Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New York, “Nu Yawk”: Deceased Artiste Lynn Samuels

The best radio personalities hold a very special place in our hearts, despite the fact that we have never met them in person and are very unlikely to do so (unless you’re plotting a Play Misty for Me stalking campaign). Lynn Samuels, who died this past Xmas Eve at 69, had an ultimate “Nu Yawk” voice and was one of the most unconventional presences ever in the world of talk radio.

Lynn had an incredibly unique trajectory as a radio call-in host. In a few short years, she moved from a no-pay position at the legendary local Pacifica station in NYC, WBAI-FM, to being on the central talk-radio station in the Tri-State area, WABC-AM. And she did so with a voice that was, to put it kindly, “untrained” — you either enjoyed its nasal, often shrill, tonality, or you had to turn the dial.

When I first heard Lynn on WBAI in the early Eighties, I thought she sounded like Julie Kavner in her Rhoda incarnation. I very quickly got used to her voice because I enjoyed the content of her show which, more often than not, consisted of interviews with local folkies and comedians, calls from people who were further-out neurosis-wise than she, and a copious amount of Lynn complaining about something or other for minutes on end.

Lynn was from my home borough of Queens (no obit stated which part), and she fucking LOVED to complain. These complaints could range from the political (bellicose foreign policy) to local (reporting the dismal state of MTA service in NYC) to extremely personal (petty accounts of being pissed off by someone she passed on the street).

The degree and depth of her complaining was nothing short of miraculous, and that is why I kept on listening. The true appeal of media curmudgeons is that they make listeners feel content about their own life — Lynn often seemed to be mad at the world and everyone in it.

She started out on radio as an ardent Leftist and developed into a Right-wing contrarian. Thus, she developed a hearty loathing for Obama during the 2008 elections, claiming he was an “empty suit” and wasn’t a true progressive. I’ll go with her on the latter, but how did Lynn choose to attack him once he became president? By contesting the status of his birth certificate, thus placing her firmly in the crackpot category and obscuring what might have been genuine objections to his policies and time-wasting quest for “bipartisanship.”

So how could I and many, many other listeners be so addicted to a radio show hosted by a person with an abrasive voice whose political opinions got more and more jaded as time went on? Well, as was the case with George Carlin, Lynn was a disappointed idealist who sounded incredibly bitter when discussing politics, but could still revel in the simple pleasures that delighted her no end. As much time as she spent complaining that “we’re all fucked!” (and I will give her that one), was as much time as she took to discuss things she really loved.

In her WBAI days, I remember her keeping us apprised of the activities of various local folk-rockers, including Mark Johnson and the Wild Alligators, who supplied the theme song for her show “Part of the Act” (“everything is the same old thing/it’s all part of the act/it’s analogous to the fact/that it all comes back/to the same thing…”).

In later years, she would spend entire segments (on NYC’s biggest talk-radio station!) discussing things she’d found on sale, or a trash TV show that she was addicted to (man, did she love crap TV), or just flashing back to one of her earlier obsessions. I remember fondly a fangirl-ish interview she conducted with Julius La Rosa, whom she had idealized as a teen.

She truly loved and hated in equal measures, and what you heard on the radio was the real Lynn, for better or worse. Her friends confirmed this on the radio tributes to her that aired after her death. They also talked about another aspect of her career that made her one of the most unique talk-radio hosts ever: the fact that she had “day jobs” not before but *during* her mainstream radio career.

I remember her announcing on WBAI that she hawked newspapers on the corner of 57th St. and Fifth Ave. At least twice I made sure, when going to the Doubleday’s on Fifth between 56th and 57th, to walk up a block and hear her very distinct “Nu Yawk” voice hollering out a headline about Reagan (the paper was The New York Post).

Walter Sabo (right) has posted a wonderful article about how he recruited Lynn for her first paying gig in radio on Saturday afternoons on WOR. Going from no-pay WBAI to a mainstream station in one of the biggest markets in the country was a quantum leap, and an incredibly rare one. (To illustrate: the latest “new talent” announced for local talk-radio is Geraldo Rivera, whose career in TV news and “shock” daytime TV-talk is now apparently over.)

