The nation’s first gay and lesbian talk radio show, The Gay 90s, aired from downtown Cleveland, Ohio and started off with a bang. Not literally, but given the bomb threat called in before the show’s premier broadcast on WHK 1420 AM it was a possibility. Despite the potential danger, The Gay 90s aired as scheduled on March 26, 1993, and became the country’s first commercial live, “call in” radio program by, for, and about the gay and lesbian community. Given Cleveland’s history of settling disputes with explosives, coupled with the homophobic atmosphere surrounding lesbians and gay men at the time, the threat was taken seriously. Not willing to risk the consequences of ignoring the threat, the Cleveland Police Department provided the show’s staff with personal escorts to and from the radio station for the next two weeks. The police attention and protection was motivated, in part, by the station’s location: Cleveland’s iconic Tower City Center. Thankfully, no bomb exploded at Tower City that night or any of the following nights during The Gay 90s six-year run. It was, instead, the radio show itself that blew down barriers, shattered myths and united Cleveland’s gay, straight and “in between” communities in a remarkably peaceful way.
Looking back, it’s not surprising that the nation’s first gay and lesbian talk show was hosted by Cleveland native Buck Harris, a man at ease being the “first” in a number of public roles. In 1984, Governor Richard Celeste appointed Harris as the Ohio Department of Health’s gay health consultant, the first state in the nation to create such a position in response to the growing AIDS crisis. Shortly after his appointment, The Plain Dealer asked Harris for an interview regarding the crisis, insisting on referring to him as a “homosexual” (as opposed to gay) consultant, as was the newspaper’s policy at the time. Harris told the paper if they did not use his proper title, there would be no interview. The paper relented and, in 1985, for the first time used the word “gay” instead of the inflammatory alternative. A few short months later Harris made the P.D.’s 1986 “Happy New Year” list, the first openly gay person to make the cut. Later that year, Cleveland Magazine named Harris one of the 86 most interesting Clevelanders – again, a first for any openly gay Clevelander. And the bomb threat that greeted Harris and his staff that first radio broadcast? Not a first. As an outspoken and unapologetic AIDS activist, Harris was accustomed getting death threats. Escorted by police and armed with his brave “chin up” attitude, Harris and his crew aired the live broadcast as scheduled.
Bomb threat notwithstanding, The Gay 90s aired during a time of national crisis for the LGBTQ community, as the AIDS epidemic was nearing its worst. In 1993, tennis star Arthur Ashe died (six weeks before the first show’s first broadcast); President Clinton established the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; Tom Hanks starred in Philadelphia, Hollywood’s first major film on AIDS; and the play Angels in America won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. There was a lot to talk about. Regardless of the topic, which ranged from local politics to the art scene and everything in between, Harris maintains that “a good slice of gay culture” was served, often with a side of humor. The first half of the weekly two-hour program involved guest interviews, and there were notable ones including, in Harris’s words, “movers, shakers and founders of the gay civil rights movement.” Among them were U.S. Congressman Barney Frank; gay rights activist Frank Kameny; two-time Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Janis Ian, and four-time Tony award winning playwright Harvey Fierstein. Arbitron, the radio ratings agency, estimated that 20,000 listeners tuned in to The Gay 90s on a typical night – perhaps more on a clear night when the AM signal strength was strong enough to reach listeners as far away as Akron or Canton, maybe even the “boondocks,” Harris quips. Some listeners, he believed, were petrified to actually call in – fearing that someone might recognize their voice. Some took the chance, but changed their name. Not all, of course, but the fear of being identified as queer was strong enough to paralyze some listeners, preventing them from calling – and for good reason. Jobs, homes, families – even lives were at risk. One fourteen-year-old gay listener, however, summoned the courage to call in one night. The young man told Harris that he was thinking of suicide but changed his mind after listening to the show. Listening to The Gay 90s, the young man realized there was a “world waiting for him,” where he fit in – brought to him from a radio station in downtown Cleveland.
After two and a half years broadcasting from WHK on Friday nights and getting preempted for sports broadcasting on more than one occasion, Harris moved to another station, WERE 1300 AM. From there, The Gay 90s aired on Sunday evenings – a time slot Harris preferred, believing that his target audience was more likely to be home (and tuned in), not partying in one of Cleveland’s many gay bars. Harris once commented, “Our entrée into the gay community was through the doors of gay bars”. Not that he was opposed to gay bars – after all, he was a former bartender at the locally famous gay bar, Twiggy’s, and knew the bar’s value as a community anchor. But Harris also knew Cleveland’s gay community needed an alternative to the bar scene, and needed, literally, a voice. Seeing the opportunity and the need, Harris offered his voice as he opened the every show with this greeting: “Good evening Cleveland… Welcome to The Gay 90s, the voice of Northeast Ohio’s gay and lesbian community. It is the intent of this show to provide programming that represents the diversity of our gay and lesbian community and reveal the deep cultural and historical contributions that for too long have gone unrecognized. The opinions expressed are those of the host and guest and not necessarily of WERE or its management – as a matter of fact, probably not. If you are a member of our community, a friend, or just a curious listener we certainly welcome you and please give us a call this evening at 578-1300. If you’re not a friend, don’t tune in, don’t call and find some other way to torture yourself. And a word about our advertisers: unless otherwise stated, you can assume their sexual orientation to be either bi or gay or straight.“
If the show started with a (figurative) bang, according to Harris, it “went out with a whimper.” He compared the show’s finale on July 11, 1999, to the last episode of the Mary Tyler Moore television show in 1977 when Moore simply turned off the lights and left the building – sad and anticlimactic. The legacy of the radio program, however, is anything but. In the show’s six-and-a-half-year run, thousands of Clevelanders of every flavor listened, learned, and participated in the nation’s first live gay talk show, bringing together gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, and, importantly, straight listeners. Bringing these diverse groups together to listen and learn from each other bridged, at least to some degree, a very large gap, and along with the work of many, many others, helped lay the foundation for the LGBTQ civil rights momentum we witness today.
When asked if he would consider doing it again, Harris, although flattered by the question, declines to entertain the idea of hosting another gay and lesbian-exclusive radio program. “The world has changed, and I’m not sure we need that today.” Perhaps he’s right.
In an interview several years after the show last broadcast, Harris reflected on how far things have come since the show first aired in 1993. He says, “It’s exciting in this day and age to see organizations like the lesbian and gay service center that are strong, vibrant, and in storefronts. Before…. you would never have the rainbow flag hanging out in front of the Center… it would have been dangerous to do so… I can rest comfortably knowing I had some impact on helping those organizations grow.”