Glory Days - Philadelphia FM Radio
by Margit Detweiler, Philadelphia City Paper, Dec. 1998Hobnobbing after her show at the North Star Bar, Mary Cutrufello stumbles into a particularly compelling conversation. The dreadlocked rock and roller, touted as "The Next Bruce Springsteen," should be working the room, but Cutrufello can't tear herself away from DJ Ed Sciaky and his old buddy Danny Federici as they ramble on about the good old days.
"Remember when Bruce played the Trenton War Memorial?" says Sciaky.
"Yeah, I was late for that gig," laughs Federici, Springsteen's longtime keyboardist, now in Cutrufello's band.
"It never got better than that," says Sciaky, shaking his head with a smile.
Cutrufello, 27, gazes up at the tall, gray-haired DJ. "Oh surely it did!"
Sciaky insists: "You were seeing 'Jungle Land' before the record came out!"
For a few hours longer Cutrufello and Sciaky swap stories—about Cutrufello's prized Bruce bootlegs (the ones where Sciaky introduces him at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr); the time Bruce was too shy to meet Elvis; the fact that he once slept on Sciaky's couch; and about the other Boss jocks who gave Springsteen his first airplay: Scott Muni in New York, Jim Ladd in L.A., Kid Leo in Cleveland. These were the DJs who ruled the radio at a time when Top 40 AM was dying out and "free-form" FM was slowly making its own waves.
"I grew up with WNEW, Ed's sister station in New York, and DJ Scott Muni," Cutrufello says in a later conversation. "Meeting Ed Sciaky was really kind of a thrill. But I actually wanted to talk about radio, not Bruce Springsteen sleeping on his couch."
Philadelphia has its own legendary rock jocks: besides Sciaky, there's Michael Tearson, John "Harvey in the Morning" Harvey, David Dye, T. Morgan and Helen Leicht, to name a few—DJs who spun records during a short period that Sciaky dubs "When the inmates took over the asylum and no one was looking."
Back then, in the early '70s, FM radio was a wild and woolly frontier with few limitations. These DJs had the opportunity to play just about whatever they wanted and in doing so broke some of the biggest (now "classic") rock acts of all time—Springsteen, Billy Joel, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, John Mayall and Tom Petty, among others. The jocks were free to play album cuts—any song from a record, not necessarily the "hit single" as pre-established by a record company. Today that kind of freedom is unheard of. But back then it helped establish the artist as an artist—not a hit factory.
"Progressive radio jocks could play album cuts, DJs could discover bands and listeners had some input as to what they wanted to hear," says Billy Joel, a few days after his recent five-night stint in Philly.
Because of the strong support, many of the jocks fostered personal relationships with the artists and have maintained those friendships to this day.
"Ed was the man in Philadelphia," says Joel about Sciaky, who became such a pal that he attended Joel's wedding to Christie Brinkley. "Ed was essentially this hippie guy who had a regular job on the radio, which we thought was pretty cool—there was a closeness there."
Since the free-form heyday, few DJs have had as much personal impact on the artist, the audience and the music. And, among the Philly DJ pioneers, only a couple—Tearson, who last week started a part-time gig at WMMR, and T. Morgan, who does a Sunday night shift at WMGK—still have gigs in commercial radio.
The rest were fired or left the business, disgusted at what they call radio's demise. A few of them moved over to University of Pennsylvania's public radio station WXPN, which combines commercial techniques—playlists, computer selection—with some of free-form's ideals.
On Nov. 13 (yes, a Friday), Dave Herman, a 30-year radio vet who was one of the first free-form DJs in Philadelphia, was fired from WNEW in New York. Along with him went Muni, who had been at WNEW for 31 years and crafted that station's free-form style.
"People say to me all the time, 'I grew up listening to you—are you still on the air?'" says Sciaky. "Why is it that in other types of radio, oldies jocks are still working playing oldies, but in classic rock almost none of us are working?"
And even though Tearson is back on the air, he's not about to quit his day job (he recently began working as a paralegal in a Center City law firm).
"In a thumbnail, my take is simple," says Tearson. "People like myself and Ed Sciaky have an expertise with music and passion for the work. Those are two qualities which have, in the '90s, become liabilities. I was prepared for nearly everything else except that."
You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio
As the hippie urban legend goes, free-form radio was the brain-fried child of the late "Big Daddy" Tom Donohue, a former Top 40 jock on Philadelphia's WIBG-AM who had relocated to San Francisco in the era of peace, love and heavy drugs. In 1967, according to Jim Ladd's book Radio Waves, Donohue and his young wife Raechel were "listening to The Doors' first album, while rearranging their brain cells via Dr. Tim's magic snake oil. The playing cards were starting to melt, and it became increasingly difficult to tell the hearts from the diamonds, when through the haze of incense and acid, [Tom Donohue] shifted his enormous bulk and posed a fateful question: 'Why in the hell aren't we hearing any of this on the radio?'"
