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Just as the American hostages were seized by the Iranian government in 1979, Colmes began doing talk radio. Never quite the author-channeling publicist-stroking flack so many interviewers become, Colmes’ first exploit was to call the American embassy in Tehran. Shortly after his dialogue with a “student” named “Z,” the U.S. state department banned all calls to Iran.
This kind of sharp-sightedness got him noticed by WABC who hired Colmes at the inception of its talk format in 1982. As overnight host, Colmes’ rapier wit and incisive questioning was reminiscent of his radio idols, Long John Nebel and Barry Gray. (When Colmes joined WMCA radio, both Nebel's and Gray’s alma mater, in 1989, Colmes paid homage to both of these legends by featuring Barry Gray and Long John’s widow, Candy Jones, on his maiden broadcast.) On the late-night show, Colmes was as comfortable at home with names like Marcel Marceau, Ramsey Clark and Ed Asner discussing topics like domestic politics, U.S. foreign policy, and first amendment rights, as he was with a bunch of New York deli owners debating who made the best sandwich.
WABC plucked Colmes from late-nights in 1984 and installed him in the all-important morning spot. Ratings and revenues steadily rose and Colmes’ morning numbers by the mid-eighties were the highest the station had achieved in some years. Colmes' recognition within the industry began to grow. Within a short period of time, he participated at William Paley's Museum of Broadcasting presentation on talk radio, a Fred Friendly conclave on the first amendment and an appeared on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather commenting on that same topic. In 1990, Colmes hosted the third annual Emerson Radio Hall of Fame Awards, as did John Gambling and Don Imus before him.
In the afternoons at WNBC Colmes continued to bring to his audience entertainment and interviews unavailable elsewhere: George Bush, Dick Gregory, Gloria Steinem, Jay Leno, and the first in-depth interview with Jessica Hahn at the height of the Jim Baker scandal. So prescient was Colmes in his timing of the Hahn interview (He promised her a stretch limo with a color TV and a Carnegie Deli sandwich) that WNBC television waited outside his studio for two hours to nab her for that afternoon’s Live at Five. The people from Donahue, originating a few floors up from the Colmes show, got wind that she was in the building and she went national the next day. Months later, after Hahn’s Playboy spread appeared, she did the Colmes show again. This time, Colmes played back interviews with her parents and statements she had made months earlier, many at variance with her present story, “You could cut the tension in the room with a Pocket Fisherman,” according to Colmes.
Even guests he couldn't get got Colmes noticed. Activist Al Sharpton stood him up four times and finally Alan got him on the phone live on the air. “I don’t like the things you’ve been saying about me,” Sharpton blasted. “Well, I don’t like being stood up four times,” Colmes shot back. Sharpton, “Well we can end it all right now!” upon which the good reverend hung up the phone. Days later it was vintage Colmes who got Sharpton’s hair stylist to reveal what the former back-up man for the godfather of soul is like under the dryer. The New York Post did a page one story on the interview.
When NBC sold its radio division WMCA snapped Colmes up and put him on in the evening. But that alliance was not to last either. Even WMCA’s management didn't know that its parent company, known more for real estate than broadcasting, was preparing to sell its operation to a religious broadcaster. But among Alan’s WMCA achievements is an hour-long sit-down with the aforementioned Reverend Sharpton. Not surprised by his toughness, but impressed with Colmes’ fairness and preparation, Sharpton wrote what Colmes regards as a most enjoyable note: “You’re not as bad as I thought and you’re not as good as you think.” They are now on speaking terms. In fact, Reverend Sharpton guest hosted Alan’s national show a few times and often guests on Hannity and Colmes.
