THE GOLDEN ERA OF PHILADELPHIA RADIO

(1956-75)

By Tim Whitaker
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Apr. 18, 2001

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There was a time, amazons and coyotes, when radio was cool. The beat was constant. And constantly changing.
You didn't turn on the radio for background.
You listened. Intently.
How else could you know? Anything?
This was before Napster and mp3s, before CDs, before cassettes, before 8-tracks. Could such a dark age have ever really existed? I was around for a lot of it and I can barely conceive of it myself.

Because so much of that time is partly cloudy at best for me now, forgive me if what I tell you about the wonder days of Philadelphia radio falls short of strict chronology and leaves holes in the telling.

Philadelphia radio--specifically rock 'n' roll radio--has a long and storied legacy. It stretches from record hops to Payola to overpaid consultants to hallucinogenics and coke. There's no way you can cover it all--not in this space, maybe not in any space--because so much of what happened on our airwaves is forever lost in space.

Nor would you want to hear it all. Because radio, maybe more than any other medium, thrives on mediocrity. It is an industry that has produced precious few innovators and risk-takers. Inspiration is discouraged. Any moron who can slice and dice an Arbitron book to garner a niche audience can land a corner office at a radio station.

There will be no effort to showcase the many morons who have passed through Philadelphia radio.

But you should know that any attempt to tell the story of Philadelphia rock 'n' roll radio would necessarily reflect a personal bias.

And that is certainly the case here.

MAJOR STATIC

In the beginning, there was AM. And for teenage Philadelphians, particularly those with a stylish glide in their stride, there was only one AM radio station that mattered--WIBG, located at 99 on the AM band.

WIBBAGE, as it was called by one and all, was one of the first full-time rock 'n' roll stations in the country. In its day, WIBG owned Phila- delphia. There had been nothing like it before. And there's been nothing like it since.

Everything about WIBG was BIG. The sound was big. The ratings were big. The record hops they sponsored were big. The personalities were hip and cool and, yes, very big--Joe Niagara, Dean Tyler, Jerry Stevens, Frank X. Feller. Big celebrities all--Hy Lit especially.

WIBG played rock 'n' roll, mostly hits, but not just the biggest hits. The WIBG playlist had an urban edge, a regional feel; the jocks knew and played songs that made Philly kids quiver. Songs with rhythm. Songs with rhythm and blues. WIBBAGE sounded different than similarly formatted stations in Houston or New York or Atlanta.

The WIBG "Good Guys" had distinct personalities. They talked to you. This wasn't canned crap, the kind of stuff Cousin Brucie served up from powerhouse WABC in New York. You could hear Philly living in WIBG; you could feel it. And so you had to listen all the time. All the time. In the shower, in the car, in bed with your transistor radio under the pillow.

At its apex, WIBG was so big that out-of-town program directors would come to the city, rent a hotel room and listen to the station 'round the clock to try to steal some of its magic and take it back home. But there was no magic. It was street smarts. WIBG put guys on the air who knew the city and the kinds of songs that would get kids buzzed.

Then, in the mid-'60s, came WFIL radio. They planted themselves at 56 on the dial--Famous 56, they called it--and they played rock 'n' roll, too. From the start, they were out to dethrone WIBG. WFIL was different than WIBG. It was tightly produced; it had more jingles and played them more often. The "boss jocks" operated at a much higher octane.

But WFIL was for dweebs. The songs were predictable and played in tighter rotation. WFIL didn't feel nervous like WIBBAGE did. And because it was devoid of all anxious expectation, it was uncool. And yet WFIL's ratings soared. They had contests, lots of them--even a prize patrol! The suburban kids, where the numbers were growing, listened in droves. What did they know from cool?

Throughout the reign of WIBG and WFIL, there were two soul stations with far weaker signals located at the far right end of the AM dial. They were hard to pull in from any distance, which helped give them an �ber-coolness. White kids who savored soul music--and who didn't in Philly back then?--listened religiously to WDAS and WHAT. It was like belonging to a private society.

Of course, WDAS and WHAT were black stations, which meant the jocks were black, the music was black and most of the listeners were black. In the community, the jocks on WHAT and WDAS--guys like Jocko, Georgie Woods, Jimmy Bishop, Butterball, Sonny Hopson--were as big as the jocks at WIBG--even bigger.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. SANDYJUNE10 said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 09:20PM

“MY FATHER'S SON AND THE MARCONI EXPERIMENT, I FORGOT ABOUT HOW GREAT IT WAS TO WAIT FOR THOSE PROGRAMS TO COME ON. TO LISTEN TO THE MUSIC THAT MADE HISTORY . THE PROGRAMS IN PHILADELPHIA WERE SO GREAT BACK THEN.”

