Talk-radio trailblazer Frank Ford dies at 92

Posted: March 04, 2009

Radio personality Frank Ford - a pioneer in talk radio who over the decades worked for just about every station in town - died yesterday from complications of a stroke at Vitas Hospice at St. Agnes Hospital in Philadelphia. A longtime Center City resident, he was 92.

Although Mr. Ford built a reputation as a musical-theater impresario, he was best known as one of Philadelphia's first talk-radio celebrities and the husband of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham.

"No wife could have a better cheerleader and supporter," Abraham said yesterday. "He wanted everything good for me and was selfless even when I was working 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on holidays. He didn't want anything to impede my doing the best job that I could."

Abraham said her husband regularly attended her news conferences until becoming ill in October.

Back when he was growing up in Logan (he graduated from nearby Simon Gratz High School in 1934), Mr. Ford was known by his given name: Eddie Felbin.

His first brush with radio was in 1937, while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He started working as an announcer at WHAT-AM for $15 a week and carfare.

After graduating from Penn in 1939, however, Mr. Ford ran a modeling agency he called Eddie First.

The first of his name changes came later, when he started a radio gossip show called Hollywood According to Hoyle. He started calling himself Eddie Hoyle.

How he got the name Frank Ford is another story.

In 1946, he had a job selling radio time, and one of his clients was the Frankford-Unity Grocery Stores. The store wanted a music program, and Mr. Ford figured he could pick up extra cash by hosting the show.

To sweeten the deal, he took the name Frank Ford.

The program lasted 10 years, and the name stuck.

"I wonder what my name would be if the sponsor was the Piggly Wiggly stores," he mused to the Philadelphia Daily News in 1995.

In the 1950s, Mr. Ford was an announcer on WPEN-AM when the station asked him to take over for a late-night talk-show host who had moved to New York.

He took the job and eventually became one of the first radio personalities to implement technology that permitted dialogue between callers and the on-air host. (Before that, the host had to repeat what was said because listeners could not hear callers.)

"He was my mentor," radio personality Sid Mark said yesterday.

When Mark, who hosted music shows, had to switch to talk in the 1970s, Mr. Ford gave him good advice.

"He told me, 'When you get stuck, there are three topics that will always light up the phones: Will Social Security be there when I get old? Nobody can tell me where I can walk my dog. And why can two parents take care of all the children, and all of the children can't take care of the two parents?' "

Kal Rudman, a former Top 40 radio jock who went on to establish radio and music publications, was often a guest on Mr. Ford's midnight-to-2 a.m. program on WPEN in the 1960s.

Mr. Ford was known as "the man who owned midnight," Rudman said yesterday. "He was very well educated and had wonderful diction and facility with language. He was the voice of Philadelphia for a very long time."

In 1959, Mr. Ford, known for his liberal views, won an award from the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission, one of the city agencies that preceded the Human Relations Commission, for informing the public "on many issues of inter-group relations."

Over the years, his guests included Abbie Hoffman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sugar Ray Robinson, and controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, who became a friend.

While hosting a talk show on WPEN-AM in the early 1970s, he did several interviews with Ira Einhorn, the local hippie guru who killed his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, in 1977 and fled the country after he was found out. Einhorn was later convicted of her murder.

In 2002, Mr. Ford told The Inquirer that Einhorn "stank even then," as though he never washed.

In 1985, Mr. Ford bought WDVT-AM, and he held the station until it closed three years later.

During his tenure at WDVT, the station became the first in Philadelphia to broadcast a gay-oriented program. It was hosted by Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News.

"Frank was always proud to bring his audiences new topics and never shied away from controversy," Segal said yesterday. "He hosted me on his numerous radio shows as far back as 1971 to discuss gay rights at a time when gay rights were not so openly discussed."

About the show he hosted, Segal said: "Every Saturday for two hours, Gaytalk enlivened and educated Philadelphia, and, with Frank's business sense, it became a profitable show.

"His warmth, generosity, and showmanship will stay with me forever. In the last 35 years, other than myself, I've only had one boss, and I'm glad that was Frank Ford."

Mr. Ford's last radio gig was hosting a daily show on WWDB-FM. The job ended when the station switched to an all-music format in 2000.

After retiring from radio, Mr. Ford ran Reinhart Productions, an advertising agency that made and placed radio and TV ads, for several years before retiring for good.

Mr. Ford first met the future Philadelphia district attorney when she was growing up.

As a young girl, Abraham - who was 25 years younger than Mr. Ford - helped take care of his ill father. Whenever Mr. Ford's mother wanted to go shopping, Abraham was called to sit with her husband.

When Abraham was a teenager, Mr. Ford got her a job at the Valley Forge Music Fair, which he had founded in 1955 with partners Shelley Gross and Lee Gruber. The first show, The King and I, opened in a tent in the summer of 1956. The partners eventually erected a theater on the site.

And as a college student, Abraham babysat Mr. Ford's daughter from a previous marriage, Deirdre.

In the 2002 Inquirer interview, Mr. Ford said Abraham was considering going to medical school, but he talked her out of it. He told her: "You ought to be a lawyer. You're forthright. You've got a big mouth. You talk well. You're smart."

They married in June 1977. By then she was a Municipal Court judge and he was hosting talk shows on WFLN-AM and WWDB-AM.

"I'm interested in her work," he told The Inquirer a few months after the wedding. "I'll wander over and just walk into her courtroom and sit and watch. Professionally, she's very direct, considerate."

Abraham was a Common Pleas Court judge when she ran for district attorney in 1990.

"I told her not to run because she'd be giving up tenure - she was a judge - and taking a large pay cut," Ford told the Daily News in 1998. Although Abraham called Mr. Ford the smartest man she knew, she didn't take his advice.

After she was elected, he was supportive. He bragged about her cooking and claimed she made chicken soup just like his mother's, but it was Mr. Ford who got up at dawn to make breakfast when Abraham became district attorney and had to be in the office at 7 a.m.

Mr. Ford and Abraham traveled all over the world, she said, including to China, Japan, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. He was a foodie and enjoyed art, architecture, dance, and opera, she said.

"He did everything with such zeal," his wife said. His accomplishments, she said, included producing concerts for entertainers as varied as Benny Goodman and Renata Tebaldi; making a TV pilot with Dr. C. Everett Koop for a show to be called Seniority; and manufacturing cars. Mr. Ford briefly owned a business reproducing classic Jaguars.

"He was remarkable," Abraham said.

In addition to his wife and daughter Deirdre Wild, Mr. Ford is survived by two grandchildren; a great-grandson; and his former wife, Dorothy Smallwood.

A funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapel, 7112 N. Broad St. Burial will be in Haym Salomon Cemetery, Frazer.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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