Ned Richards of Northampton was 18 years old when he sat down to the WBME switchboard for the first time on Nov. 19, 1969 and introduced Belfast, Maine to rock’n’roll at 5:30 a.m. It was a crooner station at the time, playing oldies hits from Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams (Richards’ favorite singer of all time). He selected his first song, “Judy in Disguise” by John Fred & his Playboy Band, by simply closing his eyes and touching his finger to a list. And the rest, as they say …
‘Ned Richards’ is actually his radio name and has been from day one (his real name is a mystery to those who don’t already know). He is now approaching his 45th year in radio broadcasting and spends his time at “The Party Channel” (WALN in Allentown), where he has worked for the past year and a half. “I’m going to go to 50 [years], then call it quits,” he said.
“This is basically all I’ve wanted to do all my life,” said Richards. “Even as a kid, I was obsessed with radio personalities. It started in high school; at 16, I was knocking on doors to find a job.”
Richards said his love of communications spurred him into the job hunt, but with little to no experience, breaking into the industry proved tougher than anticipated. “I loved the concept of radio, but no one was willing to hire me. So I decided to try the technical end of it and thought maybe I’d get lucky,” he said.
He went to Wireless Philadelphia and took a course to obtain his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license. He made a friend who was currently working as one of the ‘top jocks’ in the area; they grew a good relationship, said Richards, and he helped him get that first gig in Maine.
“He was really the one who said, ‘you have a good voice for radio, just try it,’” Richards said.
Richards’ takeover of WBME wasn’t exactly welcomed warmly in the beginning: “There was a Presbyterian minister who said ‘the devil has arrived in Belfast’ when I started,” Richards laughed. “He complained week after week that I was some long-haired hippie from Woodstock. So three weeks later, I went to his church in a shirt and tie with my short hair and I sat and listened to his service. Afterward, he came up to me and said, ‘young man, this is the first time I’ve seen you here, can I ask you your name?’ And I said, ‘Satan.’ He didn’t know what to say!”
That same year, Richards was invited to be a part of the Belfast High School graduation. The local kids were enjoying the change in the music. During the Baccalaureate service, that same minister finally admitted he’d been wrong about Richards; a moment Richards said finally opened the door for him to truly become a member of the community. “That’s when they embraced me,” he said. And Richards played his part well: He helped the town start a food bank, which they’d never had before, as well as a number of charities. He spent three years in Maine before deciding to return to his Pennsylvania roots.
“I grew up in Ironton. Graduated from Parkland. I decided to come back home because I was really missing the area,” said Richards. “I ended up at WRFY in Reading next, as the overnight guy. I worked mostly, for many years, overnight.”
The biggest difference between radio then and now? “You couldn’t make a joke out of the news back then,” Richards explained. “It’s really changed. Corporate radio would tell you what to say. The only thing you had was a computer, a keyboard, a mic[rophone], and a switch. Today to be in radio, you don’t have to be as talented. Back then, people expected you to say crazy things in the morning to make you laugh and that’s about all that’s left. The morning drive is supposed to get you going.”
Richards spent the ‘80s at WLEV. He began at Oldies99 when it started in 1991 until it changed to Classic99 in 2001 (now known as 99.9 The Hawk). Then he went on to WGPA in Bethlehem up until he decided it was time for something different a couple years ago. He predicts he will finish his career at his current home at WALN, where the concept of radio has been turned on its head.
“This is a TV radio show,” explained Richards. “They actually see us work. We have commercials. The whole process here is becoming really successful.”
Richards broadcasts three distinct shows during the week: Monday from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. is the First Decade of Rock & Roll (1954-64), Thursday from 8 to 11 p.m. is Street Corner Doo-Wop, and the Saturday Night Sock Hop from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. Blue Ridge and Service Electric pick them up.
“This is what they call ‘The Party Channel.’ We’ve had toga parties like you wouldn’t believe,” laughed Richards. “There’s all sorts of food flying around. We wear costumes. We imitate different things, shows that were fun. We do contests and trivia.”
When Richards first became interested in radio, he said the personalities on the air were like mysterious movie stars. “To meet the face behind the voice was a big deal, but now they can already see us on-screen,” he said. “We don’t do our work any differently … well, besides the parties.”
They reminisce about the “good ol’ days” on the air, which seems to be the most popular. People are able to join their chat room and write in with questions that they answer on the air. “Lately, it’s been all about food and the weather,” he said.
WALN even has a personal weather man, Monsoon Mike, who comes in to talk about crazy snowstorms—and off-the-wall holidays like Disgruntled Workers Day. “I think people enjoy something a little different,” Richards said. “Plus the ‘60s music. I put a lot of people to sleep every night I’m here.”
When they’re not throwing bashes at the station, WALN broadcasts an automated mix of oldies and sentimental music 24/7, 365 days a year. Richards laughed, “People have said to me, ‘Gee, you must listen to oldies all the time.’ But actually, I like Lady Gaga’s music!”
Richards considers himself mostly retired right now, as he only does the three shows a week. He spends the rest of his time tending his seven-acre farm in Germansville, Gentle Giant Meadows, where he and wife care for their three birds, three toy poodles, and three beautiful Clydesdale horses, two of which are currently pregnant. “My hobby is quite a job,” he said. “They’re lovely animals. I’ve been in horses for many years. I’ve shown them at farm shows. One is a Budweiser mare from St. Louis. I’m proud of that—how many people can say they have a Budweiser horse?”
He and his wife, Vera, have even hosted equine classes for disabled kids in the past and never took a dime for it. He has instead donated to animal cruelty organizations, among many other charities over the years.
“I enjoy helping somebody that needs something,” Richards said. “If there is any type of organization that needs anything, I’d be more than happy to broadcast it. I’ve done that for many people without charging them. If you’re a nonprofit and there’s good reasoning for it, I will without a doubt mention it. I want to give back to the community what they’ve done for me over the years. I’ve signed a few autographs in my life and it’s kind of fun. I think times have changed now; as we’ve gotten older, that image of you being ‘higher’ than someone else, I don’t go for that, I’m on a people’s level.”
Richards encourages any charity or organization in need of a broadcasted announcement to reach out to him via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or to look for him on Facebook.
He continued, “While under the tutelage of Joe Niagara, he said to me, and I say to everyone I have broken into radio, ‘Ned, be humble to the stars you talk to and to the people, because they’ll either make you or break you.’ I’ve listened to that over the years and it’s gotten me to the point where I’m happy with that.”
“I think it’s nice to be known as a giver more than a taker. I think that’s quite important for any person in public. ‘Be humble’ has always been my motto. I don’t go around parading, ‘hey, I’m Ned Richards.’ I’ve never done that and never will. I don’t need to be recognized. I don’t want it; it doesn’t matter to me. But if there’s somebody that needs help, I’ll be the first one there. That’s just the way I am.”
To learn more about the Party Channel, visit www.walncableradio.com.