May 1: “Look Alive and Dig the Jive” With Ken Malden
WBMS disc jockey and WILD program director Ken Malden died in Miami on May 1, 2009. Malden was a part of that long-ago scene when jazz was broadcast on commercial stations on the AM dial.
Ken Malden started in Boston radio in the late 1940s, and comes to our attention in early 1953 on WVDA-AM, playing jazz and blues, and sometimes spicing it up by reading poetry. His real name was Milton Tokson, but early on he decided that Malden, the name of his suburban Boston home town, was more radio-friendly.
WVDA in 1953 was one of Boston’s top music stations for jazz. There was Malden in the evenings, longtime Boston radio personality Sherm Feller on overnights, Bill Buchanan with a weekend big band show, and that summer Bob “The Robin” Martin arrived from WMTW in Portland, Maine to host an afternoon show. In terms of broadcast hours per week, the only station with as much jazz as WVDA was WBMS.
WBMS-AM was the first station in Boston to focus on the African-American audience, and not just in its choice of music. Norman Furman became general manager of Boston’s WHEE in April 1952, and he immediately converted the sleepy day-timer into a station featuring jazz, gospel, and R&B. He changed the call letters to WBMS (perhaps standing for “World’s Best Music Station”), hired Boston jazz icon Sabby Lewis as a disc jockey, and then hired his out-of-work friend, the celebrated New York deejay Symphony Sid Torin. In late 1954, Furman lured Ken Malden over from WVDA.
Malden played some jazz, but more R&B, and as a gimmick in 1955, he sent some records to a convalescing President Dwight Eisenhower, hoping that he’d appreciate the music of America’s youth, and “look alive and dig the jive.” As far as I know, Ike never responded.
WBMS changed ownership in 1957, and Furman and Torin returned to New York. In September, Bartell Broadcasting changed the call letters to WILD. Malden stayed on as deejay, and in 1958, became program director. He remained at the station, sometimes on air for six hours a day, until mid-1960, when he headed to Miami, there reuniting with Bob Martin at WGBS.
Malden turned his attention to news, and much later to talk, and as late as 2008 was still broadcasting sports on Miami’s WQAM. When he died of cancer in 2009, his Miami colleagues remembered him as one of the good guys. I like to think he was one of the good guys when he worked in Boston, too. Anybody know?