Media: Tuned Out

Four decades ago, I started my career behind the microphone, and from Stevie Wonder to Frank Zappa to Andy Reid, I’ve had a helluva ride. Too bad Philadelphia radio as we know it is about to come to an end.


THE WELLINGTON BUILDING stands at the corner of 19th and Walnut streets, overlooking Rittenhouse Square. The place is staid, stuffy. Heavyweight lawyers, and women who buy their dresses across the street at Sophy Curson’s shop, call it home. I’m on the third floor, trying to figure out why Stevie Wonder is down in the lobby. In addition to those Philly lawyers and ladies who lunch, the Wellington is home to “The Radio Station,” WMMR. It’s 1976, and Stevie has just dropped by unannounced.
 
And alone. Or at least he’s alone in my memory of the incident. Songs in the Key of Life was released in the fall of 1976 and quickly became the album of the year. It was, and remains, a masterpiece, destined to become part of the pop-music canon. I’m the 6 p.m.-to-10 p.m. guy at ’MMR, and I’m playing tracks from the record until my ears bleed. And now, miraculously, Stevie shows up at the station to say thanks. He hangs out most of the night with us. He’s sweet, generous and friendly. Real friendly. I introduce him to a female visitor who happens to be there. Stevie gropes her as only a blind rock star can. She’s thrilled. Between squeezes he takes calls, plays DJ, and thanks the listeners and the station for all their support.
 
It’s late in the Bicentennial year. I’m the guy on the radio station, and I’m sharing a moment with a legend. It’s what radio did. That was then.
 

THIS IS NOW.
 
They’re young, between 15 and 17, and they know about Stevie Wonder. They are aware of him in the manner they are aware of everything. The course they’re taking, a summer enrichment program at Haverford College, is titled “Radio Broadcasting” — “where you learn how to produce, star in and broadcast the sounds of modern radio. You’re on the air!” It’s three decades since that night on the third floor of the Wellington Building. The kids gathered in the basement of the college are from all over the world, and I’m their instructor. I’m there to tell them about radio. No problem, right? Wrong. “Anybody ever been inside a radio station?” I ask. Nope. Okay. “What’s your favorite station?” A few mumbled non-answers later, I’m beginning to see the hand I’ve been dealt. “Do you listen much?” More blank stares. Flop-sweat forms under my shirt. “Well, then, do you guys like radio?” It’s okay, they say. Okay as in, “Who cares?” Okay as in, “Radio? You mean that thing my parents listen to?” How do you explain something that may not matter anymore?
 
I’ve spent most of my life behind a microphone — including many years here in my hometown — and that gives me an interesting vantage point from which to view the world. For example, I can tell you that radio is a habit. In places like Philadelphia, with its small-town worldview, this habit can be pernicious. KYW’s “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world” has hooked generations of listeners. While WMMR has changed its address over the years, it hasn’t changed its hold on the city. And “Bob from Mount Airy” needs his sports fix from 610 WIP as much as ever.

But what happens if a generation never gets hooked on radio? For younger people today, radio’s traditional function no longer applies. Since its inception just over a century ago, radio, like the telegraph and telephone before it, provided a sort of social glue. From Big Band concerts and FDR’s fireside chats to Top 40 stations, the culture more or less coalesced around media. For the generation born within the past 20 years, all that is history. Actually, it’s less than history. To a kid with an iPod, it’s more like a fairy tale.
 
If you’re in charge of a Philly radio station, the implications of this new audience are enormous — and scary. “This generation is outside radio’s reach,” says Philly native Jerry Del Colliano, founder of the trade publication Inside Radio and now a professor of music industry at the University of Southern California. “The twin forces of consolidation and ignorance of new media may have doomed the broadcast industry as we’ve known it.” Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, as well as a myriad of other choices, offer options that challenge radio like never before. “There was a time when, for young people, the DJ was your friend,” Del Colliano points out. “Now your friends are your friend.”
 
“Really, sometimes I feel more like a weather forecaster than a program director,” says WXPN’s Bruce Warren. “I need to constantly read the environment.” Warren says his mandate is to deliver to ’XPN’s listeners more content, i.e., music, over a broader array of platforms. “It’s absolutely necessary to remain relevant” is how he puts it. “Some stations here in town get it; others don’t.”  
 
