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UPCOMING EVENTS

How Lee Harris Went From Polka Station Owner to Radio Hall of Fame Nominee

For 30 years, if you gave him 22 minutes, he gave you the world. Those of you who live in the tri-state area have probably heard Lee Harris’ voice on 1010 WINS. If you haven’t, chances are his innovative technology is helping your radio news reporters “do it live.” These are just some of the reasons Harris was nominated to the Radio Hall of Fame this year.

“I got interested in radio because, one day, I broke my glasses and you couldn’t get them in an hour back then. I couldn’t really watch TV. So I put on the radio and I was just fascinated by what I was hearing and kind of took it up from there,” Harris told BNM over a Zoom call.

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As a pre-teen, Harris — who now works as the Director of Integrated Operations at NewsNation — had the added bonus of friends developing an interest in the medium as well. “So we did the pirate radio station thing. Then when I was 14, I took the test so I could get the third class license with broadcast endorsement.” The license was needed at the time to work at a radio station to turn the transmitter on and off.

While in high school, the native Long Islander began working at the Hofstra University station, “because they didn’t have enough kids who could pass the test. So they reluctantly let me and my friend Phil come in to be board operators.” Soon after, Harris grabbed the mic at WRHU and hosted their classical radio show.

During his senior year of high school, Harris had jobs at two commercial stations on Long Island. “One before school and one after school And not too much school in the middle but enough to graduate,” he joked.

Harris moved on to the University of Wisconsin and worked at a few local stations before a Program Director hired him in Chicago at WFYR for five years. “I picked up a few tricks of the trade. Chicago was really cold and so when they decided maybe a 12-person news department at an FM station wasn’t that great an idea, I went to Phoenix.”

KTAR was home to Charlie Van Dike’s morning show, where Harris was known as “The Squeaker.” From there he became the Managing Editor at KMOX in St. Louis before heading to WGN in Chicago. “Then, I — with a partner — bought a radio station in Wisconsin which had an all-polka format. And it was reasonably successful for a number of years.”

It was the late 1980s when Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince were headlining the airwaves, yet Harris’ polka format in Madison was grabbing ears. “The people really appreciated the programming. Older people, for the most part.” Ad revenue was scarce except from one trustworthy group. “Our biggest account on the station were some people who paid us to play the rosary every night at 20 minutes to seven. They paid us like $80,000 a year cash in advance. I was thinking like L. Ron Hubbard: The real money is in religion.”

Harris, a visionary armed with an idea, couldn’t change the format overnight by himself. “I went to my partner and I said ‘Look, we’re beating our heads against the wall here for nothing.’ Madison, Wisconsin did not have a paid religion station. And I said, ‘This is what we ought to do.’ And he didn’t want to do that, so I had him buy me out.” Today, the station Harris once owned is a 24/7 Catholic station.

Soon after, Harris came home to get out of radio and into business with his brother. “That lasted about three weeks,” he admitted.

While driving Harris heard what would become his radio home, 1010 WINS. “Listening to the people on the on the air, I said, ‘I bet I could get here. I could get a job on weekends here and I’ll do that until I get my next management job.’ So I faked up a tape because I hadn’t been on the air in about ten years. Dropped it off. And next thing I knew, I was on morning drive for the next 30 years.”

In keeping with the typical morning show lightness, Harris often brought levity to his listeners amid the typical New York murder and mayhem. “One thing I knew from having been out of news for about ten years before I went back to work at WINS, is that people tended to make fun of the news a lot. So what I did is when there was an obvious joke in a story, I made sure to include it so that the audience knew that we knew that it was funny. And some of these things became tentpoles in the tradition of morning radio.”

After his morning show, Harris would head to his 9-to-5 job as founder of Control Room Pro. Their software includes Anchor Dashboard, QGoLive, and Motion Mixes. Most notably QGoLive eliminated the clunkiness of wires, microphones, and transmitters. His innovative software gives reporters air-quality sound and playback ability just by tapping an app on their phone.

Over the years the radio veteran covered a vast range of stories but when the unthinkable happened, it was Harris’ voice which New Yorkers turned to on September 11, 2001.

“It started out as the most boring, ordinary day. [There was] a primary election where the outcome was known and it rapidly turned into something else,” Harris recalled. “I thought my job that day was to be calm and sound calm and convey the information. I think I did. People who have come back to me over the years say ‘I was listening. You sounded calm and that helped.’”

On his potential induction to the Radio Hall of Fame, Lee Harris was quite humble noting, “Should it come to pass that I get inducted [into the Hall of Fame] it will be on behalf of the hundreds and hundreds who have toiled largely, I don’t want to say unrecognized, but uncelebrated in, all news radio.”

Krystina Alarcon Carroll
Krystina Alarcon Carroll
Krystina Alarcon Carroll is a news media columnist and features writer for Barrett Media. She currently freelances at WPIX in New York, and has previously worked on live, streamed, and syndicated TV programs. Her prior employers have included NY1, Fox News Digital, Law & Crime Network, and Newsmax. You can find Krystina on X (formerly twitter) @KrystinaAlaCarr.

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