January 12, 2020

The Radio Station Featured

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January 10, 2020: Legendary DJ and Program Director Jerry Stevens has died at 85. In his honor, please enjoy this previous story:

Two recent events really stirred up some fond memories. The first was the WMMR 50th anniversary reunion held at the Fillmore in Philadelphia on September 22, 2018 (story). The second was a panel that I was part of at the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia lunch held on October 17, 2018 at the Bala Club (story).

While there are already stories about both events and a link to the video of the panel on the tmorganonline website, it could hardly tell the whole story of WMMR. After all, much has happened in the 50 years that WMMR has been continuously rockin’ here in Philly.

Since all of us who have ever worked at WMMR have a real kinship, it was really great to see some people that I haven’t seen in years. Exchanging stories of the “old days” is always fun. And there’s so much to tell. Even though I did devote a great deal of space to those fantastic WMMR years in my book “Confessions of a Teenage Disc Jockey”, the limited space in writing a book didn’t allow for all that could be written.

Prior to working at WMMR my goal was always to eventually find my way there. The persona that the station had created almost from day one was one of being the coolest place to work. Much of the credit for the image that the station enjoyed was due to the program director Jerry Stevens.

Even though Jerry was very much a part of the success of WIBG in its heyday, he has often said that his finest hour was in developing WMMR. He hired only the brightest and most passionate about the music DJs and then just cut them loose. Since almost the entire staff were in our very idealistic 20’s with little or no radio experience, Jerry was our father figure. If you went too far off the mark, he would guide you back. He had a way of coaxing you. I am a good example. He talked me into coming to WMMR for less money than I could have made elsewhere. I certainly have no regrets that I took the job. They were indeed some of the best years of my life.

Stevens himself was a very intelligent and creative man. One of the first things that jerry did to create a “hip” image was to produce little drop-ins that were placed in between records. They all were clever or funny and ended with the tag…”WMMR-The radio station”. It did indeed become the radio station not only in Philadelphia, but across the entire country.

Another thing that really separated WMMR in the 70’s from any other station were the live radio broadcasts. Music Director Dennis Wilen was outstanding in his job as the producer for most of these broadcasts that often became launching pads for many acts. They were indeed live. Some nights I’m sure management just held their breath hoping that nothing would happen that would cause the radio station to get into hot water with the FCC and maybe lose their license. I especially recall the night of the Tom Waits concert at The Main Point. Tom had a reputation of saying all kinds of questionable things while performing on stage. He promised to be a good boy, but we weren’t sure that he would keep that promise until the show was over.

These concerts were a nervy thing to do, but they really paid off. They became the talk of the town. It put WMMR in the forefront of any other station playing modern music. Billboard Magazine (the bible of the industry) even ran a front page story praising the MMR live shows. It even helped the new Sigma Sound Studios to make a reputation. Many of the live shows were broadcasted from Sigma Sound with owner/engineer Joe Tarisa at the helm. It soon became one of the most famous recording studios in the world with many super stars coming to Philadelphia to record at the studio that Joe built.

The stories of the live broadcasts of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen are legendary, but there were so many more stars who gained fame as a result of not only the live broadcasts, but from the air play that they received from getting air play on the station. If WMMR got behind a new artist, the chances were very good that they would be a hit here in Philadelphia and often all the world. WMMR became known everywhere as the station who discovered and broke new acts.

The listeners knew that we only played the music that we believed in. If we liked it, the audience would listen with an open mind. Therefore many artists that you wouldn’t think would break out of WMMR, did. Bette Midler is just one example that today’s listeners to everything that rocks would be very surprised to hear that their radio station was very much a part of making her a star.

In the 70’s new artists were popping up every day. The performers were finding all kinds of creative ways to present their music. Synthesizers made it possible for bands to make all kinds of new music with the sounds they now could create. And the recording studios went from four tracks to all kinds of possibilities with multi-tracking. There was a mountain of new albums to listen to every week. Great stuff was coming out virtually almost every minute.

It wasn’t just the music that separated WMMR from others. We would often play comedy bits or serious readings mixed in with the music. One such good example would be the day I played part the dialog from the film “The Days of Wine and Roses” where the couple had a heartfelt talk about their disagreements and problems. I followed it up with The Beatles “We can Work it out”. The phones lit up.

Then there were the newscasts by Bill Vita. Every night at 6 PM Bill did a fifteen minute newscast that was nothing like the network news. Bill would spend a good part of each day finding interesting news. Often they were stories that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Mixed in with the stories were music and comedy bits that fit the stories perfectly. It remains some of the best news reporting ever done anywhere.

Bill Vitka moved on and was last heard on Fox News. Many of the people I worked with went on to very successful careers. Mark Goodman who started out as an intern at MMR went on to become one of the original VJs on MTV. Carol Miller went to New City where she still does a radio show as well as working on Sirius/XM. Earl Bailey is also on Sirius/XM. Michael Tearson and Lyn Kratz stayed at MMR for many years. Michael also did a stint at Sirius/XM and is now doing internet radio. David Dye is semi-retired after doing a syndicated show “The World Café” for many years on WXPN/Public radio. We lost Ed Sciaky a few years back, but not before he made a major contribution to the making of many major stars. NIck Spitzer (known as Nick Spencer on MMR) has produced many albums.

In short, all of the MMR air personality have gone on to have very successful careers in radio and related fields. Jerry Stevens knew exactly what he was doing when he made a hire.

All of us are very proud of what we were able to accomplish at The Radio Station. They were some of the most creative years ever for both the artists and those us who were fortunate enough to have been at WMMR to play them.


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