By Betsyann Faiella for Cabaret Scenes
Jazz man and host of WRHU’s Jazz Café, John Bohannon, arrived on the campus of Long Island’s Hofstra University carrying the tracks for his weekly music show in a canvas bag. John “spins” tracks using CDs from his massive music collection, and each disc jacket was marked with a post-it, bearing the handwritten name of the song and track number he intended to play that day. He lined them up according to his formula: big band or big opening (“Open with a closer” a mentor told him), ballad, a male or female vocal group, instrumentalist or small combo, and then, back to big band to complete one arc. On his table today are: Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Anita O’Day, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, The Axidentals, DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Bill Charlap, Steve Lawrence, and John’s favorite big band, Stan Kenton and his Orchestra. He runs the board and his three-hour show himself with no assistance, except when he has a guest who will play live. On those days, his Executive Producer and friend, fellow Long Islander Len Triola, is in the studio with him. John presents singers and instrumentalists, and throws the spotlight on new and veteran performers, as well as authors and other creatives. Some of the people he has hosted are Sue Raney, Johnny Mandel, author David Evanier, Kat Gang, KT Sullivan, Peter Marshall, Carol Woods, and the late Toots Thielemans.
John is smooth talking in the best way possible. His voice is soothing and controlled, and his jokes on-air are brief, clean and subtle. As we chatted, he recalled his tenure at all three major radio networks—ABC, NBC and CBS—and we had only arrived at 1982. At age 80, he’s still handsome and tall, and you can see he would have made a good TV anchorman, but he wasn’t interested—at all. Radio had been his passion since childhood, when he would spin the AM dial on his transistor and pick up stations all over the country. Jazz and the Great American Songbook are his musical genres. However, he didn’t start out as a music DJ. In fact, he spent the majority of his career from the 1960s through 1991 as a newsman first, who was sometimes able to present music as well. He took every opportunity he could to play music on the air, and often worked seven days weeks to achieve that.
All in all, John has made a life doing what he wanted to do. He has worked hard, chasing stories and opportunities during a time when news was still news: delivered impartially without opinion. Imagine that! He is a gracious guy who’s quick to give props to great mentors who helped him up the ladder and taught him to write and deliver news from the ground up. Guys like veteran broadcaster and “hipster” Pat Chamburs, an early influence from WDAE in Tampa who employed John as his control room operator, let him do features, and helped him get a weekend job at the station playing jazz. “Pat was very erudite and funny,” said John. “I got a great education just listening to him.” Then John made a move north to Babylon, New York and WBAB AM/FM, where he worked as the morning man with Program Director Ray Adell. They needed a guy who could play big bands, tell a few jokes and talk a bit about the pop sounds of the day—Sinatra, Crosby, Peggy Lee and their peers—so John was a perfect fit. Between Ray Adell and Pat Chamburs, John got a solid music programming education. Then it was on to [other Long Island stations] WGBB in Freeport, WGSM in Huntington and WPIX (the PIX Penthouse), where they played the “beautiful music,” heavy on strings. We know this now as MUZAK.
In 1967, John was given a tremendous opportunity when he was tapped by Elmer Lower and Tom O’Brien as the first hire of a new 40-man news team at ABC. The station was implementing a new format, and for the first time John was going to write the news, as opposed to “rip and read.” The format required John and the rest of the team to write a five-minute newscast every hour, a departure from the standard format of four hours of news and four hours of music. Veteran newsman Nick George, an advocate for “plain speech” in news broadcasting, taught the crew how to construct, write and read news on the air. Nick George developed the “radio on the scene report” (ROSR) that used actualities—the sounds of the actual news site and the newsmaker’s voice—when possible. “Most people didn’t like Nick,” says John. “They thought he was a tyrant. I thought he was an absolute genius. I really owe Nick my thanks for turning me into a newscaster.”
After five years, John made an aspirational move to NBC, where they were doing Monitor, a popular magazine-type show. John worked on the weekend show, LIVE, and he was a staff newsman on Monitor, working with stars like Henry Morgan and Dave Garroway. When the network suddenly pulled the plug on Monitor after nearly 20 years on the air, John went to CBS, and then landed again at NBC until 1989. By the time the new owner, General Electric, dismantled the radio news operation at NBC, John had spent more than 25 years at the three major networks. He worked in news for two more years, as an on-camera anchorman at PBS in Plainview, Long Island from ’90 -’91, and then retired. He appreciated the fact that he could write his own news at PBS, but John’s a radio guy and doesn’t much care for delivering TV news.
