WMGK-FM host John DeBella marks 30 years in Philly radio

Posted: November 21, 2012

IF SHE didn't know it already, Lisa DeBella will now: her husband of 17 years has been carrying on a 30-year love affair. But she needn't worry: the object of his affection isn't a woman; it's Philadelphia.

How else do you explain why John DeBella, the 62-year-old WMGK-FM (102.9) morning-drive host - a native New Yorker, no less - has been in Philadelphia since the days when Ronald Reagan was president and Julius Erving and Moses Malone were the talk of the town? Why else would he have hung around even during the years when he was suffering professional humiliation and personal tragedy?

"There's nothing I love more . . . than this city," insisted DeBella who earlier this month marked his 30th anniversary on the air in the Delaware Valley. "This is a damn fine place to live. And if you don't know it, too bad."

As he lunched on a shrimp Caesar salad at Chops on City Avenue one recent afternoon, DeBella, who began his tenure here on WMMR-FM (93.3), claimed it was pretty much love at first sight - or, more to the point, at first sound - for him.

"When I came to Philadelphia [from rock outlet WLIR-FM on Long Island], I remember the first day of driving around here. I'm driving my car and listening to 'MMR just looking at the area and the radio is playing everything that [FM rock] radio stations in America are playing, plus Robert Hazard, plus the Hooters, plus Alan Mann plus the A's," he said, referring to local musical acts the station supported in the early 1980s.

"On the Island, every [high-profile] band was a cover band. There was no original music coming out of the Island. So when I came down here and heard all that, I fell in love, musically, with the city first."

It didn't take much longer for him to make a connection with the local populace. He explained how, in his early days here, he would take the Chestnut Street shuttle between his Society Hill apartment and 'MMR's studios, then overlooking Rittenhouse Square.

"I was just a stranger on the street," he said.

"I'd see people on the street . . . and they'd look at me and I'd get a smile and a nod from someone who didn't know me at all. It wasn't the same person every day. And I was like, you know what? This is pretty good."

His 'Billy Penn' moment

A few months after he arrived, DeBella had what could be called his come-to-Billy-Penn moment during the epic blizzard of February 1983.

"Most of my normal-life things [like his barber and dentist] were still in New York," he explained. "And then we had [the] blizzard. In the middle of it, I walked to Jim's Steaks on South Street, which was five blocks from my house, to get a cheesesteak, and walked back. On the way back in the blizzard, with a cheesesteak getting cold in my hands, I said to myself, 'You're a Philadelphian. If you're willing to walk 10 blocks in a blizzard for a cheesesteak, you're a Philadelphian. You're not a New Yorker any longer.' "

While he was embracing his adopted city, the city was returning the love, thanks to his raucous morning program whose rock-'n'-roll attitude blended perfectly with DeBella's high-energy, wise-guy persona. In a market where morning radio was defined by the mild-mannered Ken Garland on WMMR's then "middle-of-the-road" corporate sibling, WIP-AM (610), DeBella's daily effort - first called "The DeBella Travesty," then "The Morning Zoo" - was unlike anything Philly audiences had ever heard.

The mid-1980s were DeBella's heyday. He recalled receiving the news that "The Zoo" had become the market's highest-rated morning show - except for all-news KYW-AM (1060) - while at the legendary Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium in July 1985.

The local print media couldn't get enough of the brash DJ with the comical walrus mustache. And he seemed to be setting the market's social agenda, presiding over highly attended events and giving life to such phrases as "Hump Day" Wednesday and "Hawaiian Shirt Gonzo Friday."

But DeBella, whose 'MGK show airs weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m., professed to have never been seduced by his domination of the local radio landscape. Or even that aware of it, a somewhat surprising claim given the then unprecedented salary - reportedly $1 million annually - he ultimately received at 'MMR.

"It was just fun," he offered. "We did not understand how big we were. I talk on the radio. I'm not impressed by it. It was never about me. The worst program director I ever had gave me the best advice I ever got: Never believe your own press."

