NEW YORK — Easily accessible and always highly informative, Alan Colmes was an automatic "go-to" guy for a juicy news item quote, long-form industry piece, or as a convention panelist. Quick wit he displayed was rooted in his days as a standup comedian and Alan Colmes was indeed a "standup" individual.
Bright, friendly, and entertaining barely scratch the surface in describing this progressive voice who competed – and succeeded – in a largely conservative talk radio world.
Sadly, that distinctive voice and message was silenced yesterday (Thursday, 2/23) as Colmes died at the age of 66.
Numerous times over the last roughly 30 years, he graciously chatted with me on- and off-the-record. The following is an edited version from my long-form personality profile of Alan when I was Inside Radio's special features editor.
When a loss was a win
It's often said your biggest break is your first one.
As a student at Ithaca College, Alan Colmes was positively ecstatic when he landed a weekend radio job in Albany.
Part of the rather complicated logistics involved in getting to that assignment, however, required Colmes to take a bus from Ithaca to Albany; rent a car; and then drive the rest of the way. "My mother needed to co-sign for the rental car, because I was too young to rent it on my own. I had to go to this station way up in the mountains outside of Albany."
By the time all was said and done, it cost him $50 a week to have his first paid job, but the thrill of receiving a check outweighed the fact that he was actually losing money. "That's what it meant just to have a paid job. It wasn't the money, but the opportunity to be on the radio and to be a professional."
With that kind of attitude as a backdrop, one can easily summon up an image of a young Colmes growing up on Long Island, listening to a transistor radio tucked under his pillow at night. Long John Nebel and Barry Gray were his two greatest radio influences. While most other teenagers were listening to rock and roll, Colmes became a fan of New York City's WNBC, which at the time, was a talk and conversation station. "That's when Long John and other talk masters were there – I gravitated to that."
Lightning strikes twice
Ironically, Colmes would become the very last person to do a radio show and play the chimes on WNBC – the station that inspired him to become a talk show host: He was the station's afternoon drive personality when it disappeared on October 7, 1988.
Ten years later, Colmes seized his chance to do a three-hour (11:00 pm – 2:00 am) New York radio shift for WEVD. In September 2001, WEVD was leased to ABC for its ESPN Sports format. Thus, in another twist of fate, Colmes was – once again – the last voice heard on a New York radio station.
Sandwiched between those two New York City assignments, Colmes did mornings at WZLX, Boston. "My father's family is from Boston and I love Boston. It's a beautiful town and a great talk radio city. I also actually like the Red Sox very much and have empathy for that team. I'm a real New Yorker though and I was extremely homesick in Boston."
The liberal half of FOX News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" didn't listen to very much talk radio when he did that television show. "I don't want to be influenced by what other people are doing," remarked Colmes, who also worked at New York City talk outlets WABC and WMCA. "Much like a sponge, I'm afraid I'd absorb stuff that would come out of me and I'd be accused of plagiarism."
Another significant factor contributing to Colmes' decline in overall radio TSL involved his other high-profile job – hosting a three-hour FOX radio show. "The WEVD show had ended and I missed doing radio terribly. I had a conversation with FOX CEO Roger Ailes and told him how much I hoped to do radio again. He then began talks with me about doing something with them. They really didn't have a radio division at that point."
One thing led to another and a plan was hatched for FOX News to get into the long-form radio business with Colmes as their first offering. After rolling out with ten affiliates, the 10:00 pm – 1:00 am "FOX News Live With Alan Colmes" was carried by 35 stations, including KLIF-AM, Dallas; KFMB-AM, San Diego; KALL-AM, Salt Lake City; and WDBO-AM, Orlando. An enthusiastic Colmes commented that the show performed well among men 25-54 and "had an explosive trend in Orlando. We appeal to both genders, but talk radio seems to appeal to men."
All in the family
Branding is the element that Colmes claimed helped to make his show different from many other such programs. "We're able to put on FOX news correspondents who are covering breaking news stories. We had Ollie North and Geraldo Rivera from Iraq and Greta Van Susteren reporting on the Scott Peterson hearing. We do quick hits using FOX personnel and resources of the FOX News Channel. We can marry those resources to whatever stories we're doing."
Highly interactive, Colmes' radio show featured him performing an extremely popular "Radio Graffiti" feature just as he did at WNBC. "We take many listener phone calls, talk about hot topics and have 'A' list guests – all with the resources of the FOX News Channel. That is something no other talk operation can offer."
