Veteran programmer Bill Weston came to Philadelphia’s WMMR (93.3) in 2004 already sporting a pretty impressive resume and a successful track record. His now 14-year stint programming one of the country’s longest running rock stations was preceded by a four-year run overseeing classic/modern rock combo WKLR and WDYL Richmond, VA. The Weston Programming Wagon had previous stops in Providence, RI (WHJY, WWRX) and New York City (“Q104.3” WAXQ) after starting his odyssey an hour north of his hometown, working at Buffalo’s “97 Rock” WGRQ.
One of the first moves Weston made upon arrival in Philadelphia was the signing of the “Preston and Steve Morning Show,” hosted by Preston Elliot and Steve Morrison. The program had success in the market on former modern rockers WDRE and WPLY, but has reached its greatest heights since being paired with the legendary 93.3 signal. Their success parallels the station’s, which has been a consistent winner in the market for the past decade-plus, adding to WMMR’s now 50-year history.
Neck and neck with WMMR for rock listeners in the market is classic rock sister, WMGK (102.9), which Weston now also programs. One floor below the WMMR studios is MGK morning man John DeBella, whose Philly radio cred was cemented while ruling mornings on ‘MMR in the 1980s. He anchors a staff of veterans who also know a thing or two about what it takes to succeed.
In Nielsen’s February survey, WMGK and WMMR were tied for first with Persons 25-54. Both stations pull in double digits Men 25-54, with WMGK sitting at the top and WMMR in third. Looking at overall 6+ numbers, both stations are a regular in the Top 5, with WMGK ranked third in February (5.2-6.4-7.3) and WMMR fifth (4.2-5.6-5.6).
Inside Radio spoke with Weston about the ongoing celebration of WMMR’s 50th anniversary, managing two veteran air staffs, the classic rock format evolution and “where the rubber meets the road.” An edited transcript follows.
WMMR is turning 50 years old this month. What does that mean to you as a fan of radio, as a longtime radio programmer and as the one leading the station during this momentous occasion?
As a fan it means everything in light of so many legendary rock stations disappearing, The Loop, WBRU… even going back some years with WNEW, WBCN, KLOL, WHFS – here’s ‘MMR and it’s kind of the last man standing. I will tip my hat to KSHE, which did sign on as a rock station before WMMR. However, the distinction about WMMR, and the fact that we are probably the longest running rock station in America, is because we still play new music. I think there’s a big difference between a classic rock station and a station that still takes chances. Still embraces new music. Still takes the hit, ratings wise, that comes with playing new music. KSHE signed on in 1967 and ‘MMR signed on April 29th in 1968.
As a programmer, it’s pretty remarkable that a station has remained true to its format for 50 years, this hippy dippy, kooky radio station where anything goes. Right now, the station is doing well with a great staff, people who really care, a good owner in Beasley, and I don’t want to screw that up. I want to leave it in great health for the next program director who comes along.
As the guy who’s in the chair right now, I want to do what is right for the radio station. Part of this whole thing has been very daunting. What do you do with 50 years’ worth of programming?
How are you celebrating WMMR’s 50th anniversary on and off the air?
The hardest part is deciding what to use from the MMRchives, all of these live performances that have happened in the studio. Live broadcasts from the Tower Theater, The Main Point and The Electric Factory... how do you do 50 years of MMRchives? I asked Sara Parker, our music coordinator, to go through and get the 50 best performances and the best song from each of those performances because if you get too deep in it you can get overwhelmed by the enormity of this stuff.
We are doing that every day, featuring a song that was performed live on WMMR and was recorded over the last 50 years. We’re trying to put little glimpses of our past on air but not without forgetting the here and the now, which is a 50th birthday bash with Bon Jovi, the MMRBQ and our daily contesting. I am also trying to organize a reunion, a banquet, much like you would have for your high school, where we can invite everybody and anybody that worked for ‘MMR to come gather together and tell stories. And we’ll show all the old video that we have collected, and all the photos, which are hysterical for the bad clothing and the horrible haircuts.
One of your first moves when you arrived at WMMR was the hiring of Preston and Steve in 2005 to anchor mornings. How has that helped solidify the station and lead it to the success it has had in recent years?
In 2004 I was evaluating the current morning show, which led to hiring Preston and Steve in May 2005. Ever since that moment I can’t overstate how important they have been to the resurgence and the incredible stability of ‘MMR. They work really hard on that show and they make it sound like they don’t. And you know what, they’re really good people, too, which is a blessing.
The Preston and Steve Show is now synonymous with WMMR. They’ve been there for the 13 years, yet they still need another couple decades to catch up with station fixture, midday host Pierre Robert. What does a guy like that bring to the radio station?
