Another legend of the radio airwaves called it quits last week. Philadelphia radio icon, John DeBella will hang up his headphones, ending an enigmatic radio career.
This is one of those departures where the announced reason for DeBella leaving Beasley's WMGK – and Philly radio – is accurate. John is calling it a career to spend more time with his family. And what a career on the airwaves – nearly a half century of entertaining behind the mic. I've been with John in restaurants and public spots, and he is constantly recognized. More than that, millions of Philadelphians have had a relationship with him over the years. They can all tell you DeBella stories, some true, some embellished, some nonfactual, but always interesting and provocative.
You have to know John to know how immersed he is with his radio shows. I've had some truly fascinating interludes with him over the years. Whether or not he knows it, he has taught me a great deal.
I was hired by Infinity's WYSP in the mid-'80s as my Classic Rock journey was taking off. GM Ken Stevens and PD Andy Bloom were desperate enough to try the format (which was the predicament most of my Classic Rock clients were in back then).
The twist was that simultaneous with the music shift (YSP had a been a rock station for years), Ken and Andy took a flyer on being the first station to syndicate Howard Stern from sister station WXRK (K-Rock) New York.
It was a risky move on all fronts. I was in Philly right before the flip and went out to dinner with Ken and Andy – a Japanese restaurant to be exact. It was a vivid memory for me as I shared my doubts about whether “the new YSP” would work.
Ken looked me in the eye and said, “Anything – even a couple of (rating) books – would be an improvement.”
A low bar. But the early goings of “Howard Stern all morning – Classic Rock all day” were rough. The music on YSP was good, and Howard was terrific. But Philadelphians initially weren't buying it. Stern was perceived by many as “shocking” and “not from here.” And the music, while appealing, wasn't enough to win over many diaries.
But the real problem was WMMR. They were off the charts popular, truly one of the biggest brands I've encountered in major market radio. Daypart to daypart, they had the best personalities in the market – Pierre Robert (yes, still there), Mark the Shark, Michael Tearson, and Joe Bonadonna – during weekdays and all weekend long. But the cornerstone of the station was “The Morning Zoo,” hosted by John DeBella. The market loved this show, and all the little gimmicks and features DeBella dreamed up – “Hawaiian Shirt Friday,” “Hump Day Wednesday,” and events like “The Louie Louie Parade.”
DeBella was a brilliant practitioner of this post-Top 40 morning radio. A cast of well-defined characters, solid service elements, lots of fun, double-entendre humor, and highly connected to the region. Back then, “The Morning Zoo” was the mainstream show in Philly and it was cool. DeBella was the ringmaster (OK, zookeeper) and deftly hosted the chaos, surrounded by sidekicks and part-time players who understood their roles.
The results from the focus groups we conducted? WYSP had a long way to go. It was a second tier citizen to MMR, a copycat station that could never be the real deal, and the new morning show from New York City of all places would never work up against beloved hometown hero, John DeBella.
That didn't stop Howard Stern. He went after MMR's ensemble morning show – with a vengeance. Howard was a heat-seeking missile, and DeBella was his target. He mocked “the Zoo” name, called out DeBella every day, and taunted MMR and “The Morning Zoo” every chance he could get. Howard repositioned MMR's top morning show as lame, stupid, juvenile, and fake. He saved his best vitriol for its host, DeBella. The “baldy”/”zookeeper” stuff were labels, in much the same way Donald Trump used the same playbook years later to brand “Little Marco,” “Low Energy Jeb Bush,” “Crooked Hillary,” and of course, “Sleepy Joe.”
And it started to work. Stern's momentum started to build, DeBella was being crank called regularly by Stern's army of mischief makers, and the tables began to turn. Ultimately, MMR ended up the loser, but it was DeBella who symbolized Stern's road kill. He was the victim of the intensely personal attack. Howard was relentless. And at that point, he did not have many other affiliate morning shows to attack. DeBella took all incoming salvos, and we watched his perceptions – and his ratings – sag.
