By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 24 | Posted Jul. 3, 2002

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"He told me the morning slot had a 6.5 share. I said, '6.5? I could get that down to a 3 in no time.' There was a pause, and then Charlie said, 'You really are the wiseass they say you are.'" DeBella, then 32, signed on as morning guy at WMMR for $65,000.

"I remember John showing up in a red beret, red scarf, red sunglasses, red coat and pants, and red shoes," says Pierre Robert. "I remember thinking, 'Uh-oh, something has certainly changed around here."

When DeBella came aboard in 1982 WMMR was still trading on the fading glory of its rep in the '70s as a standard-bearer of free-form progressive programming. The station hadn't had a morning guy for six months.

He called his show "The DeBella Travesty." It was an uphill battle, and management kept him on a short leash. The first DeBella DeBall, held a couple months after his arrival, drew 12 people.

After six months DeBella wanted to go back to New York. "In his thick Mississippi accent, Kendall said to me, 'John, I want you to stay here and I've got a contract that says you do,'" he recalls.

Eventually DeBella fell in love with Philadelphia. "There was huge blizzard in the winter of 1983, and without even thinking I trudged over to Jim's Steaks," says DeBella. "I'm walking back home with a cheesesteak under my arm, the wind is howling and it's snowing really hard, and at some point I stopped and said to myself, 'Asshole, you're a Philadelphian.'"

DeBella slowly started putting his morning team together. He brought Mark Drucker down from WLIR, securing him a fat $50,000 salary and dubbing him Mark the Shark. He hired "Turbo" Cindy Graham for traffic. He struck up a friendship with Clay Heery, proprietor of the long-defunct Comedy Factory Outlet in Old City, who did a character called Captain Cranky on the air.

Then DeBella found a character named Pat Godwin, a midwesterner living in the basement of a frat house at Penn--he wasn't even enrolled there--who could do uncanny impersonations of hit songs reworked with zany lyrics.

Heery clued DeBella into the psychology of rowhouse Philadelphia and escorted a steady stream of rising young stand-up comedians through DeBella's morning-show wacky factory, including some kid named Jerry Seinfeld. Much hilarity ensued.

In 1983 a new program director named George Harris, a suit-and-tie-and-gold-pocket-watch guy known for firing the morning guy as his first act at a new gig, replaced Kendall. Harris called DeBella into his office.

"He said, 'Did you ever think about doing this?' And I said, 'Yeah, they made me get rid of it.' And then he said, 'Have you ever thought about doing this?' And I said, 'They made me get rid of it,'" says DeBella.

"He said, 'How about the Scream of the Week' and I said, 'As a matter of fact I invented that at WLIR.' He said, 'Do me a favor. Go home and write down all the things they made you get rid of, and let's find a place to put them back and add some new stuff.'"

Harris was known in the industry for pumping up listenership by methodically shrinking a station's playlist. In short order Harris brought up WMMR's cume--the number of people listening in any given quarter hour--from 300,000 to one million.

"He had research that showed that people in the city knew who I was, and they knew who the 'MMR monkey was, but when asked if they could define the word 'travesty,' they couldn't," says DeBella. "He told me to think about calling the show the 'Morning Zoo.' It would be a great hook."

The Morning Zoo concept--Hump Day, Thirsty Thursday, Hawaiian Shirt Gonzo Friday and all the attendant bells, whistles and nutty sound effects--was invented by a Florida DJ named Scott Shannon. By the time Shannon brought his Morning Zoo to New York a few years later the concept had been cloned all over the country.

"I got a call from him once and he told me he was pissed at me, but he was going to tell me something that he would never admit to anyone," says DeBella. "He said, 'I created the Morning Zoo, but you perfected it.'"

Large numbers of WMMR's one million listeners felt that way. One day the Morning Zoo was to do a remote broadcast from a now-defunct eatery in the basement of the Bourse.

"We thought a few people might show up," says DeBella. "I got there at 4:45 and the line of people stretched for three blocks. The whole city got into it. You would walk into a bank on a Friday and all the tellers would be wearing Hawaiian shirts."

The DeBella DeBalls got bigger and bigger--selling out months in advance--and when he came up with the idea for the "Louie, Louie" parades, patterned on the climactic scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, thousands of drunken revelers turned out. DeBella's salary jumped to $200,000.

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Comments 1 - 24 of 24
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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 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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17. kliff said... on Feb 11, 2015 at 12:51PM

“The only station I will listen to in the car is WMGK. Glad to hear him coming to that spot on the 'dial'.”

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18. Anonymous said... on May 11, 2015 at 11:17AM

“First of all, John Debella is still an ASSHOLE. The city of Pittsburgh has gone through an incredible renaissance making it a much cleaner City than what it was reputed to be in a rich Historical past. Debella was in Philly by the early eighties and a New Yawker originally. New Yawkers are the only Civilized People with any brains. If you don't believe me ask one. When He mentions that the plants are smarter than the People here, is he referring to folks at Carnegie Mellon University, where the hands down, best Robotics Engineering program on earth is taught. Hmm. Maybe He is referring the Asparagus Brained Idiots over at U of Pitt, where the Polio-vaccine was developed. Also the first Organ Transplants were performed at U of Pitt Medical.Maybe Debella is playing to the Philadelphian who has that spirited hate for Pittsburgh. Well the same ignorance is felt in the Opposite direction here in Pitt toward Philly. Only an implant can see this bigotry.”

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19. Billy said... on Aug 20, 2015 at 04:19PM

“There's a reason John Debella has been on the radio for so long....
He could never make it on TV. He has a face that could stop a clock.
Plus, he's a pussy too!”

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20. tom said... on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:41PM

“he was often nasty to callers on the radio in his early years in philly. many philly folks would just take it and kiss his ass. He's an asshole.”

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21. tom said... on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:41PM

“he was often nasty to callers on the radio in his early years in philly. many philly folks would just take it and kiss his ass. He's an asshole.”

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22. tom said... on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:41PM

“he was often nasty to callers on the radio in his early years in philly. many philly folks would just take it and kiss his ass. He's an asshole.”

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23. tom said... on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:41PM

“he was often nasty to callers on the radio in his early years in philly. many philly folks would just take it and kiss his ass. He's an asshole.”

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24. tom said... on Oct 15, 2015 at 10:41PM

“he was often nasty to callers on the radio in his early years in philly. many philly folks would just take it and kiss his ass. He's an asshole.”


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