Joel A. Spivak, 1935-2011: Pioneer in Radio and Television Talk Shows

Communications Leader in the Fight Against Tobacco

Joel A. Spivak, a pioneer in radio and television talk shows with a devoted following in Washington, DC, and other cities around the country where he worked, died March 4 of cancer at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 75.

While he spent much of his career in radio and television, Mr. Spivak since 1996 has worked as press secretary for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy organization that works to reduce tobacco use in the United States and worldwide. Mr. Spivak was the organization's primary point of contact with the media and played a critical role in generating news coverage about the fight against tobacco, the world's leading cause of preventable death.

Mr. Spivak's nearly four-decades career in radio and television spanned the nation and several of the largest media markets, including stints in Albany, Houston, Providence, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Mr. Spivak concluded his broadcasting career in Washington, DC, where he was a talk show personality for radio station WWRC-AM from 1987 to 1995. He had the station's top-rated program and won an Achievement in Radio award for "Best on Air Talent."  His sign-on, "Joel A. Spivak speaking," was remembered by listeners long after he left the air.

He was also a television news anchor for WRC TV, the NBC station in Washington, from 1987  to 1988, co-anchoring  the "Live at Five" news show Monday to Friday.

Mr. Spivak was already a popular figure in Washington, DC, where he had been a talk radio personality on WRC-AM (WWRC's predecessor station) from 1980 to 1984. He was voted most popular talk show host in a Washingtonian Magazine poll in 1983.

 

A Radio Man at Heart

While Mr. Spivak's broadcasting career included both radio and television, radio was his first love.

Asked which he preferred during a 1990 interview with C-SPAN, Mr. Spivak stated, "Radio is more fun. You can use your imagination more. You don't have the time constraints that you do with television. People have more fun listening to the radio because they can see anything they want to see when they listen to the radio."

He later added, "It is a very personal medium — a very personal medium. People think they really know you and they want to know you. They get to know your little idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes .... It's kind of fun, but there's a tremendous responsibility."

In a line that captured his style, Mr. Spivak said in the same interview, "Talk radio if nothing else has got to be entertaining."

 

An Entertaining Storyteller

Throughout his broadcasting career, Joel A. Spivak entertained – with dry and sometimes outlandish humor, great storytelling, smart commentary and even crazy stunts.

In his 2007 book "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation," Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher told the story of one of Mr. Spivak's most memorable promotions a trapeze outing with the Shrine Circus while a disc jockey at Houston's KILT-AM radio station in the late 1950s:

When the Shrine Circus came to Houston, managers at McLendon's KILT asked morning deejay Joel Spivak if he'd be willing to fly with the trapeze artist. "You've got to be crazy," replied Spivak, noting that he had a young child and a wife to support.

"We'll insure your life with Lloyd's of London for $1 million," the manager offered.

Spivak caved. He went on the air and started dropping remarks about how the circus was coming to town and any bozo could do the trapeze act. Harold "Tuffy" Genders, one of the Flying Wards, then called in and challenged Spivak to join him at the top of the tent. Fifteen thousand fans packed the arena to watch their favorite deejay face death, or at least total humiliation. Spivak, dressed in tights decorated with green sequins, daydreaming about his wife collecting a cool million, was nervous enough even before the clowns drew him aside and asked if he was quite sure he wanted to do this. Finally, the clowns chased the deejay up the rope ladder…

He grabbed on to the trapeze and swung out over the silent crowd. "I tried with all my strength to let go, and I did not," Spivak said. On the second swing, he somehow willed himself to loosen his grip and sailed through the air — "it was maybe the most exhilarating feeling in my life." He bounced safely onto the net below as the crowd cheered, and walked off the floor to his waiting boss, who promptly informed Spivak that Lloyd's had refused the station's application for an insurance policy.

At Radio-Info.com, fans on a discussion board have reminisced fondly over the years about Joel Spivak's radio career. Comments have included::

And as great as Joel was (or is) as a talkshow host he was really something to hear as a Top 40 jock which he was in the early 1960s .... If you can get some airchecks of Joel you'll be impressed with how well he used the medium to entertain."

He was brilliant and pushed the radio envelope whenever possible as far as off the wall ideas .... There was not anyone remotely as inventive, before or since in my opinion.

In addition to his stints in Washington, DC, Mr. Spivak's radio and television career also included the following:

  • San Francisco, CA (1984-1986): KNBR-AM, afternoon drive time talk show host.

  • Philadelphia, PA (1968-1980): Mr. Spivak was the TV news anchor, featured reporter and talk show host for WCAU-TV and a radio talk show host for WCAU-AM, both CBS stations.

  • Los Angeles, CA (1962-1968): KLAC radio talk show host.

  • Providence, RI (1960-1962): TV talk show host for WPRO-TV and radio disc jockey for WPRO-AM

  • Houston, TX (1958-1960): disc jockey for KILT-AM radio

  • Albany, NY (1957-1958): disc jockey for WPTR-AM radio

 

A Fighter Against Tobacco

As press secretary for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids since 1996, Mr. Spivak has played an integral role in the organization's efforts to enact public policies that prevent children from smoking, help smokers quit and protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. The media coverage and editorial support he helped generate have been critical to major victories against the tobacco industry. These victories include the enactment of smoke-free workplace laws and higher tobacco taxes across the country, the government's successful racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry and the historic 2009 federal law granting the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products. Mr. Spivak was at the White House on June 22, 2009, when President Obama signed that law.

A former smoker, Mr. Spivak took particular relish in calling attention to the tobacco industry's activities that target children and mislead the public.

"Joel Spivak was a beloved member of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids family," said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "He was a true communications professional whose integrity and reliability were critical to establishing our organization's reputation as a trusted source of information on tobacco issues. Joel was also a friend to all of us, from the newest intern to the most veteran staff member, and his humor and kindness brightened our lives every single day."

Mr. Spivak attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He is survived by his wife, Ann Decker Spivak; daughter, Amanda Clare Spivak Barrett; sons, Matthew Alexander and Jonathan Moss Spivak; grandchildren, Russell Thomas and Peter Kevin Barrett Jr., Isaac Jonathan and Natasha Jane Spivak; brother, Steven Glenn Spivak; and nephew, Charles Allyn Spivak.