JOHN DEBELLA IS NOT AN ASSHOLE ANYMORE.

THE FORMER KEEPER OF WMMR'S MORNING ZOO IS BACK ON THE RADIO. IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY.

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jul. 3, 2002

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Despite weak grades and unremarkable SATs, he bullshitted his way into Hofstra University by telling the dean, "I am going to become someone, and when I become someone, I am going to be someone who went to Hofstra."

While studying theater, he started spinning on the college station, which had a broadcast radius that barely extended beyond the dorms. He worked out outrageous skits patterned after the psychedelic absurdity of Firesign Theater.

Despite a brief stint working up bits for the National Lampoon Radio Hour--which included among its ranks what would soon become the bulk of the first-season cast of Saturday Night Live-- working in theater remained his dream. That all changed after a few penniless seasons of summerstock upstate.

The day he decided to be a DJ was the day a friend told him he would be "an asshole" not to pursue something he was a natural at. WLIR in Long Island was at the vanguard of the free-form revolution in progressive radio.

"We were like guerrilla radio," he says, "the station that would run into the city and kick the big guys in the shins and then run back out to Long Island."

He started doing the graveyard shifts on weekends for the princely sum of $35 a week. "John was doing an '80s radio show in the '70s," recalls Earl Bailey, a WLIR jock who later joined DeBella at WMMR. "It was the height of progressive radio, and most jocks would sort of hug the mic and whisper in your ear about peace, love and leather goods. John was a little more in-your-face."

DeBella would soon get his first taste of the fun house-mirror logic that rules radio management. "The program director calls me into his office and tells me he's taking me off the air. I said, 'Why?' He said I had higher ratings than our morning guy. The only way I could be doing that was by not following format. So he was taking me off the air."

That night DeBella got drunk and cried his eyes out at a Clash concert.

In 1979 DeBella got an offer to do mornings at a station in Pittsburgh for $40,000. He was 29 and this would be his first time leaving home. He remembers that it was an especially beautiful New York evening as he made his way out of town--a large moon hung over the skyline, casting the skyscrapers in twilight silhouette. He had his radio tuned into WNEW and, swear to God, Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" came on. By the time he hit the first tollbooth, the tears were streaming down his face.

"I didn't live in Pittsburgh. I did time there," says DeBella. "My on-air rap was, 'Pittsburgh--where the sky is yellow and brown and the plants are as smart as the people. It's not the end of the universe. But you can see it from there.'"

It was during this time he started twisting the ends of his mustache into handlebars. He spent eight months unsuccessfully trying to unseat the top morning guy, whose trademark stunt was putting on a Sousa march and getting sleepy-eyed Pittsburghers to march around the breakfast table.

WLIR called and asked him to come back. Even though the Pittsburgh station had been planning to switch formats and cut DeBella loose, the station manager called WLIR and told them he had no intention of letting him go. They would have to buy him out of his contract. "They wanted to pay me $25,000, but he got me $48,000," says DeBella.

During his second run at WLIR he started punching up his gonzo act--talking back to commercials, talking over records and putting listener phone calls on the air. His ratings started climbing. Music was changing, the listenership was clamoring for more punk and new wave.

DeBella played the shit out of a song called "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," by a local rocker named Joan Jett. It became a national hit, making him the golden boy of the New York music industry establishment.

One night he bumped into John Belushi at an AC/DC concert. DeBella convinced the SNL star to come on his radio show the next morning.

"He was like, 'Okay, just hang out with me tonight.' I said 'John, I gotta be on the air in the morning. I can't stay up with you all night.' Belushi said, 'Obviously, you have never heard of cocaine. I said, 'I have, but I don't work like that.'"

Belushi never did make it to DeBella's show. Within a week the comedian was dead.

One day DeBella got a call from Charlie Kendall, WMMR's program manager. He wanted to know if DeBella would be interested in coming on as the morning guy.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. masneerg said... on Jul 16, 2008 at 06:51AM

“My name is Sam Green Jr. I went to Springfield Gardens High School in Queens NY with John. We were not close friends, just classmates. Nevertheless, I remember him as a pleasant easy going very funny guy. I went on to become a Registered Nurse and NYC teacher, and bumped into John many decades ago when I took my class to see the movie "Charlotte's Web" in a small theater in Manhatten he was managing. I often think of Springfield High. Those were good days and we were nice kids. Congratulations John! Glad to see you made it. Be well, be happy!”

