If you never heard Bruce Williams, who passed away Sunday at 86, I’m not sure I can explain him.
“Welcome, my friends. Welcome to my world. Welcome to ____(the name of whatever radio network was syndicating his talk show).
With that intro begain a nightly national radio show that ran for decades, and dominated the airwaves of the nation’s best-loved stations.
He had one of the most loyal audiences our business has ever seen, despite skipping over the main entree of most talk shows, politics.
It cropped up here and there, naturally, given that in one of his many past careers, Bruce was mayor of a small township in New Jersey. The political career ended with a failed run for the state assembly. (He always said he was grateful to the guy who beat him). He also drove ice cream and beer trucks, owned a preschool, sold flowers, insurance and cars, and for many years, even sold Christmas trees. He invested in businesses from health food to nightclubs. The Korean War saw Bruce serve in the USAF.
All of which meant he didn’t even get into radio until 1975, in his forties. Right away, he was a local success in NJ and New York. Then, NBC Radio was buildiing a syndicated network of self-help hosts, and that fit with what Bruce did: drawing on his varied experiences, he dispensed candid advice on...life.
One caller might be having trouble with his taxes. The next might be having a problem with her son. Bruce wasn’t like a friend. He was a friend. Honest, unsparing, as much a listener as a talker. Unlike most of us in radio, who’ve only ever done radio shows, Bruce had a rich, varied resume. Wherever you were at the moment, he’d been there once, or close to it.
I would listen with my dad on the front porch, many a summer night, to the old WHDH in Boston. No other radio host I ever heard did more to draw me to the medium of radio. The companionship of Bruce Williams was mesmerizing.
Less than a year into his national stardom, he barely survived the aborted landing of his private plane. Critically injured, he lived with tremendous pain for the rest of his life, and a battle with a painkiller addiction. He was straight and honest with his audience about it all. He even did the show from his hospital bed for a time.
In a weird coincidence, both Bruce and I had the same first job in high school: working as a pharmacist’s assistant.
One day, many years into my radio career, I ran to catch an elevator in Manhattan, only to find myself sharing it with the man himself. He made a joke about how I was skinny enough to squeeze through the closing doors (so you know it was a long time ago).
Then, as now, there were so many things I wanted to say to Bruce Williams on that elevator car, but didn’t know how to: thank you for inspiring me to my life’s work. Thank you for giving me the wonderful time spent with my dad. Thank you for helping to create and save the talk radio industry that has been so enriching and enlightening in our lives. Thank you for succeeding, and failing, at so many different things, so you could help so many people do well.
Thank you for welcoming us into your world, Bruce Williams.