New England talk radio pioneer Paul Benzaquin bantered with callers for more than 30 years on Boston stations including WBZ-AM, WHDH-AM, and WRKO-AM, where his genial baritone could become a fiery bellow confronting issues of the day.
“Your voice is your weaponry,” he told authors Steve Elman and Alan Tolz, who interviewed him for “Burning Up the Air,” their biography of talk radio show pioneer Jerry Williams. “You have to fake it a lot of times, and you can’t run out of gas.”
A World War II veteran who served in combat in the Philippines, Mr. Benzaquin was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2007.
“Public interest, that was my bag,” Mr. Benzaquin told the Hall of Fame audience. “So WEEI on a hazy day said we need a boy like this. So I went there and, under the tutelage of Howard Nelson, I learned how to hit the button. It’s been a rosy ride since. I’m sorry I quit. Age intervened. I’m just delighted to be a local boy who made mediocre.”
Mr. Benzaquin, who lived in Duxbury, died in a nursing home Feb. 13 after a period of declining health, according to his family. He was 90.
He started in journalism at the Globe in 1948, where he wrote until going into radio in 1960. He later was a columnist for the Boston Herald Traveler.
In 1959 he wrote “Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove,” a nonfiction bestseller, reissued several years later, about the Nov. 28, 1942, Boston nightclub tragedy that killed almost 500 people and prompted changes in fire safety laws. His reporting revealed accounts by survivors, which included allegations that a nightclub employee tried to block a revolving door during the early seconds of the fire because patrons had not paid their checks.
While visiting radio stations during a book tour he made contacts who took note of his radio-ready voice and talent for news writing.
“He had a kind of imperial presence that inspired respect, even awe, and yet he could be warm and genial,” said Elman, a longtime radio producer. “And what a voice.”
Mr. Benzaquin’s politics leaned left, and in one of his trademark “Fiery Diary” radio commentaries, he explained why he never went to Veterans Day events.
“I’ll tell you what I have come to believe, dear hearts, and why there was no marking of Veterans Day by me at all: I have come to believe that it is the honoring of those who died in one war that makes the next war possible. . . . War creates no glory; it desecrates all honor. War is never an answer, only a bloody question.”
In the 1970s, WBZ used a provocative clip from Mr. Benzaquin’s show in its promotions in which he howled: “Puritanical? You call your mother and father puritanical just because we won’t let you and your two boyfriends stay here for the weekend!”
Talk radio host Dan Rea, who started hosting “NightSide” on WBZ in 2007 after decades in TV news in Boston, said he listened to Mr. Benzaquin and other talk radio trailblazers for years.
“I probably disagreed with him more often than not, but I found him to be bright and intelligent,” Rea said. “Because of people like him, and certainly Jerry Williams, the whole genre took off.”
Mr. Benzaquin was born in Quincy. His father was a grain merchant, his mother was active in civic affairs and helped found Quincy’s chapter of the League of Women Voters.
A minister encouraged him to attend a seminary in Bangor after high school. Mr. Benzaquin went for a year, but God “paid no attention to me,” he told Elman.
Mr. Benzaquin’s son David said his father was a “natural showman” who loved writing and being the master of ceremonies. “He was always at the typewriter,” David said.
A Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame biography called Mr. Benzaquin one of the first in the country “to recognize that journalism of quality could be presented through the electronic media.”
His first marriage to Barbara J. Benzaquin ended in divorce after more than 25 years, according to David, who lives in Kingston. Mr. Benzaquin was married for 17 years to the former Grace Abrams, who said her husband loved nature, walking in the woods, and chronicling the world around him in essays and poetry.
“Paul never started a day without writing,” she said. “I think that just came to him naturally. I think it was just a gift.”
A service has been held for Mr. Benzaquin, who in addition to his wife and son leaves another son, DonPaul of Norwell; a daughter, Dorna Burrows Petrelli of Tucson; a stepdaughter, Laura Abrams Neprud of Duxbury; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In the 1970s, Mr. Benzaquin became fascinated with understanding early childhood development and produced a long-running series for WEEI called “Being a Baby.”
The broadcasts featured his reporting on a group of babies from Marshfield, and also featured experts such as Dr. Burton L. White, a Harvard psychologist.
WBZ later gave Mr. Benzaquin a late-night TV talk show. In a 1977 clip posted on YouTube, he wears a wide-lapelled plaid suit and puffs a pipe during a panel discussion on gay rights. By the 1980s, Mr. Benzaquin courted late-night listeners through a self-help radio series on WHDH patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
He announced his retirement in 1989, and then took another job on WRKO from 1992 to 1996.
While living in the Village at Duxbury seniors community, Mr. Benzaquin hosted a weekly discussion group, which he always closed with a bit of his writing, his wife said. One day, he offered his poem “I’m Old Enough Now,” which ends:
I’m old enough now that conversations with a friend can have its lapses.
We won’t mind the spaces between the words. We won’t mind at all if the talk stops altogether.
I’m old enough now to prefer such friends: Friends who are old enough, too.J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.