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2. bulldog said... on Dec 18, 2008 at 06:02PM

“I have been a fan of John since wmmr. He made many people enjoy getting up in the morning with music & laughs.I now work nights and only listen every now & then.His late wife id laid to rest next to my mom's cousin and she has spoken to him many times.I had the PLEASURE of meeting John last year at MGK and he was one of the most down to earth people I have ever met.He took time to sign my 2 morning zoo albums and pose for picture with me & my wife(never bothered him when my camera messed up-he said relax it's ok and waited about 5 minutes to get it working again) and yes he is taller in person.I see a person who is honest about what he does and helps out many groups like veterans-animals-diabetes.I know with Lisa he has once again found true love and peace in his life.Pierre Robert remained his "true" friend and now he has Debbi-Andre Ray and a staff of loving caring people.So John as we your fans have been blessed with you! You are blessed with your brothers-sisters & lovely wife. God Bless you dawg”

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3. Bob Davis said... on Dec 18, 2008 at 09:25PM

“The only reason Lisa is with you is cause you have money. If you were poor she would have never dated you.”

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4. Ray said... on Jan 27, 2009 at 08:26AM

“John, I am one of the silent majority, you felt were really behind you, during the whole Stern Fiasco. I stayed with you, defended you, among fellow construction workers on jobs that wanted to hear Howeird Stern talk about penises and Joing. The thing that bothers me, is to this day, I dont know the Real John DeBella.......In the mid 1980's I used to see you regularly on South Street, usually by yourself, shopping. I would always Yell...Hey John, Hey DeBella....and you would ignore me, as if I didn't exist. Another Time, I was RingSide at the Tyson vs. Tyrell Biggs Championship Fight at Trump Plaza...you also were there, again you were by yourself, it was early, no many people around at the Time....I walked up to the Ring Area, and called out to you, Hey John.....and again, you ignored me. I still would always take your side over Stern's any day of the week. I used to go to the Comedy Factory Outlet to se you, and Big Daddy, Clay Heery, etc.....regularly....and in my opinion, you were Pompous and Egotistical while on Top....How could you forget about the People Keeping you on Top???? Your Fans!!!! I have lost respect for you, because you agreed to Beg and Ask Howard Stern's Permission, to come Back on the Air, on WYSP in the Afternoons.....after all the Shit he did to you, and your late wife.......and you stooped so Low as to Kiss His Ass......That was Pathetic. I still like you, and your show...Never Liked Stern....I prefer Imus to Stern!!! bUT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER YOUR FANS!!! Remember the little Skit Song, used to be Played on the Zoo by Jerry Garcia......about DeBella...Dont try to pull his Pud, He'll Cut you down so quickly Lord, You'll change your name to MUD......what happened to THAT???? You let STERN Cut You Down in the worst way, and didn't fight Back. Come on John.....Cut the Crap about Howeirds Beautiful Blue Eyes.....He is a Sick SOB....and needs a Dose of his own Medicine.......At Least IMUS gives it back to HIM........and Howard Hates IMUS because IMUS id the TRUE First SHOCK JOCK......and Howard will always be Envious of that, and he cant change it...... I hpw you have come down to EARTH JOHN, and are Humble enough now to remember your Fans, instead of Ignoring them.......Ray”

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5. Anonymous said... on Dec 28, 2009 at 01:51PM

“John is the same douche bag he has always been. I know, I worked for him before. The only difference now is he makes a lot less money and doesn't have as talented people around him.”

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6. jackf said... on Jan 2, 2010 at 02:01AM

“Gary Dellabate(Bababooey) said when he worked as an intern for Debella at the Long Island radio station he was not allowed to look at him or talk to him. Fact: Stern eventually kicked his butt in the ratings because he was better. I remember at the1988 "Louie Louie Parade" holding up WYSP signs and anti-Debella and pro Stern signs. Those were the days. Somebody I know met him and asked him "are you Henri David? That pissed him off.”

