When Radio Was King

I grew up listening to radio in the 1960s and 1970s. When my parents were in the car, they sometimes listened to WIBG or WFIL. I remember listening to the Beatles for the first time while driving around in the car with my parents.
Radio stations and disc jockeys were very popular back then. One station (WIBG) had a group of disc jockeys called the “WIBG Good Guys”. One of my friends (Bill Wright Sr.) was one of those disc jockeys. This is a photo of Bill, during a press conference with the Beatles in 1964.


At the time, the Beatles were the most popular celebrities in the world. Radio disc jockeys weren’t far behind. At his peak of popularity in the 1960s, Bill had a 52 radio share. That means that 52% of the radios in Philadelphia were tuned into WIBG while Bill was on the air. Today the largest radio share will be during a snowstorm, and KYW will be lucky to get a share of 10.
I started listening to the radio in earnest in the mid-1970s. My friends introduced me to rock and roll. At the time, there were three popular rock and roll radio stations in Philadelphia: WMMR (93.3), WYSP (94.1) and WIOQ (102).
Disc jockeys at the time were stars and celebrities in their own right. A disc jockey could jump-start the career of an artist or a band. Music stars would stop in at radio stations when they were touring, in order to plug their latest album and their concert.
One well-known example of this was Ed Sciaky, a popular Philadelphia-area disc jockey, who introduced Philadelphia to the music of Bruce Springsteen. He played a lot of Bruce’s first record on the radio, and was responsible for Bruce’s early popularity here. Bruce Springsteen mentioned Ed Sciaky by name in his recent autobiography as a major contributor to his early popularity.
I was a WMMR listener. I listened to “The Morning Zoo”, a show that played from 6-10 a.m., and featured John DeBella, and his sidekick Mark Drucker, aka “Mark the Shark”. (Mark passed away a few years ago). John DeBella is still on the air in Philadelphia, but now on WMGK.
The Morning Zoo was so popular that they offered live broadcast shows in the early 1980s. They rented halls, and did their shows live in front of a studio audience. I attended two of them. Those live shows were so popular that I had to stand outside in a line in order to get into the hall.
The Morning Zoo used to do a daily feature called the Dreaded Morning Oldie, or “DMO” for short. John DeBella would play an isolated segment from a song (sometimes only a single note from the song), and listeners would call in and try to guess the song. The first listener to identify the song would win a prize. To this day, I play a version of this with my wife called “name that tune”.
One of my favorite radio memories is that WIOQ occasionally used to offer a weekend-long promotion (Friday afternoon through Sunday evening) called “The Best of Progressive Rock”. Once or twice a year, they would schedule the music for the entire weekend in advance, publish the schedule in the newspaper, and would “block” 30 or 60 minutes at a time for particular artists. For example, the Beatles might be on Saturday night from 10-11 p.m., and the Rolling Stones would be on from 11-midnight. The most popular artists were played between 7-midnight Friday and Saturday nights, and the least popular artists between 2-6 a.m.
Radio was a communal experience for my friends and I. I explain some of this to my daughters, and they look at me as if I have two heads. The idea that my friends and I would schedule our weekends around the play schedule of a radio station is something that they don’t understand. They don’t have “communal experiences” like that anymore.
My parents used to describe watching the most popular TV shows (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or The Milton Berle Show), and talked about those shows with friends the next day. Philadelphia radio was the same for me. My friends and I shared that common bond.
I miss hearing “93.3, WMMR. The Home of Rock and Roll”.

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