[Programming note: We’ll have a full NERW column, including this obituary, on Monday for your extended holiday weekend reading. We didn’t want to wait, however, to share the sad news of the passing of one of radio’s most interesting characters, and a longtime friend of this column.]
*The radio business is suddenly much less colorful with the news on Friday of the death of William O’Shaughnessy, the maverick owner of WVOX (1460) and WVIP (93.5) in New Rochelle, New York.
“WO” was a native of Waverly in the Southern Tier, but he quickly became a fixture downstate, starting in radio at just 19 years old as a salesman at the original WVIP (1310) in Mount Kisco. Owned by Martin Stone, that WVIP was a remarkable small-market local radio voice, super-serving northern Westchester from a famous round studio, and it launched O’Shaughnessy into a big-city career, working as an assistant to the general manager of New York’s WNEW.
He served in the Army in distant Staten Island, then returned to the city’s media scene in the early 1960s, marrying the daughter of Walter Thayer, the publisher of the Herald Tribune. The timing was perfect: while the newspaper would soon succumb to a strike, its owner, Jock Whitney, was investing in suburban radio stations, including WVIP and a new signal in New Rochelle, WVOX, that Stone had also put on the air.
O’Shaughnessy settled in as manager of WVOX; by 1975, he’d acquired the station outright along with its FM counterpart on 93.5. Determined to make WVOX the best local radio station in the country, O’Shaughnessy became a fierce defender of the First Amendment, opening WVOX’s “One Broadcast Forum” studios to every local voice imaginable. For many years, WVOX-FM became WRTN, “Return Radio,” playing much the same big-band sounds as the classic WNEW; later, the FM took on the WVIP calls, leasing its airtime to Caribbean broadcasters and other newer sounds of a changing Westchester and New York City.
Along the way, “WO” became one of the most visible faces of radio anywhere in the industry. He was active in leadership with the New York State Broadcasters Association and other trade groups, especially the Broadcasters Foundation and its work to support broadcasters who’d fallen on hard times. A Republican by heritage, he nonetheless found a kinship with Mario Cuomo, who became a very frequent interview subject on WVOX and in O’Shaughnessy’s several books over the years. (One wonders what Cuomo would have thought of O’Shaughnessy’s later support of a very un-Cuomoesque Donald Trump.)
“WO” cut a broad swath through New York’s social life, always stylishly dressed, often spotted at “21” or Le Cirque, and always seeking to build and expand his vast collection of interesting people. That collection occasionally included your editor, who enjoyed many years of correspondence and flattery from O’Shaughnessy; WVOX has also been an advertiser on NERW’s Year in Review and the Tower Site Calendar.
In more recent years, the WVOX that was actually on the air in southern Westchester was a bit more of a hodge-podge of talk and leased time than the “forum of the air” O’Shaughnessy still envisioned. Even so, “WO” remained active to the end, writing books filled interview transcripts and with the names of his friends and acquaintances, speaking out on the value of the First Amendment and promoting the Broadcasters Foundation.
O’Shaughnessy was 84 when he died Friday at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. Services will be held Tuesday afternoon at the Lloyd Maxcy funeral home in New Rochelle, followed by a funeral Mass Wednesday morning in Litchfield. Contributions in his memory are, of course, directed to the Broadcasters Foundation of America.
What happens now at One Broadcast Forum? O’Shaughnessy’s children, especially sons Matthew and David, had become active in operating the stations in recent years. (He’s also survived by daughter, Kate, and companion Gregorio Alvarez.) For now, we’d expect WVOX and WVIP to continue with their current programming – albeit without the unique voice that Bill O’Shaughnessy brought to the airwaves and to the broadcast community for more than six decades.