I’ve said many times that the Preston and Steve Show is the locomotive that pulls the train, but Pierre is the heart and soul of the radio station. He has that voice, that connection – heartfelt as it is – with the listener, with all listeners in how he still lives and breathes for music. New stuff, old stuff, everything in between. Having the ability to have that one-two punch to start the day is huge.
I don’t want to understate what Jaxon contributes in afternoon drive, which makes for a perfect ride home and then the craziness that Jacky Bam Bam brings in the nighttime and the fact that we still have a live overnight air talent who could do afternoons in any market in the country, with Brett Porche. What we say at ‘MMR is “The lights are always on and there’s always somebody home.” It’s a pretty cool thing to have Preston and Steve and Pierre, who is now 37 years at the same station, and then Jaxon, Jacky and Brett. I’m pretty lucky.
In 2014 you added the PD title at classic rock sister WMGK. Since that time the station, like others in the format, has adjusted to expand from the former ‘60s-‘70s musical focus to its current sound. Tell us about the evolution.
We have tried to take baby steps into the ‘90s to make sure the people who love The Beatles and the Stones and Aerosmith and Zeppelin aren’t put off by hearing a Pearl Jam song. We try to be smart and make sure to fulfill their expectations. It is also the air talent on MGK that helps sell all this different kind of music. We don’t play a whole lot of ‘60s – The Beatles excepted – but it’s how we set it up. Whether it’s [morning man] John DeBella’s “Breakfast with The Beatles” feature or [afternoon host] Andre Gardner doing an A to Z, I think the passion helps compensate for the fact that it’s old music. 1964 is a long time ago.
You inherited a radio station in WMGK full of veteran talent. You have veteran air talent across the board for the most part at WMMR… hundreds of years of combined market experience across the two stations. What is your daily interaction with these seasoned personalities like?
I’ve always said hire the right people and let them do their job. You don’t have to manage them if there is no need to manage them. If they’re doing an awesome job, you don’t have to get in there to remind them that you’re the boss. You just have to be there. Make sure they know you’re listening. Intervene or interject when it’s called for. Let them know you appreciate what they do on a regular basis. I’ve been doing it for a while. I don’t have to prove myself. It’s not hands off, because you have to let them know you are listening and do need to let them know when things are a little wacky. The talent is not so high up on their horse either that they can’t accept some feedback because they like being tops in the ratings, too.
An air talent has to focus on their show, being present on social platforms, making themselves available to sales staff and clients, and actually living their lives. How would you have them prioritize their workday so that it will benefit both the station and the personality?
If they are in the midst of their show they should be concentrating on what they’re doing next. When they are not on the air they should be thinking about the next day’s show. There are sales requests, because if we don’t stay in business there is no business. We understand that we have to look for solutions with sales. You talk about social media… I have to make sure they understand about copyright infringement, posting photographs that they didn’t take or don’t have the rights for. I’m blessed that they are all really smart people and I’ve never had to talk to somebody and say, “That’s a really divisive post you just wrote that’s going to tick off half of your audience.” They all get that.
Besides a well-seasoned air staff you have a number of veterans working behind the scenes in programming and promotions and marketing. Tell us about your support staff and what they bring to the table.
I will start with ‘MMR and Chuck Damico who is the APD. I tell people that he’s the next program director when that time comes. He is so talented and creative; he was a promotion director in an earlier life, so he is very solution-oriented. He has a great connection with the talent on the radio station and does the day-to-day music, too, besides running another radio station. He also programs “Ben-FM” [WBEN-FM]. I couldn’t do this job without him. Eric Simon is the promotions director who has been in that chair for 14 years and juggles so many different events. It’s not an easy task but he gets it done.
At MGK, Nancy Palumbo is the APD, and she does a great job keeping us honest. MGK is more of a musically pure product, where MMR dances in the margins a lot. MGK’s strength is that we are a classic rock station. When you punch into MGK you know what you’re going to get. It’s your favorite song that you can sing along to and that’s one of the reasons MGK is at the top of the ratings. She’s great at keeping us focused. We do some features and packaging to keep that library fresh and she’s also at the forefront of that.
I’ve got Dan Fein who is the promotions director at WMGK, who is a great planner and event executor. He does a great job in overseeing the events and contesting that we do.
In addition to the experience in the programming and on-air staff, you have the benefit of a veteran sales management team. How does the sales and programming relationship mutually benefit each other?
Sales and programming is where the rubber meets the road. Most of the time we come in contact in the promotions meeting because that’s where clients want additional exposure along with their advertising buy. Jim Antes oversees the WMMR staff and Rob Keegan oversees ‘MGK. We work pretty well together. In the last 10 years we might have said no a handful of times. It’s usually “if it’s not that, how can we do it?” That’s the prevailing attitude. We ask, how can we do it, so the client accepts it and maintains their advertising support of the station and it’s something we can live with as far as our brand management goes.