Especially back then, few national syndicators offered liberal talk show hosts, but Colmes apparently didn't feel any pressure being radio's highest-profile liberal voice. "I'd rather be one of one, rather than one of many. It's difficult [only because] there's a resistance of putting liberals on the air. Luckily, we're having ratings success, but many stations position themselves as conservative and are looking for that niche market. Radio, though, is best when it's broad and not [so clearly] defined."
Emphatic that he didn't host a liberal radio show, Colmes maintained he did a program "that happens to be hosted by a liberal. It's not like I'm there reading the Democratic National Committee's talking points every night."
Widely rumored at the time of this conversation was a plan to assemble a "liberal radio network" with "Saturday Night Live" alum/author Al Franken as one of its on-air personalities. Of course, it came to fruition as Air America, but Colmes candidly thought the concept for that type network would be a mistake. "My advantage is that I'm a broadcaster. I'm not beholden to a political party or to an ideology except my own. If I were on a radio network that was funded by liberals and that everyone knew was the 'Liberal Radio Network,' I wonder what would happen when my point-of-view didn't agree with what they're thinking. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are successful – not because they're conservatives – but because they're entertaining and don't have to answer to a political party. I have to answer to ratings, sponsors, and my employers – but not to an ideology."
Defending Limbaugh, in fact, was one area where Colmes hardly towed the Democratic Party line. "I feel bad for him. Liberals should be open and show compassion for those who need it. We don't need to add the word 'compassion' to liberal – we already are that. We supposedly pride ourselves on caring for people. Liberals always talk about treatment versus jail time for drugs. I take no satisfaction over what's befallen Rush and hope he gets well. This could make him a better broadcaster and a better person. If he understands a little more about himself and people who suffered as he did, it could only improve him."
Overseeing a nightly FOX show wasn't Colmes' first foray into syndicated radio, given that he was one of the principals when Daynet hit the air on October 1, 1990. Major Networks purchased Daynet at the beginning of 1994. Two years later, Colmes, Barry Farber and United Stations' Nick Verbitsky developed the talk radio arm of United Stations.
With a three-hour, daily syndicated radio show and nightly one-hour television show, Colmes' entire day centered on preparation. "From the minute I wake up in the morning, I go online to check news stories. It's a combination of finding the right stories that will resonate and finding issues that are going to hit home."
Decisions regarding whether to do a topic with guests or open phones needed to be made and the show had to be properly booked. "We have a conference call every day with our producers. Then we have a meeting at the end of the day to discuss where we are and how the show is progressing. If necessary, we'll change things right up until show time and stay on top of whatever's new to keep the show as current as possible."
Interviews played an integral role on both his radio and television shows with Colmes respecting many people with whom he didn't necessarily agree. "Newt Gingrich is brilliant, but I think he's wrong. Now that I've formed a working relationship with some of these regular guests, I'm surprised at how smart they are – albeit politically wrong – in my view."
Respect was evident with his television tag team partner, Sean Hannity, whose daily syndicated radio show was then distributed by ABC Radio. It ran prior to "Hannity & Colmes," while Colmes' FOX radio show was done after the duo's FOX-TV offering. "[Sean and I] are very friendly. We just see things totally differently, but sometimes opposites attract. We're different – not just in content – but stylistically. The secret of our success is that we don't just disagree on the issues, but our styles are so very different. As a result, our show has become unique and unpredictable."
Attracting an audience, however, was the goal for both men on their radio and television programs. "We're there to entertain and use material that happens to be news," Colmes explained. "We're many things and entertainment is key to what we do. If you don't have that factor, you're not going to be successful and get an audience. We're journalists and entertainers."
Compounding Colmes' already exhausting schedule was the promotion effort on behalf of his "Red, White & Liberal" book. "I'm running around like crazy. It's extremely difficult finding balance in my life. I'm hoping that I'll be able to attain some of that after the book tour."
Tremendous discipline was required in writing the book and it proved to be a huge undertaking. "I finished it after revising it, rewriting it and reorganizing it after my radio show started. It was written before, during, and after the Iraqi incursion. With all the changes and lack of information coming out since then and some of the allegations about misleading statements by the administration, it was hard to stop. The world keeps changing and new things happen that you wish you could write about."
Broadcasters speak into the air and Colmes observed, "You go home and don't have anything tangible – other than a tape – of what you said. With a book, however, you literally have a tangible record of something you created. It's hard while you're doing it and is almost like exercise: When it's done, you're really glad you did it and feel much better."
Rather than picking one medium over the other as being his favorite, a diplomatic Colmes opined, "You exercise very different muscles on radio and television. I love the intimacy of radio, but television has great reach and impact. It's also an art form [where you need the] ability to express views in a compact form. So, there are things about each that I feel I couldn't live without at this point."