Allan Harrison & 'Lakes Region Newsday' back on the air after illness sidelined dean of local journalists
LACONIA — Some might think that Allan Harrison's career as a radio newsman has been totally backward.
Taking a breather after doing his three-hour broadcast of "Lakes Region Newsday" on WEZS-AM, Harrison points to an article from a four-page newspaper published in 1971 by American University in Washington, D.C. There on the bottom of Page 1 is an article stating that Harrison has become a fully accredited member of the White House press corps. A sophomore communications and political science major at AMU and news director of the college's radio station, Harrison had managed to achieve the opportunity many seasoned news reporters would give their eyeteeth for: "... full (White House) news privileges, including admission to presidential press conferences and news briefings."
"Most reporters start in a small town and if they're lucky they end up getting to cover Washington. My career has been just the opposite," Harrison says with a chuckle.
In point of fact Harrison, 62, has spent almost all of the last 36 years, telling people of the Lakes Region what their city councilors, selectmen, school officials, police officers, firefighters, politicians and community leaders are up to.
"The reason I have kept doing this is because I believe that people need to realize that their power (to influence events) is stronger in their local governments. In order to do that they need to know about local matters. That's more important than knowing what is happening in Washington or on the other side of the world," says Harrison who is on his second week back on the job after recovering from a heart attack.
Harrison began covering Laconia area news back in 1977 as a contributor for WLNH-FM and WEMJ-AM, when the two stations were separately owned and their respective news departments competed for stories. In 1980 he landed a full-time position as a news reporter on WEMJ. After a few years, he left to become a newscaster and reporter on Manchester station WKBR, but he returned to WEMJ in 1986 at the invitation of then-station owner Jim McCann. Soon after his return he was named news director. Three years later he left WEMJ and joined WMRQ, a new FM station which had just gone on the air in Meredith. But WMRQ soon began having financial difficulties and Harrison was laid off as a result.
He then left radio news entirely and spent the next year and a half tending bar. "I got to know what it was like to be a sober person serving drunks," he said laughingly of the experience. One night in 1992 while bar-tending, Harrison got a call from Scott McQueen, the long-time owner of WLNH. McQueen offered him a job to come to WLNH to do the news during Warren Bailey's morning-drive program. That continued until 1995 when WLNH bought WEMJ and Harrison was moved over to WEMJ to anchor the morning news on the news-and-talk station. He continued on WEMJ until the 2005 when WEMJ's new owners, Nassau Broadcasting, (which had also purchased WLNH) decided to do away with local news programming altogether.
With the prospect of no more local radio news reports, Harrison partnered with former WLNH general manager, Bill McLain, to start "Lakes Region Newsday" on WEZS. For the last 10 years Harrison has an arrangement with WEZS under which he leases airtime from the station and then goes out and solicits advertising to cover the costs. He said he is grateful for the advertisers' support, and in particular the six advertisers who have been sponsors from the very beginning.
When Harrison began his radio news career, "Most stations had the philosophy that presenting local news was a public service and they did it whether it paid (for itself) or not," Harrison said. "That changed when the big corporations started buying up local stations and that dramatically changed the delivery of local news" on the radio.
Back in the 1980s, local radio stations had at least one person whose main job was to cover and report the news, and WLNH and WEMJ each had two full-time news people plus one or two part-time contributors. "You could cover two or three meetings a night if you had to," Harrison recalls.
Harrison virtually never covers meetings any more, although he does watch the Laconia City Council meetings live on the public access channel. These days he gets up at 2 a.m. and goes to the WEZS studios on Union Avenue shortly afterward to begin preparing his three-hour news program which airs weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. He goes through that day's newspapers to see what stories they have and checks his emails for timely press releases. He relies on the local papers for the background on stories and when a particular paper, such as The Daily Sun, has an exclusive story, he will do a brief rewrite of the story in radio style, giving on-air credit to the paper.
Beyond the headlines of the day Harrison regularly opens up his program to various local people and organizations which seek to publicize an event or idea. "I almost never turn a group down which wants to promote their cause," he says, explaining that is one way his program keeps people in touch with their community.
But through the years Harrison has also managed to interview his share of celebrities, mostly politicians. He says that he has interviewed virtually every presidential candidate going back to Ronald Reagan. Incumbent presidents seeking re-election are about the only ones he has not managed to get on the air. He recalls interviewing then-candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Soda Shoppe just days after she lost the 2008 Iowa Caucus to Barack Obama.
But what Harrison is most proud of is the series of 50 three-minute segments he produced on the occasion of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987 about the impact New Hampshire's two delegates to the Constitutional Convention, John Langdon and Nicholas Gilman, had on that founding document. For the series Harrison was honored by the New Hampshire Bar Association.
While Harrison's career has had its rewards, it has also exacted a toll. He recently returned to the studio after being off the air for a month recovering from the heart attack he had in July. Ironically, he suffered the attack just a week after giving up smoking.
"This is what happens when you give up smoking," he recalled telling the nurses at Concord Hospital where he was hospitalized for 2 1/2 weeks after doctors implanted a stent in one of his coronary arteries.
Harrison is philosophical about being one of few surviving radio newsmen in New Hampshire. He figures that there are now only a handful of commercial stations around the state which produce their own news programs, most in the southern part of the state.
"I'm afraid (local radio news) is dying, but I hope it's not," he said.
"He is certainly is one of the gems of the business," said Warren Bailey, who left radio broadcasting several years ago and now works for Comcast Spotlight, the local advertising sales division of Comcast Cable. "I've admired his skills for quite some time and it's refreshing that (the Laconia area) has someone who brings them local news."