Radio played a more or less consistent role in my life through my teen years.
The British invasion, R&B, and pop groups all found their way into my consciousness by listening to the Cousin Brucie’s, Murray the K, Dickie Robinson… and the like.
The rare exception, and harbinger of the future was Jimi Hendrix, who I first heard about from a high school classmate in the fall of ’66. Never during this time did I think I’d ever end up working in the medium.
High school came and went. So did college. I worked in the New York Post Office, in a couple of mailrooms after that, and by the time I reached my 21st birthday my highest ambition was to become a New York subway motorman – which I would still would love to do! (Who wouldn’t want to drive the A-Train from 125th Street to Columbus Circle).
During this time my older brother Clayton Riley was my guiding light. It was Clayton, 16 years my senior, who became the arbiter of taste and sophistication in my young life. He’d already achieved success in his career, moving from actor to writer to critic for, among others, the New York Times. It was Clayton who made me sit down one day and seriously listen to jazz. That changed my outlook on the genre, and music in general.
One day, in the late spring /early summer of 1973, I popped up to Clayton’s home on 112th Street in Manhattan. This had become my habit during those days. On this day, however, Clayton was preoccupied. I knew he had just done a major article for Ebony Magazine on Manhattan Boro President Percy Sutton. He proceeded to tell me about this great man, his political acumen, and the news that he’d started a media company that had just bought WLIB, one of New York City’s two black oriented radio stations.
Clayton began pacing the floor in front of me, becoming more passionate with each sentence. “Mark, Percy Sutton told me communications is the wave of the future for black people”.
It took a minute for those words to sink in. “The wave of the future for black people”.
I didn’t realize it then, but with those words …my brother was about to change my life even more profoundly than he did when he made me listen to jazz music.
A few days later, Clayton called me to his house. He told me, “Look man, I just got off the phone with the news director at WLIB, Percy Sutton’s station. He’s going to meet with you. He’s young, just like you. I want you to remember one thing. No matter what happens, if he asks you about doing anything at that radio station, you tell him yes. Don’t rule anything out”.
I knew why Clayton said this to me. I was a music fanatic. I knew nothing about news, except Walter Cronkite, whose television newscasts came from On High. Yet I said to Clayton, “Of course, man. I’m not ruling anything out. I’m not crazy” (looking back, I’m not sure Clayton didn’t think so).
And so it was that on July 4th, 1973, I took the train up to 310 Lenox Ave., and met for four hours with WLIB News Director David Lampel. For the bulk of that time, we talked music. I was startled to learn that disc jockeys couldn’t play whatever they wanted, that they had to work from playlists. It was the first of a plethora of revelations about the medium I’d misread from the outside.
Toward the end of our conversation, David Lampel said to me, “Look, this has been great, but there’s nothing I can do for you as far as music’s concerned. Have you ever thought about news”? Clayton’s words came back loud in my ear. “Don’t rule anything out”. So I didn’t. I said to David, “I don’t know much about news, but I’d love to learn”.
With that, my 40 year career in radio began. And two sentences from Clayton Riley opened a door to an unbelievable radio life.
Communications is the wave of the future.
Don’t rule anything out.