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The Doctor is In:
Northeast Public Radio/WAMC’s Dr. Alan Chartockby Ross Rice

Lets be honest here. It’s clear that the powers that be that run National Public Radio look for a certain even tone of sober sonority in their vocal talent; Robert Siegel, Terry Gross, and Garrison Keillor—though thoroughly engaging—come across as mellow, uncontroversial, and smooth without being soporific, a refreshing balance to the relentless whine of the AM right-wing behemoth, and the high-powered blather and compression of most classic rock FM.

But it’s inevitable: there will come a time when local public radio lovers will come across an anomalous and distinctive voice that belongs to one of the most curious and opinionated minds around, someone clearly well-versed in the Byzantine operation that is New York State politics, as well as national trends, health issues, regional movers, shakers and players. As a one time police consultant, political operative, television personality, full-time professor, and now full-time public radio station CEO and on-air personality at WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, Dr. Alan Chartock brings a wide array of expertise to the airwaves. And he’s not the least bit afraid to employ it.

Mention his name in casual conversation, and you’ll be surprised who lights up. Some will say he’s too involved with the station, that he’s too generous with his opinions, that the station reflects his personal interests more than the public’s. That he doesn’t give enough time to the right, or the (further than Alan) left.

But nobody can deny that without Alan’s unique ability and relentless energy, there would be no WAMC, which by all standards is a truly excellent, large-scale public radio station/system, reaching across seven states, bringing the best of American public radio to hundreds of thousands of listeners. His popularity in the listening range is readily validated during fund drives; he even has his enemies sending in donations just so they can get him to read their personal insult of him on air, and he almost always obliges—no intolerance or anti-Semitism though—with great gusto.

We finally met the man behind the voice, at his office at WAMC in Albany. Dr. Alan was quite the picture, jovially greeting us in his owlish glasses, SUNY Albany sweater and cap, black shirt with a tie that was, well (sorry Alan) “made for radio.” But it didn’t take long to see that this radio station was his baby, his passion, his roost to rule. The Doctor was in.

In 1941, Alan Chartock was born in New York City, along with his identical twin Lewis, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As their mother Shirley (later Sarah) was a school community coordinator, the boys went to public schools, while many of their friends got to go to private academies. Alan’s father worked at a defense plant around the clock, and summers were spent on Fire Island, where the predominantly Jewish community was affluent, and the Chartocks were not.

But Alan and Lewis had fun; since there were no cars on Fire Island, kids with wagons would be employed to help tote residents’ and visitors’ luggage. Once he got to deliver Marilyn Monroe’s stuff to Lee Strasberg’s house, where she was staying. As Alan recalls, “those were formative years. They were rough years, and you learned a lot about people with chips on their shoulders, about people who were looking for trouble.”

“We are what our parents taught us. My mother was a liberal…and the far left didn’t like her. There was the Teachers Union, and the Teachers Guild, which was the more left union. We read six newspapers a day in our house.” Alan’s mother was getting trouble not just from the usual folks on the right, but also from the far left, which at that time still had a hard pro-Stalin line. Clearly this treatment—from both sides—has had a large influence on the son.

Music lessons and Boy Scouts were a big part of Alan’s development and sense of social responsibility. But something big happened when the 14 year-old went to Bronx House Camp in Milford CT, and saw Pete Seeger play. “My life just changed on the spot, when I saw him do his thing. As a kid I would write him letters…and he would always answer them. And if he didn’t answer, (his wife) Toshi answered. It was astounding.” Alan taught himself banjo from Pete’s records, and still occasionally plays with the Berkshire Ramblers. (They have since become good friends, and Pete has been available for many fundraisers over the years for WAMC.)

Alan started his college career at Hunter College—in the Bronx, just up the B train line from home—in 1959, and admits he had few friends, though he did start the Hunter College Hootenanny Club. Meanwhile, his mother was becoming more politically active with the New York Democratic Party. Sometimes he’d come into the room at his mother’s, “and there would be Fred Ohrenstein, later to become Minority Leader in the State Senate, and Al Blumenthal…these are all very famous names. I remember I came in once and they were talking about something, and I said ‘well, I think…’ And Ohrenstein put his hands over his face and said, “Oh God, another kid who’s gonna want to primary me!’”

Finishing his Bachelor’s degree at Hunter, he also squeezed in a “Washington Semester” at American University. Although he was accepted at Indiana University for a PhD in political science, with the full scholarship, he didn’t want to leave his then-girlfriend in New York, and decided to go to American instead—where he had no scholarship, and showed up for registration there with just a little money borrowed from his mother.

