John H. Garabedian began his radio career while still in high school, and for more than six decades, he has been involved with both radio and television, as a deejay, a program director, a station owner, and the host of a popular nationally-syndicated radio show. He has adapted to the many changes in broadcasting, while carving out an enduring niche.
John Hood Garabedian was born in Cambridge on 20 December 1941. Even as a child, growing up in Belmont, he was fascinated by radio—both the people on the air and the technology. In his autobiography, The Harmony of Parts, he tells of creating a basement lab when he was only nine years old, to better understand how radios worked. He also knew from a young age that he wanted to be a broadcaster. In fact, several years before graduating from Weston High School (he was class of 1959), he had already gotten his first radio job, at a small AM station, WMRC in Milford; and he later worked part-time at Worcester’s WORC.
In the 1950s, deejays rarely had ethnic-sounding last names (Arnie Ginsburg was a rare exception). John H. decided “Garabedian” wasn’t right for top-40, so he thought up Johnny Gardner. His WORC on-air pseudonym would eventually be discarded, but one other thing about the station turned out to have staying power: in the late 1950s, WORC had a much-loved request-and-dedication program called “Open House Party.” Years later, John H. would use that name for his own syndicated radio show.
Meanwhile, after briefly attending the University of Miami (where he realized his heart was in being a broadcaster, rather than studying about it), he came back to Boston, hoping to pursue a full-time radio career. Fortunately, there was an opening at WORC, doing production and some air-work. He had been happy there before, and he was happy to be back.
But few top-40 deejays stayed at one station for too long, and John H. was no exception. He got fired from WORC for spontaneously creating an event that involved listeners drag racing in downtown Worcester (fortunately, nobody got hurt, but the station’s General Manager was not amused). His next job was in Nashua, NH at WSMN, and after that, he went to WSAR in Fall River, but he missed the personality top-40 they did at WORC. He had kept in touch with the station, and as luck would have it, an opening for a night-time deejay came up. In the summer of 1961, the WORC management gave him a second chance. By his own admission, he was more mature this time and determined to make the most of the opportunity.
He spent a few more months working in Worcester, and then got a job doing engineering at WESO in Southbridge, one of the many times his First-Class FCC engineering license came in handy. He then was hired by WTSN in Dover, NH to do afternoons; while working there, his newsman was Gary LaPierre, who soon became the morning news anchor at WBZ in Boston. The next stop for John H., however, wasn’t Boston—it was Albany, NY, where he worked for then-top 40 powerhouse WPTR. He had a good ear for picking hits (that too would come in handy), but the station’s strict format made it difficult to take chances on new music. After several years, he began to consider his options.
Growing up, John H. had listened to WMEX (who didn’t listen to Arnie Ginsburg?); he now had more experience and believed he was ready for Boston. And as it turned out, there was an overnight opening at WMEX, and in mid-1964, he was hired. He only lasted a few months before station owner Mac Richmond fired him; but as John H. recalls, his replacement was Larry Glick, and few people could deny that Larry was a legendary broadcaster.
John H. had begun to think seriously about owning his own station, and he decided to follow his dream. Despite being young and not wealthy, he found several business partners, and received ongoing encouragement from his brother-in-law; in the autumn of 1964, he applied for a license to put a station on the air in Natick. Unfortunately, it would take years before what became WGTR went on the air, and he still needed a source of income. He took a job as chief engineer at WDSL in Winston-Salem, NC for a few months, but he missed New England and was hired in early 1965 as music director and midday deejay at WFEA in Manchester. But while he was glad to be back on the air playing the hits, John H. was frustrated to learn that another company, far better funded than his, was also applying for the frequency he was seeking.
Wanting to work closer to Natick so he could continue his fight to win the license, he got the opportunity to return to WORC yet again, this time as afternoon jock and operations manager. WORC had great ratings, and John H. was among the most popular deejays there; he even co-hosted Open House Party, and later became the morning drive announcer. But his focus on getting FCC approval for his radio station (which finally happened in April 1967) was foremost on his mind; he had found a location, decided on the call letters (influenced by WPTR, he decided on WGTR) and with his partners, set to work getting it built. But it seemed there was one delay after another, including additional challenges from his competitors.
