R. Peter Straus, a pioneering radio executive who turned New York-based WMCA into an innovative broadcasting outlet for both rock and roll and topical talk, died last week in Manhattan at age 89.
Strauss also stood out for his gutsy decision to use his radio station as an editorial voice for liberal opinions on social issues. Separately, several aspects of his life coincided in fascinating ways with situations of historical import.
With a grandfather – Nathan Straus – who owned the major department stores Macy’s and Abraham & Straus, a great-uncle who served in Congress and perished on the Titanic, another great-uncle who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor, and a father who worked in FDR’s White House and was a New York State Senator, R. Peter Straus seemed destined to make his mark on the greater society. Following his graduation from Yale and service in World War II, Straus became program director of WMCA – which his father owned – in 1948. The ambitious young man assumed ownership of the station in the 1950’s, and eventually sought to refine its programming, which was a mix of popular music, dramas and coverage of sports games, into a single recognizable format.
Capitalizing on the increasing popularity of rock and roll across America, Straus turned WMCA into a full-time Top 40 music station at the end of the 1950’s, and gave it a unique sound by hiring distinctive disk jockeys – collectively known as the “Good Guys” – whose warmth, enthusiasm and humor endeared them to the listeners. The roster of on-air talent who became legendary at the station included “Murray the K” (Murray Kaufman), Scott Muni, Harry Harrison, fast-talking B. Mitchell Reed, Jack Spector and Dan Daniel. In the late 1960’s, Straus added to his record of innovation by hiring an African-American with a decidedly ethnic vocal style, Frankie Crocker, to host the evening slot.
Under Straus’ direction, WMCA took full advantage of the decade’s wave of “Beatlemania” by fiercely competing with rival music powerhouse WABC to be the first radio station in New York to play a new record by The Beatles. “WABC was bigger, but I always thought we had more fun,” recalled Dan Daniel years later. “And I think the fact there were two competing stations made them both better and made it a lot more entertaining for the listeners.”
Despite WMCA’s “fun” atmosphere, Straus had no qualms about inserting editorials that expressed his beliefs on contemporary issues. Two of the most prominent of these were an endorsement of John F. Kennedy for President in 1960 and a call for President Nixon to resign early on in the developing Watergate scandal. Turning his opinions into action, Straus and WMCA filed a lawsuit in 1961 that claimed the New York State legislature was violating the Constitution by granting rural areas of the state disproportionate representation. In conjunction with related lawsuits, that one helped produce the landmark U.S. Supreme Court “one man, one vote” decision in 1964.
Ever mindful of the responsibility of a radio station to serve the public good, Straus made WMCA the first station to implement a ban on advertisements for cigarettes; he instituted an off-the-air “Call for Action” feature that employed an ombudsman to assist listeners trying to deal with government agencies and corporations; operated a “Crime Stoppers” component to help the police resolve criminal cases; and gave elected officials such as Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo the opportunity to speak to listeners on the air. “We like to think occasionally we give voice to the voiceless,” Mr. Straus commented in 1983. “We want to be broadcasters, but we want to make a difference.”
Sensing a gestating change in the radio market, Straus switched WMCA’s format in 1970 from music to all-talk, pioneering the concept of “call-in” radio which allowed listeners to debate the issues over the air with knowledgeable and opinionated talk show hosts. “Peter Straus was one in a million,” said Tom Tradup, a Salem Communications executive who worked as Straus’s talk program director from 1980 to 1983. “WMCA was a petri dish of talk radio creativity, with legends like Barry Gray, Bob Grant and Barry Farber.”
Straus’ keen interest in social issues led him to follow his forebears and take on a number of roles in government service over the years. In 1950, he became an executive of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency in Geneva, Switzerland. In the late 1960’s, he served as President Johnson’s assistant administrator for aid to Africa in the Agency for International Development, and in the late 1970’s he was Director of Voice of America under President Carter.
Connections with famous people seemed to come naturally to Straus. His first wife, to whom he was married for 45 years, was Ellen Sulzberger, who was a niece of New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Straus’ second wife, Marcia Lewis, is the mother of infamous Clinton White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
In addition to his daughter Diane, his wife and his stepdaughter, Mr. Straus is survived by three other children from his first marriage; two brothers; a stepson; and nine grandchildren.