But then one of those serendipitous moments occurred: while he waited in line, the dean of the “Washington Semester” program just happened to walk by, and recognized Alan. The dean told him some interesting news: a woman who was supposed to get the full Washington Semester fellowship the next year, had just called to say she couldn’t make it. Both the dean and Alan’s adviser vouched for him by phone, and within two minutes, Alan had secured the scholarship money he needed. He finished his Masters at American, and went on to New York University to get his much-desired PhD, after which he worked at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, while interning at the Legislature. For whom? Manhattan Democrat Fred Ohrenstein.

Around this time, an old friend from Fire Island told Alan about her “five gorgeous suitemates at Skidmore.” Upon meeting them, one of them captivated him so much he confided in his friend that she was “the one,” only to find “the one” wasn’t interested. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Alan is a pretty persistent guy. About five years later, after an off-and-on courtship, Roselle agreed to marry Alan, close to forty years ago. She’s now a Professor of Education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, teaching history and working on her fourth book, and is considered “probably one of the five most important Holocaust scholars in the US.” She’s also WAMC’s “number one listener,” providing Alan with valuable insight concerning the programming, as a listener. (Son Jonas is head of the Charter School Institute at SUNY, and daughter Sarah, with a Ph.D. from Princeton, is an assistant professor of political science at the College of New Jersey.)

Alan went on to work first for Rutgers, then John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1970, while teaching one day a week at SUNY New Paltz. John Jay lent him out as a consultant to the NYC Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, who enlisted him to help out with the Midtown prostitution problem. But Alan clearly preferred academia, and was able to use John Jay’s interest to negotiate Associate Professor status at SUNY New Paltz, in 1971. Shortly afterwards he started the Legislative Gazette, an intern program that utilized students from around the country to observe New York Legislative politics, and, working with Alan and professional editors, publish a weekly journal about it. The program became a big success, helping maintain interest in the political process among young people while informing those who wanted to know what was going on there, and is still going strong 35 years later.

Crossing the Kingston/Rhinecliff bridge one day eight years later, Alan heard WAMC beaming in from Albany Medical College, a “magnificent public radio station, playing classical music,” which inspired him to get the Legislative Gazette its own radio program. He contacted Albert Fredette—then station manager—told him his idea, and that it wouldn’t cost anything, and Fredette agreed. Soon, Alan found himself on the radio show himself, helping the kids out. Fancy that.

Alan got involved with fundraising and grant writing for WAMC, but the station was in debt, behind on the onerously high rent for the building, and the Albany Medical College—like so many colleges across the country—decided to pull the plug. So Alan suggested a fund drive; he’d be glad to host it. He had just been offered a professorship at SUNY Albany, to run their poli-sci internship program.

They started the drive on a Monday in 1979, announcing to all on air that the station would be shuttered if they couldn’t come up with funds. Three phones and “two little old ladies writing down everything in chicken scratches.” No computer. Alan had a blast: reading from Ferdinand the Bull, playing Tubby the Tuba and 2,000 Year-Old Man, doing what he would perfect into some of the most effective fundraising schtick since Jerry Lewis.

Then Albany Mayor Erastus Corning, a real old school machine pol, came down the second day with a forceful challenge to match the first $800 with his own cash money. The phones lit up. The station needed $125,000 to stay on; by Thursday they had $129,000 pledged. And Alan had “found what I wanted to do. I was a full professor, winning awards. It didn’t matter, this was it, this was where I lived. It was phenomenal.”

Unfortunately, afterward when he approached Fredette about getting more involved, he was rebuffed. And though he and his radio partner, David Galletly, were appreciated at the after party, they were soon shut out of the station, despite having done so much to save it.

Shortly thereafter, Alan was on the train to the city, feeling pretty bummed about the way things had just gone down, and went to get “a V8.” Coming back from the lounge car, he bumped into Alan Miller, the NY Commissioner for Mental Hygiene Alan had known from his work with the NYC Police. After hearing Alan’s woeful tale, Miller told him “I can help you.”

“What you don’t know is that (I’ve recently) become the Associate Dean…of Albany Medical College.” When he got back later, Miller went to the dean, and together they took the station from Fredette, and gave it to Alan and the Community to Save Public Radio group. It was a complete coup-de-grace. Another one of those rare moments—like that moment in line at American University—that changes everything.

