WASHINGTON - Longtime TV commentator Martin Agronsky, a voice from radio's golden age who helped pioneer the "talking heads" TV news format and retired in 1988 as popular as he ever was, died yesterday of congestive heart failure.
Mr. Agronsky, 84, began in newspaper journalism, became a war correspondent on radio, then from 1943 until he retired in 1988 was a Washington correspondent, foreign correspondent and commentator for U.S. television.
"Agronsky & Company," which ran from 1970 to 1988, was among the first shows to use the informal format of reporters talking among themselves rather than interviewing newsmakers. Hugh Sidey, George Will, James Kilpatrick, Peter Lisagor and Carl Rowan were among the commentators.
The half-hour program became must viewing for Washington's political junkies, political figures and much of the general public. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., once said, "Everybody who is in public life watches Agronsky."
Over the years, some of the nation's highest officials let it be known that they viewed the program. President Reagan phoned Will, Sidey and Kilpatrick to comment on the show. President Nixon would send his thoughts on the show to Mr. Agronsky via the presidential press secretary.
Mr. Agronsky was born Jan. 12, 1915, in Philadelphia, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants. A 1936 graduate of Rutgers University, he worked for the Palestine Post, now the Jerusalem Post, in Jerusalem in 1936 and 1937, then was a free-lance newspaper reporter until signing with NBC in 1940. Before he retired, he had worked for all three major networks and PBS. He held a wall full of major awards, including the Heywood Broun Award, as well as Peabody, Emmy, Alfred I. duPont and National Headliner awards.
"Agronsky & Company" was the nation's top-ranked public-affairs program when he retired in 1988.
Mr. Agronsky's proudest accomplishment was winning the 1952 Peabody Award for distinguished reporting for his work at ABC on the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's efforts to weed communists out of U.S. society.
"He lost at least half his sponsors, if not more," his son David Agronsky said. Every day's mail brought more expressions of hate, casting aspersions on his Jewish roots, "calling him a commie, a traitor," he said.
His first wife, the former Helen Smathers, died in 1969. His second marriage, to Sharon Agronsky, ended in divorce. Survivors include four children by his first marriage, a daughter by his second marriage and four grandchildren.