Sunday, June 26, 2016

Remembering the Great Dan Daniel: Six Principles Behind the Success of One of America's Premiere Air Talents

Dan Daniel was one of the great air talents in America, being a standout in New York City for 42-plus years before he passed last week all too soon at 81.

With minor edits, this is a piece I wrote at the end of 2002 when, while still at the top of his game, “Dandy Dan” chose to retire from doing a daily show. At the time I wanted to share some of what I believed to be pillars of success of one of America’s best talents.  Now I’d like to share them again as part of Dan’s legacy: a gift to everyone who puts their heart into their work every day – because that’s what Dan did.

Thanks, Dan for the joy you gave us through the years on the air... and off the air for the priceless gift of friendship.

Miss you, “Trip.”

For 42 years he'd been "king of the hill, top of the heap, a-number one" in New York, New York. 

WCBS-FM midday host Dan Daniel (5th from left), one of America's greatest talents and a fixture in New York City radio for 42 years, chose to relinquish his daily show Tuesday while still at the top of his game.

The effect will be as impossible to ignore as a person with a missing front tooth.

Dan left an indelible mark on me during the nearly five years I was privileged to be his Program Director at WYNY-FM in New York City. In the 11 years that have passed since then, I've thought a lot about the things that made Dan such a great talent (they're also what make him a great human being). I've distilled that rather long list down to six principles I believe not only contributed significantly to Dan's incredible success but also helped define him as a person.

Put your heart in it.

Dan never sounded like he wished he were anywhere but on the air. Every show was like a gathering of close friends who you were truly glad to see, and it was only when Dan was there that the get-together was complete.

No one knew this better than listeners. They'd call. They'd write. They'd show up at remotes to see him even though it may have taken them hours to get there and even though they'd already met him dozens of times before.

And they'd tune-in faithfully. Dan's daily passion for his show became our daily passion for listening. We loved listening to him because we knew he loved being with us – which is pillar number two.

Love your listeners.

Early on I concluded that Dan loved his listeners just about as much as they loved him. And like any relationship, he worked at keeping the bond strong.

He tuned in to what was important to them and paid attention to what they said.

He was patient with them, faithfully answering the same questions they'd been posing for years ("Hey Dan - who's size 9?" referring to his sign off "Love you all especially you size 9." With a hearty laugh, Dan always said, "My wife thinks it's her!") with such genuineness and enthusiasm that you'd swear it was the first time in his life that anyone cared enough to ask for his input.

Dan made it a point to seek out listeners at appearances - not that this was necessary. Listeners would have found him even if he tried to hide. One time when the Marlboro Country Music Show was in New York, I accompanied Dan as he worked nearly all of Madison Square Garden. It went on for hours! Every smile from Dan was genuine, every handshake an appreciative "thank you" for listening.

Simply put, Dan Daniel made people feel special. He made them feel as if they were the only ones in a sea of thousands. He made them feel that in fact it was he who wanted to spend time with them, not the other way around.

And it was the same way when you listened. Dan's cume may have been a quarter-million, but on my radio it always seemed like it was just Dan and me.

Be an observer.

Dan could research anything for his show and regularly did, but his greatest content was more often rooted in the things he saw around him, what he thought about those things, and how those things made us all feel.

"All" and "feel" are key words.

When I'd go with Dan to an appearance, I could count on hearing listeners recite edited versions of Dan's breaks. They'd wait in line to retell Dan something they'd heard him say perhaps months earlier - and then often they'd remark that when they heard it, they were just thinking or feeling the same way. These weren't soapboxes or rants they recalled, but Dan's observations and brief asides on life that cut through the noise of New York and found a home in listeners' hearts and memories.

What seemed to come so naturally and effortlessly for Dan is, in fact, a skill not easily mastered.  But Dan had it honed and perfected, the result no doubt of a lifelong practice of observation, being in the midst of listeners whom he well understood, and weaving these moments into stories and points-of-view.

Paint local pictures

Think it's hard "being local" where you are? Try it in New York with over 14-million people 12+ and 20 metro counties. Dan did it with word snapshots of neighborhoods, by referring to products by their local brand name rather than their generic categories, and by using New York-isms as naturally as any native (which Dan wasn't).

