A note from Bill Vitka
CLICK HERE to see all the great shots at the Reunion.
Bill Vitka was MMR’s newsman in the early 70s who went on to NBC Network and an illustrious career. Bill attended the MMR 50th Alumni Party at the Foundry on September 22, 2018. Here are his thoughts on the reunion and the history of WMMR.
So….I spent last weekend in Philly and the reason was old friends coming together.
Not everybody was old. And none of us think that way. So when it comes to Father Time we tell dad to go get fucked.
The reason I was in Philly was the WMMR Reunion. Never heard of it? Ever hear of Bruce Springsteen? WMMR is a radio station and likely the reason you do know Springsteen. Now I’m not gonna get into the weeds with WMMS or WNEW about this though there are things to be said in that regard. But WMMR gave Bruce his first real platform and with it he was able to move from small clubs and outdoor venues to larger halls and football arenas. And if you don’t believe that Bruce got to be a name-brand by way of WMMR just google those Main Points shows from the mid-70’s. WMMR aired those live broadcasts. And when Bruce or his camp wanted to get the word out back then, they turned to WMMR. Maybe Ed Sciaky. I could make much the same case for Billy Joel but that’ll have to wait for another day.
All this is prologue for folks who don’t care too much about radio or history and for that matter, not too much about music. I know folks have their reasons. This is about friendship.
This past weekend WMMR celebrated 50 years on the air, 50 with the same (not exactly) rock n roll format. There may be a rival or two and as somebody will point out there are news formats that have been on the air 50. But I think WMMR wins this one. As well it took the extraordinary step of inviting EVERYBODY over its half-century to…well…congratulate ourselves on having a hand in its history. THAT, I suspect, has never been done. Not with this level of attention. Not with this level of good faith. We’re the guys who always knew the Eagles would win.
WMMR rented the Fillmore/Foundry to host a brigade of people. The only wrinkle was a cash bar. Nonetheless the snacks were free and tasty. And folks were called up to the stage to speak. I was supposed to be one of them but I never knew until the moment my name was called that night and while I scuttled to the stage in seconds, it wasn’t fast enough to save my slot. Time, baby, she is the Mistress of Radio. Had I known I was supposed to speak I would have said this: raise a glass to absent friends.
While I did get a pretty nifty minute of air time on the station itself to share some memories, I never got to talk that night and that may explain why I write this.
From the stage, everything was pretty cool. During one moment however, Carol Miller congratulated Shelli Sonstein on being the station’s first News Director. Dear Carol, you looked marvelous Saturday night but I was the first News Director. Though Shelli would’ve been good at it and if you know NYC radio, you know that’s true. What a great comfort it was to be standing right next to Shelli as Carol spoke whereupon Shelli gave me a big hug.
So at the Foundry/Fillmore, there are 120 people, maybe more.
Most of the folks I know worked from 1971-72 through 1978 at WMMR. Most of those with a heartbeat were there.
At WMMR I was in my radio baby diapers. I had never worked in broadcasting, not even at the college level. I had never been in front of a mike. Jerry Stevens, the architect of WMMR, hired me because he liked the way I wrote. It wasn’t about my voice. He liked my words. My resume was a bunch of clips from the college paper and an article I scribbled, by way of Rich Aregood at the Philadelphia Daily News, about John Lennon’s art exhibit at the Iverson Museum in Syracuse. I took a picture of John and Yoko at that event. John insisted he had to have it. I found that out when I was able to show John the snaps when we met a second time and he asked for the photo. Actually John wanted every photo I took in Syracuse. I gave him the lot, saving one which he autographed. It remains a prize in my archive. That all happened in Philly and, natch, I got to John for the encore through WMMR. Because of WMMR.
But this is about the reunion and there was almost too much to take in.
I was nervous when I walked into the formal event. Who would be there? Would I recognize them? Would anybody remember…me? Why was I there anyway? Was it just flipping through pages in a mental photo album through a sentimental lens?
No, it wasn’t.
It was…eventful, emotional and it got to me.
To be able to see the crew I worked with and where they had gone and what they were doing now….something inside me shifted
This is personal. I’m been brushing shoulders with death for the past year. That is about my brother and in its way, doesn’t belong here. But at the WMMR reunion, we had our own, people no longer with us.
We also had folks still above ground that couldn’t make it: Dennis Wilen in LA, Beth Blakeman in New Mexico and Paul Messing who was a unique production genius who created all the early station ID’s. The one man who stands above all others, the man who ‘invented’ WMMR, Jerry Stevens, was missing. And the reason is health because of which he has been invisible since he left WMMR and that was decades ago. Some of us talked about going to Jerry’s house and maybe he would come to the door. But none of us were even sure where Jerry lived. Jerry has become an enigma.
When I did the news at WMMR, I blended music, vox pop, montage, movie bits, Firesign Theater and the Marx brothers, sometimes WC Field’s, into the newscast. I wanted a wider sense of culture to inform the traditional world of news, to bring history closer, to make it more a part of our lives. I don’t think there was anything like it on the air back then. I don’t think there’s anything like it now.
