WMGK Philadelphia

WMGK 1994 - 1996

Mike Bowe, myself, Julian BreenJulian Breen called me at home. WMJC had just been turned over to Gary Starr and I was currently enjoying mornings on the phone and afternoons at the beach. He was flipping the original flagship for Greater Media's "Magic" format to all-seventies all the time. It could be temporary or full-time, but he needed a music director right away.

Just one year earlier, Julian had been named program director of the station he had initially launched back in 1975 as Magic 103. He was also interviewing for the Music Director position and although I was quite happy at WMJC, I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for the architect of the "Magic" format. We made an appointment to meet in NYC at Jane St. Seafood Restaurant. It would be the first time I ever attempted the LIRR into Manhattan. It was also just one day after Colin Ferguson decided to gun down a bunch of passengers on the 5:55 to Hicksville. Unrelated to this incident, I didn't get the job.

Now the station is third in a three-way AC race. Julian had just convinced ownership to play nothing but music from the seventies. The format was creating a lot of buzz in select markets, but Philadelphia would be the largest to try it so far. I knew this music like the back of my hand and accepted the position temporarily. I moved to Philadelphia on Independence Day and met general manager Dean Tyler at a local restaurant. The station had arranged for a temporary apartment for a couple of months until a final decision was made.

I may have known the music, but I was still green with the RCS music scheduling program, Selector. One night Julian passed by my desk at 7:35pm. It was the third straight day I was staying late. "Look, don't burn yourself out. We're ready to go this weekend." We were less than 24 hours away from the launch. What he didn't know was that just a couple of days before, I had accidentally erased all the cart numbers in the library - and was now frantically trying to type them all back in!

Will the real Mike Bowe - please stand up!It was an honor working for Julian. He was an acknowledged intellect with a deep passion for radio. He gave me guidelines - then trusted me to do my thing. I've always thrived under those conditions. I learned a great deal working for him and took every opportunity to seek out his thoughts and opinions or engage in his legendary love of debate.

One such debate stemmed from a line in "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." He believed that the line was "..all he left us was a loan" whereas I was equally confident the verse ended with "alone." Upon the realization he would concede no ground, I brought in the lyrics. After seeing "all he left us was alone" in print, he pushed the paper aside exclaiming that "a loan" was a far more cerebral take on the song and its story of a family's angst of an underhanded father. More often than not, I would be on the losing end as Julian's ability to cite most any source was as impressive as it may have been frustrating. But it was always a learning experience that I was eager to take on. Years later, I never hesitated to call for his take on current affairs and media issues.

Julian could easily navigate corporate culture, yet his disdain for neckties was resolute. His proposal on changing WMGK's format is one of the most brilliantly written pieces I have ever read. He was also a shrewd marketer. WMGK's format change was widely covered in both local and national press. That fall, those first ratings' numbers reflected that exposure. And we were far from a formulated play-list, playing an eclectic mix of everything that received reasonable airplay from January 1970 to December 1979.

(One lone exception, "Funky Town" by Lipps, Inc. managed to sneak through our scrutiny for six months until casually pointed out one day by our good friends at Val Shively's in Upper Darby. This place had every 45 RPM ever pressed in stock, enabling me to find songs like "Misdemeanor" by Foster Sylvers for the weekly countdown show.)

Although we enjoyed continued good press and solid numbers, corporate folks were aghast at hearing "Spiders and Snakes," "Walk This Way," Minnie Ripperton's "Lovin' You," and Todd Rundgren all back to back. These suits understood Oldies and Classic Rock, not this hodgepodge of Top 40 staples and tried to steer Julian towards the latter. Not one to be satisfied with merely keeping his hands on the wheel, Julian left for his own consulting business a year after I arrived. I did enjoy the summer of 1995 at the helm of WMGK, until Dan Michaels would be tapped as Julian's successor. Soon the seventies' format would progress into Classic Hits/Rock.

Julian Breen: I received the call from Mike Bowe in the Fall of 2005; Julian had passed away from an illness we never knew he had. Just earlier that day, Mike and I were on the phone catching up after a few months and the topic had turned to Julian; specifically what he meant to our careers. The news came as a complete shock. I had tried to call Julian a few times in the previous weeks and assuming he was busy, never left a message.