Donohue finagled a barely breathing, tiny FM station KMPX to let him program a show "the way Bill Graham programmed the Fillmore." The idea was to play whatever they wanted. Generally that meant hip and "alternative" music—a mishegoss of everything from Canned Heat to Jefferson Airplane to Miles Davis to Stravinsky, with very little talking in between. In contrast to the shuck and jive of AM Top 40 radio, the stations would offer honest and direct DJs who didn't talk over the music but treated it as art. They'd offer PSAs on protests, be-ins and free clinics. The station caught on like wildfire with San Francisco's counterculture and eventually Donohue took his show to a larger FM Station, KSAN-FM.
Back then, you could practically give away an FM frequency—the FM band was virtually uncharted, home to a few religious and foreign language stations. Top 40 AM radio was the popular medium, littered with motormouthed happy talkers.
But after only a few months during the Summer of Love, word spread across the country about this groovy Frisco radio station that played music you couldn't hear anywhere else. KSAN, owned by Metromedia, became so popular that the radio corporation decided to try the no-format format on three other FM stations across the country—WNEW in New York, KMET in L.A. and WMMS in Cleveland. But they weren't sure it would fly at their station in Philadelphia—WMMR, 93.3 FM.
"The free-form programming merged music with the alternative culture, the anti-war culture and the hippie culture," says DJ Dave Herman, back then just a young kid from Asbury Park looking for a job in radio. "Philly was a risky town. It was run by [Mayor] Frank Rizzo, and considered conservative and very mainstream."
A few other DJs in Philadelphia may have flirted with free-form around the same time, but WMMR's switch is the most legendary.
At the time, WMMR played middle-of-the-road, smooth pop by Sinatra and Como. There were no DJs; everything was automated.
In the spring of 1968, Dave Herman finally persuaded WMMR to let him broadcast a trial free-form show. Herman called it The Marconi Experiment after the man who invented the wireless radio. For four hours a night, from 8 p.m. until midnight, Herman would mix up the Moody Blues, the Stones, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Dead. He'd introduce every show with a trademark: the song "Flying" by the Beatles dubbed together with a floaty incantation by Kahlil Gibran: "Arise my heart and lift your voice with music. For he who shares not the dawn with his songs shall be one of the sons of everdarkness."
"FM was like what Internet radio is now," says Herman. "It was the Wild West. There was little to lose and a whole lot to gain. If my four-hour show succeeded, the rest of the station would follow suit."
The show was an immediate hit, eventually convincing the station to try free-form 24 hours a day in 1969. They weren't the only station to make the switch.
Several notches higher on the FM dial, WDAS (105.3) began loosening its knobs on April 29, 1968 (the same day that Herman introduced his Marconi madness), with the premiere of Hyski's Underground. Broadcast from 3 p.m. until 6 a.m., Underground was spearheaded by Top 40 DJ Hy Lit, who had convinced station owner Max Leon, a former candy manufacturer, that free-form was the next big thing.
"Hy Lit was a huge star," says former WDAS DJ Steve Martarano, "and he was wise enough in the late '60s to see that curve was changing."
"I remember being a teenager listening to Hyski's Underground in my darkroom," says DJ John Harvey. "You'd hear Thunderclap Newman, The Band, Janis. They'd do these spacey sort of promos in between. It was hipper and trippier than you could believe."
Leon's son Steve was one of the most popular DJs on 'DAS, going by the handle My Father's Son. He was also one of the most unruly: he'd hold farting contests, offer drug prices on the air.
"He'd do all kinds of wacky stuff on air Hyski couldn't stand," says Martarano.
And the younger Leon didn't like the way Lit's bold personality overshadowed the rest of the station's hippie energy.
"It was crazy," says Martarano. "There was this coup d'etat. Steve Leon told his father that he'd never see his granddaughter again unless he got rid of Hy Lit and they could run the station collectively."
After canning Hy Lit and convincing the elder Leon to give up the one remaining non-underground hour—"The Max M. Leon Concert," a classical music show—the station went fully free-form.
The original cast at WDAS included DJs like T. Morgan, Larry Magic (whose real name is Magid and is now better-known as the owner of Electric Factory Concerts), Gene Shay, and Shay's protégé Ed Sciaky, perhaps the archetypal rock DJ.
