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Radio Legend Debbi Calton Reflects on Her Career

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Read about Debbi Calton’s 14 greatest radio moments here.

 

Studio U is surrounded by cables, boxes and other radio-station detritus. Inside, Debbi Calton loves the expansive views of Bala Cynwyd afforded by several large windows, not to mention the updated equipment that practically allows her five-hour show to run itself. It’s just her second day in 102.9 WMGK’s new home. In a little over a month, she’ll be gone. “I’m glad I got in here before it was time to go,” she says.

After more than 40 years in the radio business—26 of them navigating listeners through midday in her familiar 9 a.m.-2 p.m. time slot—Calton’s final day at WMGK was Dec. 6, 2019. She’s since been replaced by 30-year Philly radio veteran Matt Cord, former morning host at 95.7 BEN-FM.

Calton’s retirement was prompted by an itch for new challenges and the desire to focus on family. Her future is certain to include more time with her son, Dustin, who has autism. “When we die, we don’t get to hear the nice things people say about us at our funerals,” says Calton. “I’m hearing everything now.”

The exit was her decision, which is pretty rare in the radio business. Just two days after Calton established residency in the new studio, WMGK parent company Beasley Media laid off several people across its national footprint, including 97.5 The Fanatic’s Jason Myrtetus, who’d been with the MGK sibling for seven years. For Calton, this was not a “mutual decision” (often code for a forced parting), a “restructuring” or a format change. “People asked me to stay,” she says.

Calton wouldn’t, though—despite all the begging from Tony Harris, the station’s program operations director, DJ, voiceover specialist and ultimate radio utility infielder. “For selfish reasons, I’m pissed she’s retiring,” Harris says. “She’s one of the cornerstones of the station from before it was a classic rock station.”

WMGK changed formats during Calton’s tenure. It also went through seven different program directors and a variety of studios. In the process, MGK has withstood the rise of iTunes, satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify and every other streaming mode. Times changed, but Calton remained.

Every day for more than 17 years, WMGK morning man John DeBella executed a shift changeover with Calton—not an easy thing to do. He recalls only a single argument during their time at the station together. “The joy of her walking into the door every day was the high point of my week,” says DeBella.

Calton and her musician husband, Chip Roberts, will most likely be moving south to support her parents’ transition into assisted living. She’s moving Dustin to Atlanta, where he can be more independent, and she’ll be helping an uncle with an upcoming book. Calton also plans to continue with her stained-glass projects and maybe step into some community radio. “I’d have the freedom to do what I want, without having to worry about ratings,” says Calton, who won’t divulge her age, saying only, “I’m not getting Medicare yet.”

“When we die, we don’t get to hear the nice things people say about us at our funerals. I’m hearing everything now.”

The same can’t be said for a significant portion of WMGK’s audience. But that’s to be expected with a classic rock format that’s made only minor adjustments. Earlier this decade, late-’80s hard-rock acts like Guns N’ Roses found their way onto its playlist, which prompted some unhappiness from purists who believe the cutoff is the early 1980s. These days, Metallica and other ’90s bands like Alice in Chains have also found favor at MGK. But program director Bill Weston also handles the music on Beasley sister station WMMR, so he has to be careful about too much overlap.

 

Baby boomers aren’t too fond of change, so it’s likely that Debbi Calton’s successor will face a struggle. “I’m truly honored to follow a Philadelphia icon,” says her replacement, Matt Cord. “I’m a huge fan who got to be a friend of hers. When she gave me the seal of approval, it made it perfect.”

Calton cultivated quite an audience over her 26 years—to the point where it’s easy to forget she isn’t a native. Her father was in the Air Force, so she moved around growing up. “People in Philadelphia don’t accept a lot of outsiders,” says WMGK’s Harris. “When you get people like Debbi and John [DeBella, a New Yorker], they have an ‘it’ that people like.”

Calton could’ve been a welder. She lasted two-and-a-half years at Guilford College in North Carolina before dropping out. She’d been majoring in English with a minor in French. “I had every intention of going back,” she recalls.

While she was sorting things out, she figured she needed to learn a skill or trade. “They’ll always need welders,” she says.

She also sent away for some information about a broadcasting school. It wasn’t exactly the Harvard University of the industry and the equipment was bad, but she gave it shot. Calton needed something with the word “school” in it “so my parents would keep sending me money.”

Calton made a stop at WRPL, an AM station in Charlotte, N.C., known affectionately as “Ripple Radio.” It was 1976, and she was willing to do anything. The station hired her, and she wrote some advertising copy, “using my English major.” One day, someone suggested on-air work. Calton had a thick Southern accent, and she didn’t like the sound of her voice. Someone must have, because she ended up doing a morning show. “It was nuts. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but it was great timing,” she says. “I ended up staying there two years and even became the program director.”