The WOR slot on Saturdays didn’t vault Lynn into the spotlight, but it did help her score her next, seminal job at WABC-AM five mornings a week doing lead-in for “the new guy,” Rush Limbaugh. Lynn was an incredibly odd presence on mainstream radio, and especially at ABC, because the station was slanted to the right.

At that time, she held to her Lefty beliefs, which were always colored by her own odd take on the issues. Here is a great fan-made compilation of moments from Lynn’s first months on WABC. The clip stats out with a rare TV interview with Lynn and her then-colleagues Grant and Barry Farber:

Lynn rarely argued issues on hard facts or logic. She responded viscerally, and her voice rose to a wild shriek at times when she was outraged. This reached a crescendo in 1990 when she was memorably paired with Farber (pictured) for two days. I remember those shows fondly as the most fucking abrasive radio I’ve ever heard. My memory was that Lynn was incredibly shrill during that pair of shows, but the sole fragment that has surfaced indicates that Farber was equally obnoxious — this was a team made in Radio Hell. Lynn’s behavior got her fired from WABC for the first time (she was dismissed on three separate occasions).

After the Farber debacle, Lynn ended up making ends meet by taking a job at a laundromat, where she made change and assigned the dryers to the customers. The fact that she went from a five-day-a-week mainstream talk-radio job to an hourly-wage position, and then came back to mainstream radio (she was rehired at WABC by John Mainelli, the guy who had hired her in the first place, but had left in the interim), makes her very unusual indeed in the world of entertainment.

Lynn’s career got more unusual: after her third firing from WABC in 2002, her WOR patron, Walter Sabo, got her a five-day-a-week gig at the Sirirus satellite “Left channel” in 2003. In 2011, after her politics had taken a sharp turn to the Right, or Libertarianism (or whatever the hell it was), she lost her slot on the Left channel and was reduced to two weekend morning slots.

At that point, according to one of the tributes, she once again took up a job at a laundry (this time in the West Village); this is disputed by her webmaster, who said it was never mentioned by her on-air (and, again, it's not the kind of thing she would've hidden from her listeners), and she never mentioned it to him. From what I could discern from her final shows, she deferred taking Social Security until she was 70, so she could receive the maximum amount — that’s a bet the government always wins, because in many cases (as happened to Lynn), you kick off before you’re eligible.

During her stints at WABC, she developed the habit of cultivating friendships with Right-wing hosts and alienating the Left-wing ones. She got along famously with the uber-right-wing and genuinely nasty talk-radio NYC legend Bob Grant, and also befriended Limbaugh — who, according to Lynn, did offer her some job leads when ABC fired her, so that was indeed a good enough reason for her to like him, even though he remains a foully pompous broadcaster.

I lost track of Lynn after she was booted from ABC in 2002 because, despite my love of radio, I can’t justify paying over 100 dollars a year for satellite (read: the stuff you used to hear for free, now “niched,” a la cable television). I did look at her website several times a week, because she created a valuable news round-up, providing click-throughs to a shitload of interesting articles from both mainstream and partisan (Left and Right) websites.

Upon her death, thanks to one very generous blogger, who posted a number of her last Sirirus shows, and her webmaster Billy Masters, who posted not just one but two terrific podcasts (the first-linked offers the best cross-section of Sirius clips), I was able to “catch up” with Lynn.

What I heard was by turns jaw-dropping and touching. Her voice had that same “Qweenz” combination of nasality and shrillness that I remembered from my youth. Her petty complaint segments now took up a quarter of the show, and were as delightful as ever. (Like every died-in-the-wool New Yorker, I like hearing someone who makes me seem like a contented optimist.)

Her political shift was depressing, though. She always enjoyed a good argument, but in her incarnation on Sirius, she had moved into the Right-wing, Libertarian (read: conservatism with a “cool” edge), anti-government mindset. This was best illustrated when she advocated in a straightforward manner that the solution to the illegal immigrant problem was that “illegals” should be shot and killed at the border as they try to enter America. (She took great pride in telling listeners that Sean Hannity had told her that was too extreme, “they are human beings…”).

However, as she discussed this ridiculous position with a viewer two weeks before her death, the caller then brought up capital punishment. Lynn made clear that she opposed executing death-row prisoners on principal, citing facts she had clearly learned in her Left days (“it actually costs more to execute an inmate than it does to keep him in prison for life”).

