Early one hot August morning, John DeBella and his two on-air accomplices, Steve Vassalotti and Dave Gibson, were doing a little post-gaming in his office. Vassalotti told a story about how, when his wife was 19, she stashed a couple cases of beer in her bedroom closet and forgot about them. More than 10 years later, her father found the suds.
The tale led to a discussion of all the things they’d hidden while living at home. DeBella enjoyed it so much that he made a proclamation: “We have to take this on the air.”
The next day, Vassalotti recounted the saga, and DeBella encouraged listeners to call in with the things they’d concealed. The phone board resembled a Christmas village. “People called in with some of the wildest stuff,” DeBella says.
And so yet another successful segment careened forward, bringing a bit of fun to the morning commute for thousands of listeners. It’s business as usual for DeBella, who’s logged 20 years at 102.9 WMGK and 40 on the air in Philadelphia. Aside from a seven-year afternoon interlude, those four decades have been spent waking up area residents with a blend of comedy, music, community service and off-the-cuff content that can get as zany as DeBella’s trademark walrusian mustache. In an industry that often treats hosts as disposable, the 71-year-old DeBella—much like his WMMR counterpart, Pierre Robert—has proven to be as indestructible as Keith Richards. He has one year left on his current three-year contract, and he’s in discussions for another.
“Radio years are like dog years,” says Bill Weston, WMGK’s program director and the VP of talent development for parent company Beasley Media. “In this profession, there’s so much flux and turnover. For John to be at MGK for 20 years is a mind-blower.”
How does Weston explain it? “It’s been about understanding that the audience in 2022 is different than it was in 1982—John gets that,” he says. “They want music and fun and someone who lives down the street from them and gets them.”
In the age of satellite radio, podcasts and streaming services, even radio news juggernaut KYW has seen its place at the top of the ratings erode considerably. Not DeBella. He’s maintained his consistent top-five status among adults 25–54, still the charmed demographic for advertisers. More importantly, he loves what he does. “I will admit that you get to hate 3 o’clock in the morning wakeups for a 6-to-9 a.m. show,” he says. “But I’m the happiest man in the world.”
That was a different story 20 years ago. It was June 2002, and DeBella was “scared stiff.” He was about to start his morning run at WMGK, and he wasn’t at all certain he could do a decent job. “I hadn’t done morning radio in a long time,” DeBella recalls.
Pierre Robert tried to calm his friend. “He turned to me and said, ‘Let me give you a piece of advice given to me by [the late Philadelphia rock critic] Jonathan Valania: Use your powers for good,’” DeBella says. “That changed my life. I still came in and did my wacky show, but I picked up causes as I went along.”
Those causes include dogs, U.S. military veterans and people around the Philadelphia region with food insecurity. “He aims to help people in all kinds of ways,” Robert says. “He loves music, he loves his audience and he knows how to communicate.”
Not that it’s always been a smooth ride. While DeBella and his WMMR Morning Zoo crew were dominating the airwaves in the ’80s, a storm was brewing to the north. Howard Stern’s compulsive quest to take over the top spot in the Philadelphia ratings at WYSP led to a hard fall for DeBella in April 1990. He shifted to an afternoon radio slot at YSP from 1994 to 2001, enduring several years of abuse from Stern and his foot soldiers. Stern got the syndication deal he craved, and DeBella eventually got an apology from the man who was downright cruel at times. “Stern wanted to syndicate his show, and [CBS president] Mel Karmazin told him, ‘You can’t syndicate outside of the company if you don’t win in D.C., New York and Philadelphia,’” DeBella says. “He was number one in D.C. in six months, and in New York in 16 months. In Philadelphia, a year went by; two years went by; three years went by. He couldn’t beat me. In his head, his plan was being curtailed by a bald-headed guy. It took him more than three years to beat me.”
Perhaps it had something to do with DeBella’s authenticity. “People think I’m acting,” he says. “Is my persona elevated when I’m on the air? Of course. I’m performing. But there’s no difference between that guy and the guy who goes through life.”
When DeBella does return to the Main Line home he shares with his wife, Lisa, a real estate powerhouse and author, he heads straight to his basement and continues his second passion, woodworking. He’s created cutting and charcuterie boards and is aiming for furniture. Sometimes he uses his middle school T-square from 1962. “When I go in my shop, the rest of the world goes away,” he says.
Until 3:15 the next morning. Less than three hours later, it’ll be time to wake everybody up again, possibly by debating the best songs with “na-na-na-na” in them. “I’d like to be remembered as a nice guy but silly,” he says. “I’d be fine with that.”
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