EDITOR’S NOTE: Wrote this 14 years ago (14? Good Lord!), reprinting this today in the wake of today’s news that DeBella is being sued for sexual harrassment by his long-time on-air sidekick. The title of the profile was JOHN DEBELLA IS NOT AN ASSHOLE. ANYMORE — in retrospect, that assessment was premature.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA John DeBella has been a hippie and a punk. A winner and a loser. A hero and a villain. And now he just wants to be a nice guy. As if to prove it, he is going to start welling up in T-minus-three seconds. “I can’t remember a time when I have been this happy,” says the former WMMR icon of his return to morning radio on WMGK. Those great big googly eyes start glistening. A furrow forms on his infinite forehead. He looks away, biting on his lip to stanch the quivering.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got behind the microphone,” he says before changing the subject to avert an impending full-blown blubber. “I’m an emotional son of a bitch. I cry too easily.”
You can call him a lot of things, but one thing you can’t call John DeBella is chicken. He has devoted his life to radio, which is — to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson — a cruel and shallow money trench, a long and plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs.
For a time DeBella turned wackiness into a cash cow and tapped a big vein in that money trench. But the worm turned, as it always does in radio, and he died like a dog. Twice.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to call what happened to him a high-tech lynching, and while there are many sides to this story — and this is only one of them — this much is certain: Many he called friends left him twisting in the wind.
And now he has come back for more. He has eaten more than his share of humble pie. He has grown fat on crow. And he has come here today, to the lobby of the Four Seasons, to say that he is grateful for the chance to dive back into the shark tank, knowing full well there is blood in the water. And he knows that nobody — save Pierre Robert, God bless his tie-dyed soul — will throw him a lifeline if he starts going down again.
Then he breaks into that laugh — a nervous, rapid-fire raccoon chuckle — that punctuates every other sentence. There is a pleading, a neediness in that laugh, beseeching all who hear it to please come join him in this moment of complete and utter hilarity.
His story is one part comedy — wacky and zany, or “zacky and wany,” as he likes to call it. And two parts tragedy — which are less so. Much less.
John DeBella was born 52 years ago in the Astoria section of Queens, the son of NYC Dept. of Sanitation worker — or G-man, as the old man used to call himself.
When he was nine, his family moved to the Rosedale section of Queens, directly beneath a flight path at Idelwild Airport (now JFK International). The air traffic was constant — one plane every minute and 22 seconds — and deafening.
“The planes were low enough that you could hit them with a rock,” he recalls. “You would raise and lower the volume of your voice as the planes passed over.” Thus was born what can only be described as the DeBellow.
He started smoking when he was 11, and slowly but surely a touch of gravel was added to the DeBellow. He discovered rock ‘n’ roll the day he heard Lloyd Price’s “Personality” on the Emerson Travel Lite transistor radio his grandfather bought him. He still has that radio.
When he was in the seventh grade, he noticed that his hairline was beginning to recede. He grew a mustache as soon as he could.
By 1967 he was playing drums in a psychedelic garage band called Human Rice. And as the Summer of Love flowered, he sampled all the psychotropic treats it had to offer. He is one of the few hippie alums who will cop to actually trying, unsuccessfully, to get high by smoking banana peels, an idea gleaned from Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” He soon graduated to actual controlled substances — pot, acid and enough speed to rot his teeth. When he was 19 he lost his virginity to his “beautiful hippie girlfriend.”
Despite weak grades and unremarkable SATs, he bullshitted his way into Hofstra University by telling the dean, “I am going to become someone, and when I become someone, I am going to be someone who went to Hofstra.”
While studying theater, he started spinning on the college station, which had a broadcast radius that barely extended beyond the dorms. He worked out outrageous skits patterned after the psychedelic absurdity of Firesign Theater.
Despite a brief stint working up bits for the National Lampoon Radio Hour — which included among its ranks what would soon become the bulk of the first-season cast of Saturday Night Live — working in theater remained his dream. That all changed after a few penniless seasons of summerstock upstate.
The day he decided to be a DJ was the day a friend told him he would be “an asshole” not to pursue something he was a natural at. WLIR in Long Island was at the vanguard of the free-form revolution in progressive radio.
“We were like guerrilla radio,” he says, “the station that would run into the city and kick the big guys in the shins and then run back out to Long Island.”
He started doing the graveyard shifts on weekends for the princely sum of $35 a week. “John was doing an ’80s radio show in the ’70s,” recalls Earl Bailey, a WLIR jock who later joined DeBella at WMMR. “It was the height of progressive radio, and most jocks would sort of hug the mic and whisper in your ear about peace, love and leather goods. John was a little more in-your-face.”
DeBella would soon get his first taste of the fun house-mirror logic that rules radio management. “The program director calls me into his office and tells me he’s taking me off the air. I said, ‘Why?’ He said I had higher ratings than our morning guy. The only way I could be doing that was by not following format. So he was taking me off the air.”
