New England RadioWatch: October 31, 1996

Norm Nathan, 1926-1996

by Scott Fybush

After 52 years of radio and 70 years of a full life, Norm Nathan passed away on Tuesday night, October 29, at his home in Middleton, Massachusetts.

Norm was not only one of the finest broadcasters New England has ever known, but he was also a colleague and, I'm proud to say, a friend. I trust NERW readers will understand if I depart from the usual rundown of news items and indulge in some remembrances of Norm.

He started in radio back in 1944, fresh out of Chelsea High School. Norm always loved radio, but (as he would have been the first to admit) it didn't love him back at first. A brief stint at Boston's WCOP was followed by a slightly longer stay at WESX in Salem, where he was told he had a speech impediment and dismissed after five months. From there it was off to Boston's WMEX, which had yet to become the top-40 powerhouse it would be in the 1960s. In a radio interview last year, Norm admitted that he probably had almost no listeners in those days, when he was introducing one mediocre hotel band after another.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that Norm found his niche, after a short time running a newspaper with his beloved wife, Norma. She went on to fame as the gossip columnist for the Boston Herald, but for Norm, it was back to radio, this time with WHDH, where he spent 12 years as Boston's top jazz DJ.

Spinning the "Sounds in the Night" overnight, Norm entertained (and was entertained by) every jazz notable who passed through Boston in those years. Jazz was Norm's music, and I know he was saddened in later years when he found himself working at stations without music licenses.

As Norm's time at WHDH wound down, he found himself being forced into different airshifts, playing music he didn't much care for, and it was then that he broke from WHDH to join WEEI as a news anchor. That was followed by a few years at WRKO, a brief stint at WMRE (1510) in its "Memories" era, and finally Norm's fortuitous arrival at WBZ in 1985.

Coming to WBZ put Norm back in his element, with an all-night show on the weekends that put him on a 50,000 watt clear channel and brought him into homes and workplaces and vehicles across the East Coast and into the midwest.

WBZ is where I met Norm for the first time a few years ago. I had listened to Norm long before that, of course, and I knew what he was like on the air -- the self-deprecating humor, the "Dumb Birthday Game" he played with his callers (and anyone hanging around the station) at 3 in the morning, his entirely fictitious assistant Marilyn Guralnick, and so on. What I found in person was exactly the same Norm.

From the time I met Norm until the last time I saw him a few weeks ago, Norm was never anything less than friendly, caring, funny, and supportive. Once he found out I was engaged (and, later, married), he never failed to ask how my wife was doing, and to remind me how much he missed Norma, who died of cancer in 1991. I think the only time I ever remember hearing Norm saying anything bitter about anyone was when he talked about the gossip column that succeeded Norma's "The Eye" in the Herald; he couldn't bear seeing the new columnists using some of Norma's pet phrases in print.

Norm was always ready to give his time outside the station for anyone and anything. He was, very quietly, a volunteer for the Cancer Society, shuttling patients to appointments, and no doubt cheering them up as he drove. He was active in the Old Time Radio movement, hosting a series of radio drama re-enactments around the area every year. Norm was the moderator each year for Town Meeting in his hometown of Middleton, and was active in all sorts of local causes. When I invited him to appear on "Let's Talk About Radio," a radio-oriented talk show on WJIB (740 Cambridge-Boston), he was eager to come in, and had us rolling on the floor for two full hours as he recounted some of his tales of a life in radio. (Those programs will be rebroadcast this Sunday, November 3, from 3 to 5 pm on WJIB and on WNEB 1230 Worcester.)

Over the years, Norm came to find himself as the last of the breed, as colleagues such as Jess Cain, Dave Maynard, and Larry Glick left radio or went into semi-retirement. I know Norm was crushed when his old radio home, WHDH, disappeared from the airwaves in August 1994, especially when he found out the last noise heard on the station was a toilet flushing. In the end, Norm's show sat alone even on WBZ. At the end of a week filled with hard news and the political, hard-edged talk of David Brudnoy and Bob Raleigh, Norm's show was where we all went for a soft chuckle, a smile, and the feeling that there was somebody out there who just wanted to cheer you up.

There's something more than a little bit eerie about the timing of Norm's death. For the last few months, WBZ has been in the process of moving out of its old studios, and into a new facility on the other side of the building. The new studios are cleaner, brighter, and better-equipped...but I will never picture Norm anywhere other than in the dark, somewhat musty old talk studio. It was just a few days ago that they finished tearing out the guts of that studio, and it was unsettling to walk into that familiar room and find only an empty physical space. Suddenly, it's not merely physically empty; there's a huge spiritual hole there too.

It's 2 A.M. as I write this; Norm's time of the night. This was the hour when he hit his stride, making life a little brighter for listeners all along the path of BZ's booming signal. Norm's producer, Tony Nesbitt, found the right phrase on BZ tonight, when he talked about "a hole 38 states wide." So did another colleague, who asked simply, "What will I listen to now?"

Out there in the vast corporate world that's radio in the 1990s, there are still a few remnants left of a simpler time, in the days before shock jocks and satellites, when a jazz record and a joke could be the foundation for a half-century of great radio. We've just lost one of the best. Goodbye, old sport.

(Funeral services for Norm Nathan will be held on Friday, November 1, at 1 p.m., at Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody, Mass. Donations in his memory can be sent to UNICEF-New England at 1330 Beacon Street, Suite 355, Brookline MA 02146.)

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