemed “fake, phony, frauds.” When a caller would identify where he or she was calling from, Grant would quip that on such-and-such a date, that town was “officially declared wall-to-wall Bob Grant country.”

On the other hand (or phone), Grant would peremptorily hang up on any caller who started out with the tediously repetitive greeting of “how ya’ doin’ Bob,” and he tended to have little patience with callers who repeated themselves during their interaction.

He regularly referred to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy as “the swimmer” or “the duke of Chappaquiddick” in reference to the infamous car accident that took the life of Mary Joe Kopechne. Although (hopefully) just a gag, after a contentious discussion on the phone, he would often end the conversation by asking the caller to identify himself at one Grant’s public appearances so he could punch him out.

The talk host was also an advocate of a mythical piece of legislation known as the “Bob Grant Mandatory Sterilization Act” for long-term welfare recipients.

On a more mundane level, Grant also had a long-running, silly feud with certain callers about whether he wore a hairpiece. Sometimes this came up during a hilarious, hour-long “Get at Grant” segment, where he would allow callers uninterrupted time to insult him.

Grant, who was of Italian heritage, often interspersed his commentary with Italian and Yiddish expressions. He created a specific shout-out in Italian for one of his principal foes, then New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and callers would attempt to duplicate the shout-out, with Grant evaluating them on their pronunciation.

He hosted an internet talk show in 2009 and returned to WABC in 2010 to do a Sunday show. As time wore on, his voice seemed to lack its usual power, possibly due to illness. That show ended in July.

Talk radio — which has an increasing presence on the internet — itself is facing a number of terrestrial challenges, such as the need to exit AM for the more desirable FM band.

Former WABC program director Mainelli said of Grant, “Bob was brash, in-your-face, highly curious, truth-seeking, aggressively anti-PC and, best of all, unpredictable… Unlike way too many talk show hosts, he was fall-on-the-floor funny with a cutting wit that came out of nowhere and pounced on you.”

Bob Grant was a career mentor to his radio colleagues, and a philosophical mentor to untold numbers of listeners. He was 84.