A radio devotee reports his own story

Longtime correspondent Bill Diehl talks about writing his memoir and the celebrities he covered
By Madeleine Thompson

Bill Diehl’s interest in and love for radio dates back to his childhood in Corning, New York, when he would listen to “The Lone Ranger” program on WCLI. One glimpse into the station’s control room on a visit with his father was all it took. Diehl bought a crystal set that served as his own personal radio, became an announcer at WCLI’s Youth Bureau Time radio show and went on to report for ABC News Radio for nearly 50 years. He partially retired in 2007, but remains a correspondent in entertainment. We spoke to Diehl about his recent memoir “Stay Tuned: My Life Behind the Mic,” which collects memories and highlights from a lifelong involvement in the profession.

What made you decide to write this book and what do you want readers to know about you?

I’ve been a witness to and a participant in a changing world of entertainment. With the book, I tried to just reminisce out loud, if you will, and share some favorite remembrances with others through this book filled with photos and memorable interviews that go back to the early ‘80s when I first started covering the Academy Awards. That came out of the blue. I wound up ... in LA, and I’m standing on the red carpet next to all of these incredible people, up close and personal. I’ve got my microphone, I’m asking them questions. That was a real trip. Next year, they said, “You want to do it again?” I said, “Yeah, fine. I love it.” By the mid-‘80s they made me a permanent entertainment news correspondent, covering all of these venerated personalities who are included in the book.

So that experience changed the direction of your career. What appealed to you about covering entertainment and celebrities?

I’m not sure what it is. My wife always has said to me, “You love people.” That’s an easy phrase to say, but I’m excited meeting celebrities. They’ve always had a special attraction to me. I’ve followed their lives, read celebrity books and magazines. I just think that they shine and they’re exciting to be with. It’s not that I want to be them, but I want to be a little part of their lives, a fly on the wall.

You elaborate in your book, but what were some of the most interesting celebrity interviews you did?

Certainly Robin Williams has to be one of the biggest highlights. I heard that he was appearing at a comedy club called Catch A Rising Star, which was on the East Side, a couple of blocks from me on First Avenue. I think it was ‘82 I did the interview. I went down to the club, met his manager, and gave him my card. He said “Well, he might do an interview, but he’s awful busy. I really don’t know if you could do it, but I’ll give him your card.” I go back to the network, and I’m working in the studio, doing my newscasts and everything. All of a sudden the phone rings. “Hi, it’s Robin Williams. Do you still want to talk to me?” I said, “Of course, that’d be great.” He said, “I’ll be over in about 15 minutes.” He shows up, and we do this really funny interview. I interviewed him a couple of times. He was the kind of person that you could just give him the microphone and he would go off on anything. When Robin died suddenly, I went back to that audiotape that we had done and I played it as part of one of our magazine shows.

A lot of these people could be divas and very into themselves, but some of these people were really, really nice. I didn’t try to be confrontational with people. Everybody from Dolly Parton, to Cher, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Connery, the late Mary Tyler Moore, they were all such sweet people and lovely to talk to. I always tried to get a picture with them. That helped to do this book because I had pictures of many of the celebrities.

How have you seen the radio industry change throughout your career? Do you see radio continuing to be a major way of spreading the news?

The biggest thing obviously is that we’re no longer using audiotape, which is really old school now. It was probably right after the turn of the century at ABC [when] we decided to go to digital audio, digital editing. I thought, “This is it. I’m never going to figure this out.” My daughter, Suzanne, who is now 45 years old, said to me, “Dad, come on,” she says, “You can do it.” I figured it out, and I’m still doing it. We have even a new editing system now, which has given me even more headaches but somehow I’ve learned how to do that.

You can hear a radio station anywhere in the world now, from Australia to China. That’s a new world ... [ABC has] moved with the times, and we’re still pumping out those newscasts every hour and giving our stations a lot to listen to. I’m very proud to be part of it.

So much of the entertainment business happens in or revolves around L.A. Why have you stayed in New York all these years?

The first time I went [to L.A.], the palm trees and the celebrity life out there, it was very, very attractive and so forth. At one point, there was talk that ABC might move its headquarters, or radio news headquarters, out to LA. My wife said, “That’s very nice. I’ll come out and join you occasionally.” My wife is a real New Yorker. She would never want to move away. I always wanted to be in New York. This was what I built my career on as a news guy. I always thought New York was the pinnacle.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com