I was on the other side back then, so I don't know precisely how John must have suffered. Howard called him out, but MMR held off fighting back. It wouldn't have worked anyway.
It was not the type of personal attack you could just shrug off and go about your business – although in the early days, DeBella and MMR tried to ignore it. I recall hearing that when he was out in public, the name-calling and harassment from Stern fans was incessant. It had to have been intensely painful for all involved, but especially for John, who was the face of it.
The end result was the “DeBella Funeral,” led personally by Stern in a rally at Rittenhouse Square, the famous home of WMMR. The coverage by the Philadelphia media was spectacular. For Stern, it was a complete and total victory. For DeBella, the true definition of the “agony of defeat.”
Stern went on to greatness – market after market, succeeding in syndication, the movie, TV appearances, and ultimately, the big move to Sirius. DeBella languished, ultimately leaving WMMR. And while the station made attempts to recapture the magic it had with DeBella's “zoo” format, it wasn't until Preston & Steve joined the station that the ship was righted.
But the story has a twist. In the '90s, YSP was in need of a strong afternoon host, and as illogical as it may have seemed at the time, DeBella was the perfect choice. But programmer Tim Sabean knew there had to be accommodations made with Stern, now dominating the market on YSP, and a force in many other metros, from L.A. to Boston. And so, the impossible was engineered – Stern and DeBella made nice – on the air – on Howard's show. It didn't sound especially natural or even all that genuine. But it worked. And DeBella successfully took over afternoons on YSP with the blessings of his former tormenter.
I don't know how he did it, psychologically or any way else.
But that's the John DeBella few talk about anymore, the guy who taught me about resilience, determination, and class.
Most of the air talent (or programmers) I know – and I include myself in that group – could not have regrouped like DeBella did, given the damage to his career and his personal life that took place.
I got to know John, first at YSP and later when he successfully took over mornings on WMGK, thanks to the vision of Greater Media programming guru, Buzz Knight. He is truly one of the hardest workers in radio I've encountered. He thinks about his show, his audience, and the brand non-stop.
And like he did during the “Morning Zoo period” at MMR, John has made events (often for charitable causes) the centerpiece of his show on MGK all these years – the Radiothon for veterans, the Turkey Drop, DeBella's DeBall, and of course, the famous Dog Walk – even during COVID.
Here's DeBella's retirement news last week:
John has touched a lot of lives, and entertained millions. But perhaps more than that, he's taught me and so many others about “maintaining” – not letting the truly tragic stuff, bad breaks, and downturns ruin his career or his life, staying above the fray, and remembering why he got into radio in the first place.
Years after that ignominious funeral, DeBella told the Daily News this story of redemption, reported in City Life:
“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 every encountered.'”
John's theme song for as long as I've listened is Monty Python's little ditty from The Life of Brian, “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.”
Words to live by. Words that John DeBella has most certainly lived by.
And you can even sing along with John:
The best of luck to you, John.
And to John's colleagues still plying their trade over the airwaves, let John DeBella serve as an example of perseverance, resilience, and grace under fire. I have a feeling you may need it.
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Tommy Braaten says
Thank you thank you thank you!
I love starting my week this way.
Fred Jacobs says
Glad you enjoyed it, Tommy.
Tim Slats says
John is the Job then Rocky of Philly radio.
Fred Jacobs says
Tim, indeed he is both of those.
David Manzi says
Wow, knew Howard could be abrasive. I mean, everyone knows that. But didn’t realize just how big of a jerk he could be–and sending his legions of fans to harass the competition is nothing short of classless. Glad to hear what sounds like a truly heartfelt apology from him. And glad to hear John took the high road during what was obviously a very difficult time and forgave him. Howard may have been the bigger star. John was the bigger man.
Fred Jacobs says
In the early years, Howard took a “take no prisoners” approach to ensure proof of concept. A success in Philly obviously opened up national syndication to him and Infinity. A failure in the City of Brotherly Love would have stopped his show in its tracks. Howard went all out, and obviously expressed regret years later.