For too many other Philadelphia radio stations, chasing the musical tastes of the listeners is maddening. Formats come and go with fierce regularity as these stations look for the magic-bullet mix of music that will result in ratings and revenue. The truth is, one size doesn’t fit all. Radio, with rare exceptions, is doomed as a music delivery system. Why would anyone get into a business like this in the first place?
 
When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the early ’60s, my cousin, John Parsons, was a TV reporter for WCAU. Today, everyone has been on TV at some point, but back then, seeing my favorite cousin on the screen was powerful. John later moved to New York City, and during my freshman year in high school, he invited me to spend a day at work with him at WABC-TV. In the course of that 10-hour day, we covered what might have been the first anti-war demonstrations, in front of the Army recruiting station in Times Square — 10 protesters strong. At a church up in Harlem, the young civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, in his signature bib overalls, lit up the air with his rage. Later we stood at the side entrance of the Waldorf hotel for the arrival of a Saudi delegation. They moved within a foot of the press gaggle in which I was standing. Heady stuff at 15. For me, this was it. Something hooked me, something about being on the “other side” of things. Broadcasting was the way. Radio would be my ticket in.

BY 1961, PHILLY was the center of the “youth culture.” Dick Clark’s American Bandstand ruled television. The dance program provided a template for the nation’s teenagers: how to look, how to dance, and what to listen to on the radio. As far as Philly was concerned, WIBG ruled radio. It’s impossible to underestimate just how big “Wibbage” was in the early ’60s. The legendary Hy Lit and the “Rockin’ Bird,” Joe Niagara, were, in the parlance of the day, monsters. By the time Niagara would “hit the road, head for home and make way for Hyski” at 6 p.m. each evening, one of every four radios in the Delaware Valley was tuned in. Jerry Stevens, a kid from Brooklyn who landed in Philly, had a front-row seat as a deejay. “It was great,” he remembers fondly. “We were all about the music, and everybody was listening.”
 
The beauty of it, says Stevens, was the freedom to be “who you were.” WIBG stood in contrast to other Top 40 stations of the day, notably WFIL. The home of the “Boss Jocks” operated like a machine — tight, focused, strictly formatted. “There was no format at ’IBG,” boasts Stevens. “We were all about personality.” Stevens, along with Hy, Niagara, Long John Wade and others, would dominate local radio for the next few years. In hindsight, those early years of the ’60s would mark the high-water mark for AM radio.
 
The story of FM radio’s rise to prominence in the late ’60s and ’70s has been well documented. Not so Jerry Stevens’s role in that rise. He was, along with a small group of former AM guys, present at the creation. Hy Lit and Tom Donahue are two founding fathers of the “progressive,” or “underground,” radio movement. Donahue, the capo di tutti capi of the group, was forging ahead on the West Coast, while back East, Hyski set up shop in a trailer parked in front of WDAS in Fairmount Park. Like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, Hy set about creating what he called his “Underground,” tucked away inside the city’s vast park, his band of men more stoned than merry.  
 
Hy Lit was my first radio boss. He gave me my first stage name, “Coco.” I was grateful for the job, and delighted when he thought better of Coco. Steve “Marko” was the compromise. ’DAS-FM was the proving ground for an emerging FM format and gave voice to young broadcasters who would shape the musical tastes of a generation. It was also decidedly mom-and-pop broadcasting, locally owned and, as much as could be expected under the drugged circumstances, locally operated.

I’d grown up listening to Hyski and at some point let go of him as the ethos of the ’60s took over. Overnight the Hy Lits of the world looked pretty lame, more a part of the problem than the solution. Now he was my boss. Hy Lit was smart enough to know what killed the dinosaurs, and he wasn’t about to let it happen to him. Caught in a huge cultural shift, Hy made the right move and set up the “Underground.” Naturally, it would be “Hyski’s Underground.” Old habits die hard. But it was my first radio job, and a radio legend had given me a shot. The fact that in a year I would be involved in a staff coup d’état ousting Hy doesn’t change anything. No Hy Lit, no radio trip.
 
About that palace revolt. The station, like most everything else back then, was divided into two camps, them and us. Us being the air staff, led by station owner Max Lean’s son Steven, a.k.a “My Father’s Son,” and Them, the forces of reaction, led by management in the person of Hyski O’Roonie. Poor Hy. He had started the station with all the best intentions, but still (as far as many were concerned) bore the burden of his fast-talkin’, jive-ass Top 40 past. We, of course, felt we were sent to deliver the world from all that stuff. As a result, WDAS-FM, in the early ’70s, often had all the charm of the Nixon White House.
 
The air studio at ’DAS was a large room festooned with art typical of the times: album covers, peace flags, anti-war declarations, and, in one corner, a disconnected commode. Filled with sand, the porcelain pot was used as an ashtray by the air staff. One dark night a person or persons unknown went beyond the ashtray use and left in the can some sort of trash — a candy wrapper or crumpled piece of paper, hereafter referred to as “the shit.” As in, “Who put the shit in the ashtray?” By the time word of this studio violation reached the desk of Hy, “‘the shit’ was no longer a term of art. Now it meant, literally, excrement. The grown-ups were, naturally, outraged, and the Great Toilet Investigation began. A series of management memos denouncing this vile act became must-read material. Air staffers were brought in for questioning. Understand, now, the tenor of the times. Nothing was just what it was. Everything was really, or so we thought, about larger issues, like free speech, truth, justice and marijuana. In short order, people began to believe that some fool had actually used the toilet to take a dump, and according to your political stance, this was either gross misbehavior or performance art.
 
As the inmates took over the underground asylum in the park, Jerry Stevens got a call from the big boys. Metromedia Radio, owners of WIP, hired Stevens to program its then-languishing FM operation. Stevens set about creating a radio station, in fact “The Radio Station,” WMMR.

“I knew what I wanted from the beginning,” says Stevens. “Real people who didn’t sound like announcers. People plugged into the scene with a real passion for the music.” He found them at places like Temple and Penn and, in my case, New York City, where I’d gone to try my hand at TV journalism.
 
Stevens asked if I would be interested in coming home and working at WMMR. By this point, he had been in control there for a couple of years, and his stamp was clearly on the place. It was obvious from 100 miles up the Jersey Turnpike that this was going to be a great radio operation. I jumped at the opportunity to come home.
 
The ’MMR staff Stevens was building had “eclectic” written all over it. I’m convinced I was hired because Stevens and I shared an affection for good wine and books by Hemingway. Clearly, he wasn’t looking just for radio pros. One particular weekly music meeting early on demonstrated the wide-openness of the place. Keep in mind that rule number one at progressive stations like ’MMR was that when it came to music, there were no rules. Literally everything was on the table for airplay. The jocks were hired to exercise taste and judgment in their choices. The music meetings were for the purpose of establishing some sort of consensus. They more often resembled an anarchist debating society. If, in your judgment, a certain album deserved to be played, you had to make your case. On this day, the meeting dissolved into a serious, impassioned argument over why every single song ever recorded wasn’t available in the station library.  
 
Stevens had an innate sense that what was happening at the margins — the music, fashions, drugs and politics — was powerful. He wanted the station to articulate this mood. WMMR, under his guidance, would become a sort of “social network” decades before the term existed. In Philadelphia, in the early ’70s, WMMR was more than a radio station. It was a lifestyle choice. A generation already making its share of noise now had its own soapbox, connected in a manner that today, more than 30 years later, couldn’t seem more “quaint.”
 
Now, anyone with access to a modem has a soapbox. The digital age has turned us all into mini media moguls, made Everyman an Internet version of Jerry Stevens. And that’s bad news if you’re a real media mogul, particularly if your empire was built on playing music. Too many people with too many options make for too many niches. For stations to survive in the future, they’ll have to be closer to the ground, with deeper roots in the community. Today, the last man standing in the radio version of the village square is shouting at the top of his lungs: “E-A-G-L-E-S!”

TALK RADIO IS the last, best example of broadcasting as a shared experience. The experience shared is, generally speaking, frustration — over government, politicians, athletes or morality. It’s the mother’s milk of the format. In Philadelphia, that milk flows most freely at 610 WIP.
 
I actually stumbled into sports talk radio by accident. I was hired at WIP in the twilight of its middle-of-the-road life, when the station was still playing insipid music and giving money away in its “Cash Call Jackpot” contests. I was there as part of the process of slowly changing the tired format into a straight talk station. At some point during this effort, brighter lights decided on a new idea: all sports, all the time. This was 1987, and no one in Philadelphia had tried an all-sports format before. The smart money pegged this new kid on the block as a very long shot indeed. Me included. As the early WIP struggled, I took over the morning show. After a year as the sports station’s first morning-drive host, I decided the smart money was right. This wasn’t for me. I left for a job in Boston.
 
