Radio DJs

Essay

Hy Lit (left) with his hand raised and mouth open, laughing, wearing a denim vest over a white, pocketed, collared shirt with a headset on. Joe Niagara is to his right (center) holding a stack of 45rpm records and wearing large glasses and a jumping-horse-patterned collared shirt. A microphone on a boom arm is on the right.
“Hy” Lit and Joe “The Rockin’ Bird” Niagara take to the airwaves for WIBG’s Nostalgia Kick show in 1977. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Disc jockeys—“DJs” who play music on the radio—have had a key role in shaping Philadelphia musical tastes since the 1950s. They reflected national and local musical trends, exposed audiences to new music, and in some cases produced records and managed artists. Many Philadelphia DJs became celebrities, actively engaged and influential in the local music scene.

DJs came into being as a result of changes in the radio industry after the advent of television in the 1950s. In the earlier years of radio broadcasting, which began in Philadelphia in 1922, programming featured mainly live entertainment such as dramas, comedy acts, and studio orchestras and singers. When television came into widespread use, the audience for this type of programming largely abandoned radio for the new medium. In response, radio stations began offering a new type of entertainment by having their announcers play records on the air. Thus was born the “disc jockey” or “DJ.”

DJs first achieved popularity on AM radio, which predominated in the 1950s and 1960s. Four AM stations ruled the Philadelphia airwaves in the all-important youth radio market in this period: white stations WIBG and WFIL and Black stations WDAS and WHAT. WIBG adopted an all rock and roll format in the late 1950s with DJs Joe “the Rockin’ Bird” Niagara (real name Joseph Nigro, 1927–2004), Hy “Hyski” Lit (Hyman Lit, 1934–2007), and others. WFIL switched to rock and roll in 1966 with “Boss Jocks” such as Jay Cook (c. 1938–99), Jim Nettleton (1940–2009), and George Michael (1939–2009).

George Woods sits facing left, but toward the camera. He holds a sheet of paper up with the top near the camera, likely reading something on air into the large microphone that sits in front of him on a short stand. A rotary phone is near the front of the frame and a small clock is in the background. Two 45rpm records lay in front of him next to a small two-position switchboard. He has short hair, sideburns and a mustache, and wears a stripes, light-colored or white shirt with a patterned dark tie.
Georgie “the Guy with the Goods” Woods takes a turn behind the microphone, most likely for WDAS, in 1970. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Philadelphia’s African American DJs were heard on the far right end of the dial, where the city’s two major Black stations, WDAS and WHAT, were located. WDAS was the powerhouse of the two, with legendary DJs Georgie Woods, “the Guy with the Goods” (1927–2005); Doug “Jocko” Henderson, the “Ace from Outer Space” (1918–2000), and Jimmy Bishop. These DJs did more than just spin records. Woods was a noted civil rights activist, Henderson had daily radio shows in both Philadelphia and New York, and Bishop owned a record label and served at times as program director at WDAS and vice president for CBS Records. All three also produced and hosted live music shows at local venues. WHAT never achieved the ratings of WDAS, but it did have a very popular, high-energy DJ in Sonny “the Mighty Burner” Hopson (b. 1937).

WDAS also had popular white DJs who played Black music, including Joe “Butterball” Tamburro (1942–2012) and Harvey Holiday (Harvey William Levy). Holiday was still on the air in the early decades of the twenty-first century, as was another white DJ who regularly featured Black music and whose career was still going strong after over fifty years in Philadelphia radio: Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heater” (b. 1940). Blavat occupied a unique place among Philadelphia disc jockeys. While he never worked at a major commercial radio station—he got his start at WCAM, a small Camden, New Jersey, station in 1960—he built a loyal following hosting dances and live shows and remained one of the best-known figures on the local music scene in the early twenty-first century.

six men sit around a coffee table (with coffee cups and a chromed kettle atop it), all leaning forward in discussion, presumably, about music. the backdrop of the set is decorated with standing wooden slats, like vertical fences and modernist circles. The men all wear suits and ties, most smirking, looking toward Jerry Blavat (far right), who has his arms outstretched and is sticking out his tongue.
Jerry Blavat (right) captures the attention of other radio DJs and personalities during Sid Mark’s Mark of Jazz television show, aired on WPHL and WHYY. (Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Archives)

Other longtime DJs who carved out unique niches in local radio included Gene Shay (Ivan Shaner, 1935-2020), who hosted folk music shows on a number of different Philadelphia radio stations from 1962 to 2015 (and who helped found the Philadelphia Folksong Society and Philadelphia Folk Festival); Sid Mark (Sidney Mark Fliegelman, 1933?-2022), who featured the music of Frank Sinatra on various local stations since the 1950s; and David Dye, a veteran of Philadelphia rock radio who since 1991 hosted WXPN’s World Café, a daily alternative music show syndicated to over 250 stations nationwide.