As morning host on WZLX, Boston, Alan Colmes continued his groundbreaking interviews and commentary. When he jokingly asked then-Vice President Quayle if he planned to keep Bush on the ticket with him in the 1992 campaign, Quayle’s response, “I think the question is whether he’ll keep me,” made the national press, including Newsweek and USA Today. A week before the release of Nelson Mandela Colmes spoke to the Victor Verster Prison. “World sentiment would certainly favor the release of Mr. Mandela,” Colmes implored. “You won’t be disappointed,” was the immediate reply. Shortly after that, Colmes did an exclusive radio interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The summer of 1990 was an important time in the evolution of talk radio and in the career of Alan Colmes. ABC Talk radio decided to disband its weekday line-up, not content with the profit margin of its nationally syndicated talk product. With the phenomenal success of Rush Limbaugh as a hard-hitting, controversial, conservative host, a group of maverick broadcasters thought they knew better. That group included the legendary Barry Farber, his trusted executive producer, Michael Castello, and Alan Colmes. ABC was to stop delivering its shows on September 28. The following Monday, October 1, there would be lots of stations needing programming. The plan was to be up and running on that date, offering Farber and Dr. Joy Brown, already staples on ABC Talk radio, and to round out the presentation with America's first nationally syndicated liberal: Alan Colmes. Castello, Farber, Colmes, and technical wizard Miguel Laboy created Daynet, and only one thing stood between them and the dream they shared of creating America’s newest radio network: money. With the help of a group of local investors and every penny the assembled participants could spare, Daynet hit the ground running on October 1, 1990 with much more of a wing than a prayer. In fact, many industry pundits suggested prayer as the only way to stay afloat. Astounding onlookers (and some network personnel), Daynet not only survived, it thrived, enabling all parties concerned to build upon their careers. Impressed with “the little engine that could,” Major Networks purchased Daynet at the beginning of 1994. Two years later, building on an association Alan had developed years earlier when he worked at New York’s WHN, Farber and Colmes reclaimed their network and formed an association with the legendary Nick Verbitsky and Dick Clark at United Stations. Colmes, Farber and Verbitsky developed the talk radio arm of United and finally had the resources they had dreamed of to put the final polish on their syndicated efforts.
In October 1996, when Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News Channel, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes tapped Alan to co-host the channel’s nightly prime time debate show. Finding a liberal in conservative times was not easy. Perhaps that is why conservative Sean Hannity had already been hired and the working title for the show was Hannity and LTBD, or Liberal To Be Determined. Colmes’ nickname during his first few months at Fox was “LTBD.” Hannity and Colmes, as it is now widely known, is the second highest rated program on cable news television, having bested former ratings champion Larry King, and regularly winning its time slot
Alan Colmes was thrilled to be on nightly television, but his radio show, although heard nationally, was not cleared in the one place that meant the most to him - New York. There was always that nagging desire to be part of the late-night radio niche. When WEVD came calling in 1998 with an opportunity to re-enter the New York radio market with a late-night program, Colmes grabbed the opportunity. Alan was heard nightly on WEVD, from 11p.m.-2a.m., until September of 2001, when WEVD was leased to ABC/Disney for its ESPN sports format. Ironically, Colmes was, again, the last voice heard on an historic radio station before the switch to an all-sports format. During his tenure at WEVD, Colmes consistently had the highest ratings at the station, closing out with a respectable share of the late night radio pie, rivaling his more heavily promoted and financed competitors.
In February 2003, Fox News created a new radio venue for Colmes. Alan's radio show became the lead offering of the new Fox News Radio division. Once again, Colmes found himself breaking new ground bringing the Fox brand name to radio and instantly establishing himself as the reigning liberal in the medium. This wildly popular show is being grabbed up by stations all over the country, and garnering ratings and revenue. Alan is thrilled that in April, 2005, his radio show launched in his hometown on WWRL 1600AM in New York City.
Red White and Liberal: How Left is Right and Right is Wrong went on sale in October, 2003. Alan’s take on America, published by Regan Books, won raves from former President Bill Clinton, former Vice Presidential nominees Jack Kemp, and Geraldine Ferraro, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As America’s most prominent broadcast liberal amidst a sea of right-wing conservative talk show hosts, Alan Colmes might be described as a professional dragon slayer. Unlike many talkfests, filled with harmonious voices soothing the ego of the host, Colmes' program and Hannity and Colmes, are cacophonies of discordant voices, many of whom regard Colmes as the guy they love to hate. Colmes will often say he'd rather be the guy you love to hate then the person you hate to love. Love him or hate him, revere or disdain him, know that Alan Colmes has never forgotten that little boy, up late at night, awake under the covers, earplug fastened in, fantasizing about a career on radio and television; all the while hoping his parents didn''t know he was up listening to the masters. He brings that sense of wonderment to each of his broadcasts. After all, somewhere, off in the darkness, another pair of young ears may be listening.