Williams died at Massachusetts General Hospital after a long illness, said Rod Fritz, news director of Boston's WRKO-AM, where Williams hosted a popular afternoon drivetime program in the 1980s.
"He started doing issues-oriented talk shows back in the 1950s, and it just blossomed from there," Fritz said. "He's probably best known for his time in Boston, but he made waves everywhere he went - Philadelphia, New York, Chicago."
Paul Lyle, a board member of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, which Williams founded, said Williams was the first to prove that talk shows could effect political change.
"Whether we agreed or disagreed with him, we know that he did a lot for our industry, opened up doors for us, helped make it what it is today," said Lyle, general manger of KITZ-AM in Silverdale, Wash.
Williams started his radio career in Bristol, Tenn., in 1946 and later came to Boston to work for WMEX-AM. He became widely known at Boston's WBZ-AM, where he was on the air for eight years beginning in 1968 to an audience that covered 38 states and Canada.
In 1976, Williams joined WMCA in New York, and the following year moved to WWDB in Philadelphia, where he became the first FM talk host, according to the Web site of the Radio Hall of Fame. Williams was inducted into the hall in 1996.
Williams carried out frequent radio crusades, including one to repeal Massachusetts' mandatory seat belt law in 1986, arguing that the government should not intrude on people's individual freedoms.
His cantankerous style and populist views made him popular among listeners but often infuriated politicians and public officials. He became an especially harsh critic of former Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Lyle recalled how Williams would leap from his chair and flail his arms: "He always led with his heart. He was very passionate, very expressive."
Williams left WRKO in 1998 and had been in semiretirement.
Jimi Carter of WROL-AM of Boston, where Williams had done guest spots, recalled one piece of Williams' advice: "'If you can't be good, be loud."'
Williams is survived by three daughters.
By Bipasha Ray