THE GOLDEN ERA OF PHILADELPHIA RADIO

(1956-75)

By Tim Whitaker
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Apr. 18, 2001

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They didn't just play records--they whooped and howled and pounded on telephone books and sang along with the records they played. They were as much performance artists as disc jockeys. It was nothing but a house party on the soul stations 24/7.

Any reference to this era of finger-poppin' cool has to include words about the Yon Teenage Leader. Jerry Blavat was his own phenomenon. He bought time on radio stations (as opposed to drawing a salary) and sold his own commercials. That allowed him to play whatever he wanted.

And so the Geator created his own sound--equal parts doo-wop, soul, dance and grind music. He'd flip a record to the B-side and make it a hit on his say-so alone. He created line dances--the Wagner Walk was the biggest--and thousands of Philly kids would trek to his record hops to test their moves. A helicopter would take him from dance to dance. He had hit TV shows--one, The Discophonic Scene, was a must-see. The Saturday Evening Post showcased him in a feature spread.

Ironically, Blavat is today experiencing the biggest celebrity of his career. Through perseverance and fierce independence, he is now acknowledged as one of rock 'n' roll's seminal figures. He was recently featured in Vanity Fair and has a host of projects in production.

Ultimately, WIBG changed its format to disco.

For a long time after that, there seemed little reason to live.

HEAVY ROTATION

It was the Summer of Love, a time of Vietnam and Nixon and Hendrix, and as rock music made its first tentative steps to the formerly all-classical FM band, everything began to change.

On April 29, 1968, underground radio was born in Philadelphia. On that day, two radio stations simultaneously launched a whole new brand of rock programming in the city. The good-time jocks of the '50s and early '60s disappeared behind a puff of smoke and a Phil Spector wall of sound, and a stoned-out generation of music freaks prepared to take their place.

On WMMR, a disc jockey from Asbury Park took to the airwaves with a show he called The Marconi Experiment. Dave Herman had a deep, mellow voice and always sounded stoned. He'd play whole albums, and the long versions of songs--like the Chambers Brothers' Time Has Come Today, a big Philadelphia favorite. He'd go hours without playing commercials. His on-air style was casual, almost familial. He sounded like he was right there in the same room with you, passing the bong your way.

At the same time, a DJ named Steve Leon took to the air on WDAS. Leon called himself "My Father's Son" (his father, Max Leon, owned the station). Leon's program quickly became the most surreal in Philadelphia radio history.

Not as laid-back as Herman, My Father's Son said whatever Philadelphia's counter-culture was thinking at the time. He'd talk for 20 minutes about the evils of the war and big government. He would rail against Rizzo. He'd announce Philadelphia street prices for pot and hash.

Once, during the lottery that would determine which 18-year-olds would be drafted to go to Vietnam, he read the numbers on the air with machine gunfire playing in the background. Leon was suspended from WDAS many times for crossing the line of good taste, which was part of the fun of listening to him.

It was a brand of rock radio that had never been heard before. Songs segued into each other without interruption; commercials were bunched up so they wouldn't interrupt the flow of the music; several of the broadcasters even refused to play certain commercials, either because they didn't think the product was beneficial to their audience or they didn't like the way it sounded. There was often dead air, either because the DJ fell asleep or was too stoned to notice the record had stopped playing.

Before long, based on changing times and the street buzz of these early innovators, underground--or "free-form"--radio began to take hold in Philadelphia. Stations like WMMR, WDAS, WIOQ and WYSP began hiring personalities with unique broadcasting styles and musical knowledge. Ed Sciaky, who would later become the radio personality to introduce Springsteen to Philadelphia, found a longtime home at WMMR after being fired at WDAS four times for insubordination and other infractions.

Michael Tearson, another early WMMR jock, became an instant cult favorite by playing esoteric cuts and albums that couldn't be heard anywhere else. Carol Miller, one of the few female broadcasters of that era, became one of the city's most recognized voices.

Through the '60s and into the early '70s, the sound of these stations morphed and changed with the times. But the spirit of the era remained intact on the dial.

You listened because the people behind the consoles were playing the music they liked. Artists would drop by the station unannounced, and the DJs would tell you all about the concert that night at the Factory.

But by the mid- to late-'70s, the audience for FM had grown to the point where radio station owners could see there was big money to be made. Researchers and consultants were brought in, formats were tightened, specific niches carved out.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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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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12. giant gene arnold said... on Apr 29, 2014 at 10:04AM

“One of my listeners to our Sounds Of Philly Shows online at giantgene.com, or www.soul-patrol.net, or radiocatalonia.com told me about this website. I was glad to be included but with a few corrections I helped initiate in-store broadcasting, which later Bob Gray and I worked as Segway music, which years later was sold to Muzak. I loved doing Jardel and brought quite a few guest stars there..One night I had the BLUES MAGOOS who were a handsome long haired group with a big hit. The area boys beat them up and started a riot no more Jardel for a while..but I went on to do WIFI FM with RJ and created Giant Gene's Electric Scene, which went to WIBG, and then much more including mny syndicated shows. Thanks for the reminder”

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13. Grew up in Levittown said... on Jun 23, 2014 at 02:48PM

“Still remember cruising in the 53 Mercury; windows down; summer; and "Underwater" by the frogmen, Frank X. Feller's theme song coming on the radio. It was like 1963. Great memories.”

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14. Pat said... on Jul 12, 2014 at 07:51PM

“Where (what club along the East River Drive) did Joe Niagara host the Kit Kats in1966??”

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