Broadcasting's 'Old Soldier'

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National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith reacted swiftly Sunday to the news of the death of former FCC Commissioner/Chairman Jim Quello.

“NAB mourns the passing of Jim Quello, who was a war hero, a friend to free and local broadcasting, and an extraordinarily bipartisan public servant during a remarkable 24 years at the FCC,” said NAB President Gordon Smith. “We have lost an American original.” He was right there.

Quello. 95, died Sunday morning at about 11 a.m. He had been ill for some time, but had rallied before a recent setback. He was a tough old soldier and fine man. I talked to him last week to thank him for my annual supply of Harry & David jams and jellies, an annual Christmas present that my family looked forward to every year.

I am told that his jelly bill was in the four figures, which tells you something about his circle of friends, and even more about the man himself.

He was weak from dialysis and an infection, but he could still muster a laugh last week when I mentioned how glad my kids had been to get the jelly. There had an initial run on the product, which forced Harry & David to send relish to Jim’s Christmas list instead. The batallion commander from World War II was not happy and hit the roof, I am told, aftwer which he made sure everyone got their jellies.

Jim had been planning his 100th birthday party for years. I can’t call it a running joke, because all of those who had already received their invitations, delivered in person or on the phone on various occasions, had no doubt they would be there to toast that milestone.

He was a tennis player up until a few years ago and at his retirement from the FCC–in his 80’s–still cut a trim, tanned and imposing figure, topped with a main of silver-white hair, all of those hairs in place.

Quello remained a fierce defender of free, over-the-air TV, to the end, penning op eds for our magazine to that effect, usually delivered with a fairly lengthy, catch-up phone call.

He was incredibly proud of being an Italian American and a veteran, and of having been able to serve his country in Washington for so many years. He would also talk about his days as a TV station GM in Detroit. He was even a stringer for Variety, occasionally reporting on stars passing through town, including, I believe, once having to review a concert by Harry Truman’s daughter, an assignment that could be a hairy one given the president’s fierce loyalty.

But he had seen tougher action in Europe during the War, stories he told with gusto and a “Saving Private Ryan” flavor to the word choice, which means the FCC would have blushed, but would not have censored him. I would have like to see them try.

That brings me to one of his last acts of courage. He signed on with former chairman Mark Fowler and Newton Minow to criticize the current FCC crackdown on indecency. That is the one in which swearing in a scripted movie–”Saving Private Ryan”–was not indecent, according to the FCC, but swearing by real bluesmen in a documentary on PBS by Martin Scorcese was. Go figure.

Quello didn’t have to get in the middle of that fight. Some broadcasters–and Quello was a broadcaster at heart–have been sitting it out for fear of that regulatory big stick. But from stories about “the War” to his feelings about the industry, Quello always played it straight from the hip and the heart.

He was a good man who did his duty as he saw it, and remained a true friend and patriot to the end. God bless him.