But the station needed to vacate the building; the rent was still ridiculously high. Word got out, and soon Alan and David were called into a meeting with a certain “liberal arts institution” who would build a fine facility for them and the station. But the board had a few questions. This takes us to one of Alan’s greatest hits …

“The first one said ‘will you agree to not use certain words on the radio?’ ‘Like what?’ says my partner David Galletly. ‘I think he means abortion, don’t you sir?’ I said, and he says ‘yes, because we have clergy here, and we don’t want you to ever mention words like that on the radio.’ I said ‘No, we would never agree to something like that. It’s public radio.’”

“Then the next guy says, ‘Would you change the initials from WAMC to whatever (our call letters are)?’ ‘No.’ The third guy says ‘If you’re not coming here, where are you going?’”

“I said ‘we’re talking to WMHT, to SUNY at Albany.’ He said ‘my son-in-law is the chair of the College Council (at SUNY Albany). It’s arranged: you’re not going there.’ The next guy wanted to put more of their board on our board, to make a majority. I said ‘absolutely not.’ Then in comes a guy from the North Country, a Senator, who says ‘Alan, I just sent our guys down to the Department of Education, and you won’t get your charter’—there it is (framed and hanging on wall)—‘unless you go to this place.’”

“I started yelling at him, ‘I started the Legislative Gazette, I’m the publisher, and I’m putting your name on the front of it, saying you’re nothing but a rotten scoundrel!’ I started carrying on, because I saw no other way to do it. I think my advantage at that particular meeting was that I didn’t know who any of these guys were.”

“Finally, up stands the head of KeyBank, who is on that board. Looks over at me and stands up—looks like a deputy sheriff stopping a car in Georgia—and he says, ‘I’ve been dealing with guys like you all my life. Now you’re telling me: either you’re coming here or you’re not.’ And we stood up, David and I, and I said ‘no, we’re not, sir,’ turned around, and walked out. And I always say to the audience: ‘you know what? You walked out with us.’”

Since then WAMC has relocated to downtown Albany, and has been able to amass a total of 21 repeater stations, effectively covering from Dutchess and Orange Counties to the south, all the way to the Canadian border in New York, and including large hunks of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont (peripherally into New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), and a goodly portion of Western New York. And though the station itself has a large area covered, there is still a real effort to provide localized content, with local correspondents giving special coverage to each major region.

Despite Alan’s leftward tilt, he does make an effort to engage the right; listeners to his Congressional Corner show will just as often hear a Republican at the mic as a Democrat, and Alan is a gracious host, generally allowing his guests their full say. But on the left side, Alan has chosen to draw the line at Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, refusing repeated requests for its addition to the schedule.

“Well, I think it’s a fine program. The only thing I think is, if I have (conservative) Herb London on, and I have people from the left, liberals on, you’ll never hear that on Democracy Now!. You’ll only hear one side on Democracy Now!. But it’s there, it’s a fine program, it should be on. But not on WAMC.”

We could spend a long time discussing WAMC—perhaps another time. This is more about Alan who, admittedly, invests a great deal of himself in the radio station he loves, and often represents.

But truly, with somebody as knowledgeable about Albany as Alan, it would be a crime not to ask a quick New York question: what does he think needs to be done to break the present impasse in Albany?

“I think we need to have an ethics package. I think we have to have absolute transparency in government. So that if anybody is getting any money from anywhere, they have to tell us where that money is coming from. At the very very least. And you have to decide—everybody does—whether or not they’re willing to work for $100,000, which is what they’re making now (once everything is added up). You have to make that decision: do you want to be a lawyer or a legislator? If you want to be a legislator, we HAVE to know where your money is coming from.”

“A second (thing) is we have to change the way we re-apportion the legislature. Now that’s coming up, we have a census this year, and we’ll re-apportion. And we have done this terrible thing of allowing both houses majorities to draw the districts to their own benefit. It would be like saying to George Steinbrenner: you should be the umpire for the Yankees/Boston game. It’s not fair, and we know it’s not fair. And they won’t give in.”

“Of course, what would be good—but I don’t think you’re ever going to find (it happening), there’s no appetite for it—is that the public pays for the elections. As opposed to having to go around and get money from rich people, because otherwise these guys become nothing more—as I said to my classes and the Legislative Gazette—than messenger boys. These people in the Legislature are not all geniuses. They didn’t graduate in the top of their class from Harvard Law School. They’re here because somebody sent them, one way or the other.”

Feel free to disagree with Alan—and many people do—but you have to admit that he makes valid points on a daily basis, and keeps the dialogue going with a steady stream of politicians and newsmakers weighing in on the air. The little medical college public radio station that could has become an important—possibly essential—component to the larger community, thanks to the good doctor and his extremely able staff.

Now, about that tie….

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