I asked John about his memorable celebrity encounters over the years. “Oh, there have been fun ones, embarrassing ones, and some that got me in a bit of trouble!” said John. “When I was at WNEW in the early 1970s, many stars would come in, usually for William B. [Williams]’s show. When the magician [mentalist], Uri Geller, was scheduled, one of the guys asked me if I wanted to come in and see the trick. Being a prestidigitator myself, I said yes. Geller was trying to set up a thing on the phone with a listener. A reporter’s wife blurted out, ‘John’s a magician. He’ll love this!’ Geller was bugged immediately and shortly called it off, thinking I would expose him! William B. was bugged, too, understandably!”
“I had an unforgettable exchange with Count Basie, who told me he didn’t want to talk about Frank Sinatra. When I asked why, he said Frank wasn’t a dynamic enough singer for his orchestra! ‘But you’ve just made a couple of albums with him!’ I said. ‘Well,’ said the Count, ‘when Frank Sinatra calls, you answer.’ One of my favorite interviews was Bob Hope. He was just a ‘regular guy’ who answered questions genuinely. He didn’t show up as a comic in our interview. That was interesting. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were a delight.”
“When I covered the Grammy Awards for ABC, I was amazed when I saw Louis Armstrong there, looking sickly and frankly, really old. But then Merv [Griffin] announced ‘Louie Armstrong’ and Louie came to life as dynamic as always! It was amazing to see him suddenly become Satchmo for those few minutes.”
When John retired from news, he turned his attention to other interests, writing humor columns for Newsday and The Saturday Evening Post and others. He had time to indulge his longtime love of magic on a regular basis, performing at Hunter College and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, among other venues. “I got to hang out with Milbourne Christopher who pioneered magic on television, and David Copperfield,” said John, “and my favorite guy, Farvel the Marvel (Phil Kosnitsky), whom I worked with frequently.” John is a member of the NYC chapter of The Society of American Magicians, which named him Magician of the Year in 1998, and he has served as President on two separate occasions. He merged his writing talent with magic in 2003, when he wrote Abracadabra, You’re Dead: A Magical Murder Mystery.
In 2004, John was asked by Radio Hofstra WRHU to host a jazz music show. He had one condition: he wanted total freedom to program from his personal 2,000+ CD collection. They said yes to that, and he has been on the air for 12 years every Monday afternoon, more or less, from 1-4pm. “I wouldn’t broadcast the day after the PULSE nightclub tragedy,” says John, “It was too disrespectful to play music and ‘crack wise.’ I was on the air during the Boston Marathon bombing, and no one here informed me what had happened. I have always regretted that.” He’s disappointed his offer to teach and mentor news staff at the University has been rebuffed. “People don’t always listen to older folks,” says John.
John, like most indie DJs, gets tons of CD submissions. He doesn’t like most of what he hears from what he calls the “woo-woo” school of vocalists. He wants to hear melody. “Remember the composer and the lyricist – sing what they wrote,” says John. His favorite classic singers are Jeri Southern, Ella, Sarah and Peggy Lee, and he’s partial to new singers who are keeping the flame for the Great American Songbook. He mixes it up on his in-studio concerts a little though, with original music and Broadway as well, because there are so few places people can hear live music on the air. John thinks there’s a bigger market for it in radio. That’s hard to say, but he’s certainly doing his part.
I ask John one more question. Who would be his dream interview among singers? “Well I wish I had been able to interview Ella,” said John, “but she was very shy. Now, I’d love to interview Barbara Cook.”
Let’s get her a car to Hofstra!
The Princeton Review recently ranked radio Hofstra University WRHU-FM best college radio station. In 2015 the National Association of Broadcasters honored WRHU-FM with a Marconi Award as the first ever “student-operated” non-commercial Station of the Year. The station is also the recipient of a Pinnacle Award—Station of the Year—from the College Media Association. Located in Hempstead, New York on Long Island, Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication is nationally recognized as one of the nation’s most respected and influential training grounds of great broadcasters.
WRHU has 200,000 listeners at any given hour of the day. It can be heard in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Queens and Brooklyn.