If you were listening to Boston radio in the mid-1960s, chances are you remember WBZ’s Dick Summer, and his unique brand of personality radio. Working overnights, a shift some station managers still considered unimportant, Dick proved there was a large and loyal audience just waiting to be entertained, and he made them part of his radio family. Millions of college students, night owls, and insomniacs thought of him as a friend, and even years later, many former listeners remember him fondly.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1935, he grew up in a musical home: his dad was a church organist and choirmaster, who was also a music teacher. Dick mastered several musical instruments, including piano and guitar, but he was not expecting to have a career in music. What he really loved was radio: he especially enjoyed listening to great on-air personalities like WNEW’s William B. Williams. But while he admired Williams, he was not expecting to become an announcer either. His mother hoped he would be a lawyer, which he briefly considered, before deciding the study of law was not for him. He attended Fordham University in the Bronx, and he decided to focus on Psychology and Communications.
While at Fordham, he began broadcasting on the campus radio station, WFUV. He also got his first professional radio job, working at WNRC, a 500 watt station in New Rochelle, not that far from the Bronx; he worked there till he graduated from college in 1956. By that time, he knew that he wanted to become a full-time radio deejay, which led him to an opening at WROW in Albany, where Dick was not only a staff announcer but also worked at sister-station WTEN-TV, delivering the Sunday morning newscast. (Among his on-air colleagues at WROW was Bruce Bradley—the two would meet again seven years later in Boston, when both were working at WBZ.)
His next opportunity was at WNHC in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1957. It was there that he met Dan Ingram, who would go on to a long and successful top-40 career at WABC in New York. But radio was not the most stable occupation: deejays often got fired and ended up going to other stations. When WNHC didn’t work out, Dick’s career path took him to Indianapolis. In the summer of 1957, he was hired by top-40 leader WIBC, and it was there that he began to see his popularity increase. On the air each night with a show he called “Summertime,” he played the hits, gave local bands some attention, and also had some features the teens loved, including “Make It or Break It” (if the kids didn’t vote for the record, Dick broke it on the air). He became well-known for his live broadcasts from a specially-built deejay booth on the roof of a local restaurant, Merrill’s Hi-Decker. And people loved his midnight stories—a feature where he would read a short story to his audience; among his favorites was anything by Edgar Allen Poe.
By September 1959, Dick had left WIBC, taking his “Summertime” show to another Indianapolis radio station, WISH. He also appeared regularly on WISH-TV, hosting a dance party.
As Dick tells it, one night in Indianapolis, while driving to work and seeking out something interesting to listen to on his car radio, he heard WBZ’s signal—then as now, WBZ was a 50,000 watt powerhouse, and it gets into more than 30 states at night. Suddenly, he recognized a familiar voice on the air—it was Bruce Bradley. Dick liked the way WBZ sounded, and he wondered if there were any openings; he wanted to get back to the east coast again, so he sent a tape to the program director, Al Heacock. (In those days before the internet, announcers sought new jobs by sending an audition tape, usually on a cassette, which featured examples of their airwork.) But Heacock didn’t respond. Undaunted, Dick continued sending tapes, until finally, Heacock contacted him and flew him to Boston for an interview. By early 1963, Dick was hired at WBZ.
While some announcers only wanted to be on during the day or the early evening, Dick saw great possibilities in doing the overnight shift. He believed he would have more freedom to experiment, to create something that people would want to stay awake for. Dick emulated the style of his radio hero, William B. Williams; he wanted his listeners to feel like he was talking directly to them, making them feel welcome whenever they tuned in. He also wanted to entertain. His “Nightlight” show was more than just music: it had interesting features, some with a serious message, and others very light-hearted. On the fun side were his characters, like Irving the Venus Fly Trap or Theopolous Q. Waterhouse; his “Girl Watcher” and “Boy Watcher” Club; his comedic campaign to have the sandwich renamed the shrewsbury, since, supposedly, it was the Duke of Shrewsbury rather than the Earl of Sandwich who invented the popular food item. (“Down with sandwiches. Up with shrewsburies!” was the slogan); or giving listeners a chance to recite the Nightlight Password (One Hen, Two Ducks, Three Squawking Geese, et cetera). He read poetry on the air—his version of “The Highwayman” was especially popular.
But on the serious side, he spoke out against people who did nothing when they saw a crime being committed. Inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, whose life might have been saved if her neighbors, who witnessed her being attacked, had called the police, rather than saying they “didn’t want to get involved,” he started NAG (“Nightlighters Against Gutlessness”) and he invited his listeners to always carry a dime with them. Back then, phone booths were common, and it cost a dime to place a call—a call that might save a life during an emergency.
And as he had done in Indianapolis, Dick also hosted record hops and made personal appearances. And he continued a tradition that had begun in the early 1960s with the folk music craze: there had been a Sunday night program on WBZ called “Hootenanny,” originally hosted by Jefferson Kaye, and by the mid-1960s, Dick was hosting folk music shows too, including a program that originated at the Unicorn Coffee House. Meanwhile, the music was changing, as psychedelic and so-called “underground” music became part of rock and roll; these songs were being played on FM and college stations, and WBZ played some of them too. Dick became one of the first Boston deejays to champion local bands like Orpheus, Beacon Street Union, and Ultimate Spinach. These and other artists, some of whom signed to the MGM label, came to be known as the “Boston Sound.” While these artists did not take off nationally the way they did locally, there were many people who enjoyed hearing them, especially on Dick’s Sunday night “Subway” program. (Ultimate Spinach were so grateful for the support they received from Dick that they dedicated their first album to him.)
In mid-1968, Dick got the opportunity to return to New York City. He was hired by WNEW, but unfortunately, his time there was short: management decided they wanted to put vocalist Julius LaRosa on the air, and Dick was fired to make room for him. He returned to Boston and got hired by WMEX in late May 1969. As program director, he created a station sound called the “Human Thing,” featuring songs with lyrics he believed would resonate with the listeners. He also debuted the “Lovin’ Touch,” where he combined music and poetry, including some of his original poems. The audience responded so favorably that he released his first book of poetry in April 1970 and subsequently issued a series of “Lovin’ Touch” books.
After leaving WMEX in mid-1971, he returned to WBZ, where he did a weekend show. In 1972, he was back on New York radio, at WPLJ, then WNBC, and WYNY. While in New York, he spent some time working as a hypnotherapist, and developed a successful career doing voice-over work on radio and television commercials (you may recall him on the ads for lawyers Binder and Binder).
Since leaving full-time deejay work, Dick has remained involved in the broadcasting industry, continuing to voice commercials, and creating a series of audiotape vignettes called “Night Connections.” He also hosts his own podcast. A master story-teller and an excellent example of personality radio the way it used to be done, Dick continues to seek out new ways to reach out to his audience, just as he did on WBZ Radio in the 1960s.
(by Donna L. Halper)
Published on February 19, 2013