When the Right-wing caller noted that these two positions didn’t jibe, Lynn simply noted that, “I know it makes no sense — I’m very inconsistent.” This kind of illogic was one of many reasons it struck me as sad that Lynn wanted to be accepted by her Right-wing radio colleagues — her opinions were too emotional even for them, and she remained a weird mascot figure, a former member of “the loony Left” who was now more extreme than they were.

Her friend (and one of the few Left-wing hosts she hadn’t alienated entirely) Mike Feder noted on one of the two very touching tribute shows he dedicated to her that, in the early 2000s, she carried on a “Platonic” love affair with Matt Drudge, the Winchell-wannabe conservative web-hack for whom she worked as a call screener (and constantly, on WABC, defended as “not conservative”). Drudge, according to Feder, broke Lynn’s heart.

As she praised the Right-wing hosts (she looked forward eagerly to every broadcast by hate-speech specialist and thickly-accented ex-NYCer Michael Savage), Lynn seemingly went out of her way to openly insult Left-wing hosts. I remember hearing Randi Rhodes (pictured), another host who has kept her deep Brooklyn accent, saying that Lynn had been rude to her. WEVD/WWRL host Sam Greenfield (now of WVNJ) has noted on-air that Lynn made a disparaging remark about his daughter that he couldn’t forgive. In addition to these personal slights, she often expressed on Sirius her absolute loathing for Stephanie Miller, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, and her "nemesis," Alex Bennett.

Thus, when she died, Feder, Mike Malloy, Richard Bey, and Alan Colmes had nice things to say about Lynn, but several Lefties avoided making any personal comments, positive or negative, in their death notices (as with Amy Goodman, whom one Samuels diehard fan said had been called “a cunt” by Lynn) or were brief and praiseworthy, but also totally honest (as with Lionel, who praised her unique on-air style but did note she was a “big pain in the ass”).

Setting Lynn’s simplistic (and often downright ridiculous) political opinions aside, I do think that she was a very good broadcaster and a top-notch entertainer. This became apparent to me again — and erased all the bile she had been unleashing — when I listened to a number of her final shows and heard segments where she just chatted calmly and amiably with her callers.

At its best, her program was a hipper sort of coffee klatch (listen to Lynn describing her experiences taking ketamine for an explanation of the “hipper” label), a 21st-century update of the friendly “personality” radio that existed in the Forties and Fifties, and continued on mostly with “women’s shows.” (In NYC, WOR has had the lock on this type of program for decades, from the heyday of Arlene Francis and Pegeen and Edward Fitzgerald, to the only program of that kind still on in this area, Joan Hamburg’s show.) When she was calm, Lynn was an engaging host who could transform her pop culture tastes, her preference in food and shopping, and show-biz gossip, into very engaging “appointment radio.”

The few full-length radio tributes indicated that she was a person whose heart had been broken both romantically and professionally several times, and who had virtually turned into an agoraphobic (she did her show from her Woodside apartment, and bragged at the end that she only left her home to shop).

She will be remembered for a long while by her listeners. I’m glad Billy Masters is uploading more “everyday” moments from her WABC and Sirius shows. I’d of course love to re-hear the “prehistory” WBAI hours and those stunning, shrieking pair of days with Barry Farber. There are a scant few clips of her on YouTube (just as there are very few photos of her online). Here is Lynn in her what was surely her only movie role (!), and here she banters with an ABC newscaster, exhibiting her sometimes sick sense of humor:

In the final analysis, Lynn was a one-of-a-kind personality who was never “professional” in the standard sense of that word. She was, again, an entertainer who possessed what was definitely the most "un-radio” voice ever heard on the radio….


Unknown said...

Thank you for the time and effort you put into this tribute to Lynn. She was the best I have ever heard on radio. I enjoyed her so much. Since I live on the West coast, I only got to know her after she came to Sirius. I appreciate the info on her pre-Sirius days and will miss her terribly.

Peter DiRoma II said...

When Lynn returned to WABC after working at the Laundry in exile, she said more than once if she lost her job she couldn't return to the laundromat "its been bought by Chinese and they only hire other Chinese." She never returned there when Sirius reduced her hours. She wasn't remotely agoraphobic even when she worked via ISDN line. She traveled and enjoy casinos.

~ G said...

The Laundromat Lynn worked at was at 325 West 11th St. It was called The Laundry Basket. I know this because we owned it.