by Don Swaim
Art Athens was a kinetic, hyper quintessence who seemed to be everywhere at once. He never sat still. He never threw anything out.
His office, in his final years at WCBS on the sixteenth floor of Black Rock, was cluttered with artifacts and souvenirs. "The more I cram in here the more they'll be afraid to fire me," he once told me. Like most broadcasters he knew something about being fired and the desolation of unemployment. His family's Greek surname was shortened from Athenagoras, the philosopher who converted to Christianity in the second century.
Chirpful days. Art posing with a bird called Walter (Cronkite). Photograph by Ernie McDaniel.
Art, in his forty-year print and broadcast career, beginning in Missouri when he was nineteen, seemed to have worked about any place in the New York market that would have him: WRKL (Rockland County), WABC, WNBC, and finally WCBS, where he was a staff reporter (and briefly managing editor, an unsuccessful post that was all but created for him), and where he spent the last twenty-five years of his career. Art may not have been management material, but he was a superb reporter. During his span at WCBS Art won Pew and Columbia/Peabody awards for excellence. He also had a short-lived television gig on WCBS-TV where he reported off-beat features. Art had a way with words. Former WCBS anchor Bob Gibson recalls a choice line Art came up with in the 1970s while reporting on a massage parlor busted as a front for a brothel, and how its employees "rubbed their customers the wrong way." Art was definitely a radio guy. His odd but not unattractive Mediterranean features and a non-announcerish voice made him unique in broadcasting. Never would he be an anchorman.
Art developed literary pretensions after WCBS published a give-away stop-smoking book for listeners based on a series of how-to-quit broadcasts by Art, a chain-smoker who couldn't quit, and who even signed into a rehab facility to help him end the habit (which little doubt hastened his death). For years he worked on a novel, which he never finished, about a goofy television director's antics on Nantucket. Art loved the idea of publishing a book, and once returned to the station ebullient after lunch with the famous literary agent Sterling Lord. Nothing came of it.
After Art retired following serious heart surgery, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hosted a spirited farewell party for him at Gracie Mansion (January 24, 1995), at which the late cigar-chomping broadcast gad-fly Jerry Nachman managed only briefly to divert some of the attention from Art to himself.
Art and Vickie Athens. Photo by Ernie McDaniel
In retirement, Art worked on a book about broadcast writing, which he was unable to fully complete. It was published posthumously by Fordham University Press thanks to the efforts of Art's wife, Vickie. Go to Check It Out! Great Reporters Talk About What It Takes to Tell the Story.
Here are some blurbs for Art's book: "Art Athens always got it right on the radio and he gets it right here. Check this out if you want to learn the five Ws--and the how--of being a broadcast journalist from one of the best in the business." --Lynn Sherr, ABC News. "Art Athens, who was one of the smartest reporters ever, put his own astute observations together with those of some professional colleagues in a book that no aspiring broadcast journalist, or seasoned broadcast journalist for that matter, should be without...sharp, insightful, warm, witty, and wise." --Charles Osgood, CBS News
Art died in 2000. Here's his obituary in The New York Times on Oct. 7, 2000. Perhaps a hundred people joined to celebrate his memory in upstate Hudson, New York, in the lawn of an old house by a creek where he had retired. It's tough, especially for young people, to remember -- know -- broadcasters of the past whose words have vanished into the either. Maybe, for Art, this page will help.
Published by Holt, Rinehart, Winston (a CBS company) in 1979 in both paperback and hardcover.
By John Landers of Brooklyn, who sent the above image: One of my favorite Newsradio 88 reporters was Art Athens. I forgot I even had his book on quitting smoking. Funny how when I listen to old Art Athens audio on your site I just can't picture that calm and professional sound coming from a person who admitted to smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day. My late father smoked 2 packs a day and you never saw him without a cigarette in his hand. I can't imagine what a 3 pack a day smoker was like. I have scanned the cover of Art's helpful book which I bought for 50 cents at a high school library book sale in 1983. I bought it because I was a Newsradio 88 fan and not to help me quit smoking because thankfully I never took up that horrible habit.
ART ATHENS AUDIO
- ART ATHENS -- WAYNE CABOT'S TRIBUTE. On the occasion of Art's retirement in 1995. (3:47) Cabot Athens Tribute
- ART ATHENS -- 88 LOOKS AT '78. As a teen (when other teens were doing what they do), Wayne Cabot recorded this broadcast from his bedside radio in New Jersey: Art's year-end documentary on the events of 1978. Quality not so hot, but a great sociological document, weighted locally. (45:40) 88 Looks At 78
- ART ATHENS -- 88 LOOKS AT '79. Still a kid, Wayne Cabot again recorded this broadcast from his bedside radio in New Jersey. Art's year-end documentary on the events of 1979. Quality not the best, but, hey, it was a bedside radio in 1979 -- and New Jersey reception! (47.41) 88 Looks At 79
- ART ATHENS TRIPLE WHAMMY. On the WCBS broadcast Let's Find Out, Art interviews retiring CBS News legend Douglas Edwards (1917-1990), who preceded Walter Cronkite as the first anchor of the CBS Evening News on televsion. In addition, Mike Wallace reflects on his days with Edwards at WXYZ in Detroit. Lots of archival audio in this broadcast. (Note: there's an excellent web site dedicated to Douglas Edwards. Go to: St. Bonaventure University Recording courtesy of Bob Gibson. 3/27/88 (29:30). Art Athens Interviews Douglas Edwards