Q&A: Debbi Calton, Middays, WMGK Philadelphia.
Debbi Calton is celebrating 25 years in middays at Beasley Media Group classic rock WMGK Philadelphia (102.9). The festivities culminate with a “Hometown of the Week” live broadcast and party in honor of Calton in her hometown of Media, PA.
Inside Radio spoke with Calton about her quarter-century achievement at MGK, some of her favorite rock star interviews, local causes she champions and what to expect as the station and her listeners help her celebrate the momentous occasion. An edited transcript follows.
You’ve been with WMGK through its evolution from easy listening to ‘70s-based classic hits to its current classic rock direction. Do you feel most at home with what you’re playing now?
Absolutely. I have seen this music through the full evolution, from when it was new and now that it’s classic rock. When I first came over to MGK, they were just in the process of switching from easy listening to the greatest hits of the 70’s. When I tuned in they were still doing the easy listening stuff. Delilah was on the air there – she was actually doing her show in the studio there before she started in her national syndication thing – and I was thinking, “I’m not used to working this kind of format.” But I was assured that they were going to be transforming the format. They told me, “You’re going to be just right for this format. You’re going to be the edge we need to make a splash as we change formats,” which was the greatest hits of the ‘70s, which was really a lot of fun. For a while we were playing Joni Mitchell, Bad Company, all these dance mixes – anything that came out in the ‘70s was fair game. It was really fun that first year doing something different like that. Over time it started settling down and moved into classic hits and eventually classic rock. When we went classic rock, I felt this is where I belong.
You’ve now spent 25 years at WMGK, yet you’ve been in the Philly market longer than that. What is it about the city that can support three, even four, rock-formatted stations even today?
Well, Philly rocks. Philly is also such a loyal town. I’ve been in Philly radio 35 years, and it is also the anniversary of that this year. When I first moved here in 1983, I was told, “You know this is a hard town to be accepted in and they don’t take too well to newcomers.” You have to prove yourself. That’s one thing I am very proud of. Once you are accepted, you are entrenched within the fabric of Philadelphia. Some of the people that I was talking on the phone with in 1983, I still talk to now. We have all grown up together, we have raised families together. I think that is also part of the fabric of Philadelphia, it becomes a family thing.
With such longevity in the market you have taken on many charitable efforts. Tell us about your work outside of the studio.
I love my hometown of Media, PA. I always try to be involved with charities that have a personal meaning to me and my family or those close to me. As far as Media goes, I love doing things with the Media Theater. They even had me in a play last year. I was actually onstage for four nights in a Patsy Cline play. I never would have imagined I would have the opportunity to do that. Breast cancer and colon cancer are two things that have affected my family, so I do fundraisers for them. My son has autism, Asperger’s, and that has been a long and winding road. He is doing great. When he was born in 1991 they didn’t know a whole lot, Asperger’s wasn’t even diagnosed back then, or used as a term. I really try and do as much as I can and continue to be involved with that community. With young adults with disabilities, there are so many things in place, when they are in school… but when they graduate, it’s like we have this whole population that doesn’t have a place to go or opportunities. I am pretty involved in that aspect, helping young adults.
You have interviewed many of the masters who have helped create the soundtrack of a generation. Who are some of your favorites?
David Crosby was the most terrifying interview I have ever done and simultaneously probably the best one I have done. He was in the studio for about an hour-and-a-half. We did the interview live and he shared his wonderful history with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. In between when we were playing music it was just us in the studio, and he was very intimidating. He scared me. Again, probably the best as far as getting the most information and I was also proud of myself for when I felt like going into another room and crying… and I didn’t. That was certainly a moment I will never forget.
Getting to talk to Brian Wilson, who is a man of very little words… When I asked him what he does everyday he said that he likes to go for walks in the park and likes to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” I asked, “Are you good at it?” and he said he was really good at it. After that he got really animated and started laughing. I thought, “Wow, I now achieved the unlocking of Brian Wilson; he likes to talk about ‘Wheel of Fortune.’”
I got to talk to Jackson Browne a number of times, who I loved ever since he came on the scene. I am lucky to have a job that can allow the little Debbi inside of me, the fan part of me, to talk to people that I loved even before I got into radio.
You also share a piece of hardware that some of your musical heroes do, a Grammy. Tell us about that.
Well, technically, I am part of a Grammy Award-winning team. I don’t have the actual statue, but I do have the certificate. I was invited by some local folks who were putting out children’s records. This particular project was an anti-bullying project. It was kind of at the forefront of publicity that year, bullying and cyber-bullies and all the different ways that people bully other people. It was a really wonderful project and involved a lot of local DJs. It was spoken word, I didn’t sing. We went to the Grammy’s out in L.A. and they said in the chance that we win you guys come up with us. I’m wearing the highest heels I think I have ever worn and not expecting to hear the name of the album called out, but it was. I’m running to the stage and all I can think about is that I am going to trip on these high heels. It was one of those moments that I could have never anticipated happening, but it was so exciting to be a part of that whole project.
As a woman in the radio industry, what challenges have you had to overcome to achieve a successful career?
Early on, plenty. At the start of my career in Charlotte, NC, I ended up with an EEOC lawsuit at my first radio station because of gender discrimination. I had been doing mornings and was program director and music director and pretty much everything in between. The station owner hired a guy and paid him double what I was getting. I ended up quitting over the inequality. I was also told I would never work in the industry again. That was back in 1978. When I had my son, I had to fight for paid maternity leave, I was expected to come back after two weeks, and I was like nope, sorry, that’s not happening. I can honestly say that in my career I never really thought about myself as a woman DJ as opposed to anyone else on the station, I am just a DJ on MGK.
What can be expected at today’s Hometown of the Week broadcast and celebration of Debbi Calton?
I’m not real sure. I know that the bar is getting a little nervous because there are a lot of people calling in and asking about it. I know it is going to be a lot of fun. I have already been surprised on air. Our promotions department has reached out to a lot of people so there have been a lot of happy 25th anniversary wishes popping up. For instance, I’m doing my shift and Patti Smith comes on and wishes me a happy 25th anniversary. I screamed! That was so exciting. That came out of nowhere and it was absolutely thrilling. That is a cool thing about radio, I still get excited. I am thinking there may be some more things like that at the party. At the party my husband, Chip Roberts, and our nephew, Tommy Stinson, known as Cowboys in the Campfire, are going to be playing a set. Maybe others will stop by and play music. We’re just going to have a really good time.