It certainly seemed like the good times would never end, but a fellow in New York was about to cause DeBella to flame out, and do so in a spectacular manner.

A Stern warning

As DeBella was conquering mornings in Philly, Howard Stern, whose envelope-pushing shtick made "The Zoo" seem tame, was doing the same on New York's WXRK-FM. In August 1986, Stern's show was syndicated on WYSP-FM (94.1), now sports-gabber WIP.

Stern wasted no time in launching an all-out assault on DeBella, whom he would mockingly refer to as "Baldy" or "The Zookeeper." Stern's no-holds-barred guerrilla war on his rival included encouraging his listeners to harass DeBella whenever they encountered him in public, as well as a nonstop barrage of insults about DeBella's professional and personal lives. (Refresh your memory at youtube.com/watch?v=Ah80IoiJRTMStern).

It was brutal, and it worked. By 1990, Stern was the market's highest-rated morning personality. Thus began a rough patch for DeBella, on-air and off.

Stern's gleeful cruelty toward his vanquished competitor seemed endless. First, he staged a "funeral" for DeBella on Rittenhouse Square. Then, he brought DeBella's estranged wife, Annette, on his show, even stroking her back as she sat on his lap.

Annette DeBella was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of the DeBella home in October 1992. She was, in DeBella's words, "a borderline-personality alcoholic."

It wasn't until relatively recently that Stern apologized for his behavior. Stern's Sirius satellite radio program produced a second installment of its "History of Howard Stern" series of specials, and DeBella was invited to offer his recollections.

"After that was over and done with, I come home one day and there's this message on my phone, and it's Howard," DeBella recalled. "And he says, 'You know what, I can't thank you enough for being part of this. I could have never done this. You are a bigger man than I could ever be and, looking back, I'm ashamed of what I've done.

"You are one of the strongest human beings I have ever encountered.'"

A Stern representative did not return a call for comment yesterday.

DeBella claimed the public humiliation wasn't tough to take, but the sense of betrayal he felt was. "For the most part, Howard didn't really bother me," he said. "What really bothered me was that people who knew me, my own city's press, my own listeners, believed somebody else. That hurt more than anything Howard said or did."

The odd couple

Although Stern only knocked “The Morning Zoo” down a single place in the ratings, WMMR management panicked and paired him with Howard Eskin on what was dubbed “Sports Rock,” but more than deserved the “Travesty” moniker. Seemingly overnight, the show went from second place to 15th, ending DeBella’s run at the station.

DeBella left WMMR in 1993. In November 1994, he got an afternoon shift on WYSP, but only after yet another humiliation: He went on Stern's show to ask his nemesis for "permission" to return to the Philly airwaves.

He stayed at 'YSP until 2001. His time with the local CBS radio operation that owned 'YSP also included hosting a talk show on WPHT-AM (1210). He then jumped to WMGK, where he's been ever since.

While it's been a quarter-century since DeBella ruled the local radio roost, he continues to be popular. He recently signed a three-year extension with WMGK. His program placed ninth among all listeners 12-54 in the October Arbitron ratings survey. But among listeners in the all-important 25-54 demographic, he came in third.

That, noted a radio industry observer, is a testament to a "solid and consistent" broadcaster.

"He's talented, resilient and great at being 'local,' said Dave Hoeffel of AllAccess.com, a radio industry website, via email. "It's difficult to thrive in any business for 30 years, let alone radio. He not only survived the Howard Stern juggernaut, he thrived."

DeBella said it's harder to keep listeners engaged because there's so much competing media thanks to the digital revolution. He added that he's tamed his on-air style in response to the rise of political correctness. Nonetheless, he has no current plans to call it quits three years hence.

"Every time I sign a new deal, I'm convinced it's the last one," he said. "But I'm gonna keep doing this as long as someone wants me. Or as long as I hold up."

" @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|