'Remember When' a Saturday night stroll down Memory Lane

CURT HUDSON / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Communing with the late-night Wheners in the WPHT-AM studio are (from left) Jackie Strauss, Steve Ross and Jim Murray.
CURT HUDSON / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Communing with the late-night Wheners in the WPHT-AM studio are (from left) Jackie Strauss, Steve Ross and Jim Murray.
Posted: March 12, 2014

REMEMBER when phone numbers began with two letters from the alphabet?

Remember when kids could run the streets of Philadelphia without fear?

Remember when you had to walk over to the TV to change the channel?

Then "Remember When" is the radio show for you.

Airing Saturday nights since December 2005 on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT (currently 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.), "Remember When" is a chatty stroll down Memory Lane guided by the show's troika of hosts - Steve Ross, Jim Murray and Jackie Strauss.

Each week, the trio offer personal observations about noncontroversial topics, jokes and, most of all, reminiscences about the way things were in the pre-9/11, pre-wired-24/7, mid-20th century. They also take phone calls from a legion of listeners who are grateful for what Murray described as an oasis of calm and fun amid the relentless flow of mass-media hot air, doom and gloom.

"We are like a pit stop between all the stuff that goes on on the radio before and after [the show airs]," he said.

Or, as Ross put it: "We gaze lovingly into life's rearview mirror and admire the reflection."

An old idea

"Remember When" traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when Ross, a Northeast High alum and a familiar voice on local radio stations since the '70s, was holding down a part-time gig at news-talker WWDB-FM (now Wired 96.5).

"Once in a while I would do a show about nostalgia," he recalled. "I was only in my late 30s then, so my scope of nostalgia was limited. But it was always very popular. It generated a lot of calls."

That reaction stayed with him. And, as he got older - along with lots of other baby boomers - the idea of a nostalgia show "became more viable."

Ross pitched the idea of a weekly nostalgia-based show in 2005 to then-WPHT station manager Michael Baldini, who loved the idea.

Baldini, who now has his own Conshohocken-based advertising and marketing agency, enumerated via email several reasons why he gave "Remember When" the green light:

"The show is a throwback to the time when two-way talk radio was all about local personalities, not syndicated radio personalities and their political ideology," he wrote.

"The Delaware Valley is full of people that grew up 'in the neighborhood' . . . South Philly, the Great Northeast, Southwest Philly. . . . Most of us are passionate 'neighborhood kids,' like the show's hosts . . . and we forever cherish where we grew up - our neighbors, our playground, the corner store and the local celebrities and athletes we idolized."

Baldini praised Murray, the former Eagles GM and co-founder of Philly's Ronald McDonald House, as "an amazing, selfless man [who] brings people together."

Murray's also "a gifted storyteller . . . who can have you laughing one minute and wiping a tear the next when he reels off one of his tales about growing up in Southwest Philly, or stories about his visits with the Pope, or playing wingman for his former boss, the late Eagles owner Leonard Tose," Baldini continued.

He described Ross as "a broadcast pro who brings it all together on the air and offers a 'kosher' perspective."

'A show about nothing'

Ross had to convince Murray, his friend of 25 years, to co-host the show.

"I have never met anyone with a quicker mind for a quip," said Ross. "Everyone knows about his caring and giving, but unless you know him or listen to him, you don't necessarily know how damn funny he is.

He added: "I thought few people represented Philly better than Jimmy Murray. And I admire him more than anyone else on this earth. I couldn't love another human being more than I love him."

Murray reluctantly went on the air for the first three installments of "Remember When," which started in the 1-to-3 a.m. Sunday slot.

Ross finally hooked his friend by describing the program as "a show about nothing," Murray said recently.

"One of my favorite shows is 'Seinfeld,' " said Murray, who is serving as grand marshal of Sunday's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. "I've been accused of being George Costanza. I said, 'I can do that for three weeks.' "

Just as Ross hoped, those three weeks turned into eight-plus years and counting.

While the two native Filuffyans are always delighted to talk about Philly-centric topics, a typical program can go in many directions. Last Saturday's show included:

_ A woman caller who wanted to know if a person can burn calories talking.

_ An extended riff by a caller and the three hosts on nicknames.

_ A discussion of snap peas (also known as sugar peas).

_ An examination of how the lyrics to Dusty Springfield's mid-'60s hit, "Wishin' and Hopin' " are irrelevant in today's post-feminist society.

_ The airing of a taped spoken-word piece (of unknown origin) in which the speaker hails baby boomers for surviving a time when there were no such things as infant car seats and bicycle helmets.

"It's not just local," insisted Ross, who has co-hosted Comcast SportsNet's weekly horse-racing survey, "PA Harness Week," for the past six years. "There are no parameters. As Jimmy is fond of saying, nostalgia is yesterday or as far back as you remember. It's all nostalgia.

"The only thing we don't get into is . . . politics. We just say, 'There's other shows for that.' "

One big 'family'

Both men were especially emphatic when talking about their "family" of listeners.

Throughout a recent lunch at Hymie's Merion Delicatessen & Restaurant, in Bala Cynwyd, Ross and Murray referred to regular callers by name, including "Renee," a blind woman who is the show's final caller each week.

Their strong connection with listeners - known on the show as "Remember Wheners" - is manifested in Strauss. She became a fan of the show while dealing with a bout of insomnia in the winter of 2006-'07.

"I listened to this show and thought, 'Who are these guys, these men talking about memories that are my memories? This show is fantastic,' " she recalled.

Despite having no radio experience, she emailed Ross to offer her services. "I said I lived in this area all my life and I feel I can contribute a lot to this show, just calling in with my memories. And he encouraged me to," said the West Oak Lane native, a pianist-poet and member of the Tridels, a doo-wop vocal trio.

Strauss became friends with Murray and Ross, and was then put in charge of weekly birthday announcements and other such shout-outs. That led to her being named the show's "neighborhood correspondent," a position inspired by the plethora of Philly-neighborhood tribute pages on Facebook.

She made the leap to in-studio co-host in 2010.

Eight years is a couple of lifetimes in the ever-more-volatile realm of local radio. But Ross is confident that his program's unique content almost guarantees it a long run.

"I think it's got legs simply because there's an inexhaustible supply" of topics, he reasoned. "How do you run out of things to talk about?

"Even when you think there's nothing more to say, there's plenty more to say."

For more information, go to http://ph.ly/remember.

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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