Few current broadcasters have had as long and interesting a career as ABC Radio’s Bill Diehl.
In his new memoir “Stay Tuned: My Life Behind the Mic,” Diehl takes readers on a trip through his more than five decades in radio. His story is a mini-history of how the industry has changed; it’s also the tale of someone who fell in love with radio as a boy and loves it just as much today.
In part one, Diehl recalls some career milestones, like when he set up a studio in his parents’ basement at age 11 so that he could “play radio.” He got his first radio job at 15, hosting “Youth Bureau Time” at WCLI(AM) in Corning, N.Y. He went on to work at the campus station at Ithaca College, where he got his degree in 1963. Diehl also worked part-time at Corning’s commercial station, WTKO, playing the hits and doing some news.
After realizing he didn’t want to be a DJ, Diehl concentrated on news reporting. Now married, he moved to Washington with his wife, who was completing a master’s degree at Catholic University. He found work at WWDC(AM), and by late 1964, he had been hired at WTOP, where he did both radio and television news.
In his memoir, Diehl writes eloquently about the people he met at WTOP (including Sam Donaldson and Warner “Let’s go to the videotape” Wolf); and he describes the process of learning to do TV news: “Back then, the anchor had to read the news while looking at camera — they had no teleprompter.” He mastered that skill but much preferred radio.
Diehl’s marriage did not work out, but his career was on the upswing. By early 1967, he was hired by WNEW Radio in New York, where he worked alongside big-name announcers like Gene Klavan and William B. Williams. Many entertainers stopped by the station, including Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Tony Bennett. This was Diehl’s first encounter with the world of show business, but it wouldn’t be his last.
Diehl is shown in the ABC Radio newsroom.
ABC RADIO NEWSMAN
Meanwhile, Diehl remarried (this time happily), and in the summer of 1971, he joined ABC Radio’s Entertainment Network. Among his colleagues was Howard Cosell, about whom he shares priceless anecdotes.
In addition to reporting news, Diehl sometimes hosted interview programs, and his book shares memories of his conversations, including one with jazz great Benny Goodman.
He also recalls how different the technology was in that era — the reel-to-reel machines and audiotape. “We never did live interviews,” he told me. “There was an engineer who edited the tape with a razor blade. I would tell the engineer what I wanted in, and what could be edited out.”
Diehl interviewed Diana Ross in 1976.
After more than a decade of anchoring news for ABC Radio, network executives asked him to become an entertainment reporter.
His first assignment was reporting from the Academy Awards. His bosses liked the results, and he was soon focusing entirely on movie reviews and celebrity interviews. By the end of 1982, Diehl was hosting an entertainment feature called “Bill Diehl’s Spotlight.”
In 1988, he was named ABC Radio’s chief entertainment news correspondent, a role he held until retiring in 2007. But it wasn’t long before ABC asked him to come out of retirement. “They needed someone who knew show business,” he said.
And few people know it better than Diehl.
Mel Brooks, right, hams it up during an interview with Diehl.
These days, he maintains an obit file that can be used at a moment’s notice; whenever a famous entertainer dies, Diehl writes, produces and voices the obituary, as he did recently with Don Rickles, Chuck Berry and Mary Tyler Moore.
The second half of Diehl’s memoir consists of anecdotes about the many celebrities he interviewed over the past three decades, along with rare photographs.
Actors Tom Hanks and Sean Connery win praise for being down-to-earth and not letting fame change them; comedian Billy Crystal is “one of my favorite people to interview,” Diehl says.
He also tells of spending time with Robin Williams. In addition to answering questions, Williams treated Diehl to comic impressions of famous movie stars.
Another unpredictable but fun interviewee was director Mel Brooks. I asked Diehl how he prepared for doing that task.
Bill Diehl, center, poses with Kelly Ripa and Regis Philbin.
“With Mel, I had a list of questions about what he was doing, but they never got asked. They didn’t need to be asked.” Like Robin Williams, once Mel Brooks was on a roll, Diehl just let him be himself.
But this book is not just a series of puff pieces. Yes, Diehl clearly admires certain celebrities, like Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Lily Tomlin.
But he also acknowledges he had to be ready for the unexpected. For example, he was once asked to interview porn star Marilyn Chambers; when he arrived, she was naked (there is an amusing photo of the two of them).
He also interviewed Hugh Hefner, who wore his customary burgundy-colored robe and gave him a tour of the Playboy Mansion.
Sometimes, a star was challenging to interview — he spoke with Broadway legend Joel Grey, but no matter what he asked, Grey responded with one-word answers.
Diehl works the phones at ABC in the 1970s.
Most stars were eager to get some publicity, but a few were not. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio brushed him off, saying he didn’t do interviews. And although he did meet Elvis Presley, he was never able to get an interview.
I asked Diehl if there were other celebrities he wished he had interviewed: he named Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.
Diehl credits his celebrity interview success to his style. “I’m not political or confrontational. I try to make celebrities feel good. And I don’t ask mean-spirited questions.”
Diehl’s memoir covers a lot in only 162 pages; my one criticism is that I wish it had an index — since he mentions so many famous people, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. But I thoroughly enjoyed “Stay Tuned: My Life Behind the Mic.” It’s published by Oliver Productions and available in paperback ($16.95) and Kindle versions ($4.99) online at Amazon.com or bdiehl.com.