It's a Saturday morning in Newton, Massachusetts, a moderate-sized New England community adjacent to Boston. Bill Marlowe (1924-1996) of WNTN-FM, in Newton, is delivering a sermon, chapter and verse intact, from the Bible of the Big Band and Swing era, and, according to the ratings, the listeners are there – en masse.
"We stand for good music," said Marlowe, in a recent Boston Herald American interview. “While others rock or lull you to sleep with analgesic pap, WNTN-FM plays the kind of music which makes the goose bumps stand up like rows of little tin soldiers.”
People listen to his show because they respect the giants, for example, "Come Fly with Me," by Frank Sinatra.
As the intro rolls Marlowe embellishes it with somewhat restrained whoops of encouragement, finger-snapping and crooning words like "go, Frank ... take it baby ... yeah."
Is he hokey? He might well be, but Marlowe makes it come across well – very well! Marlowe is a Boston legend. He brought the Top 40 format to Boston [in 1958], when he worked WCOP. On a per capita basis, he enjoyed one of the highest total shares in American radio; only Arthur Godfrey tops him.
Marlowe has a crusading personality. He’s far more impressive than the music he plays. He has a certain taste or flair, and he has always exerted it. Although this has made him a unique and entertaining DJ, it has also been the cause of his rapid up and down career.
Ten-thousand watt WNTN-FM is a long way from WCOP, in Boston, or WCBS, in New York, where he spent the early 60s. AM Drive on this suburban Boston station is hardly comparable to any time on any station in either New York or Boston. Still, Bill Marlowe is on WNTN-FM by choice, not necessity. They let him play his music.
His spots are generally ad-libbed. The intensity of his show is so high that he declines calls while on the air, an unusual practice in Boston, the talk radio capital of the world. After the show, he takes calls for as long as the phone rings.
In the studio, everything is as it should be; that is, intense concentration. In public, it's another story. At Mosley's-on-the-Charles, a Boston club featuring big bands, Marlowe is as Caesar returning from Gaul. Besieged by fans and well-wishers, Marlowe seems less the focus than the fact listeners appreciate having an outlet programming “their music.”
Everyone gets the same Marlowe treatment; that is, full attention and mannered eloquence. He’s the consummate broadcaster – intensely individualistic on the air; off-air sincerely appreciative of the support and loyalty his listeners provide.
He has no regrets about the effect his taste and individuality have on his career. “The ups and downs are part of life, learning experiences,” says Marlowe. “There's no way he'd change, if I could.”
Tight formats, adolescent oriented music and conflicts with management induced Marlowe to leave New York. "There was no room to breathe there," he says of New York. “If you don't go along with management, they can tear your heart out. They demean and humiliate you until, in the end, your motivation is broken.”
No, he doesn't believe his crusade has faltered; maybe just the opposite. "The rap sheet is out on me," he says reflectively, "and I know what it says. 'Sure he's a great talent, but he's a rebel who wants to do his own thing.' If, by being a rebel they mean relating to such values as honesty, integrity, humility and having compassion for people, then I'm a rebel."
This is the essence of Bill Marlowe, a personification of what creative and responsible radio is all about.
Originally published in Air Check Factory Newsletter: 39. An earlier version may have run in RPM Music Weekly, in 1978. Spelling errors, typos and rotten construction are intact from original. Facts and insights belong to Bill Marlow.