Nonetheless, on a daily basis for over six years, I would visit the station library (back then the best in biz) and the air studio to find just the right music.
When I would go into the air studio I would ask the jock on the air for advice about a song: what tune would go with the story I was working on? And I usually had an usual one. I would say, “Rizzo went off the rails and ordered the arrest of anyone who doesn’t buy their cheese steaks from Pat’s in South Philly. Any ideas?”
Those guys in the air studio always had a notion or two.
The point I’m drifting into is this: the folks I worked with at WMMR knew everything about music. What was in their heads was my encyclopedia. I have never been in an environment that was as dedicated to music.
From WMMR I went deeper into news. I was the morning news anchor at WPIX, anchored at NBC Radio News, CBS Radio News and Fox News Radio. I did that for 42 years.
While I do have conflicting feelings about WMMR, it was what happened to me there back in the 70’s that lifted me to NYC and network. For a lot of folks, that is a summit. Sometimes I’m sorry my peak wasn’t in Philly.
In some ways when I look back, it might as well be a dream. There were nightmares as well but that’s another story. I worked with people I liked and liked me. I also worked with people I didn’t like and they returned the favor. But I’ve gotten better over time with some things. Forgiveness is one. The dream is what I keep close.
At the reunion I felt as though I had clicked my ruby slippers and was back home. It was unvarnished. It was raw. It was complicated. There was a lot of stuff that made me crazy back at WMMR. There was a lot of stuff that made be happy. Happy outweighed crazy.
Folks said nice things to me, some of them true. And I said nice things to them, some of them true. Hello Auntie Em!
I may not be able to remember seven days ago. But I remember WMMR. And I always will.
I missed that crew and miss them now. It was as though their absence had left a wound and getting together healed it. We were closing the circle. As TS Elliot says and brace for lofty, “…. the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
That was me. I was going back to where I started. Knowing, I hope.
After the formal reunion, about 20 of us headed to Jon Takiff’s house. And while there are exceptions, the folks there were the best of us and still are.
Mark Goodman pointed out that the numbers WMMR got in 80’s changed the game, crowning WMMR as one of the most successful commercial radio stations of all time, king of the hill jive.
Back in the 70’s though, I remember working at the Wellington Building on Rittenhouse Square and when you went out for lunch, all along Sansom Street, every shop, eatery, boutique and clothing store was blasting WMMR. Blasting the station out into the street. That told me everything I needed to know. We were the originators. We were the brick-layers. We were building the pyramid for the pharaoh. During my years at WMMR, the Red Sea parted.
The cast of characters included Johnny Kraft, Michael Tearson, Ed Sciaky, David Dye, Nick Spencer (back then, now Spitzer) Carol Miller, Gene Shay, Lyn Kratz, Steve Martorano, T Morgan and Luke O’Reilly. There are others. They all had ears, ears like nobody this side of a concert recital pianist. They knew. These were and are gifted, extraordinary people.
To be with them, as I look back, was a one-of-a-kind moment. I hated them sometimes. But I loved them even as I hated them. You know what that means? It means they’re family.
So we had a mother and child reunion. Were there tears? No, we’re big boys and big girls. Instead there was laughter, holding hands, hugs and kisses. I don’t have far to go to say there was love in that room especially when the old heads gathered at Jon Takiff’s for the after-party. We missed a few people and even though Jon has a damn near vast castle of a home, we crowded the place. By the way Jon was putting up four guests that evening (and three of us the night before): Nick Spitzer and his lovely wife, Mike McGrath and me. He made breakfast for all of us Saturday morning to fortify the crew for the formal reunion that night (OK, Mike got there after breakfast but food was waiting for him anyway). And Jon had eats for the crowd when we turned up later that night after the main event.
Of course, we thought we were the main event. And we were.
We went from warm at the formal reunion to higher heat at Jon’s.
Raising the thermostat was Rick Kramer who went from street reporter at WMMR to bigger game in NYC including Inside Edition, Bob Cardelli who sailed from intern to film production to laurels at ABC TV, Al Santos with whom I worked at WMMR and later WPIX in NYC (we were the best morning team anybody ever heard) Nick who came up all the way from the Big Easy to be with us, and Mark Goodman who had the kindest words for me I likely will ever hear when he spoke from the reunion stage.
Good hearts, that’s what we had.
Somehow over five decades, we haven’t been broken. We still stand. We still do. We still make. We still fight. We still know. We still love.
I wanted to think I learned a lot at WMMR. When I see the faces of my goombahs now, I know I did learn lessons, lessons that I haven’t forgotten. And I can see in their eyes that they haven’t either.
I needed them to keep me honest back then. I think they still do now. They are a yardstick, if you will a dipstick to check whether my oil is low.
It’s my life I’m talking about. And everybody there….they spoke of theirs. We shared more than a moment in time. We shared ourselves.
There won’t be one like that one ever again. But, you know, we just might like a challenge.
Footnote: Friday night Jon, Nick, his wife and I went down to South Philly for dinner. We encountered a three-story tall mural of former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo. Nick thought a photo of me and Frank would make for a good snapshot.