THE FORMER KEEPER OF WMMR'S MORNING ZOO IS BACK ON THE RADIO. IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY.
Steadily, the newly minted Zookeeper was moving up in the ratings, with is sights set on No. 1 FM morning guy, Harvey in the Morning on WIOQ. It took three years, but one day in 1985 he knocked Harvey off his perch.
"Back then, if you heard Harvey tell it, I did some terrible things to him," says DeBella. "I did two things: I called him 'Hardly in the Morning' and referred to his station as 'W-Low-IQ.' After the Stern thing happened, he was quoted as saying, 'Now he knows how it feels.' He was the guy to beat. It wasn't my fault that he was the guy to beat."
Now all that stood in DeBella's way was KYW, the all-news colossus that owned the top slot. Within two years KYW was vanquished. WMMR's ad rates skyrocketed from $85 a minute to $1,500, and DeBella's salary ballooned to $1.2 million a year. It was John DeBella's morning; Philadelphia just woke up in it.
In 1983 John DeBella met Annette Gammon, a party girl fixture on the local music scene. She was a regular listener and liked rock music. He liked her shag hairdo and ever-present shades. The two fell in love, and on Sept. 6, 1986, they married. Just before they left for their honeymoon, a new morning show debuted on WYSP originating from New York and hosted by some guy named Howard Stern. DeBella was nonplussed.
DeBella and his wife moved into a colonial-style mansion in Bryn Mawr, but from the beginning domestic tranquility was in short supply. "She had a lot of problems I didn't know about. She was a borderline personality; she was an alcoholic," says DeBella. "I was an abused husband. She would chase me around the house with knives. I would go to bed early because I had to get up in the morning, and she would dump bottles of wine on me. I would wake up and she would be hovering over me with a baseball bat. I would leave regularly to sleep in hotels.
"She wanted to be as much of a star as I was. And after years of therapy, the understanding I finally came to was that you can only keep the dream alive as long as you are willing to suffer. I searched for love for a really long time. One girl I was really in love with--the one I lost my virginity to--she was an Israeli, and I was far from being Jewish. Her father was so freaked out by our relationship he moved the whole family back to Israel. So I had a lot of that in my life. I wanted a relationship more than anything in the world, but it just never worked out for me.
"I was warned," he says. "We went to see a therapist before we were married, and afterward the therapist calls me and says, 'Don't do it.' I was in love with her. I saw, or at least I thought I saw, the little fragile person inside."
Stern, meanwhile, was throwing down the gauntlet. When DeBella ignored the gesture, Stern picked it up and threw it harder--calling DeBella "Baldy" and devoting long stretches of his show to expressing his profound contempt for the Zookeeper. Morning radio in Philadelphia had become a full-contact sport.
In 1990 Stern came to town and staged a mock funeral for DeBella in Rittenhouse Square below the windows of WMMR. Thousands came out to watch Stern burn DeBella in effigy.
"One side of me wanted to fight in the biggest way," says DeBella. "But when you are No. 1, you never talk about the people below you. You always talk up, never down. Secondly, my responsibility was entertaining my audience, not selling newspapers or creating television sound bites. I always believed there was a silent majority on my side."
When Stern found out that DeBella's marriage was on the rocks, he came back and staged a "divorce party" on Independence Mall near where WMMR had moved. "Howard played very dirty with John," says Pierre Robert. "I remember a flatbed truck pulling up in front of the station loaded with drunk guys yelling, 'I fucked your wife! I fucked your wife!' Howard hammered and chiseled at John and then finally beat him."
Even in victory Stern didn't let up. DeBella speculates that the feud got ugly and personal because it took Stern so long to unseat him. "Howard would go into a new market and within a year he would be No. 1," says DeBella. "Howard came to Philadelphia. A year. Two years. Three years. It took him three and a half years to take me out. I have been told that [Stern Show parent company] Infinity told him he could not syndicate his show to non-Infinity stations until he was No. 1 in all the Infinity markets. If that's true, I cost him millions of dollars."
Capitalizing on DeBella's crumbling marriage, Stern paid DeBella's wife $5,000 to appear on his show and badmouth her husband. She even went on a faux date with Captain Janks, a North Wales shipping clerk and a devout Stern fan who made it his personal mission to torment DeBella at public appearances and then phone into Stern the next day detailing the verbal harassment he had unleashed on the Zookeeper.
And then in the wee hours of Oct. 17, 1992, after a night of drinking with her live-in boyfriend, Annette passed out behind the wheel of her car after pulling into the garage at the DeBella mansion in Bryn Mawr. With the garage door shut and the car engine running, Annette died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Police ruled it a suicide.
"I think she thought she was getting the last laugh," DeBella says. "I think if Howard knew how sick Annette was, he would never have gone there. And being on the show played into it. She was trying to hurt me any way she could.
"I buried my wife, a woman I loved very much despite all the bullshit. I buried the dream. And then moved on, with the help of a great therapist."
A Philadelphia magazine story that appeared shortly after Annette's death contended that the DeBella marriage ended when Annette found an unsent love letter written by DeBella and addressed to Lisa Sabol, then the wife of NFL Films honcho Steve Sabol. The Sabols--who were in the midst of divorce proceedings around this time--and the DeBellas had socialized often.
"Lisa was somebody who was helping me get my act together," DeBella says. "Stern was throwing divorce parties. I needed somewhere to go. Somehow that evolved in the media into an affair. Thank God she was around or I would have, as I like to say, sucked on the lead lolli. As far as a romantic relationship, not before 1994--and Annette died in 1992."
Today Lisa Sabol, now a Main Line real estate maven, and John DeBella are married.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide