THE FORMER KEEPER OF WMMR'S MORNING ZOO IS BACK ON THE RADIO. IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY.
In the fall of 1992 WMMR came up with plan to put DeBella back on top--a bold new format they dubbed "sports rock" that would pair him with sports commentator Howard Eskin. "They called me in and said, 'John, we want to show you something. We have done some research and the men who go to sporting events are aged 18 to 35. The men who listen to music are aged 18 to 35. They are the same men.' I said, 'No, they may be the same age, but they are not the same people.' I have a lot of respect for Howard Eskin, but Eskin knows as much about rock music as I know about sports."
Within a month DeBella fell from No. 2 to No. 15. By the spring of 1993 sports rock was gone and DeBella was moved to afternoons with a steep pay cut. By September he'd had enough.
"I had seen them dismantle the Zoo and destroy this thing I had built, the Annette thing, the Stern thing. I had made a lot of money and I figured out that I really didn't have to work anymore," he says. He signed off from his farewell show on Sept. 30 with the words, "Goodnight Philadelphia. Don't take any shit from anyone."
One thing DeBella wants to clarify is that, contrary to popular belief, he never started a landscaping business. A gardening devotee, DeBella had spent a couple weeks on vacation in England learning about English gardens, and when his buddy told him about a client who needed help on his, DeBella offered his advice.
"I said you can pay me a consulting fee, but I don't want to be out there digging holes," says DeBella. "I mentioned something about it before I went off the air, and somehow that became me on a lawnmower cutting grass."
Within a year WYSP offered him nearly half a million dollars to do afternoons. DeBella agreed, but first wanted to put the Stern rivalry to rest. So he went on the Stern show.
"I was nervous and scared," says DeBella. "They jokingly waved me down with a metal detector wand because I found out later he was really afraid I was going to come in there and try and kill him. I get in there and he has these beautiful blue eyes, very comforting."
Stern had arranged for many of the former Morning Zoo staff to come in and trash DeBella. Strangely enough, Stern stood up for DeBella every time. "Everybody was against me except Howard. I guess he thought if he could put this to bed it would make him look good."
WYSP kept him muzzled. "'Shut up and play the music' was what they were looking for," says DeBella of his afternoon show. Relations between him and WYSP management chafed for years before he was let go on June 6 of last year. He says he felt numb for the next nine months. He speculates now that the station wanted to free up money to bring in the "Opie and Anthony Show," which, coincidentally, started the day after he was let go.
It's getting late. The Four Seasons lunch crowd has been replaced by the dinner crowd. DeBella excuses himself to go to the men's room. When he comes back he says, "As I was walking back from the bathroom, I was thinking I must sound like such a pitiful soul. I don't know if I'm stupid or naive, or maybe I'm still just that hippie that thinks everyone is good."
DeBella's now easing his way back into mornings on WMGK, which has increasingly come to resemble the WMMR of old with the likes of Ed Sciaky and Michael Tearson back behind the microphone and a steady diet of roach clip classics on the playlist.
He's doing the radio equivalent of what restaurants call a "soft opening," treading lightly and carrying a big feather. Although he is in the market for a sidekick, he doesn't want to recreate the Morning Zoo. He's laying off the "zacky and wany," but he still plays Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a Zoo staple.
And even though he is once again going up against Stern, he's pretty sure his old rival has bigger balls to break. He would like to get back to No. 1--"What am I gonna do, shoot for No. 8?"--but he has his work cut out for him. Mornings on WMGK now rank 11th out of 34 stations.
DeBella's gotten reams of welcome-back email from loyal longtime listeners, the prevailing sentiments of which can be summed up in the one that reads "Thank God."
On his third day back on the air he did something that would not have even raised an eyebrow back in the wack-a-doo days of the mid-'80s, but in the airless, freeze-dried climate of 21st-century radio, where everything is micro-managed and market-tested down to the nanosecond, it was actually pretty radical. He played Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands," and it made him feel so good, he played it again.
"It was the first time I grabbed the show and said, 'It's mine,'" says DeBella, who is getting emotional again just thinking about it. "I was supposed to go into a break. I grab the mic, and I'm saying how great this song sounds and how much I love it and how you should be driving with the windows down and the stereo up. Does it take a genius to play a record twice? No. But if I can make three minutes of your life easier to take, then I did my job. We're all in this together." And then he starts welling up again.