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Bob Grant dead; conservative NYC talk radio legend was 84

Controversial radio talk show host Bob Grant on

Controversial radio talk show host Bob Grant on the air at WOR-AM in Manhattan. Grant, who was 84, reportedly died Dec. 31. 2013. (April 29, 1996) Credit: AP

Bob Grant, the fiery, gravel-voiced avatar of conservative talk radio in New York and whose influence stretched wide and deep in television, has died. WABC Radio -- where he worked, and famously was fired from -- has announced his death, while other sites are now confirming.

In addition, Ron Kuby and Curtis Sliwa -- about as opposite a pair to Grant as could be imagined -- have been eulogizing Grant on air for the past half-hour or so. (Yes, the world of talk radio changes -- Kuby and Sliwa are back, as of today). Grant, who was 84, reportedly died Dec. 31.

He had been in ill health for months. Here's his prepared obit.

Grant's influence in New York was vast: Over 40 years, he used the mic as a battering ram -- in particular, battering his favored targets, namely successive Democratic and liberal NYC administrations from John Lindsay through to David Dinkins. He was accused, often, of being racist, and had made an infamous remark about former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown that got him ousted from WABC in 1996. (Brown had been killed in a plane crash but, before confirmation of his death, Grant said that, being a "pessimist" by nature, he assured listeners that there would be one survivor -- Brown.) As his AP obit reminds, he once referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as "that slimeball." He said much else, some of it appalling - referring to Dinkins as a "bathroom attendant" and so on. When Disney - sensitive naturally to its public image and under close political scrutiny as it was about to swallow ABC owner Capital Cities - fired him, his critics provided the company with a laundry list of quotes to support its action. Grant nonetheless was shocked (see below.) 

Grant fulminated -- a word he would likely never use -- and fulminated with great gusto. His voice had a deep raspy tone, like a truck rolling over a bed of crushed rock. He was beloved by generations of New York radio listeners, despised by just as many others. A huge supporter of Israel, he was also a frequent speaker at various venues around Long Island.

Some accused him of being match to tinder in many bitter years of racial tension in New York but Kuby, obviously no Grant acolyte he, said on the air a little while ago this: "I recognize that Bob was a very controversial figure [but] I don't think he was a racist. I really don't. I think he did say a lot of things over a time that were used in a .?.?. racist way and promoted some overall ugliness in this city -- that's part of his legacy as well -- but he was [also] an incredible pioneer in creating this medium that all of us have profited from. Personally, I'll miss the guy."

Yes, everyone who has lived in or around New York or over the past four decades has a Bob Grant story, memory or impression. (He interviewed me once or twice -- my recollection was that he called me "Verne Gray" on the air -- though that could have been another famous talker.) He was gracious and funny -- that was also an impression.

He was part of that early breed of talkers who impacted Fox News so profoundly. Sean Hannity, who moved to WOR Thursday (yes, of course he's still on FNC at night), owes him a debt of allegiance. It was a brand of talk that appealed to the lunch pail crowd, guys, and they mostly were guys, who were sick-and-tired-of-the-liberal-pantywaists-who-were-ruining-America. Grant gave them voice, or at least vented their rage. It was a formula (though Grant was not someone who exactly had a "formula" -- he just was who he was) that was applied to at least a very specific part of a major TV news network: Fox.
John Mainelli, who was WABC program director from 1988 to 1995, says that Grant was "pigeonholed" by some but that while he was certainly conservative, his views were not always doctrinaire. "He was pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro relaxing marijuana laws and most importantly while he was obsessed with politics, he didn't talk about politics all the time."

There were counter-intuitive aspects about him as well, says Mainelli - or they would appear so to his listeners had they known at the time. He was friendly with Al Sharpton - "he had Al Sharpton on all the time; they were buds at one time.' And he chaffed at success of fellow WABC host Rush Limbaugh: "He did not care for Rush," says Mainelli. "He called him 'Hurry.'"

Of the racism charges Mainelli says they were unfair: "He was very outspoken during Crown Heights and Tawana Brawley and indelicate, you could say. But no, and if anyone assumed too much about that, he set 'em straight."

