THE FORMER KEEPER OF WMMR'S MORNING ZOO IS BACK ON THE RADIO. IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY.
"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.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
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