I Am The DJ, I Am What I Play
The basement of Ed Sciaky's Merion, PA, home is a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mass of music: 20,000 albums, thousands of CDs, cassettes, memorabilia, and reel-to-reel interviews with the likes of Lennon, Bowie and Springsteen, reflecting a 30-year career in the business. Occasionally, Sciaky's iguanas, Verdi and Fruity, crawl through the heap, resting atop a stack of LPs like miniature green dinosaurs.
"I don't even know what all is down here," says Sciaky, tipping up his eyeglasses as he searches for a Bowie interview. All of his albums are alphabetized, as are the interviews. Stick a transmitter and a sound board down here and you'd have a radio station.
"That's the idea," he laughs. The famous voice, relaxed and deep, triggers memories of long-gone weekends with the radio tuned to rock and roll.
Ed Sciaky grew up in West and Southwest Philly, raised by his mother, a shipping clerk for Rohm and Haas. Although she didn't introduce Sciaky to music, "she was culturally aware" and often took him to Broadway shows and the theater.
When Sciaky entered Temple University in 1964 at 16 (he zipped through Central High), he quickly joined the college radio station, WRTI, and hosted his own program of Broadway show tunes.
"I did my show like a DJ show, using various Broadway show records and thematic sets of songs."
Eventually Sciaky got into the folk-rock scene, spending time at clubs like the Main Point, the Gilded Cage or the Second Fret, where he taped an intimate concert with Joni Mitchell. That show and many others were also broadcast on Gene Shay's folk show on WHAT-AM where Sciaky helped out.
Sciaky would run the sound board while Shay did interviews in the other room. But Shay didn't stay at WHAT (according to Sciaky, "the engineer didn't like dirty hippies coming in and messing up his studio"), and because he'd come to depend on Sciaky, he took him along to WDAS when he started his new show, giving Sciaky his first commercial job in 1970.
"Gene Shay was my mentor. His casual interview technique rubbed off on me and I think I patterned myself on his kind of lack of style. It was very different from that Top 40 AM screaming style. I just tried to be real."
With FM radio breaking the rules and playing adventurous music, some of the AM stations wanted to get in on the action. WFIL's Long John Wade, a good friend of John Lennon, had received an early copy of The White Album on reel to reel. WFIL was one of the most popular top 40 radio stations in the city, friendly to the Beatles' early pop hits. But this White Album stuff was too strange and Wade was told by WFIL management that it was off limits. So he trekked over to Ed Sciaky's show on WDAS at 2 a.m and the two played the whole tape—two solid albums—straight through.
"This was weeks before the record was released," Sciaky laughs. "We might have had the world premiere! He got in major shit for doing it. But I'll never forget it. This was a DJ that was personally so into this music, that he'd risk his job, come over and play it at some stupid FM rock station."
The White Album played a key role in the demise of AM and the rise of FM.
"When people went and bought The White Album," recalls Steve Martorano, "they heard how much better it sounded at home, on stereo. They wanted to know where they could hear it like that on the radio. Perhaps John Wade hastened the end of AM radio as a musical format."
WMMR's poster image from the early '70s illustrated the station's new outlook. It featured the four faces of John Lennon, beginning with the clean-cut popster and ending with the shaggier, counterculture guru. The slogan: "Grow with the music."
One place you were sure to see that poster in those days was Sansom Street between 19th and 21st Streets. Amid the scents of patchouli and jasmine, the music of WMMR was piped from the head shops, clothing stores like Wards Folly (the place for rainbow bellbottoms) and cafés that lined the two-block stretch. The station was in the hub of the scene, located just down the street at 19th and Walnut.
Michael Tearson, who DJ'd at WXPN from 1967 until 1970 while a Penn undergrad, began his professional radio career at WMMR just after it went fully free-form, coming on as music director and late-night host.
"It was the featured shift of the day. There was no video, cable, VCR back then—people looked to the DJs to take you on a trip each night."
Tearson had a reputation for crafting ingenious sets of music and the "killer segue"—something every DJ strived for. He'd mix John Coltrane, Bach and Steeleye Span to reveal relationships and influences. He'd make the music connect like a jigsaw puzzle.
"Michael was so unbelievably creative," says former WMMR co-worker David Dye. "The songs would seem to have no common thread, but he'd always pull it together…"
By 1971 Sciaky and Martorano had moved from WDAS to WMMR, and 'DAS had eliminated their free-form format. One of the stories is that Spiro Agnew gave a speech in Des Moines about the evil hippies and it frightened Max Leon so much that he changed his station. WDAS's Joe "Butterball" Tamburro went on to apply the same kind of album-oriented principles to black music and the station decided to focus on an urban format. (Today it is a very successful urban adult contemporary station.)
