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