Much like restaurants, new radio stations open almost every day. Unfortunately, most fail within their first five years on the air. So when a radio station keeps serving up tasty music for several generations of locals, that’s something to celebrate.
In Philadelphia, observing WMMR (FM)’s 50th birthday is a responsibility that current Program Director Bill Weston takes seriously.
“I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Am I doing enough?’ There’s no budget line for station birthdays, but this is an historic moment. I’m pretty sure this is the longest-lived rock station in America.”
Radio historians recognize those WMMR call letters as the last of the so-called “underground” rock stations built by MetroMedia Broadcasting in the late ’60s. Others included legendary stations that have long since passed, like KMET/Los Angeles, the original KSAN in San Francisco, and WNEW in New York. WMMS in Cleveland started rocking around the same time and still is doing so today, but — unlike WMMR — it had a couple of music format detours along the way.
Although Weston has been at the helm for 14 of those 50 years, and WMMR has been ranked #1 among 25–54 year-olds most of that time, he’s humble.
“The real geniuses are people who came before like Joe Bonadonna, George Harris, Jeff Pollack, Charlie Kendall, Dick Hungate and many others. I just made the right morning show hire,” he says, referring to WMMR’s popular “Preston & Steve.”
He’s equally proud of his first major hire, Jaxon in afternoons, and of one of his newest, “a crazy guy” named Jacky Bam Bam at night. Having a live overnight DJ like Brent Porsche is rare these days, one of the many ways that current owner Beasley Media Group gives WMMR its full support.
Anchoring many of the yearlong celebration’s events is WMMR’s past, present and future midday DJ Pierre Robert, a 36-year WMMR veteran. On Sunday, April 29, Weston logged 50 songs for Robert’s 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift — the most-played songs from each year of WMMR’s existence.
“That was the plan,” says Weston, “but he was on for 11 hours straight, and every minute of it was amazing. Pierre took calls about listeners’ favorite ’MMR memories, played old airchecks of — for example — the afternoon DJ in 1970 with a hippy-dippy delivery, old commercials and artist interviews. His producer Pancake helped, and our music coordinator Sarah Parker operated social media. I couldn’t turn off the radio all day, no one could. I was so proud.”
Of course, with 50 years of great radio from which to draw, Robert probably could have gone on forever. He could recall how he used to dangle a live microphone out of the window at WMMR’s original studio on historic Rittenhouse Square. Or how General Manager L. David Moorhead gained the on-air nickname “L. Nuclear Warhead.” He could tell the story about when Bruce Springsteen guest DJed, or when Tom Petty autographed an LP for DJ Steven Clean adding a note of gratitude, “Thanks for the checks!”
Programmer Jerry Stevens hired longtime nighttime DJ Michael Tearson in 1970, and Tearson says the early WMMR staffers were well aware they were creating a new art form. “Album rock radio had no history and no rules. The very way we spoke on the air, in natural voices instead of the contrived ‘radio voices’ of the time, was revolutionary.”
Original MTV VJ Mark Goodman, now hosting on Sirius XM’s “Volume” channel, grew up listening to WMMR. “People like Michael Tearson, Ed Sciaky and the others … Those were the guys that I looked up to and I wanted to be.”
Goodman eventually got his chance, first as an intern and then as a fledgling DJ. He honed his interview skills on the many rock stars who visited. One of his first interviews — and hers — was a young Pat Benatar.
Goodman’s most emotional moment on WMMR came soon after. In June of 1979, he interviewed singer/songwriter Lowell George of Littlefeat at a club in nearby New Jersey. On the very next evening, George died of a cocaine overdose.
“I came on the air with Bonadonna to announce what had happened, but I was crying,” says Goodman. “I was so devastated. He was one of my heroes.”
Weston sees a bright future for WMMR, one that continues to embrace its past. “People think the station’s archives are in a tidy little warehouse that everything’s alphabetized, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
But he says the 50th birthday has encouraged them to dig around and find some treasures. “A couple months ago, Pierre started a feature every day at 1:30, a song from the ’MMR-chives. It’s fun to hear, for example, a live acoustic performance of ‘A Horse with No Name.’”
Weston is also making sure WMMR is accessible wherever people listen in 2018 and beyond. “With [consultant] Fred Jacobs’ help, our apps activate on the car dashboard, Alexa plays our content, and Beasley is very forward-thinking about audio on demand.”
So happy birthday, ’MMR! With big personalities, the best rock (both new and old), and a finger on the pulse of pop culture, there will be many more.
After 9-1/2 years as the architect of LA’s “100.3 The Sound,” Dave Beasing’s new branded podcasts are garnering record downloads. Subscribe to his blog “Buzz From Beasing” at SoundThatBrands.com.
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