By this time WMMR had become very broad-based, playing the folkier artists like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and James Taylor, alongside harder music like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The station became the first to play many bands, including Yes, Neil Young, David Bowie and Elton John. Tearson is also credited as one of the first to play Springsteen.
"Greetings from Asbury Park was not yet out and we got a [promo] version of it. I said whoa—check out this cat! Through the course of my show I played virtually every track. Jon Takiff, the DJ on after me [now a music critic at the Daily News]… it blew his head off, too."
In the free-form era, DJs could spin any track they desired—hence the now-obsolete format called "album-oriented rock," or "AOR."
"We might play 10 different tracks from one album," says Sciaky. "And I have a feeling that's what made some of the acts major acts. People got into them as artists and not just as hit songs. We played what people responded to. What listeners heard and liked. And sometimes they didn't know that they liked it until they heard it. Our job was to say, 'This is a great record—what do you think?'"
Tearson and the rest of the WMMR DJs went nightclubbing a lot—checking out The Fuggs or Mandrake Memorial at the psychedelic haunt Trauma; catching Cream or Pink Floyd at the more rockin' Electric Factory; or seeing some of the first concerts by Springsteen at the Main Point.
"We were paid to be the taste setters," says Tearson.
In April 1973, Columbia Records arranged for WMMR to tape Bruce Springsteen at the Main Point—it was then that the rest of the DJs got the fever.
Sciaky says, "Bruce was unknown. He couldn't get arrested, even in New York, which is really his home market."
The number of albums sold for a particular artist varied wildly. San Francisco, for example, could not have cared less about Springsteen. When The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle came out in 1974, it sold 50,000 records in Philadelphia. In San Francisco it sold 25.
"I dropped in on Bob McClay at KSAN and I forced him to play 'Rosalita' by Bruce Springsteen—he had never played it before, and he didn't care for it. Each station more or less developed its own identity, which isn't bad either, it was good. We were free to break any artist like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, even when the other markets didn't care. And eventually they all broke nationally."
WIOQ, another station that went free-form (in 1974), broke artists like Tom Petty and Cheap Trick.
"Little Feat was my band," says John Harvey. "They were who I crusaded for." Harvey was one of the first DJs on the station when it moved from automation, and after a brief time off ("I thought I was going to be a rock star") returned in 1975.
Gerry Rafferty's song "Baker Street" might never have been a hit had it not been for Helen Leicht. The record company wasn't promoting Rafferty at all, but Leicht loved the song and so did the listeners.
"I'd call the label and say, 'Don't give up on this record. People keep calling to hear it.' They'd say, 'Are you sure?'"
Harvey says every time he hears the organist at the Vet cover "Baker Street," he thinks of Leicht.
Jocks at both stations would cart home 25 to 30 records a week—rock, jazz, country crossover. At the music meeting, their job was to hash out what they liked and didn't like.
"I remember standing at the wall of albums thinking, 'Hmmm, 'What do I want to play?'" says Harvey. "You'd pull an album out and there would be a sheet on the record with check marks next to the [songs] the DJs liked. Each jock was able to vote on the cuts we liked, so the format was, roughly, if a song had three or four checks next to it you could play it. "
According to Insider Radio publisher Jerry Del Colliano, a former program director at WIBG-AM, the DJs weren't without incentive to play certain albums.
"Even in the free-form days there was a lot of payola," says Del Colliano. "Write this down: sex, drugs, trips to Las Vegas. I can name names and I can also wind up dead by my car."
But the DJs we spoke with insist a lunch date or a scarf at Christmas was about as far as it went—at least on the DJ level.
"If I did get payola," laughs Sciaky, "Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel should have made me rich. But I didn't. I just loved the music."
Just a few weeks ago Billy Joel played a sold-out five-night stint in Philadelphia at the First Union Center. But it wasn't long ago that Billy Joel was just a Long Island piano man looking for a break. If you were in Philadelphia in the '70s and early '80s, you probably have Billy Joel's oeuvre stuck in your head. You don't know "Vienna," "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" or "The Entertainer" as well as you know "Piano Man"? Then you weren't listening to WMMR.
"Over the last 30 years of my career," Joel announced to 19,000 fans at First Union, "I want to thank one Philadelphian who's always played me, even if it didn't fit in the frickin' format of the station, and that's Mr. Ed Sciaky."