That night DeBella got drunk and cried his eyes out at a Clash concert.
In 1979 DeBella got an offer to do mornings at a station in Pittsburgh for $40,000. He was 29 and this would be his first time leaving home. He remembers that it was an especially beautiful New York evening as he made his way out of town — a large moon hung over the skyline, casting the skyscrapers in twilight silhouette. He had his radio tuned into WNEW and, swear to God, Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” came on. By the time he hit the first tollbooth, the tears were streaming down his face.
“I didn’t live in Pittsburgh. I did time there,” says DeBella. “My on-air rap was, ‘Pittsburgh — where the sky is yellow and brown and the plants are as smart as the people. It’s not the end of the universe. But you can see it from there.'”
It was during this time he started twisting the ends of his mustache into handlebars. He spent eight months unsuccessfully trying to unseat the top morning guy, whose trademark stunt was putting on a Sousa march and getting sleepy-eyed Pittsburghers to march around the breakfast table.
WLIR called and asked him to come back. Even though the Pittsburgh station had been planning to switch formats and cut DeBella loose, the station manager called WLIR and told them he had no intention of letting him go. They would have to buy him out of his contract. “They wanted to pay me $25,000, but he got me $48,000,” says DeBella.
During his second run at WLIR he started punching up his gonzo act — talking back to commercials, talking over records and putting listener phone calls on the air. His ratings started climbing. Music was changing, the listenership was clamoring for more punk and new wave.
DeBella played the shit out of a song called “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” by a local rocker named Joan Jett. It became a national hit, making him the golden boy of the New York music industry establishment.
One night he bumped into John Belushi at an AC/DC concert. DeBella convinced the SNL star to come on his radio show the next morning.
“He was like, ‘Okay, just hang out with me tonight.’ I said ‘John, I gotta be on the air in the morning. I can’t stay up with you all night.’ Belushi said, ‘Obviously, you have never heard of cocaine. I said, ‘I have, but I don’t work like that.'”
Belushi never did make it to DeBella’s show. Within a week the comedian was dead.
One day DeBella got a call from Charlie Kendall, WMMR’s program manager. He wanted to know if DeBella would be interested in coming on as the morning guy.
“He told me the morning slot had a 6.5 share. I said, ‘6.5? I could get that down to a 3 in no time.’ There was a pause, and then Charlie said, ‘You really are the wiseass they say you are.'” DeBella, then 32, signed on as morning guy at WMMR for $65,000.
“I remember John showing up in a red beret, red scarf, red sunglasses, red coat and pants, and red shoes,” says Pierre Robert. “I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, something has certainly changed around here.”
When DeBella came aboard in 1982 WMMR was still trading on the fading glory of its rep in the ’70s as a standard-bearer of free-form progressive programming. The station hadn’t had a morning guy for six months.
He called his show “The DeBella Travesty.” It was an uphill battle, and management kept him on a short leash. The first DeBella DeBall, held a couple months after his arrival, drew 12 people.
After six months DeBella wanted to go back to New York. “In his thick Mississippi accent, Kendall said to me, ‘John, I want you to stay here and I’ve got a contract that says you do,'” he recalls.
Eventually DeBella fell in love with Philadelphia. “There was huge blizzard in the winter of 1983, and without even thinking I trudged over to Jim’s Steaks,” says DeBella. “I’m walking back home with a cheesesteak under my arm, the wind is howling and it’s snowing really hard, and at some point I stopped and said to myself, ‘Asshole, you’re a Philadelphian.'”
DeBella slowly started putting his morning team together. He brought Mark Drucker down from WLIR, securing him a fat $50,000 salary and dubbing him Mark the Shark. He hired “Turbo” Cindy Graham for traffic. He struck up a friendship with Clay Heery, proprietor of the long-defunct Comedy Factory Outlet in Old City, who did a character called Captain Cranky on the air.
Then DeBella found a character named Pat Godwin, a midwesterner living in the basement of a frat house at Penn–he wasn’t even enrolled there–who could do uncanny impersonations of hit songs reworked with zany lyrics.
Heery clued DeBella into the psychology of rowhouse Philadelphia and escorted a steady stream of rising young stand-up comedians through DeBella’s morning-show wacky factory, including some kid named Jerry Seinfeld. Much hilarity ensued.
In 1983 a new program director named George Harris, a suit-and-tie-and-gold-pocket-watch guy known for firing the morning guy as his first act at a new gig, replaced Kendall. Harris called DeBella into his office.
“He said, ‘Did you ever think about doing this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they made me get rid of it.’ And then he said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ And I said, ‘They made me get rid of it,'” says DeBella.
