“I spent a week in Philadelphia one day” – Old joke often attributed to W.C. Fields but not likely his. I spent four years there, and tell about it in this first of 3 posts.
After three years at Cincinnati’s WEBN-FM, in the fall of 1978 I received a call from a radio program director in Philadelphia who was taking on an imposing task. Jeff Pollack had been brought in by Metromedia, owners of progressive rock pioneer WNEW-FM in New York among other stations, to turn WMMR-FM around. Like WEBN, it had been a ground-breaking free-form rock station, starting in 1968. But it had slipped badly in the ratings by the late ‘70s, thanks to a sea change in rock programming. A consulting firm, Burkhart/Abrams/Douglas, had seized on a way to homogenize album rock radio by reining in disc jockeys, their sometime rambling riffs and their eclectic choices in music, instead instituting tight playlists that put classic rock artists like the Stones, Beatles, Elton John, Eagles, et al, in “heavy rotation.” Stations adopting this “Superstars” format found their ratings soaring and eclipsing the more indulgent stations like WMMR, despite its status as one of rock radio’s “legacy” stations.
Jeff Pollack was shuffling the deck, putting together an air staff of local up-and-comers and some imports. He believed a good rock station needed to be plugged into the community and that a news department was essential. I negotiated a contract over the phone for the princely sum of $28,000 a year and gave notice to the Wood family and my colleagues at WEBN, a bittersweet moment.
I was put up in a Center City hotel for a few weeks while apartment-hunting. I received a call one weekend morning from my sister, Penny, in Massachusetts informing me I was an uncle. She had given birth to her first child, Jonathan. The move to Philadelphia put me back in the Northeast Corridor, making visiting nephews (there were more to come) a lot easier. I also came to appreciate that New York City was just a 90-minute train ride away. Not to take anything away from the fine City of Brotherly Love, but I averaged about two weekends a month in Manhattan, museum-hopping, dining, hanging around downtown. From Philly, New York was like an adult amusement park I could visit on weekends – without having to put up with its cost of living and hassles.
And I had a sweet setup in Philly. My apartment on Lombard Street was a short walk from WMMR’s studios on Rittenhouse Square. Even heading to work at 5:30 AM I felt safe and I never encountered any trouble. I fell into a pattern of sleeping twice a day in order to have something like a social life in the evening. My alarm went off at 5 AM and I was delivering my first newscast at 6. Then, around 2 or 3 in the afternoon I’d head home and take a two- or three-hour nap. In the evening, I’d walk a block to Chaucer’s, a corner bar and restaurant. Great jukebox, burgers and bar food, including stuffed mushrooms – very popular at that culinary moment in time. It was there I made new friends and met a young woman, Barbara, who would become one of the most important people in my world…but not for a long while. We dated, went our separate ways, married others, divorced and found ourselves back together again some 30 years later.
The station that Pollack put together went “from worst to first” in the ratings in about 14 months. WMMR was once again the top rock station, dominant in the coveted “males 18 to 34” demographic. Part of the success was due to the popularity of the morning drive DJ, a local talent, Anita Gevinson. Possessed of a smoky voice and a quick wit, she consistently pushed the boundaries of what was permissible to say on radio, especially regarding matters sexual. From the window between my newsroom booth and her air studio I would regularly see either the program director’s hotline light up on the phone or the program director himself, later in the morning, enter the studio to caution her. Usually to no avail. When Anita would bring my mic feed onto the air for my newscast, she would invariably be impish, flirty or downright suggestive while handing it off to me. After the sports and weather I’d toss back to her and she’d usually have some wicked comment to make about one of the news stories, which we would then banter about some more. She very quickly became hugely popular. She would do remote broadcasts from breakfast-sandwich-pushing fast-food restaurants and hundreds of raucous young men would show up on their way to work. (I’d stay behind to do the news from the studio.)
In a sense, in 1979, I was Robin Quivers to Anita’s Howard Stern. I was the straight man and foil for a no-holds-barred, unchecked morning mouth. (At that time, Stern hadn’t yet nicked the idea for the full-on shock-jock persona from Chicago’s Steve Dahl. Had Anita been allowed to forego playing music and instead been “all outrageous all the time,” she might very well have beaten Dahl and Stern to the punch.)
Another WMMR talent was Mark Goodman who would go on to be one of the original MTV Veejays and help video kill the radio star. Until reality TV killed Music Television.
I somehow developed an unintended knack for turning up in newspaper photos lurking behind a newsmaker, like Muhammad Ali or Tommy LaSorda. I was not deliberately photobombing, I swear. The term hadn’t even been invented.