Della Lazarus sits reading a thin booklet facing right, with a microphone in front of her face and controls just behind her. A soundproof window is behind the audio controls and two men sit on the other side, one sitting (likely Bill Sinrich), reading the contents of a paper into a mic of his own.
WXPN disc jockey Della Lazarus, station manager Jamie Garner, and AM program director Bill Sinrich work on their programs in the Spruce Street studio. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the late 1960s a new kind of DJ emerged with the rise of FM radio. “Underground” radio eschewed the three-minute pop songs and high-energy DJ patter of AM radio in favor of a less commercial approach, with jocks who spoke in a low-key conversational style and played longer musical selections in the emerging progressive rock style. FM radio had a clearer signal and higher fidelity than AM and was better suited to this new kind of programming. WIFI-FM experimented with the new format briefly in late 1967, but it was in 1968 when WDAS-FM, the sister station of WDAS-AM, and WMMR adopted the style, also known as “album-oriented” radio, that it gained traction in Philadelphia. WMMR became the preeminent Philadelphia rock station for many years, with DJs such as Ed Sciaky (1948–2004), Michael Tearson (b. 1948), and others serving as leading figures in the city’s rock scene. In the 1970s WIOQ and WYSP adopted the progressive rock format and began to challenge WMMR’s supremacy.

A bookcase-style shelf-lined wall takes up a majority of the frame, coming closer to the viewer. to the right, facing the wall is DJ Jon Takiff, wearing a sweater or jacket over a white collared shirt (with the collar sticking out and over top). He holds and inspects what appears to be a Looney Tunes soundtrack vinyl record sleeve. the rear wall is also lined with shelving and records.
Jonathan Takiff, DJ for WMMR-FM, peruses the station’s record library in 1971. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Over time, AM stations largely abandoned music in favor of news and talk formats, leaving DJs who played music mostly to the FM band. FM radio became more commercial during the 1970s, as the music and radio industries became big business. Stations adopted narrowly focused formats aimed at specific target audiences, with playlists that were tightly controlled and driven by market research and advertising revenue. DJs were less consequential in this new environment, exercising reduced control over what they played and how their programs were structured. As the market became increasingly competitive, stations frequently changed ownership and formats (and sometimes call letters), while DJs jumped from station to station in the constantly changing environment. Federal deregulation of the industry beginning in the 1980s led to concentration of multiple local stations in the hands of a few large media conglomerates, further solidifying the corporate approach to radio.

Traditional broadcast radio remained a popular medium into the early twenty-first century, despite competing outlets such as online music streaming services and internet radio. Disc jockeys continued to offer music to local audiences and play a role in the local music scene, but they were no longer the influential force they once were.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he directs a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. He has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.” (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright Rutgers University, 2016

Gallery

Hy Lit and Joe Niagara on air for WIBG's Nostalgia Kick

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Clipped from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (1977), this photo captures Hy “Hyski” Lit (left) and Joseph Nigro, better known as Joe “The Rockin’ Bird” Niagara, behind the microphone for WIBG-AM radio. Niagara holds a stack of 45rpm records—one song on each side, a common format in the 1970s. They were both enthusiastic, longtime DJs for WIBG. Lit also lent his voice to other stations, including WDAS and WOGL, from 1989 until 2005. Niagara began broadcasting rock and roll for WIBG 1956 and led the station’s transition to all rock and roll by the end of the decade. Niagara, too, was an on-air presence at several stations, including WPEN and WFIL.

Georgie “the Guy with the Goods” Woods

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Georgie “the Guy with the Goods” Woods was one of WDAS radio’s legendary DJs, alongside Doug “Jocko” Henderson and Jimmy Bishop. He started his career in 1953 as a DJ for WHAT and moved to WDAS in 1956. Woods moved back to WHAT in 1966, taking caller requests and playing the caller recording on air before playing the requested song. Woods was known for his political and social activism both on-air and on the streets of Philadelphia—he was acquainted with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., worked with rights activist Cecil B. Moore, served as the vice president of the local NAACP, and won an election for Philadelphia City Council in the late 1960s, though he lost by a slim margin on a recount.

Sonny Hopson WHAT disc Jockey

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

While radio station WHAT never achieved the ratings of WDAS, Sonny Hopson’s energy and enthusiasm were well-appreciated. Hopson hosted his show for twenty-one years, from 1965 to 1986. Like other DJs, he was also involved in the music industry: he ran clubs, owned a record label and wrote original songs. He was also known for his on-air social and political activism. This photograph, published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1970, captures the DJ known as “The Mighty Burner” behind the audio controls during one of his shows.

