When John R. Gambling decided to end his family's record-breaking 88-year run hosting a live morning radio show, there was bound to be talk -- especially in the hyperpartisan world of talk radio.
Gambling, a self-described moderate conservative, says he's even been accused of retiring just to discontinue the kind of Friday chats he's had for the past 20 years with New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, and Michael R. Bloomberg, a former Democrat turned Republican and now Independent.
Why go now?
"Some people are saying I'm retiring because I don't want to have Friday with [liberal Democrat] Bill de Blasio," Gambling says, joking, in a telephone interview from his Nassau County home.
The real reason for retirement? "I'm old," says Gambling, 63, who will host his last 6-to- 10 a.m. weekday drive time on Friday on WOR/710 AM. "After doing morning radio for 27 years and New York radio 35 years, I've accomplished virtually everything that I've set out to do, made a fair amount of money, had a great time and enjoyed it thoroughly."
In retirement, Gambling says he'll relish staying up with his wife, Wendy, beyond the 7 p.m. weeknight bedtime required when he has to rise at 2 a.m. to be wide awake for a 6 a.m. broadcast. Far from microphones and soundproof booths, he'll spend his mornings on the golf course or on his boat when he moves to Florida.
And so ends an era for Long Islanders who came to think of the name Gambling as synonymous with talk radio. Long before extreme political commentary began to chew up the AM dial, many would start their day with a cup of coffee, or a drive to work, listening to three generations of the glib but uncontroversial Gambling clan, whose radio reign has spanned the early days of broadcasting to the digital age.
"Rambling With Gambling -- the world's longest-running radio show," according to "The Guinness Book of World Records" -- has its roots in the early days of commercial radio with Gambling's grandfather, John B. Gambling, who began talking on air in 1925. Originally called "Gambling's Musical Clock," his program featured a live orchestra, and innovations such as radio's earliest traffic reports, Gambling says. Sometime in the 1930s or '40s -- the exact year isn't known -- his grandfather began to call it "Rambling With Gambling." Gambling's dad, John A. Gambling, took over from 1959 to 1990, offering millions of listeners his trademark low-key news reports, folksy banter and interviews with celebrities as well as ordinary people.
Although the latest Gambling to hit the airwaves eventually added political spin to the show's previously apolitical mix, he's kept up his predecessors' easygoing style, whether interviewing movie stars, politicians or just plain folk he disagrees with politically.
"His style is very gentlemanly and reassuring, it's not like the attack-dog style that's become very prevalent in radio," says Joe Franklin, the veteran WOR radio personality who also knew Gambling's father and grandfather. Says Franklin, "It will be very much missed."
"For most of the history of radio, there's been a Gambling in the morning in New York," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, a Springfield, Mass.-based trade publication. Harrison praised Gambling as a "very good talk-show host, a solid broadcaster and part of a great New York broadcasting heritage and tradition.
"One of the good things about that show is that he also did a lot of local subjects and local politics, which I think is an important part of radio," Harrison added.
Despite the family's prominence in the New York radio scene, John R. Gambling, who grew up in the Munsey Park section of Manhasset and graduated from Friends Academy, a private school in Locust Valley, says his father, who died in 2004, never pushed him to join the family business.
He says he would roll his eyes when people recognized the family name and asked why he wasn't on the air, too. However, while studying communications at Boston University, he wandered into the campus station and stayed. And like many a radio neophyte who bounced around the country to get experience, the youngest Gambling radio host worked as a program director in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and upstate Hyde Park before landing in Manhattan in the early 1980s as a WOR staff announcer.
His early days in radio
"My early broadcasting was less than stellar," he recalls, "with the usual mumble fumbles, mispronunciations and saying stupid things in front of hundreds of thousands of people."
His father eventually became pleased with the idea of a son in the business and imparted his theory of how to succeed in talk radio: "Don't get in anybody's face, don't make the start of their day more difficult than it already is."
Gambling put that theory to work, first as co-host of "Rambling With Gambling" from 1985 to 1990, then solo when his father retired. After WOR discontinued "Rambling with Gambling" in 2000, he hosted "The John Gambling Show" on WABC/77 AM from 2001 to 2008, returning to WOR in 2008.
Among his favorite on-air guests have been a number of major celebrities. Actor and gun-rights advocate Charlton Heston was on his show three times. "I interviewed Moses," Gambling says, referring to Heston's lead role in the 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments." "He was such a professional." He also interviewed Carol Burnett, who "couldn't have been nicer."
Partly in response to the Federal Communications Commission's elimination in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to air opposing views, Gambling eventually dropped his father's apolitical stance and revealed his political leanings. However, he says he has avoided taking the angry tone of other AM talkers.
"Some people say I'm boring as anything," admits Gambling, "but I don't think I am. I look at myself as a pragmatic, common-sense individual. Although I am a conservative talk radio host and make no bones about that, I always listen to whomever I'm interviewing.... If I think that their point of view is misdirected, I ask them why they think that way, but I don't yell and scream, don't pound the desk or call people names, and I don't hang up on people."
For his final broadcast, he has invited Giuliani and Bloomberg, as well as others he's spoken with many times over the years, such as former New Jersey governor and federal EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump.
Although Gambling has three sons, all have chosen different career paths than radio. On the demise of his family's signature program, he sounds a bittersweet but philosophical note. "For the entire existence of the history of radio, there's been a Gambling on the air in New York," he says, "but everything comes to an end, and this show ran longer than anyone could have possibly imagined."
Adds Gambling: "I have to move on."