Paul Colford, now a top executive at The Associated Press who once covered radio brilliantly for Newsday, spoke to Grant after he got canned all those years ago. Worth a read:

"How do you think I feel?" Bob Grant said yesterday morning. "I got very little sleep. I'm still in a state of shock, because it actually happened." Speaking publicly for the first time since being fired by WABC-AM on Wednesday, Grant told Newsday from his New Jersey home that he did not blame program director Phil Boyce or general manager Don Boloukos for his dismissal -- "because people ought to know how magnificent they've been."

But Grant suggested that "the Disney people" -- The Walt Disney Co. acquired WABC's parent company, Capital Cities / ABC, in February -- ordered his ouster "after being bombarded with reaction" to his on-air remarks about Ron Brown. When the former commerce secretary was presumed dead in a plane crash in Croatia on April 3, Grant said to a caller:

"My hunch is that he [Brown] is the one survivor .?.?. Maybe it's because, at heart, I'm a pessimist." "Throughout the years, there have been many things I said that were more cogent than the 'I am a pessimist' line,"

Grant, who later apologized on the air, said yesterday. "But I'm still at a loss about what happened. At the time, it was more an attempt at humor -- the caller from Oyster Bay laughed and I laughed at what I said -- so I was never thinking that it would translate into such an issue that Mario Cuomo, the opportunist that he is, would condemn me. "I never wished Ron Brown dead. The only people I've ever wished dead were Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. But when I realized later that members of Brown's family might have been listening, I thought, 'Hey, that's not right,' and I apologized." Grant said he was puzzled as to why Howard Stern and Don Imus, two other well-known radio personalities, could get away with saying certain things and he could not. "

People talk about Stern and Imus, but I guess they don't take them seriously," he said. "Unfortunately, they took me seriously. There should have been an announcement at the start of my program saying, 'Here's another shock jock, but for your entertainment only.' " Grant said he had been aware since Disney completed its takeover of Capital Cities / ABC that "people who had been gunning for me" -- such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media-watchdog group based in Manhattan -- were now directing their attacks via the new owner. "It was like there was a new teacher in class," he explained, "and a kid comes up from the back of the room and tells her, 'Do you know what Johnny has been doing all semester?

' "I went in every day and tried to do a good show -- and all of a sudden I was a pariah." At FAIR, senior analyst Steve Rendall said yesterday that the organization had never called for Grant's dismissal. "Our solution was that an antiracist be put on WABC to counter Grant's rhetoric," he added. Since WABC announced on Wednesday that its relationship with Grant "has been terminated by mutual agreement," the FAIR office has received dozens of calls expressing hatred for the group and threatening violence, according to Rendall.

At the same time, letters shared with FAIR this month, appear to bolster Grant's contention that his firing was sudden and unexpected. As recently as April 11, a week after Grant's Brown remark, Robert F. Callahan Jr., the new president of ABC Radio, disputed FAIR's charge that the talk host had intended to endorse a white supremacist group on the air.

"By its nature, talk radio deals with matters of controversy and often involves free and open exchange of views," Callahan added. "We believe that such exchanges can provide an important and valuable service to our listening audience."

Last Friday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson went high above Callahan, writing to Michael S. Ovitz, the president of Disney, to express his view that Grant's comments about Brown were "mean-spirited and hateful. They demean the reputation of WABC and the Disney Corp."

Jackson apparently enclosed transcripts of other Grant remarks and called on Ovitz to dismiss the broadcaster, saying, "Enough is enough." In a brief and cryptic response to Jackson dated three days ago, Ovitz wrote: "Although we have already determined how we will handle this situation, I nevertheless appreciate your consideration and concern." It was being handled sooner than Jackson may have thought. The following day -- Wednesday -- Ovitz' counterpart, Cap Cities chairman Thomas F. Murphy, assured a Harlem clergyman who had asked about the Grant matter that it was being resolved as they spoke. Indeed, within two hours of Murphy's conversation, Grant learned he was fired from a teary-eyed Boyce, the WABC program director.

"I would have to say that, reading between the lines, he [Boyce] had put up a good fight, but he was told by someone higher up in the corporate ladder to let me go," Grant said. WABC and ABC Radio have declined to give a specific reason why Grant was fired. Yesterday, there was speculation in radio circles that Grant would resurface on the airwaves soon, perhaps on talk station WOR. "There's no leaning toward bringing him over, but there's no reason why we wouldn't do that," WOR general manager Bob Bruno said. Grant was so popular in late afternoon that his relocation on the dial could be bad news for WABC. Jackson congratulated ABC for releasing Grant. 

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