45 Years Of Rocking Philadelphia

August 13, 2013

For a rock station to make it 45 years with great success is certainly an achievement in a notoriously tough radio market.

93.3 WMMR-FM, Philadelphia, has certainly aced all the challenges that face rock stations and developed a loyal listener base that the station credits for its enormous success.

“In light of so many rock stations not finding their way, it’s pretty amazing that WMMR has been a consistent contemporary rock station for 45 years,” Program Director Bill Weston said. “Even in 1968, we were playing ‘The White Album’ [The Beatles’ 1968 release], and when the DJ opened the mailer and played ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ for the first time, that is a moment the station still does every day.”

WMMR began broadcasting as a contemporary rock station in 1968 under now-defunct Metromedia. Greater Media purchased the station 15 years ago and moved its headquarters out of the city into suburban Bala Cynwyd, PA.

“[With Greater Media], we have an autonomy and a focus,” Weston said. “We have our own programming, and we’re really focused on one thing here. It helps us do a good job in programming, sales promotions and advertising. It’s a great culture here.”

For the 45th anniversary, which was on April 29, station employees Steve Lushbaugh and Kevin Gunn prepared a month-long celebration of the station’s most memorable broadcasts, from the night John Lennon was shot in 1980 to a contest for Bruce Springsteen tickets before he became world-famous.

“It’s chilling to be taken back to those moments in time,” Weston said.

“[When Lennon was shot], a DJ was on the air… and he got an announcement from The Associated Press that Lennon was shot. He took phone calls from listeners and played a lot of Lennon and The Beatles. It was really a moment when the listeners gathered around their radio station for information and to express their shock and grief together.”

That community-centric philosophy of WMMR-FM’s programming has been a dominant one—and the one that Weston believes helps lead the station’s success.

“Having passionate air talent who put the listener first is key, like [on-air personality] Pierre Robert, who understands that radio is about the listener and not the DJ,” Weston said. “Our success also has so much to do with our morning show, Preston & Steve, who have revitalized WMMR since they arrived here.”

The Preston & Steve Show, Weston said, initiated the use of newer technologies such as webcams in the studio to help create more experiences that engage listeners in the day-to-day programming. “They have brought a lot of digital distribution into our studio,” Weston said. “They championed podcasts and in-studio webcams, all different ways to connect with the audience.”

WMMR-FM recently launched its own daily video system to help connect more listeners to the station’s experience.

“We just rolled out a brand-new daily video system, which is a huge step forward for us,” Weston said. “We’re an established brand, and we’re really leaning forward into the new digital space. We’re trying to find ways to get the content out there.”

Above all, Weston believes, is WMMR’s meaningful connection to Philadelphia. The staff and on-air talent understand what it means to be from Philadelphia and keeps its finger on the pulse of the community, creating content that brings listeners in every day.

“WMMR has always been this cool Philadelphia-focused unit,” Weston said. “The local personalities present the music and relatable information about the community where our listeners live and work.”

Robert, who has been on the air with WMMR-FM for 31 years, agrees that the interaction with the local community is what helps the station thrive.

“The basic thing is that we’re live and local 24/7,” Robert said. “We do remotes and we’re in the city all the time. That’s the selling point … we never forget our past and we play it every day, but it’s side by side with the present [music].”

That history, Robert said, can be seen on the walls of the hallway—a reminder to everyone who works there of the success that they’ve had over the past 45 years.

“When you walk inside WMMR, our history is on the walls,” Robert said. “We are kind of a living museum. You’ll see a lineup of our first staff until Preston & Steve. Each DJ has a big frame in the hallway, and there are a lot of group shots.”

Robert recalls when acts like Bon Jovi and U2 were first starting out and the radio station that gave them their first shot: WMMR.

“I once got the chance to talk to [U2’s] Bono, and he knew WMMR and remembered us,” Robert said. “He said that WMMR saved the band. We were one of the first four stations in 1981 to adopt them as a new band, and we’re still doing that today. We’re playing the young bands coming out, but we’re not forgetting the U2s and the Led Zeppelins, the more classic bands.”

“We plan the right library material and plan the right current rock bands,” Weston added. “Searching for new bands is a cool part of the lifeblood of WMMR. It keeps us contemporary and vital. Looking back—but not too much—lets us honor our history, and we’re always looking at what’s next.”

The celebrity and rock star appearances don’t hurt, either: WMMR-FM proudly displays pictures of its staff with visiting musicians, actors and performers.

“We have everyone in our hall of fame, from Eddie Vedder [of Pearl Jam] to [actor] Bradley Cooper to Chris Cornell [of Soundgarden],” Robert said. “We’re a pretty heavy station. I’m bragging because I’m really proud of it. There’s almost nothing like this place. It’s a very unique and special place.”