His memorial in January, 2006 included a who's who among radio programmers and personalities. We lost a virtual base of incredible knowledge and foresight, plus one of the most engaging personalities I've ever met. He is missed greatly.

In October of that same year, I came across something that brought more than just a smile to my face. His radio memorabilia had become property of the Media Preservation Foundation, owned and maintained by my close friend Tracy Carman. As I curiously read through the memos written during the years I worked with him in Philadelphia and came across the one sent to corporate in 1994 regarding his choice for a permanent music director. He listed my past programming experience and other pertinent skills, then closed by stating, "Jack is one of the few people who is not afraid to argue with me." From Julian Breen, that was very high praise.
> Another nice tribute to Julian is here.

Station of the stars: Sister station WPEN was a class operation when I was there. Air-talents like Joe Niagara, Bob Craig, Bill Webber, Tom Moran and Ed Hurst were doing their thing as they had been through long illustrious careers. These guys were always around preparing their shows. Late evenings, it was not unlikely to see Bob Craig sitting on the floor of the PEN library, sorting through CDs and albums before his midnight shift. I still recall late nights tuning in to catch an insightful presentation of the "Velvet Fog" or the "Chairman of the Board" with Bob's mellifluous voice providing the perfect backdrop. His overnight show was purely some of the best radio I've ever heard.

Thanks: To Mike Bowe, long-time night personality of WMGK, and his wife, Debby. Mike and I became close friends and he is responsible for showing me the three most important landmarks in the Philadelphia area; The Melrose Diner ("Everybody who knows…"), Mel's Italian (or International) in the scenic hills of Bala Cynwyd - "where the possessed go to mingle," and the VFW in Gloucester City, NJ - where real men shoot pool.

Also a thank-you to long-time Traffic Manager Harry Neyhart for many satisfying conversations about Philadelphia radio's storied history. The mystery of the KYW calls east of the Mississippi is one of my favorites.

Philadelphia: I recall while attending college in Boston, students from Philadelphia were very proud of their city. Philadelphia may not get respect from the other Northeast cities, but after living there only two years, I absolutely love this city. There is so much more than the Liberty Bell and cheese steaks. (Jimmy's on South Street, for those looking for a debate.) Philadelphia is home to some of the best music ever created and traditionally great radio. I can only assume that the "second-rate" image came from the days when buildings could be no taller than William Penn's hat atop City Hall. This changed in 1980 with the construction of Liberty Place. Now with newly clogged expressways like I-95, the Vine Street Expressway and the "Blue Line," Philadelphia should now be considered a "real city."

My ghost story: Julian Breen's going-away party took place at the General Wayne Inn in Merion, the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line elite. At the party, I became friendly with a woman who was the owner's daughter. Her father had owned the restaurant for many years, but had recently fallen ill and she keeping the place going until it could be sold. I began stopping by occasionally for a drink at the bar and enjoyed listening to many stories about this famous inn. The restaurant had a very rich history, both from a historical perspective (George Washington and Ben Franklin had visited) to the supernatural. There were numerous ghost and horror stories that had circulated around this landmark for decades. Legend had it someone had been killed in an upstairs office long ago followed by "verified" sightings of ghosts and other strange things.

Unplanned, I found myself sitting at the bar on Halloween night in 1995. The place was closing and the conversation continued long after the front door was locked and staff sent home. Since I was in radio, the subject turned to a local radio station (WPLY / Y100) that hosted a remote broadcast earlier that morning, and quickly segued into the many ghost stories that had been circulating for years.

Sometime around midnight, Doris Day's voice comes booming out of the previously dormant sound system, singing "Que Cera." We were the only ones in the place and the music system was in "that" office one floor above. "Wow, I tried to get the music to play all day without any success." And then the conversation fell silent as Doris segued into "Old Black Magic." Certainly Doris Day is not scary by any stretch of the imagination, but this was certainly a very weird experience. We exited quickly.

The story of the General Wayne Inn doesn't end here. The place was eventually sold in early 1996. That same year, a vicious murder took place in the office above the restaurant. A dead cook and missing mistress filled the Inquirer's headlines for weeks. Doris Day was never a suspect and the crime remains unsolved to this day.

on to WODL

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