The relationship began at Sigma Sound Studios, where WMMR broadcast a live radio concert featuring Billy Joel in 1972. The singer was basically unknown; he had only recorded one album, Cold Spring Harbor, on Paramount Records. WMMR music director Dennis Wyland liked the album and suggested the station give tickets away to listeners for a small, intimate Billy Joel show. During that concert, Joel did his unreleased, drug-festooned song "Captain Jack." For the next year and a half, the station played the song regularly. Listeners called in, wanting to know what album it was from and how they could buy it. Meanwhile, Columbia Records heard about this guy Billy Joel and his infamous song "Captain Jack"—and eventually, they signed him.
Sciaky became friendly with the singer, socializing with him when he came into town for concerts. Joel remembers one particularly star-studded night at, of all places, the Eagle II Diner on Broad Street. He'd just played the Academy of Music with Janis Ian, and wound up sharing a table with Sciaky, Bruce Springsteen and Barry Manilow.
"We're sitting around, late at night," laughs Joel, "and I didn't think I was that hungry, but I was hungrier than I thought I was, so I started to eat Barry's cold french fries, which totally grossed him out, and me and Bruce were looking at each other like what's his problem. They're just french fries—if you're not gonna eat 'em I'm gonna eat 'em. Ed got a kick out of that."
Sciaky says Joel liked him because he treated him like a human being, like a friend.
"He'd met so many jerks.… Billy called me at home once at 4 a.m. from Des Moines, Iowa. I think he was drunk, he was saying, 'Ed, yer the best.' He said something about meeting some asshole at some radio station and said, 'Ed, yer the best.'"
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Everyone recalls a first sign of free-form's demise.For Dave Herman it was the car radio. In the mid to late '70s, FM radios went into cars and started to outnumber or match AM radios in cars and homes. Suddenly there was a great deal of money to be made.
"Radio stations wanted to attract the largest number of listeners," says Herman. "So the scope of the broadcast became smaller and less experimental."
For Michael Tearson it was the file cards.
"When we started keeping track of what we were playing, that was the first step towards the inevitable."
For Billy Joel it was the consultants.
"They started to tell the radio stations that if they played this particular kind of format they'd get this age, and this kind of demographic. The listeners' tastes got more defined and everything got shunted into categories. Now there are categories within categories. It's like the Balkanization of radio."
Lee Abrams was one of the first national consultants, working for WYSP in 1974. His company, Burkhart, Abrams Inc., developed the "superstars" format for WYSP—a top 40 version of free-form that played just the rock hits. Abrams created a list for GMs across the country that quantified what records, slogans, promotions they should play—in other words, how to be a pseudo 'MMR. Abrams is often credited with killing free-form.
The newfound programming rules started to wear on the DJs. In a legendary stunt in 1976, Tearson kicked down a door to get to the commercial logs, inadvertently locked up in sales director Art Camiolo's office.
Later on, when WMMR relocated to 5th and Market, Tearson got vague permission, he says, to really finish off the door. So he brought in an ax.
"It was listed that I was dismissed because of a psychotic action. I could have retired on that statement. It's clearly libelous," he laughs. "But I blew it off."
In 1977 Paul Fuhr, who had been music director at WYSP Radio, was brought in to improve WMMR's ratings—they were well below WYSP's.
"We were too eclectic, perhaps," says Sciaky. "to really break out to a mass audience. Sciaky was fired and—the same day—hired at WIOQ, now under the direction of program director Alex DeMers. To rescue WIOQ from its own low ratings, DeMers decided to offer the wildest broadcasting mix. They'd play the Sex Pistols alongside Styx, segue from Miles Davis into Mike Oldfield.
In 1977 Harvey started doing mornings—that's when he really discovered the power of radio. "For a while we were everyone's darlings," says Harvey, whose new gig led to his "Harvey in the Morning" moniker. During his show, he would splice in comedy bits as well as offbeat news items in "Harvey's Almanac," and even anecdotes from his personal life.
"I remember the sensation the first time I let myself go and told something personal about myself," says Harvey. "The phones would light up and people would give me lots of feedback. It became like this collective experience. It was so powerful. What a drug."
"WIOQ never had the kind of mass numbers that 'MMR did," says Del Colliano. "But it had its place and Harvey had his cult."
And in the fall of 1978, it beat WMMR and WYSP in the ratings as the number one station. But then the station got a little greedy. They hired a consultant who suggested they mix it up even more, add a softer edge and go after some of WMGK's (Magic) listeners for bigger numbers. Magic's sound was all soft and gushy pop like Streisand, Diana Ross and Kenny Rogers.
"So they had us play Streisand next to the Sex Pistols," says Sciaky. "It was horrible."
"We overreached," adds Harvey. "You can't spread quite that broadly even on a station like ours. Even with our eclectic mix, Diana Ross was too wimpy. And I think it pissed some listeners off."
Tearson returned to WMMR in 1978, and under the direction of Jerry Stevens, the station was getting its lowest ratings ever. The station never played the corporate ratings game, and it started to show.
Soon the computerized "Selector" program was installed at WMMR and at many other stations. The idea was that this would free up the DJ to become more of a personality, crack jokes, make kooky prank calls.
Tearson moans, "It was the evolution of the jock as 'asshole.'"
The Wild, the Innocent and the DJ Shuffle
If WMMR had a legendary run as a broadcast outlet in the '70s, it became an even bigger legend as an economic and commercial success in the '80s.
WMMR had always been a lifestyle radio station. In its early years the station spoke to the experimental, alternative lifestyle. "'MMR represented those boomers from the beginning," says Steve Martorano. "Now they were looking at that group approaching middle age."
John DeBella and his Morning Zoo created a culture of rock and roll animals starring a zany cast of chattering characters like Mark the Shark.
DJs began involving the listeners on the air more than ever before, though often in a condescending manner. Still, it made palpable the one-on-one connection—and it became cool to be insulted by DeBella.
But not for happy-go-lucky Harvey in the Morning, who at the time had the most successful morning show.
"It was horrible—one of the worst things I'd ever gone through," says Harvey, who endured daily jabs from DeBella. "I was cruising on youthful naiveté. I had stumbled into radio and into success and suddenly I was under attack."
As WMMR's ratings took off, Harvey was eventually fired in 1986.
Much later, after DeBella demolished Harvey, DeBella was demolished himself by some fella named Howard Stern.
DeBella disappeared for a few years, but then got a new job—at WYSP.
"[Stern] destroyed DeBella personally and professionally and for them to just kiss and make up was total hypocrisy," Sciaky says, his voice peaking with anger. "Just so DeBella can get a job and get ratings? The whole thing was sad."
"Howard Stern changed radio permanently," says Harvey. "DJs now have so much disrespect for the audience—they assume the listeners are a bunch of morons."
In the early '90s, WXPN became a haven for former free-formers. David Dye, of course, carved out the most visible niche as the host and producer of World Cafe—WXPN's nationally syndicated kitchen sink of adult-alternative.
When Dye first began volunteering on Sleepy Hollow, he says the station was wary of his commercial radio background. But it was just like the old days for Dye. WXPN was one of the most eclectic, professional stations in the market and it was still fostering musicians' careers.
"If Michaela [Majoun], Shawn [Stewart] or I love something—we'll play it."
Michael Tearson landed back at WXPN in November 1992. WMMR was downsizing, cutting corners, and, as Tearson puts it, his contract happened to come up at the wrong time. At the same time Tearson's wife, Lynn, was diagnosed with cancer.
At WXPN, he hosted a late-night show called The Attic, which concluded with an hour of free-form. According to Tearson, he was brought in as a heavyweight to combat new "alternative rock" station WDRE, which WXPN saw as a threat to their progressive format. (Tearson says WDRE made him a "woeful" offer.) But WXPN had changed quite a bit since his days as a reckless college DJ. They'd adopted the techniques of a commercial station—a computer selector, playlists, research and consultants.
"Their system is not as freewheeling as they would like people to think."
Tearson stayed at WXPN until 1995 when his wife died. He was seeking more lucrative work, and says he was "at loggerheads with some of their thinking. I was there three years and they never made an attempt to tap into my expertise."
Ed Sciaky also got a taste of the old days. After a seven-year stint at WYSP, he returned to WMMR in 1993 to do a Sunday night show, Saturday midday and fill-ins. For a brief moment Sciaky had total freedom again.
"They used me as the elder statesman and I loved it there. "
Sciaky used longtime allegiances to win interviews with artists, who were happy to talk to the easygoing rock jock. He'd hit the road and interview Billy Joel or snag a quickie interview with Bruce Springsteen backstage at the Electric Factory when he played with Joe Grushecky. And he'd have new artists on as well, like Sam Phillips and Shawn Colvin.
"It was pulling teeth—but I got it done."
As for John Harvey, he'd been hosting mornings at WMGK for seven years when a consultant decided Magic should go "'70s."
"The suits were there en masse carrying stacks of research—yet the format tanked and burned within a year. They didn't mix it up enough—you can't play 400 songs from a 10-year span."
Just after Magic gave up on the '70s, WYSP, which had been a classic rock station, dropped the word "classic" from its name and Magic snatched it right up, becoming a classic hits station. Soon after, in 1995, Harvey was fired from Magic. That was his last job as a DJ—he went on to work for a children's TV show on Nickelodeon.
