Of all the on the air people I have worked with in the 40 years I’ve been at WABC, I have worked with none longer, than my friend Johnny Donovan. With the exception of the last six months – Johnny decided in 2015 that it was time for him to hang up his headphones and retire, he has been the one consistent in my WABC life. Music, Program Directors, General Managers, DJs, Talk Hosts, fellow engineers, and even companies have come and gone, but not Johnny! Johnny Donovan worked at WABC Radio for 43 years. I first worked with him on the air during one of my first weeks as an Engineer at WABC…who knew then that I’d work with Johnny longer than any other on-the-air person in my time in radio!
Johnny started in commercial radio in New York’s Hudson Valley in 1963, meaning he’s got better than 50 years in the business! After stints in several smaller New York and New Jersey markets, he moved to New York City doing overnights on WOR-FM in 1968. WOR-FM was a classic Bill Drake programmed station, and the name Johnny Donovan was actually given to him by Bill Drake! Johnny was doing mid days 4 years later at WOR-FM, when on July 9th, 1972, he moved from the FM dial to the AM dial, and to his home for 43 years, WABC. During the music days at WABC, Johnny was the glue that held the place together as the main fill-in person, as well as holding down his own regular weekend shifts. For the last several years before talk, Johnny held down a Monday through Friday mid-day shift.
When WABC switched in 1982 from Musicradio to Talkradio, Johnny stayed on as a Staff Announcer, but that position quickly morphed into the position of Production Director, as Johnny became one of the pre-eminent voice and production people in the radio business. For the last 33 years, Johnny’s hands (and voice) have been involved in thousands of commercials and spec spots, show opens (no one else can say that they’ve been the voice of the Rush Limbaugh Show since it debuted in 1988), WABC station production pieces, and special programming (Johnny produced, and was the host for 10 years, of the yearly WABC Rewound broadcast, that looked back every Memorial Day weekend at the Musicradio days of WABC). To say that Johnny has left his mark on WABC, and on NY Radio, would not, I think be an exaggeration.
When I wrote one of these pieces about George Michael, I told the following story that had to do with Johnny’s years as WABC’s chief fill-in person:
“By the time I came to WABC, George was doing the weekend sports on WABC, and commentator on Islander games. Now since hockey is not an everyday sport, George would be gone a couple of nights a week. There was one night in particular that Johnny Donovan was filling in, that he and I will still occasionally talk about to this day. Remember how I said that George was a team player, and wanted his engineers to be as invested in the show as he was? Well, on this particular night that Johnny was filling in, the show had just started, and he handed me a song, and I told him we didn’t play that category at that point. Then he called for a jingle combination, and I replied, “no, we play a medium and a sonovox here”, then after I segued from the song, to the jingle, to the new song, he called for the mic, and I shook my head NO. At that point, Johnny went back to his magazine and told me, “fine…just do the show and tell me when to talk.” Some days I wonder why he still talks to me!!”
Then there was the day I came back from WOR as a permanent member of the WABC/WPLJ Engineering Department. It was Monday, October 16, 1978, and even though I hadn’t worked at WABC since February, I was assigned a 6AM shift so that I could visit the company Doctor and go to Personnel and get all my paperwork done during the day. From the moment I got the phone call from Win, I dreaded the fact that after not running the board at WABC for over 8 months, the first thing I had to do on my return was work with Harry early on a Monday morning!! All I could think of was how Harry seemed to forget what his headphones sounded like from Saturday to Monday, and what a pain it was doing the show first thing out of the box Monday morning!! So, here I am about 5:30, walking down 53rd Street from the subway towards the ABC Building, and as I get to the driveway for the garage, I see Johnny’s Ford Fairmont sitting there, and realized that my first permanent shift at WABC would be with HIM, and NOT Harry! So, the first DJ I worked with at WABC as a permanent member of the WABC/WPLJ Engineering Department was a man I’d work with for almost the rest of my WABC life!
Often times, when talking about the Musicradio days, Johnny would say, “If I knew it was going to be so important later in life, I would have paid more attention.” Well, I know there are so many more moments he and I have shared, but as he says, had I realized they’d be important, I would have paid more attention!
Also, if I knew we were going to work together so long, I probably would have been nicer to him that night when he filled in for George, but since Johnny enjoys telling that story about as much as I do, I guess all’s well that ends well!
To be in the New York Radio market…the #1 Radio Market in the country for 47 years, is an accomplishment very few can match, but that’s only the tip of the Johnny Donovan iceberg! Johnny is the undisputed leader in on-the-air voices at WABC. No one else has his history of being heard both in the Musicradio and the Talkradio days, and with a 43 year tenure as a WABC employee, there haven’t been many over the years who could come close to that either!! Combine that with his status as a Drake Jock from his WOR-FM days, his 27 year history as the voice of the Rush Limbaugh Show, and I know I’m not alone when I describe my friend Johnny Donovan as a true New York Radio Legend!
Johnny’s Last Show on Musicradio 77, WABC:
Johnny and WABC Rewound:
Sean Hannity talks to Johnny: