The Late, Great WDAS
Partly because of the recent election, I’ve been thinking about WDAS, the radio station, all week long. Back in the day, no one could get listeners out to the polls like the personalities who took to the air on WDAS.
At WDAS, it was partly the organized get-out-the-vote campaigns and scripted pleas to do your civic duty that got people out of their houses and to the polls; but far more effective were the reminders from the jocks who were on the air throughout the day. They would put out the call in their own words: Hey, y’all, Hardy Williams, one of our guys, is running this time around, so don’t you think you might want to get out there and make it happen for him?
Like that. Stoop-to-stoop casual. [SIGNUP]
It was a real effective pitch. It got people up and out to do their polling places, precisely because it wasn’t scripted, which, come to think of it, is pretty much the only way to get people to listen to anything—which is why you have to wonder why the rocket scientists who run radio believe it best to script every single moment that goes out on the air today.
What’s more, come to think of it, maybe our President, under siege like nobody’s damn business, would be smart to take a cue from the jocks of WDAS back in the day and scrap the script and the teleprompter and speak from the heart.
Let us have it, Big O!
But I digress.
Back when WDAS was in trailblazing mode, talking ‘50s through ‘70s mostly, the station was a true community radio station. Some would argue, and pretty convincingly, that it was the purest community station in the nation. Which may be why it became a regular stop for the biggest recording acts of the day, like Sam Cooke, James Brown and all the STAX and Motown groups and performers. And a must stop for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and every other major civil rights figure as well—because they all knew, like everyone in Philadelphia and in the radio business knew, that people listened to WDAS, a lot of people, and while most of those listeners may have been black, not all were, and that’s because the station had a sound and a rhythm that could make you color blind real quick.
Time slips by, and by again, and all that history, and so much more, gets lost for a generation, maybe even two. That’s not right.
The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, a group that preserves local on-air history, will be posthumously inducting Bob Klein, the founding general manager of WDAS, into their broadcast hall of fame this month.
The group will be honoring 24 other former Philadelphia broadcasters the same night.
Not to denigrate the honor, but true justice would dictate that Bob Klein would be remembered by Philadelphians on a far grander historic scale—not just as a broadcaster or radio pioneer, but as an early and courageous civil rights leader. Consider: Bob Klein became general manager of WDAS while just in his 20s, and almost immediately began transforming the format of the station to appeal to a black audience.
That was in 1951.
Over time, Klein employed such legendary disc jockeys as Jocko, Jimmy Bishop, Louise Williams, Georgie Woods, Harvey Holiday and Butterball, creating an overall collective sound that stations around the country tried in vain to duplicate.
Klein also created a first-class news operation—sending newsmen Art Peters to cover the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 and encouraging his news team to challenge Police Commissioner’s Frank Rizzo’s strong arm tactics in black neighborhoods in the ‘60s.
In his time, Klein paid to fuel buses for freedom riders, led voter registration drives, sued Arbitron for not polling black listeners and helped create Unity Day in the city.
For his efforts, Klein was hassled by the police and the FBI, and threatened by hate groups. For a time, his family had to move from their home for safety.
Former WDAS news reporter Wynne Alexander, Klein’s daughter, is keeping much of WDAS’ history alive. Photos, documents and timelines can be found at wdashistory.org.
You should take a look. See what happened.
Guys like Bob Klein should not be lost in the fog of Philadelphia history. The volume should be turned up.
Tim Whitaker, a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write. Mighty Writers will be holding a fundraiser, tonight, at the Pen & Pencil Club at 7pm. Details at mightywriters.org.