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.
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.