Westchester County >> Each time a new medium comes into being, immediately everyone believes it will over take its predecessors.
Readers believed that books would be obsolete once audiobooks were launched. They were both declared passé when e-books were launched.
What seems like eons ago, we all believed the demise of radio was imminent when we were able to view programs on television. But, in truth, they all seem to be thriving quite nicely. And, in fact, printed books seem to be leading the pack ahead of computerized versions.
But if there is a reason that community radio continues to thrive and succeed, it is manly due to the ever-elegant Bill O’Shaughnessy. As chairman of WVOX and WVIP in New Rochelle, he is truly the voice of Westchester County and has been for over 50 years.
There are very few movers and shakers that O’Shaughnessy has not interviewed or written about and his respect for his contemporaries is unparalleled. Over the years he has published several volumes of his columns and speeches, along with a well-received recent biography of Mario Cuomo.
Throughout his career he has had the opportunity to meet and profile everyone who ever mattered in the journalism and political arenas. And while his writing is eloquent and informative, it is also serves as a piece of history, chronicling some of the most important people of the recent centuries. One such person is the late and highly respected journalist Jimmy Breslin.
The two men could not be more different in physical attributions. Jimmy Breslin, thick dark, unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, paunchy, dressed like an unmade bed — Bill O’Shaughnessy, tall, carefully coiffed white mane, dressed to the nines at all times — both in the business of communication and caring greatly about what happens in the business of writing and reporting.
“He was the DiMaggio of a profession that includes so many amazing wordsmiths, from Pete Hamill, Nat Hentoff, Wayne Barrett, Gay Talese to Jimmy Cannon, Jack Newfield, and Nick Pileggi,” says O’Shaughnessy. “They were practitioners of a journalism that produced lean, strong, direct, muscular, unadorned, passionate, declarative, on-your-sleeve writing. They could maneuver words the way Nelson Riddle arranged notes and put them into actual graceful sentences and then insert them in elegant paragraphs that fill entire pages that move people. The ‘New York Times’ described Breslin’s genius as ‘narrative nonfiction.’ By any definition it was in a class of its own.”
Queens-born Breslin aspired to work on his high school paper and never got the chance but he was determined to follow his interest. At seventeen an opportunity arose at the “Long Island Press” where he became a copy boy. He landed a job as a sportswriter for the “New York Herald Tribune” and evolved into what he called a street reporter.
His ability to capture the distinctive tones of people on paper truly made him a voice of and for the people. No one captured the buzz of the city or heralded the regular denizens who lived and breathed energy into the great New York metropolis. His stories focused on the common man and he prowled the streets for what was going on.
When Breslin died earlier this year at the age of 88, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio renamed a street for him at the corner of 42nd and Second Avenue, across the street from the New York Daily News building.
O’Shaughnessy grew up in a small town in upstate New York. While he described himself as a really poor student, he too aspired to be editor of his high school newspaper. Unlike Breslin he did get the chance and he excelled.
“I wrote a piece on music and used to hang around with disc jockeys — when they really ruled the airwaves — and I’d get to go to all the concerts. I then got interested in politics went head over heels for Jack Kennedy. I wanted to be him in every way. His brother Bobby was courting the woman I would eventually marry; her father was president of the “Herald Tribune.” Whitney Global Media owned radio stations that were helping to prop up the “Tribune,” which was on its way out. My future father-in-law helped me get a loan and we bought the stations — WVIP and WVOX, still known as Whitney Global Media. We are the last locally owned and operated stations in the New York area.”
O’Shaughnessy idolized Breslin long before he met the man and was quick to send him fan letters, complimenting him on a particular piece. Breslin decided that they had to meet. And so they did at a now-gone midtown bar called Costello’s.
“I told the greatest American journalist that I loved his iconic columns describing the Kennedys and Winston Churchill. He had recently taken to writing about guys named Ramon, Jose, and Pedro. I gently suggested that he might want to return to the mythic figures he wrote about so eloquently. He replied ‘But who’s to write about the other guys?’”
That, of course, was Breslin’s strength — he could level the powerful when they needed it and he elevated the powerless when they needed to have a voice. Writer Dan Barry said it best in his obituary for Breslin: “Love him or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. At the same time, Mr. Breslin was unmatched in his attention to the poor and the disenfranchised. If there is one hero in the Breslin canon, it is the single black mother, far removed from power, trying to make it through the week.”
Breslin may be gone but his writing lives on in the sixteen books he wrote and in his incomparable stories that are inspirations to young journalists.
As for O’Shaughnessy, in his own way he is a champion of both the printed and the spoken word. His devotion to maintaining the integrity of his radio stations is undiminished. And while there are still the naysayers, radio will always be relevant as long as O’Shaughnessy’s around.
“Radio is like Lazarus in the Bible,” he says. “You can’t kill it. It will always be the medium of the poor and the misunderstood. And radio is free. You don’t have to pay for cable or the Internet or expensive tools like an iPad to be able to use it.”