Harris Allen is what many would call a “radio lifer.”
He is known mostly for his work as a classic rock jock, the pinnacle of which was his 13 years at WNEW-FM. Lately, though, he is the person giving the scores during the overnight on WFAN.
With more than 30 years donning headphones and cracking the mic, Allen has crossed paths with some of New York City’s radio heavyweights.
Harris AllenThe Brooklyn-born Allen, 55, first got bit by the radio bug listening to the “Good Guys” of WMCA and one of the WABC “All-Americans,” the legendary Dan Ingram.
“Nobody really ever did it better than him, as far as I’m concerned,” said Allen.“I think I try to bring a little bit of the humor that he had, in my own way.”
With no college radio station experience, Allen began to find his own way with a stint at Newton, New Jersey’s WIXL and its AM counterpart WNNJ in 1975. Allen made $120 a week at the mom and pop operation. But even more valuable would be the start of Allen’s longtime association with Mark Chernoff, then a DJ at ‘NNJ.
A year later while Allen was working at WRNW, a rock station in Westchester County, a new DJ was hired — Howard Stern.
“I trained him to learn how to operate the board,” Allen recalled. “What you saw in ‘Private Parts’ of the bumbling Howard Stern, when he was first starting out, was a very accurate portrayal of who he was at that time.”
Despite Stern’s on-air awkwardness, Allen continued, “…we could see signs of the inner-weirdness inside him. It was just a question of it coming out.”
For a few months, Stern was the station’s program director with Allen as his music director. “Neither of us had much of a clue about what the heck was going on,” Allen recalled.
That lasted until Allen decided to move his career to California—without a job waiting for him.
But before heading to the West Coast, the longtime jock had worked with many at ‘RNW whose careers would ultimately intersect again at WNEW, including Meg Griffin, Dan Neer and Ted Utz [general manager]. “I learned a lot from people who really knew their stuff,” Allen said.
It would be another nine years before Allen would get the opportunity of a lifetime.
Until that materialized, he found work in Ventura, California. But only six months later, he was pounding the pavement again as “the owner was kind of out of cash.”
He honed his craft further by doing mornings for three-and-a-half years at KCAL in the Riverside-San Bernardino, California market.
Once that job dried up, he was on the move again—this time to his parents in South Florida. While there he added several more gigs to puff up the resume.
Most notably, he went out of his comfort zone to spend six months as a country music DJ in Miami.
Allen remembered, “I found that it was actually not too bad. … I would actually go out on promotions with my cowboy hat and cowboy boots.”
Steadily working for nearly a dozen years, Allen got an inside tip about a possible opening at his dream job– NEW-FM in New York. He contacted his old friend Chernoff, who told him to send a tape to Scott Muni.
“Even though Mark was the program director [and ultimately did all hiring], everything needed to pass through Scott. … because he was the man at that radio station.”
This tape, though, would be different than the standard “aircheck” that DJs used to apply for work.
Allen was asked to submit “a tape of just me speaking about myself for a few minutes… Thankfully, somehow I passed that test.”
Getting hired would be “a dream come true,” to be part of the same on-air staff as his biggest idol in the business—Muni, who Allen grew up listening to when ‘NEW became progressive rock in 1967.
He started working at 102.7 in 1987, working closely with Muni for several years, including as his producer. “I’d have to pretty much pinch myself every day to make sure it was actually happening,” Allen said.
At NEW-FM he survived “a myriad of changes in program directors, general managers, owners [and] format variations.”
In 1999, the station turned off its legendary rock sound, opting instead for a younger- geared talk format.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the event in June, former ‘NEW (and current WAXQ) jock Carol Miller was quoted in the Daily News saying, “Corporate management pulled the plug because classic rock was deemed ‘over’ and had no future in attracting the 25-54 demographic.”
Allen concurred, “You need only look at the success of the classic rock station [WAXQ] in New York right now. There’s no question in my mind that could have been WNEW today, but they chose another direction.”
After the format flip, Allen was retained as a producer for Ron and Fez.
“Finally, it became apparent that it wasn’t really my thing,” Allen admitted. “They were just looking to completely turn the page.”
Out of work, he turned to his former program director for help. Chernoff, who by that time was in charge at sports station WFAN, told him to try Shadow Broadcasting where they were in need of fill-in sports anchors on WINS.
Despite not having done sports, the veteran announcer wasn’t concerned about taking on something new.
“I’ve listened to sports on the radio. I know what a good sportscast should sound like; I would like to think anyway.”
The combination of being an aging rock jock and lack of available shifts made the move to sports even more attractive.
So since 2001, Allen reinvented himself as a sports anchor, first in a part-time capacity on WINS. He followed that up at WFAN, where for the last three years he has been the station’s full-time overnight update anchor.
“I think I’m getting to the point now with the sports, where I know my way around it pretty well,” Allen reflected. “I’ve picked up so much from the anchors there.”
His shift overlapped with another broadcasting giant— Don Imus.
Allen remembered, “On his farewell show, I went in to shake his hand and wish him well. He looked at me and [deadpanned], ‘Harris, this is all your fault.’”
Return home redux
Harris AllenAllen wasn’t done with his rock jocking just yet. In 2002, while still doing part-time sportscasts, he joined Sirius Satellite Radio, voice-tracking for several rock channels. That gig lasted more than six years until the consolidation with XM.
He said the future of Sirius/XM remains unpredictable, but he’s hopeful that with advances in technology there will be more options for listeners.
Of course, thanks to the recession, unpredictability is part of the playing field now. But Allen keeps a positive attitude. “I take it one day at a time, try to do the best job I can and try to make myself as valuable to my bosses as I can.”
His advice for hopeful broadcasters, though, is not as encouraging: “It’s not something I would recommend to anybody.” But Allen added that those who have the passion should follow their hearts. “Understand that it can be a rough road. I would not tell a kid of mine to do it; … It’s a little shaky out there right now.”