In early 1969, WORC was sold; when the new owners wanted to make changes he disagreed with, he was fired. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise: after taking some time off, John H. was able to find work in Boston again, back at WMEX. Things had changed in Boston radio and WRKO was now the dominant top-40 station. Dick Summer, formerly WBZ’s overnight star, was programming WMEX, and playing a lot of album cuts; but the station was not mass appeal, and ratings were low. However, it was Summer who offered him some valuable advice: get rid of the “Johnny Gardner” persona and just be yourself. That was when John H. began to use his real name on the air.
By spring 1970, he was doing afternoons, and he got some leeway to make the music more hit-oriented, but the changes were very gradual. Eventually, after Dick Summer left WMEX, John H. persuaded Mac Richmond to let him take over the programming and transform what was on the air. In March 1971, John H. was ready to compete with WRKO. He put in request lines, hired a music director, created an identity for WMEX (“The New Music Authority”), and focused on finding new songs with hit potential. The music mix included some album tracks that John H. thought might become popular, as well as the most-requested songs and the biggest current hits. WMEX was credited with breaking such hit songs as “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues, “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, and “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After, and many others. Soon, the station was getting better ratings; plus, their airplay was helping to sell records.
The battle between the upstart WMEX and the established leader WRKO was exciting for the listeners, and it earned John H. much acclaim. But as with most things in top-40 radio, it didn’t last. Mac Richmond had a heart attack and died suddenly in October 1971; his brother took over, bringing an entirely different vision for what WMEX ought to be, as well as a new general manager who wanted to dismantle everything John H. and the staff had accomplished; John H. was soon fired. In January 1972, Timothy Crouse of Rolling Stone wrote a thorough retrospective about the rise and fall of WMEX: “Boston Tests New Music & Flunks Out.” It’s worth reading. It also contained an interesting prediction from John H.: “…within ten years, AM radio will consist entirely of talk shows, supported by an adult or even geriatric audience.”
But John H. landed on his feet: his radio station, WGTR, was finally ready to go on the air in the summer of 1972, from studios in a historic mansion in downtown Natick. In addition to hiring some well-respected local broadcasters, several of his family members (including his dad, brother-in-law and sister) also pitched in. John H. planned to serve the community with coverage of news and local events, as well as contests and giveaways, like a large market station. He wanted the music to be top-40, and the station would take requests too. Lacking money to hire a lot of deejays, he designed a voice-tracking system, where he or other deejays could record station liners or song introductions and the automation equipment would play them, making it sound as if there were professional announcers on the air all the time.
Within four years, WGTR had become a big success: despite a limited signal and daytime-only hours, the station was even beating a few of the larger stations in the ratings. John H.’s next project was (successfully) persuading the FCC to allow the station more power. He also needed to change WGTR’s format: music was continuing to move over to FM, and increasingly (as he had predicted), AM was for news and sports. By 1980, WGTR was an all-news station.
By his own admission, he was always seeking a new challenge. He took flying lessons and became an accomplished pilot. He put a new FM station on the air in Nantucket. He worked as a deejay at Boston album rock station WBCN (where he was known as John Gara-B-C-N). He even ventured into television: in 1985, along with Arnie Ginsburg, he debuted a local version of MTV (which was playing all music videos back then); V66 was Boston’s first local music channel. In addition to national hits, it also gave local artists much-needed exposure. And although the channel was short-lived (it was sold to the Home Shopping Network in late 1986), many people still remember V66 fondly even today.
The project that brought John H. national visibility was his Open House Party program. He launched it on KISS 108 in Boston in September 1987, broadcasting from a studio in his home. The show got such good response that soon, other stations wanted to broadcast it too. Every Saturday and Sunday night, he played the songs his listeners requested, interviewed celebrities, and kept a danceable mix of music going. At the height of the show’s success, it was heard on 175 radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. John H. hosted it for 30 years, finally retiring in January 2017.
In a world where deejays (and stations) come and go, John H. Garabedian is unique: he has been a broadcaster since the 1950s and is still involved with radio. Today, he owns four radio stations on Cape Cod. He still loves flying, and he still believes in broadcasting. In 2014, he was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
(By Donna Halper)
Published on October 26, 2018