Jonathan Takiff inside WMMR's Record Library (1971)

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Over the years Philadelphia’s radio stations have produced an array of DJs whose voices, personalities, and influence have added much to the popular culture of the city and beyond. Among them was WMMR DJ Jonathan Takiff, shown here in the station’s library in 1971, who went on to be an influential music writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer. While old-school disc jockeys traditionally worked with physical media—like the LP records seen in this archive—by the early twenty-first century many DJs relied largely on digital files for their broadcasts and web streams.

WMMR, with a longtime slogan of “Everything that Rocks,” first broadcast as WIP in 1942 and in the early twenty-first century continued to have a national reputation as a hard rock station, featuring in 2016 the popular Preston and Steve talk show in the mornings. One of WMMR’s veteran DJs, Pierre Robert, achieved local celebrity status, known not only for his music-industry experience but also as a supporter of charitable causes. John DeBella, who began his career with WMMR in the 1980s, also achieved local celebrity and a reputation as Philadelphia’s classic rock radio personality. He began hosting at WMGK in 2002 and also is known for his charity work.

WXPN Radio Station Studio (1975)

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

WXPN is hosted by the University of Pennsylvania as an “adult album alternative,” with the call sign standing for “Experimental Pennsylvania Network.” WXPN was founded in 1945 on 730 AM and switched to 88.9 FM in 1957 and then 88.5 FM in 1990. The station is known for the wide variety of music it plays, including adult alternative and singer-songwriter styles, as well as folk, jazz, avant-garde, and new music from artists across the country and around the world. In 2005, WXPN moved to a shared space within a 40,000 square foot factory building at 3025 Walnut Street, hosting live music events inside a full-service restaurant and bar.

Gene Shay started his career at WHAT in 1962—the same year in which he founded the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Shay hosted the WXPN Folk Show from 1995-2015 and has been called “The dean of American folk DJs” by The Philadelphia Daily News. WXPN’s David Dye began his career with WMMR before hosting WXPN’s Sleepy Hollow in 1989 and World Cafe from 1991 to present (as of 2016). DJ Jonny Meister has been hosting WXPN’s Blues Show since 1977, earning the “Keeping The Blues Alive” award from The Blues Foundation in the year 2000, and continues to host as of 2016.

Kae Williams and Doug

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Kae Williams (left) and Doug “Jocko” Henderson (right) were both known for their involvement in radio and the music industry. Kae Williams hosted shows on WDAS, WHAT, and WCAM, and also wrote for the Philadelphia Tribune in the 1940s. Kae is best known for managing popular doo wop groups The Silhouettes and The Sensations, and for his appreciation for the blues genre. Jocko was known for hosting the characteristic Jocko’s Rocket Ship Show, referring to himself as “The Ace from Outer Space” and playing rocket ship sound effects. When he hosted for WHAT and WDAS, beginning in the 50s, he was famous for his rhyming, catchy, fast-paced lines, like this one: “Hey there all you Daddy-Os and Mommy-Os, welcome aboard the big Rocket Ship Show. It’s your engineer, Jocko, your Ace from Outer Space, way up here in the stratosphere, we gonna holler mighty loud and clear.” This photograph captures the disc jockey duo at the Blues Music Association’s Awards Presentation at Philadelphia’s Union Hall in 1984.

Sid Mark's Mark of Jazz Television Show

Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Archives

This meeting, hosted by Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia member Sid Mark for his Mark of Jazz television show on WPHL and WHYY, brought together local DJs and broadcasters for a round-table style discussion. Pictured from left to right are WIP's Bob Menefee, Joe “The Rockin’ Bird” Niagara (WIBG), Sid Mark (WHAT-FM), Jim Tate (WIP Radio), Reggie LaVong (WHAT-FM), and Jerry Blavat (of Camden's WCAM). This photograph was taken on the show’s set in 1969 (the show aired from 1965-1975). Sid Mark first began airing his Friday with Frank show for WHAT-FM in 1957 focusing on the music of Frank Sinatra and in 2016 continued to host the show on WPHT as Sunday with Sinatra.

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Related Reading

Blavat, Jerry. You Only Rock Once: My Life in Music. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2011.

Boris, Alan. Philadelphia Radio. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.

Hopson, Sonny. The Untold Story: By Soul Sound Sonny Hopson the Mighty Burner the Number One Communicator. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2011.

Additional Sources

Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. Radio documentary produced by Mighty Writers, 2014.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy