Ride of His Life
It’s been a long, strange trip for local radio icon Pierre Robert.
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon
on the Monday after Thanksgiving, which, if you’re Pierre Robert, is also the Monday after the Who concert. Make that one Who concert and his own 25th anniversary party, featuring his all-time favorite “greatest band in the land,” Beru Revue.
Somehow the man of the hour has managed to stay on his feet without a trace of wear and tear. No bloodshot eyes, not one dark circle and not an inch of tie-dye, which might’ve been the only clue he was winding down. As his velveteen voice blankets the airwaves from WMMR 93.3 FM’s Bala Cynwyd headquarters, it’s plausible that this 51-year-old kid’s got ample energy to carry us through the next 25 years.
Audio stops and starts as he skims through listener clips praising his “excellent customer service.” Technology has changed since Robert first hit radio—reel-to-reel’s out; programmed playlists are in.
“I’m computer dysfunctional,” admits the Gladwyne resident. “This is definitely a juggling act. It’s not so much physically challenging as mentally. It takes a linear thought process, which I don’t have.”
A voice in the background thanks Robert for the “reawakening” he experienced via recently aired flashback moments. Another deems Robert “awesome”, which he hears as “awful.” But the caller assures him, “You’re A-W-E-S-O-M-E!”
Later Robert plays a bit from the Who show at the Wachovia Center, where the station presented him with a custom Silver Record Award. Cleverly displayed, the LP and toner arm appear to be playing, symbolizing Robert’s past and future.
The volume’s not full throttle, but you can feel the crowd. In between the hooting and hollering, Robert’s long-time friend, Pat Croce, delivers a passionate tribute to “the man with the velvet voice who’s infused Philly souls with rock and roll for 25 years.”
Croce’s screaming, fans are cheering; you don’t need to be there to feel the energy. But Robert knows it’s not about him—it’s about the headliner.
“I got to talk on Roger Daltry’s microphone,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Standing there with his Jesus-like mane, Jerry Garcia beard, mainstream midnight-blue corduroy shirt, red-rimmed reading glasses and so-not-impressed-with-myself aura, Robert personifies humility. Still, listening to the compliments rain down, you wonder how he’s ever going to come down from this.
All About the Music
There was a time when Robert’s mood was far from euphoric.
“One of the new administrations called me into a meeting. They told me I wasn’t ‘relevant,’” Robert recalls. “I tried to think of ways to let them know that I was still fresh and funny, that I was still talking about cool things. I remembered this story I’d told on the air about seeing a field of fireflies at dusk—a very magical and symphonic moment. I’m thinking about this and the new guy says, ‘And that story you told about fireflies is one example of what we don’t think is relevant.’”
Robert was crestfallen. “It kicked the wind right out of me and I thought, ‘I guess they’re right. Maybe I don’t have anything left to offer. Maybe it’s time to go home.’”
That night, Robert was out at a club. “Two kids came up to me separately to tell me the firefly story was ‘the coolest thing.’ I thought they were BS-ing me,” he says. “I was astonished; one of the things I’d been told in that meeting was that 18-to-25-year-olds ‘probably don’t care about fireflies.’ I realized then that the current administration couldn’t take away my inner voice. In a 24-hour period, I died and was born again.”
Twenty-five years is a long time for anyone to be anywhere, yet Robert still sees every day as a new adventure. “It’s never boring around here. We stay fresh and alive by mixing the old and the new and staying in touch with listeners,” he says. “The energy comes from bridge building, how we present the music. For the Main Line guy who doesn’t think anything’s worthy after 1973, I want to introduce him to the Killers. And for that guy’s kid, I want to bring him into artists like Graham Nash.”
Interscope Records’ Bobbi Silver has been in the music business a long time herself. In her years of shopping artists to radio stations, she’s come to view Robert as an integral force behind numerous artists. “Sheryl Crow and Sting feel that he was one of the first DJs to give them a break,” says Silver. “These are superstars, yet they always ask to meet with Pierre when they come to town. A lot of record companies won’t talk to jocks, but WMMR jocks—especially Pierre—are out there on the street, they’re smart and they have a sense of what music this city wants to listen to.”
Knowing your subject matter also helps. “Pierre has a reputation as one of the better interviewers,” says Silver. “A lot of the time, the artists I bring around come out feeling like all the questions are the same. But not with Pierre.
Silver points out that there are others in Philly radio who still care about the music: WMMR program director Bill Weston, Bruce Warren at WXPN, Y-Rock on XPN’s Jim McGuinn, Gil Edwards at WYSP. But Pierre’s in the minority—he cares about music and the people behind the music. He also cares about the city and acts on his passions, never saying no to a cause.
Weston was smart enough to know that Pierre is important to the city, and that his insights should play a role in the station’s decision making. “If you grew up with rock, you still love rock,” says Weston. “But it doesn’t have to be 30-year-old rock—it just needs to be good rock. Pierre is open to all music. He’s a champion of newer bands like Wolf Mother, Snow Patrol and Green Day, and he is equally enthusiastic about U2, Audioslave and older bands.”
One of Robert’s greatest assets as a DJ is his authentic appreciation for the medium and his emotional connection to the music. “Every day, Pierre’s out there going to shows, meeting musicians, talking about the music intelligently—which is something you have to do,” says Jason Fehorn, Robert’s producer. “People flip channels a lot more than they used to; when songs are played over and over, you need to be able to present them in a way that keeps listeners’ attention.”
At his 25th anniversary bash at the TLA on South Street, Robert spends all night in the crowd, rocking out like a teenager on Red Bull. When he isn’t dancing, he’s doling out autographs, high-fives, handshakes and hugs. “I want everyone to win—the small farmers, the big corporations, the car manufacturers and the environmentalists,” he says. “I want to know the same thing Rodney King did: ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’”
Elvis Costello wasn’t crazy when he asked, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”—and neither is Robert. “Pierre genuinely cares about changing the world,” says Fehorn. “He doesn’t just talk the talk.”
Robert’s latest worthy cause is Project H.O.M.E. When we spoke, he was planning to film a documentary with Sister Mary Scullion, the homeless organization’s founder, to increase awareness and keep financial support coming in.
“The thing about Pierre,” says Fehorn, “is that you know who he is. He’s the same person on and off the air. As a fan, I enjoy hearing him talk; you just get a good vibe hearing him. He’s a peace-love guy who puts such a positive spin on things. What he talks about, his tone—he’s real. He’s not putting on an act.”
But Robert isn’t delusional—just disciplined. “People think my optimism comes naturally. But I have to work on it,” he admits. “Once you put on the negative lenses, you can get stuck. Optimism is a craft; you have to practice it. It’s like going to the gym.”
So the next time you turn a deaf ear to a request for a couple of bucks, or feel compelled to flip off the driver who just cut in front of you, check yourself and ask, “What would Pierre do?”