This Is Our First Big Winter Storm Without KYW’s School Closing Numbers

Looking back at waiting for your snow numbers as a kid — and that time KYW was sued over the school closing codes.

Dan McQuade playing in the snow

The author, in front of his parents’ home in Northeast Philadelphia, during an early 1990s blizzard.

I grew up in the city, so I didn’t have a school number when I was a little kid. But when the snow started falling in Philadelphia, I did turn up KYW 1060 and listen for nine magic words: “All public and parochial schools in Philadelphia are closed.”

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read the news earlier this year that KYW would stop broadcasting snow numbers. When I ended up going to a private school in the suburbs for high school, I did get a snow number. I’d wait until anchor hit Bucks County, turn up the volume on the radio and wait until I heard the number. (It has been lost to the sands of time. 510? 610? Something like that.)

It’s snowing — well, in the city, sleeting — today, so this is the first big winter storm in Philadelphia where KYW won’t be reading out school numbers.

When it got to the number for my high school, I cheered. And regardless of whether I learned from a sentence or a number, my snow-day ritual was the same: I’d go over to friends’ houses and try to find people to build a makeshift igloo with, or maybe organize a huge snowball fight. That is, if I could find my friends before I was pressed into shoveling service.

After freezing our butts off, we’d end up back inside, playing video games, drinking hot cocoa and figuring out when it would be fun to go outside again. It was great. And it seemed to all stem from that moment of waiting by the radio to find out if we didn’t have to go to school.

KYW’s Ian Bush uploaded the above listing of snow numbers from February 2016.

The anticipation of waiting to see if you wouldn’t have to go to school was so great. Now that people can check a website or get a robocall to learn if their school is closed, there’s no sense for the numbers. It makes sense. But future generations won’t get that feeling of excitement.

It turns out that the KYW snow numbers have quite a history. Per the Inquirer, the city was in charge of the numbers until 1989, when KYW took it over. Things went pretty smoothly. It seemed to do good numbers for the station. “What was, before texting and automatic calling, attractive was the listening by parents,” David Eduardo wrote on the Radio Discussions messageboard. “It meant that for perhaps several hours on days with snowfall, many parents would put KYW on instead of their favorite morning show or music station.”

But, amazingly, KYW was actually sued by local PR guru Larry Ceisler in the late ’90s over a dispute with the radio station.

Per a 1998 article in the Philadelphia Business Journal, Ceisler set up a company called Snow Phone/Snow Line in 1996. He advertised on B101, telling listeners they could call in, punch in the school closing number and find out the closing status. He planned to make money by selling $200,000-a-pop sponsorships.

The lawsuit alleged that KYW sent letters to all the local school districts, telling the schools they could be dropped from KYW’s snow number listings if they cooperated “too closely” with Ceisler. The suit even said KYW’s tactics put the kibosh on a deal he had made with AOL (yes, this is how long ago it was). “KYW told them, ‘If you do the deal with [Ceisler] we’re going to pull all our content.’ We think it’s bullying tactics,” Gavin Lentz, Ceisler’s attorney, told the Journal. Per Bloomberg, Ceisler even tried to get the FCC to deny KYW’s license renewal.

KYW struck back in the press. Then-general manager Roy Shapiro told PBJ KYW was the only station to volunteer to run the snow numbers when the city dropped the program in the late ’80s, adding KYW “took over the administration of the information at considerable expense. If we did not assume the responsibility, chances are today there would be no school closing program.”

The case lasted until 2006. David Yadgaroff, another former VP/GM of KYW, later testified that “if we should lose control of the school closing codes, we would lose this valuable and important franchise.” According to court records, the case appears to have been dismissed. A judge also ordered a list of KYW’s school closing numbers sealed in perpetuity.

And now the school closing numbers are gone.