Dan talked the way we talked (albeit with a slight drawl sometimes) and talked about what we were talking about.

He rooted for the home teams, always using just enough information to let you know he was a fan like you. But Dan talked less about the score or facts you could find out anywhere. Instead, Dan helped you experience the fans' reaction when Bernie hit the game-winner. He'd let you feel what it was like on the subway there and back.

Dan painted accurate pictures because he knew his market and his listeners so well.

Be real

Dan was always "one of us." His words and attitude let you know he was your fellow commuter and your walk-to-work-pal, trudging through slushy winters and sweating through sticky summers.

For years he defined afternoons in New York, and drives home on the Turnpike, the L.I.E., the Sawmill, the Belt and the Major Deegan were tolerable only because you had Dan going through it with you.

Dan actually DID commute like so many of us, taking the train into the City and walking to the station from Grand Central; he walked the walk.

He was compelling because he was real.

Be a Cheerleader

Dan championed the music he played, the stations he worked at, and the people he worked with.

Frequently his song wraparounds would include a piece of a lyric with a tie-in to something relevant. Or he'd point out a previously unknown fact or share a positive comment about the song or singer.

I swear that there are some songs I began to like only after hearing one of Dan's intros or outros.

Station events and promos received the same treatment. No hype, just the right phrasing delivered with genuine enthusiasm and a specific reason or two that would make me want to participate.

He never failed to mention his fellow on-air talent - whether it was something he heard on their show or something that gave listeners a peek behind the curtain. It was always positive and heartfelt.

What you got on the air you also got in the halls. As a programmer, I can't recall a time that I didn't look forward to one o'clock, because that would mean I'd see Dan in the building. He never failed to elevate my spirits. We could talk about anything together - from family to business. He was as great a listener and observer inside as well as outside the building,

In every conversation I recall having with Dan, it was evident that I had his complete attention. This had nothing to do with my position because, PD or part-timer, you were all the same to Dan - special. He was never above or below your level. Never hot or cold. Never asked for any privilege that 42 years in New York radio entitles one to. To do so would have been way out of character.

Dan frequently told me that he wasn't interested in reliving his past glories (trust me, if he ever wants to do so, he has enough to keep him busy for years). To him it was the excitement of today and the promise of tomorrow that mattered.

As of today, I'm just one of a quarter-million New Yorkers who already misses hearing Dan Daniel on the air. But maybe our loss will be another town's gain.

Around the country perhaps some PD or talent who is very passionate about their craft will read this and be inspired by Dan, just as I have been.  And maybe soon, listeners in these cities will experience some of Dan's "secrets" subtly woven into their favorite jocks' shows and appearances. 

Now wouldn't THAT be some cume to brag about! 

Huffington Post writer David Hinckley who for 35 years wrote for the New York Daily News has Dan's career highlights here.

Related posts: The Kings of Radio here; Traits of Market Icons here.

Photo credit: Joanie Chin @Joanie_ues. L to R: WYNY Team Members Jay Michaels, Mike O'Malley, Bill Rock, Shelli Sonstein, Dan Daniel, an unidentified person, Randy Davis and Jim Kerr


Patrick Bergin said...

Amen to all of that. "Triple" was one of a kind, a great entertainer and, more importantly, a great person and friend.

Jerry Del Colliano said...

Mike, what a great piece back then and even more so now on Dandy Dan. People who understand the relationship between the station and its audience inherently know how to unleash the power of personality radio. Unfortunately, the venture capital owners don't know or don't care. Nevertheless, what a nice respite from the ills of today's radio to remember the real power of the medium -- personalities that connect with local audiences (with all due respect to moronic sweepers that make radio impersonal). Jerry

Mike O'Malley said...

Thanks, Jerry for the read and the comment. Dan was a remarkable talent and you're so right about the power that is unleashed when a personality connects with listeners. On a personal level he was a joy to know and work with. Mike

Mike O'Malley said...

Thanks, Pat - you're so right of course. You and I had the great fortune to be both co-workers and listeners. Mike

Al Gordon said...

Incredible piece Michael! Dan's memory should be a blessing...we are still learning from one of the greatest ever!

Mike O'Malley said...

Amen, Al! Mike