Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Nightbird

Alison Steele was a New York DJ on 102.7 WNEW-FM. ON air she was known as "The Nightbird". To understand her career you need to hear her voice. Writers who miss all kinds of details of her career still manage to dwell on it's particular qualities: sultry, smoky, soft, sexy, syrupy, and "could melt butter" get repeated over and over. It's all true, but there was much more to her life than her provocative delivery.  In 1976 she became first woman to receive Billboard Magazine's "FM Personality of the Year" award. Did I mention the Jimi Hendrix song "Night Bird Flying" was inspired by her?

A Brooklyn native, at the age of 14 she broke into the biz running errands for a TV station. While Steele was at the peak of her career she was also a single mother. At the age of 19, she married orchestra leader Ted Steele, (of the Chesterfield Supper Club) who was twenty years older than her. It didn't last, and she had to add young single mother to her list of responsibilities.

In 1966 she got her big break. The FCC issued a rule making that but an end to the long time practice of AM/FM simulcasts. WNEW-FM decided to debut "Sexpot Radio" and hired an all female airstaff. the idea crapped out in under 2 years and Steel was the lone survivor. They segued into a free-form progressive rock station and she had to learn what the hell that meant. Management wasn't helpful to say the least. They buried her show in a 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM shift.  It was only when they discovered she was rated number one in the slot the moved her show back to start at 10:00 PM.  As for the voice?  Well she played it up. In a 1971 interview she was quoted as saying
"I'm a night person," she said in 1971, when she was with WNEW, where she worked on AM and FM for about 14 years. "I think it has a mysterious quality. I never get lonely up here."

She left the station in 1979 and worked at a few other New York area stations: WNEW-AM, WPIX, and even CNN as a correspondent. She was an announcer on the TV soap opera, Search for Tomorrow and even was the voice of an in-flight audio entertainment channel on board Trans World Airlines. Her last gig in radio was on WXRK from 1989 to 1995 where she was on Monday through Friday from 2 to 6 AM, like the shift that made her famous. She only left the show due to illness, in 1995. She died that year of stomach cancer.