Freeform radio pioneer Larry Josephson dies at 83

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Bored with working as a computer engineer at IBM in Poughkeepsie, NY, Larry Josephson began volunteering in the mid-1960s at WBAI, a ragtag listener-supported FM station in New York City, where he was assigned to host the morning show because, he said, no one else at the station was willing to wake up that early.

On his daily show, titled “In the Beginning”, he proceeded to unload content from his restless and sardonic mind, helping to invent the anti-format known as free-form radio. It quickly amassed a sizable following, around 600,000 listeners, providing a surprisingly informal alternative to the antics of top 40 DJs and the fast-paced stream of headlines on news radio.

A radiophile since childhood, Mr. Josephson was, as the New Yorker wrote in 1967, “a refreshingly honest human being … presenting no news, no traffic, no weather, and no joyous sightings. In fact, he hates mornings. Instead, noted writer Roger Angell, the fat, bearded Mr. Josephson “attacks a variety of sacred precepts and revered institutions…orders a bagel from a nearby deli, and when he arrives, the eat, audibly”.

At the height of the Vietnam War, on a station that listeners associated with hardcore leftist politics, Mr. Josephson opened his show almost every morning with “Greetings, war fans!”

From this explosion of angst and wit in 1960s New York, Mr. Josephson created five decades of public radio broadcasts, reviving the popular and influential Bob & Ray comedy team for a new generation of fans, hosting a national series of talks between conservative thinkers and an argumentative but charming liberal (himself), and producing marathon readings of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and a documentary about the story Jews.

Mr Josephson died on July 27 at a Manhattan rehabilitation center of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his daughter, Jennie Josephson, said. He was 83 years old.

On WBAI, Mr Josephson mostly avoided politics – he called himself an “Eisenhower liberal” on a station populated by “high-principled Quakers and Marxists”. He preferred to trade puns with a quick-witted friend, play the voice of a right-wing pundit and drown it out with a piece of Bach’s organ, broadcast stories about life in a Manhattan private school told by a 14-year-old caller. , or joking around with Larry the Bagel Man, who delivered his breakfast to the studio.

“In the Beginning” featured an unpredictable mix of music, like the New Yorker describes: “an old pianola roll, an anthem, the Beatles, an Irish patriotic song, Judy Collins, a spiritual, a march, Simon & Garfunkel.”

For a time, Mr. Josephson continued to work afternoons as a computer analyst while spending his mornings on the air. He gave up his morning show in 1972 after his 18-month-old daughter, Rachel, died of a heart problem. He then hosted a show on KPFA in Berkeley, California, which, like WBAI, was part of the Pacifica Radio network of listener-funded stations. But within a few years, he found himself in New York, where he served as station manager of WBAI, then established a third career in a field many credit him with helping to create: as a producer. independent public radio.

From a studio he built in the third bedroom of his Upper West Side apartment, filled with vintage radios, microphones and a dazzling collection of old wind-up toys and other gadgets, Mr. Josephson has produced his own shows and those of many other stalwarts of public radio. .

Ed Bradley recorded his “Jazz from Lincoln Center” program in the apartment studio, Garrison Keillor read his “Writer’s Almanac” there, and Alec Baldwin recorded his “Here’s the Thing” podcast there. The walls were lined with framed letters from Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman and Al Franken touting their support for Mr Josephson’s efforts to raise funds to create an audio archive of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding’s radio comedy tunes from the 1950s to 1980s.

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“He built this studio in his apartment and the world came to him,” his daughter said, recalling visits from the Rolling Stones, Al Gore and many of the cast members of “Saturday Night Live”, all there to be interviewed for one or the other. show produced in the bedroom studio, which he named the world headquarters of his Radio Foundation.

Mr. Josephson almost single-handedly brought the sweet subversive comedy of Bob & Ray to a new audience, producing their “Bob & Ray Public Radio Show” which aired on 250 stations from 1981 to 1986, as well as live broadcasts of the duo at Carnegie Hall.

In the 1990s, he hosted Bridges: a liberal/conservative dialoguea show in which he interviewed and debated conservatives such as economist Milton Friedman, host Rush Limbaugh and actors Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck. In 2007, he produced and told “Only in America: The Story of American Jews,” a radio documentary in eight episodes tracing 350 years of history. And in 2012 he did a one-man show, “A Disturbing Jew: My Life on the Radio,” in a cafe in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Josephson’s relationship with public radio could be rocky. Later, as public radio abandoned its roots as an informal network of stations programmed mostly by volunteers and proudly anti-establishment voices to become a more predictable and professional source of national news, talk and music, M Josephson pushed back hard against what he saw as a conformist, soulless media machine.

At Pacifica, ratings were ignored or mocked, he told this writer for the 2007 book “Something in the air: radio, rock and the revolution that shaped a nation.” “We didn’t care if three people listened,” he said. “We would have a program on the victims of the Holocaust followed by a program on the mechanics of gay sex. There was no throughput, zero. We did things because we thought they had to be done. … You don’t sit in a group chat and see what people want to hear.

Public radio’s emphasis on building a large national audience meant that “there is now no place in public radio where someone like me could go on and talk about my marriages, my divorce and the death of my child,” he said. “When ‘Lady Madonna’ came out, I played it over and over for two hours because it moved me spiritually. No one would dare to do that now, but the listeners loved it because it came from deep within. me.

Norman Lawrence Josephson was born in Los Angeles on May 12, 1939. His father sold diamonds for a time and later worked in various fields. his mother was office manager for doctors. Mr. Josephson grew up loving radio and especially radio comedy, but he would listen to almost anything, even becoming fascinated with “The Rosary Hour,” a program sponsored by the Catholic Church in which the prayer of the rosary was recited over and over again.

He attended the University of California, Berkeley but left before completing his studies to work for IBM. Later he went back to school and earned his undergraduate degree in linguistics in 1973.

He was married and divorced twice, with Charity Alker, with whom he had a daughter, Rachel; and to Valérie Magyar, with whom he had a daughter, Jennie, a journalist. In addition to Jennie Josephson, survivors include two stepchildren from her first marriage, Gregory Alker and Rebecca Josephson; a sister; and two grandchildren.

When Jennie Josephson arrived at the rehab center to say goodbye to her father on Wednesday evening, she said: “Shortly after he passed away, there was static on the radio near his bed.

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