Turns out my timing was a bit off. All WIP needed was a man who knew what he wanted. Programmer Tom Bigby arrived and set about reshaping the format in his own image: big, bad and LOUD. Bigby’s background was Top 40 radio, where playing the hits was the order of the day, and at WIP, he reckoned that meant football. If today’s WIP often sounds like All Eagles, All the Time, it’s no accident. That’s the way Tom wanted it. Other sports were for the most part relegated to filler between Eagles talk. It could be, and was, stifling. But it worked. In spades.
 
Bigby is a near-legend in the business. People who have worked for him over the years fall into two categories: those who dislike him, and those who really dislike him. Tom Bigby is a tough man to work for. I know. I did. (He brought me back as co-host of the midday show in the mid-’90s.) And I managed to get along just fine with him.
 
In addition to his overbearing bluster, Bigby had vision. When he arrived in town two decades ago, Vets Stadium still stood on South Broad Street. It was there, in the old building’s 700 level, that Bigby located the Philadelphia sports fan’s heart of darkness. These were his kind of listeners, pissed-off and passionate. What he imagined was a red-meat radio station for a shot-and-beer city. Talk to him today, and Tom Bigby will tell you he was right then and he’s right now. “Only those radio stations deeply rooted in their communities will survive,” says Bigby, now working his broadcast magic in Detroit. Bombastic as usual, and probably correct, too.

(One more Bigby story. He had the longest and must mercurial list of rules in all of radio. One day he burst into the studio and announced yet another: Never say “Nazi” on the air. People don’t want to hear you say Nazi ever again. Mel Brooks could never have worked for Tom Bigby.)
 

A CERTAIN THEORY holds that everything in nature is made up of itself and its opposite. These two opposing forces inevitably cancel each other out, resulting in a transformation. The transformation, according to the theory, causes a sort of qualitative “leap.” Just such a leap has occurred. Everything from newspapers to motion pictures has been impacted, none more so than good old radio. The old media paradigm of top-down organization has been turned on its head. Take those kids in that summer class at Haverford College. On one particular morning, I asked who owned an iPod. Not surprisingly, they all did. And here’s the best part. These six teenagers had among them, literally in their pockets, more than 5,000 song titles. Even allowing for some duplication, this is an astonishing number. Five thousand song titles dwarfs the libraries of most — make that all — radio stations of any format.
 
Quantity isn’t the only thing they carry with them. Today’s music fans have almost total control over their listening experience. They stop, start or shuffle at will. They create their own playlists, listening when they want to, not when someone else does. The public square, once the domain of radio, has been plowed under and repaved. In its place are Facebook and MySpace. The very notion inherent in “broad”-casting — the ability to attract a mass audience — is probably gone for good.
 
Generation Y, unlike its boomer parents, won’t just consume media; it will manipulate it. For its members, not only the present but also the past is a mouse-click away.  
 
This is not to say any of this is bad, just new. Of course, “new” has a habit of running over everything in its path. Newspapers, the Big Three TV networks and radio are all beginning to look like roadkill on this superhighway.

FRANK ZAPPA IS hungry. We’ve just concluded an interview at ’MMR, and the father of the Mothers needs to eat. Today you can throw a dinner roll and hit a great restaurant in this town, but this is 1978, and the choices are fewer. I’m on the spot here. “Any preferences?” I ask, stalling for time. Frank turns to his guy, a giant of a black man dressed all in white. “Italian?” He nods yes, and I suggest they head over to the Saloon at 7th and Fitzwater. Now, as fine a place as the Saloon may be, at this point it’s no one’s idea of a regular pit stop on the rock-’n’-roll highway.
 
For those who might not know, Frank Zappa was never as freaky as he looked. Nevertheless, the good folks at the Saloon didn’t often cater to the likes of him, or his giant friend in white, or me, actually. I was invited to join them for this late dinner. Walking into the restaurant that night with Frank Zappa remains one of my fondest memories from way back when. The regulars didn’t know what to make of the three of us, but the staff certainly did. One of the waitresses — the place was known for its ­terrific-looking waitstaff — summoned up the courage to announce, sotto voce, “You know, Mr. Zappa, I’m a big fan. Big. I once slept with a guy just ’cause he looked like you.” The jazz trio playing upstairs caught wind of who was downstairs and dropped by the table to say hello. The owner sent over a bottle of wine. The food was great. Zappa seemed pleased, and I was lovin’ life. Warmed by the wine and the reflected glow of a legend, I remember thinking, “This ain’t so bad. This might be something worth doing, you know, for real. Like a job.” So I did, and the party went on much longer than I had a right to expect.