"Early-morning radio is where it's at," says Garland in the baritone that has been a staple of Philly radio since 1964. "It's the only time you're sure you really have the listener's attention. And it attracts the most listeners and the most commercials."
Which also means that it pays the most money.
So Garland in the morning remains a Philadelphia institution, as much as soft pretzels and Billy Penn atop City Hall. In his years doing a.m. drive at WIP-AM and, since 1987, WPEN, mayors have come and gone, and the city's fortunes have spiraled up and down. But in an age of rock and rap, Ken Garland remains a reliable source of vintage music, classy tunes from a saner era.
Consistency doesn't always earn headlines, though. Those go to more flamboyant types, such as Howard Stern and John DeBella.
Until this year.
In the Arbitron book for the period Jan. 3 to March 27, Garland's ratings jumped from a 5.3 share to a 7.7, beating WMMR-FM's DeBella and pushing WPEN to second place overall, behind perennial leader all-news KYW-AM. For a nostalgia/big band station to be the city's top-rated music outlet is rare enough. For an AM music station to claim that title is even more so.
"I was astonished by the ratings," Garland says. At the WIP-AM of the '60s, where he worked middle-of-the-road pop for 23 years, he regularly commanded double-digit ratings. But in those days, with fewer stations in the running, such figures were commonplace, he says.
The Persian Gulf war probably had a lot to do with the ratings spurt, says Kal Rudman, publisher of Friday Morning Quarterback, a Cherry Hill-based radio tip sheet.
Garland agrees. Although the station beefed up its news coverage, he thinks listeners gravitated to WPEN to find solace. The music was "a retreat and relief from the war. We were a sense of stability," he theorizes.
Spring found Garland returned to normality, back to a 5.3 share in the March 28-June 19 Arbitrons. But Garland's ability to remain a constant in an industry not known for job security is more noteworthy than a one-time Arbitron aberration.
Where other jocks bounce from rock to standards, from top 40 to oldies,
from rock to country, to whatever station and format will provide a paycheck, Garland's music has changed as little as his routine. He leans heavily to pre- rock standards, an occasional soft contemporary tune and some big-band music.
"The way I sound and my personal interest lends itself to this kind of music," he says.
The only interruption came during a brief stint with New York's legendary WINS-AM, shortly before it went all-news in the mid-'60s. Home of DJ/concert promoter Alan Freed (who was credited with coining the term "rock and roll"), and later Murray the K, WINS was one of New York's rock dynamos for more than a decade.
But, says Garland, "I had no handle on rock and roll. I was out of my element and uncomfortable."
Garland began his radio career in 1953 at WKBR-AM in Manchester, N.H., after a sojourn as a dance-band trumpeter. He worked a succession of New England stations before landing at WADO-AM in New York in the early '60s.
In 1964, Garland came to WIP, replacing Ned Powers as morning man. He became part of a team that eventually included Tom LaMaine, Bill Webber and Tom Moran.
They were personalities back then, much as Hy Lit, Jerry Stevens and Joe Niagara were on Philadelphia's first rock station, WIBG-AM.
"I was never a low-profile radio personality," Garland confesses. "I don't know how some of today's disc jockeys accept the anonymity."
In the '80s, WIP - like many AM stations - went through hard times.
"We wanted to be everything to everyone," he says. "But we lost the (younger) half of our demographics to FM and the (older) half to WPEN, which we considered a joke at the time. When we introduced music by artists such as the Spinners and Elton John, we lost even more listeners. . . . It was sad to see WIP break up. But we couldn't turn back. Nobody could save it."
The station gravitated toward a sports format and, in 1987, Garland parted company for WPEN.
"I never looked back when I walked out. I was astonished that I could bury 23 years like that," he says.
WPEN had found its niche playing "old" oldies that appealed to audiences over 50. Its listeners were too old to rock, but young enough to remember Sinatra in his heyday and a time when Doris Day, not Paula Abdul, was making hits.
In short, it was Ken Garland's kind of audience.
Like WIP, the station is personality-driven, staffed with such Philadelphia radio icons as Joe Niagara and Ed Hurst. Nonetheless, the jocular Garland has toned down his patter since moving to WPEN. At WIP, his commentary had an edge. He could lambaste songs, movies and institutions with near impunity.
The WPEN audience tends to be conservative in tastes, politics, lifestyle and music, Garland says. His show is like a chat with friends, but "I have to contain a lot. The jokes and double-entendres I used at WIP wouldn't be accepted here."
When he does revert to old form, he hears about it. Last month he made some disparaging comments about the 1946 film Night and Day, remarking that Cary Grant was miscast as Cole Porter. "The station got tons of calls, people saying how they loved Night and Day, and how they loved Cary Grant," he says.
The incident touched on Garland's true passion: film. Six evenings a week, he locks the door of the South Jersey home he shares with his wife, WPEN newscaster Elaine Soncini, and pops a tape into the VCR. His tastes run the gamut: westerns, horror, musicals, dramas, almost anything on tape.
"Movies define me more than radio," says Garland, who hosted movie shows on Channels 17 and 48 in the '70s, and reviewed movies on WIP.
After all these years, Garland goes about his job in a relaxed fashion. He steers clear of trade journals or anything else dealing with the radio industry. And he likes to leave the station within an hour of his 10 a.m. signoff. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday he heads to the gym for a workout; on Tuesday and Thursday, it's a four-mile walk.
It's a ritual, much like his wake-up routine. But for how long?
Garland is in the last year of a five-year contract at WPEN and has reached an age when many folks think of retiring. (He will say only that he's past 60.)
A contract extension hinges on whether the station wants him, and whether the money is attractive enough to "resist the desire to walk away.
"But," says Garland, "I don't think I'll be doing this in five years."