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7. jackf said... on Jan 2, 2010 at 02:11AM

“Ray, Imus is a miserable misenthrope and Stern kicked his ass too. The only reason the "Morning Zoo was number one for a while is because they had no competition. There was nothing half-decent including the zoo. Once Stern came in he narrowed it, nipped him, then blew him away. Stern predicted it. I do respect Pierre Robert though.”

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8. someone else said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 08:17PM

“I don't know what DeBella was like personally, but let's be fair. His radio show became numder one in Philly in 1982, and even after Stern came to town in '86, DeBella's show remained the top non-news program until 1989.He was not an easy victim for Stern as other DJs were.”

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9. G.A. said... on Jul 7, 2010 at 11:58AM

“I don't know if John was involved in Annette's death or not , however her death occurred right before she was to receive a very large settlement from the divorce .

The Montgomery County Coroner , Halbert Filinger ruled her death a "suicide , yet she enjoyed the evening with friends then purchased juice and a candy bar on the way home - this doesn't seem consistent with some one about to take her own life . Was the garage attached to the house ? - if so , then the method that they say she chose is even more unlikely if she was aware of the other person just upstairs . Who was that other person and what part did he play (if any) in Annette's death ?

I had made these statements and asked these questions several years ago in a Email to the DA's office around the time Fillinger was running for re-election and experienced what seemed like law enforcement harassment - It may have been designed as a threat , I don't know .

There was also a incident that occurred two weeks prior Oct 17 ' 92 which may be related”

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10. William medina said... on Nov 27, 2010 at 06:15PM

“I'm searching for a former cousin who lived in brooklyn n.y. Her name was Annette DeBella. Step father was John P. Medina. We lived at 154 Floyd St., in Brooklyn, N.Y. I don't know where she moved to. It's been approximately 66yrs. that we have not seen her. I'm hoping she's on face book. I would like to communicate with her. It's been a long time.”

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11. FCB said... on Feb 4, 2011 at 12:49PM

“I've never heard John DeBella on Philly radio, so I can't comment on whether the Morning Zoo was the best ever or whether Howard Stern beat him fairly or unfairly. But I was 19 in 1979 when Debella spent those 9 months working at WPEZ in Pittsburgh. He may have been miserable but I loved every minute of it. He was the funniest morning guy I had ever heard and I only wish I still had the air-check tapes I made during that summer. I had actually forgotten his name, but was thinking about him today, did a Google search on WPEZ, and found his name and then this article. I was glad to see he's had a successful career entertaining people in Philly. It really is Pittsburgh's loss that radio executives did not keep him here long enough to make Pittsburgh his home.”

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12. Joey said... on Jun 26, 2011 at 09:12AM

“I used to booze it up with John at McGurk's in Mineola. Now I get bombed at Double H Pub.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 09:02PM

“John Debella was the best. I just happened across this article. I left Soutyh Jersey in 2000, so I did not know Debella was back. I will start in the morning streaming that station.

I don't think I missed a morning show. The crap with Stern was outrageous. May have been business but when the dates occurred with Capt. Janks and he told what he did on Sterns show, I believe this led to Ms. Debella's death and have NEVER listed to Stern again because of that.

My very best to a very honorable man and great DJ!”

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14. stormin said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 08:26AM

“The morning zoo as presented by Debella was entertaining and offered things to bring on laugh in the many times BS routine workday. Stern's show was/is crap and his popularity is a reflection of the quality of his audience.”

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15. Dennis said... on Nov 28, 2012 at 12:01PM

“Hi Dan McQuade why are you looking at decade-old stories about John DeBella?”

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16. CrisK said... on Apr 8, 2014 at 08:57AM

“Had a graduate student who won an 'MMR contest in the early 1990's to go on a trip to Florida for a long weekend as a guest of the station and DeBella. I guess John was in the midst of the worst time of his life because my student recounted story after story of what a petulant, immature A-hole John was. When there was a ticket mixup at the airport on departure, my kid's last image of DeBella was him screaming at the ticket agent "Don't you know who I am?!...Don't you know?!" I guess the years soften all of us but I imagine that huge ego is still there, it's just much better filtered as some age and wisdom have settled in.”

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