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2. BOB TOUSANT said... on Sep 5, 2008 at 05:09AM

“SOME NICE COMMENTS BUT IF YOU'RE FROM PHILLY , YOU QUICKLY REALIZE THAT THE INDIVIDUAL WHO WROTE THESE COMMENTS WAS FAR OFF BASE WITH SOME OF THE REMARKS THAT WERE MADE WHEN COMPARING WIBG AND WFIL. THE KIDS WO LISTENED TO WFIL WERE PROBABLY ALOT MORE HIPPER THAN THE THOSE WHO LISTENED TO WIBBAGE, ALTHO THAT'S DEBATABLE. WFIL WAS ALOT SMOOTHER IS DELIVERY. THERE WAS NO DIFFERENCE IN PLAYLISTS! THEY BOTH PLAYED THE SAME POP-ROCK, AND THEY BOTH PLAYED THE SAME AMOUNT OF JINGLES. WFIL BOUGHT A BETTER GRADE OF JINGLE THAT WAS SIMILAR TO WABC IN NEW YORK. WFIL WOUND UP WINNING THE RATINGS RACE BECAUSE THEY WOUND PLAYING ABOUT 3-OR-4-MORE RECORDS PER HOUR THAN WIBBAGE DID. WIBBAGE WAS TO CONCERENED WITH MAKING MONEY AND PLAYING COMMERCIALS AND TOO CONCERENED WITH YACKING ABOUT THEIR RECORD HOPS. WIBBAGE ALSO LACKED A QUALITY FIDELITY AND COULDN'T EVEN BE HEARD AT NIGHT IN MANY SECTIONS OF THE DELAWARE VALLEY BECAUSE OF A VERY POOR SIGNAL.”

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3. robin said... on Jun 21, 2009 at 01:09PM

“Agree that WFIL and WIBG played the same sort of music. However, WIBBAGE had the edge, because they had huge personalities in Hy Lit and Joe Niagra--and they were the original pop station. Also, WIBBAGE printed those handy top 100 hit flyers that were distributed weekly in the record section of Woolworths and other places where 45's were sold.”

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4. C said... on Aug 19, 2009 at 11:13PM

“WFIL switched to Top 40 in the fall of 1966, was #1 in Philadelphia by the summer of 1967, and WIBG never regained that position, although they tried in a million ways. I think the columnist misses the point. WFIL was a better radio station: tighter, slicker, more hit-oriented, and that's why they won the ratings race. It had nothing to do with being cool, although WFIL obviously was popular. WIBG fumbled along until 1977 when it became the short-lived "Wizzard 100," WZZD, going religious a few years later. WFIL, taking a heavy hit from FM competition, also adjusted its format in 1977, moving in a more adult direction. As with so many other AM stations, this didn't work out for them, and eventually WFIL changed to country music. It was the end of an era in Philly radio. Long live the memories of FAMOUS 56 and WIBBAGE!”

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5. Capt Andy said... on Sep 8, 2010 at 07:24AM

“I managed a group call the Combo Kings & they were the group that backed up the acts that came to the WIBG record hops with Hy Lit,Joe Niagra,Jerry Stevens,Bill Wright& many others. Our record Mish Mash hit the top 50 of the wibbage top 99. Looking for a copy of any list that has Mish Mash/byThe Combo Kings. I can be reached at 1-888-284-9864. I have some memorbila from WIBG”

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6. My Father's Son said... on Sep 17, 2011 at 09:40PM

“Thanks for the comment
Love you all
Rock on”

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7. Rod said... on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:44AM

“WFIL won the battle for one reason and one reason only: Storer Broadcasting was arrogant and refused to believe that they had any competition whatsoever. I was there, I know.”

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8. SLice said... on Feb 16, 2012 at 12:15PM

“Philly radio was tops”

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9. Dotty Kurtz said... on Jun 13, 2012 at 05:44PM

“In the 1960s and the early '70s, I would turn my radio west and listen to WIBG until the commercial came on. Then I tune into WFIL until they got to a commercial. And then, I would turn the radio north and do the same with WABC and WNBC in NYC. AM radio was powerful back then!”

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10. Alan said... on Oct 17, 2013 at 01:12AM

“During the mid 1960s I worked at S. Kline department store at Cottman Ave. & Roosevelt Blvd. (now Macy's). It was here that I met "Giant" Gene Arnold who was the store announcer at the time. I floated the idea of starting a weekly record hop and Gene agreed to DJ. On February 3rd 1967, Jardel Rec. Center became home to the "The Super Hop." As it became apparent that radio air time was needed to get the word out, Gene departed and Wibbage Good Guy Frank X. Feller came on board. As WFIL became Philly's dominant radio station, WIBG's ratings took a nose dive. Frank X. left WIBG and Boss Jock Jay Cook replaced him at Jardel and Dave Parks taking Jay's place when Jay became program director at WFIL. I would like to think we had some success at Jardel as the capacity in the gymnasium was 1,000.”

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11. g1311 said... on Feb 24, 2014 at 11:17PM

“i remember gene arnold. never new he announced at kleins. never made it to jardels. i was st.matts. christ the king & ryan, the other side of the blvd. couldn't wait till they played ' What's Your Name". Thats the song I met ALL my new girls”

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