Then, Sciaky says, "a very bad thing happened."
"While everyone's watching Monica Lewinsky, they should be paying attention to the radio industry. That's the true scandal of the last 10 years."
When Clinton signed the Telecommuni-cations Act of 1996, he changed the radio landscape.
Back in the '60s, Metromedia was considered a conglomerate, but it was nothing by today's standards. Previously, the rule for radio station ownership was that a company could own one AM and one FM in each city and a total of 12 AMs and 12 FMs and five TV stations for diversity of ownership. The Telecom act changed that rule in 1996 so that a company can own eight radio stations in a market, with no limit to how many they could own across the country.
"And now the radio industry is literally controlled by about five companies," says Sciaky. "That's not healthy."
But there was one snafu when it came to WMMR.
When CBS (who owned WMMR) merged with Infinity (who owned WYSP), the Justice Department decided it wasn't fair for CBS to own two similar stations in Philadelphia. Otherwise, they'd command 40 percent of the advertising revenue in that market. So CBS traded WMMR and two of their Boston stations to Greater Media Inc. for two stations in L.A.
In Philadelphia, Greater Media already owned WMGK and WPEN. Shortly after swapping for WMMR, they bought classical station WFLN for $41.8 million and changed it to the "hot adult contemporary" station it is today, The Maxx.
Alex DeMers, the former WIOQ program director, became a consultant for Greater Media's collection of Philly stations—the Greater Philadelphia Radio Group. The company decided that since WMGK had won the position as "classic rock" in the market, WMMR would have to change.
WMMR kept DJs, like Pierre Robert and Earl Bailey, but added younger jocks like "rude, lewd and tattooed" Donielle Flynn, whose trailer park patter is often bleeped of expletives. And they fired Sciaky. The station skewed toward a harder rock like Van Halen and Kiss, and ceased playing some of the more melodic artists like Springsteen and Joel.
WMGK became a watered-down WMMR. Case in point: when WMMR does an "A-Z" weekend of music it takes nearly two weeks; when 'MGK does it, it takes two days.
Tearson, who at one point applied for the morning shift at 'MGK, says, "Magic rotates little over 500 songs. In a 12-hour period you can do about 250 songs. Do the math."
But that's just par for the course in radio these days. "No matter what the format," says Harvey, " the secret number is 400 to 500 songs."
Takin' Care of Business
Fifty-year-old Bobbi Silver, a record promoter for Geffen, has been working the phone since 8 a.m. She's pushing a Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston duet single that she says "should be an obvious play for R&B stations, but they have to wait a week until the research comes back, regardless."
Silver has worked for various labels since 1970 and witnessed changes from the other side of the biz. She longs for the days when the DJ was his or her own program director.
"I've gone from having lunch with DJs and playing them songs, to working a company or a program director. It's getting harder and harder to promote. [DJs] don't care as much about the music—or they're not allowed to care."
Some artists will occasionally get played "out of the box," industry lingo meaning as soon as the station gets the CD in their hot little hands. Hole's new album, says Silver, was a good example of that. But Beck's new album, on the other hand, was slow to get airplay.
"If Bruce Springsteen was signed today he'd be dropped—it took him three albums to break out. Today's record companies are owned by big corporations with big budgets. They have to have a hit song and immediate numbers, they can't develop an act."
Since these companies own many stations across the country and even in one city, it's not as important to be number one in a market; it's more important to be number one in a demographic. Which means local tastes are marginalized and homogenized into national averages.
Curiously, the highest rated music station in the Philly market is often a stand-alone, mom-and-pop operation—Jerry Lee's adult contemporary station, B-101 (WBEB). The only other stand alone is Y-100 (WPLY).
How does Lee do it?
It's very simple, says Lee, who bought the station in 1963. "Deregulation has been a tremendous help to us," he explains. "Our competitors are spending less and less money promoting themselves." The station's competitors—national conglomerates—can't pour all their advertising dollars into just one market the way B-101 can. "We saw it as a great way to increase our promotions. And it works. I'm finding it's easier to compete."
"Jerry Lee is a genius," says Insider Radio's Del Colliano. "He may very well prove that it's easier for an audience to fall in love with a station that's not owned by conglomerates."
You could say that Y-100 strives to be today's "alternative" underground station. Born from the ashes of WDRE (bought by another big company, Radio One), Y-100 has many of the same 'DRE DJs and even the same program director.
"It may not be quite as free-form as WMMR, but we do have a smidgeon of what they used to be," says Y-100 program director Jim McGuinn. "We keep that aesthetic in mind, with a 21st-century approach."
But the station is as straitjacketed as any other, and the DJs don't have nearly the power that WMMR did.
"[Free-form] was an era when they could make you or break you," says Del Colliano. "With no disrespect, you can't be made or broken by Y-100."
The Y-100 folks just sound like they're having more fun, they've got a bit of personality—something that's dreadfully missing from music radio.
Personality costs a lot of money these days—Pierre Robert, still hanging on at WMMR, is probably one of the highest paid jocks at that station, reportedly making close to half a million dollars. At one point John DeBella was paid nearly $1 million at WMMR. Sciaky admits he was making very good money in his last days at WYSP.
Sources say new jocks' salaries can be as low as $25,000.
"The big talent makes a lot of money," says Del Colliano. "But the average radio jock makes peanuts. So anybody can do the job now. You don't have to be an entertainer."
During his Nov. 8 concert, Billy Joel referred to the station that considered him "not rock and roll enough."
"All I have to say is you can kiss my ass," he declared, then segued into the appropriate rock anthem, "Angry Young Man."
Apparently Sciaky had shown Joel an article in the Philadelphia Weekly about WMMR not playing his music anymore.
"I ripped into WMMR pretty good," says Joel. "There was an ad for their station right there in the arena. I thought, you know what, this is a station that will no longer play my records but will play other artists who are contemporaries of mine because they decided they're more rock and roll… As if all I ever wrote were lite rock. Pardon my French, but lite rock sounds like soft cock. Okay, I wrote a couple of ballads. Please forgive me."
WMMR's current program director, Joe Bonadonna, a former DJ on WMMR, says that after the concert the station asked Joel's management, "What was he thinking about?"
"[What he said] wasn't true," adds Bonadonna. "If he had something current, we'd probably be playing some of his current things."
Bonadonna calls the station a heritage rock station—they play music from the '60s to the '90s.
"Its all about formatting," says Joel. "Whereas rock and roll radio used to unite everybody, now it divides us from each other. Nothing new. Nothing outside of a certain border. God forbid we should offend some listener.
"What I want to know is, Where would the Beatles live now?" adds Joel.
Imagine if free-form radio never existed. A wealth of diverse artists wouldn't have found an audience. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who—artists who have made millions of dollars for the radio industry.
Are today's version of the Beatles out there, somewhere, languishing, without a station to play them?
Of course they are.
Living In The Past
The R5 train rumbles by just outside Sciaky's sunny, sky-lit garage-turned-kitchen. Spread across the kitchen table are various newspapers and a few issues of the radio trade magazine Friday Morning Quarterback.
He takes a minute to grumble about the fact that the neighborhood boy is mowing the lawn just after it rained.
"Now that's stupid."
Talking about the state of radio makes Sciaky bitter.
He's been supporting himself with a part-time gig as the authoritative voice for the King Biscuit Flower Hour (a rock heritage show not broadcast in Philly) and his wife's salary as an advertising consultant. He wants to be back on the Philadelphia airwaves, sharing his encyclopedic brain.
Some people feel like these DJs should forget about it and hang up their headphones. Even Sciaky admits that Muni seemed lost at WNEW in New York, and wasn't surprised at his departure.
But why wouldn't a classic rock station want the real thing?
"They want to pour old wine into a new bottle," says Martorano, now working on a TV documentary in New York. "But the fact that they wouldn't hire Ed Sciaky or Michael Tearson—the perfect vessel for that old wine—is crazy."
WMMR must be leaning toward Martorano's way of thinking these days, because Tearson is back.
And he's already got his opening line: "As I was saying…"
Bonadonna says he brought Tearson back because a person of his knowledge and appreciation is important for WMMR.
"Especially in an age where you've got radio stations changing formats like convenience stores change names. For a brand station like WMMR, you've really got to care about what's on the air and Michael does that."
Helen Leicht was just hired full-time at WXPN to do middays.
So maybe there's hope.
And who knows what's to come? With the advent of Internet radio technology and Web sites where the surfer is able to download music, we may be entering the era of the individual as modern freeform DJ. Tearson points out that digital radios for cars are set to roll out in the year 2000, making it possible to bring the Internet into our cars.
John Harvey isn't looking to return anytime soon. He's working for the Discovery Channel, co-hosting a home improvement show produced in Philly. He listens to WXPN on occasion and loves NPR.
"My favorite show is Car Talk," says Harvey. "Because it's real, spontaneous, goofball and I'm amazed. I want and need to tune into something and say, 'Okay, amaze me, surprise me.'"
But even Harvey has a dream.
"The secret to a great radio station, boiled down, is that if you came on, flying by the seat of your pants and did something different and risky...you might wildly succeed. But that's a memory of someone from another generation."