Calton also wound up suing the station. It was the 1970s, and women weren’t too welcome in radio—or the general workforce, for that matter. Calton loved her gig, playing just about anything she wanted in its college-style format, but she was being paid less than other male DJs at the station. She filed an EEOC suit, claiming discrimination, and things got ugly.

The station claimed she stole things. Calton countered with evidence of her low pay. In the end, the suit didn’t produce any satisfaction or, for that matter, any money. “I was always proud that I did that,” Calton says. “It was a tough time.”

It was one bump in the road on a long path to Philadelphia that included plenty of other stops. After WRPL, Calton moved in with her parents in Florida, where her father was stationed. She worked part-time at an easy-listening station near Cocoa Beach, but eventually landed a job in 1978 at 98 ROCK in Tampa doing afternoons. On staff was Brock Whaley, a semi-legendary DJ whom Calton would date and eventually marry—for a short time. The stint was brief, after the station’s program director “got paranoid and fired the entire staff,” Calton remembers. “He felt we were conspiring against him.”

She ended up at WORJ in Orlando, where Whaley also landed. After a year, Whaley got a job at a station in Denver. “I wanted to see where the relationship would go,” she says.

And since Calton’s family had moved around so much while she was young, it wasn’t a tremendous hardship. “It gave me practice for being a radio gypsy,”
she says.

She found a station in Denver but then moved to Chicago with Whaley. The two got married, and then divorced. She started doing promotions at Chicago’s WMET, where Whaley worked, before landing the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. time slot on air. In 1983, new owners took over. “They started firing people left and right,” Calton says. Eventually, she was one of them. A lot of her WMET colleagues moved to Philadelphia, so she arranged a meeting with WMMR’s program director, but he didn’t show up. That opened a door to another station.

When Calton arrived in Philly, the rivalry beaten WMMR and WYSP for rock radio supremacy was as intense as ever. WIOQ and its “Best of Progressive Rock” format had held some sway in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it was fading—and that left two behemoths. When WYSP program director Michael Picozzi heard Calton had come to town to meet with WMMR, he made his move, offering her a job. In his mind, it was a great way to acquire a talented DJ and stick it to the competition.

Calton started working Sunday nights, playing full albums on the “Seventh Day” show, which eventually became the “Sunday Night Sixpack.” Eventually, she took over the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. shift as a lead-in to Philly legend Rick Allen. Their crossovers were memorable. Allen would even ask Calton to come into the studio during his show, which was possible on the less-structured overnights. “Once I was at WYSP, there were only two stations, as far as I was concerned: WYSP and WMMR,” she says.

 

 

Calton spent 10 years doing middays at YSP. Then a purge took place. She was hosting a second birthday party for her son, Dustin, when DJ Ed Sciaky called to tell her he’d been fired and that more changes were coming. By late 1993, she was out.

A few months of wandering followed. At one point, she thought she was going to be hired back at YSP—but as it turns out, the person who made the offer didn’t have clearance from his boss. “I’d spent all my severance on Christmas presents when I thought I was getting my job back,” Calton says. “I was told later that the offer wasn’t sanctioned.”

Then she got a phone call from her former boss at WYSP, Andy Bloom. Big things were happening at WMGK, where he was working in management. At the time, the station was known for its easy-listening format. But that was shifting to “Greatest Hits of the ’70s”—a mix of everything from disco to reggae to rock. In early 1994, she took over middays, which featured the “70-minute lunch hour.” Interestingly, her Noontime Nuggets segment, an MGK fixture for more than two decades, had been introduced by WYSP’s Randy Kotz back in 1985. When the station let it go, Calton was happy to pick it up.

“Greatest Hits of the ’70s” gave way to “Classic Hits” and finally the classic-rock format that persists today. It was perfect for Calton, if somewhat constricting, thanks to its relatively narrow time period.  “How do I come up with something new to say about Foreigner?” Calton poses.

But it thrived—and Calton with it. “She was able to adapt to different kinds of management,” says Andre Gardner, who handles the 2-7 p.m. shift at the station. “She’s a team player.”

Gardner, John DeBella and Ray Koob (since let go) arrived at the station in 2002, pretty much casting WMGK’s classic-rock format in cement. Over the ensuing 17 years, Calton served as the midday fulcrum, taking lunchtime requests as she adjusted to various technological advances like computerized programming and social media. “It’s as big a part of the job as speaking on the radio,” she says.

Over the years, she’s interviewed dozens of musicians. There was her highly-charged encounter with David Crosby, a revelatory talk with Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick, and discussions with Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and others. Her voiceover work was even part of the Grammy-winning 2012 album, About Bullies Big and Small. “That inner fan is always there,” she says. “I’ve met the people I used to listen to—that’s a part I’m going to miss.”

Back in early November, WMGK launched “30 Days of Debbi” as a look back on her long tenure. She mined highlights from old shows, posted reminiscences on the station’s website and generally reveled in her 26-year ride. “Several times in my career, I didn’t have control,” she says. “Now, I’m steering the ship.” 

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