“He said, ‘How about the Scream of the Week’ and I said, ‘As a matter of fact I invented that at WLIR.’ He said, ‘Do me a favor. Go home and write down all the things they made you get rid of, and let’s find a place to put them back and add some new stuff.'”
Harris was known in the industry for pumping up listenership by methodically shrinking a station’s playlist. In short order Harris brought up WMMR’s cume — the number of people listening in any given quarter hour — from 300,000 to one million.
“He had research that showed that people in the city knew who I was, and they knew who the ‘MMR monkey was, but when asked if they could define the word ‘travesty,’ they couldn’t,” says DeBella. “He told me to think about calling the show the ‘Morning Zoo.’ It would be a great hook.”
The Morning Zoo concept–Hump Day, Thirsty Thursday, Hawaiian Shirt Gonzo Friday and all the attendant bells, whistles and nutty sound effects–was invented by a Florida DJ named Scott Shannon. By the time Shannon brought his Morning Zoo to New York a few years later the concept had been cloned all over the country.
“I got a call from him once and he told me he was pissed at me, but he was going to tell me something that he would never admit to anyone,” says DeBella. “He said, ‘I created the Morning Zoo, but you perfected it.'”
Large numbers of WMMR’s one million listeners felt that way. One day the Morning Zoo was to do a remote broadcast from a now-defunct eatery in the basement of the Bourse.
“We thought a few people might show up,” says DeBella. “I got there at 4:45 and the line of people stretched for three blocks. The whole city got into it. You would walk into a bank on a Friday and all the tellers would be wearing Hawaiian shirts.”
The DeBella DeBalls got bigger and bigger — selling out months in advance — and when he came up with the idea for the “Louie, Louie” parades, patterned on the climactic scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, thousands of drunken revelers turned out. DeBella’s salary jumped to $200,000.
Steadily, the newly minted Zookeeper was moving up in the ratings, with is sights set on No. 1 FM morning guy, Harvey in the Morning on WIOQ. It took three years, but one day in 1985 he knocked Harvey off his perch.
“Back then, if you heard Harvey tell it, I did some terrible things to him,” says DeBella. “I did two things: I called him ‘Hardly in the Morning’ and referred to his station as ‘W-Low-IQ.’ After the Stern thing happened, he was quoted as saying, ‘Now he knows how it feels.’ He was the guy to beat. It wasn’t my fault that he was the guy to beat.”
Now all that stood in DeBella’s way was KYW, the all-news colossus that owned the top slot. Within two years KYW was vanquished. WMMR’s ad rates skyrocketed from $85 a minute to $1,500, and DeBella’s salary ballooned to $1.2 million a year. It was John DeBella’s morning; Philadelphia just woke up in it.
In 1983 John DeBella met Annette Gammon, a party girl fixture on the local music scene. She was a regular listener and liked rock music. He liked her shag hairdo and ever-present shades. The two fell in love, and on Sept. 6, 1986, they married. Just before they left for their honeymoon, a new morning show debuted on WYSP originating from New York and hosted by some guy named Howard Stern. DeBella was nonplussed.
DeBella and his wife moved into a colonial-style mansion in Bryn Mawr, but from the beginning domestic tranquility was in short supply. “She had a lot of problems I didn’t know about. She was a borderline personality; she was an alcoholic,” says DeBella. “I was an abused husband. She would chase me around the house with knives. I would go to bed early because I had to get up in the morning, and she would dump bottles of wine on me. I would wake up and she would be hovering over me with a baseball bat. I would leave regularly to sleep in hotels.
“She wanted to be as much of a star as I was. And after years of therapy, the understanding I finally came to was that you can only keep the dream alive as long as you are willing to suffer. I searched for love for a really long time. One girl I was really in love with–the one I lost my virginity to–she was an Israeli, and I was far from being Jewish. Her father was so freaked out by our relationship he moved the whole family back to Israel. So I had a lot of that in my life. I wanted a relationship more than anything in the world, but it just never worked out for me.
“I was warned,” he says. “We went to see a therapist before we were married, and afterward the therapist calls me and says, ‘Don’t do it.’ I was in love with her. I saw, or at least I thought I saw, the little fragile person inside.”
Stern, meanwhile, was throwing down the gauntlet. When DeBella ignored the gesture, Stern picked it up and threw it harder–calling DeBella “Baldy” and devoting long stretches of his show to expressing his profound contempt for the Zookeeper. Morning radio in Philadelphia had become a full-contact sport.
In 1990 Stern came to town and staged a mock funeral for DeBella in Rittenhouse Square below the windows of WMMR. Thousands came out to watch Stern burn DeBella in effigy.
“One side of me wanted to fight in the biggest way,” says DeBella. “But when you are No. 1, you never talk about the people below you. You always talk up, never down. Secondly, my responsibility was entertaining my audience, not selling newspapers or creating television sound bites. I always believed there was a silent majority on my side.”
When Stern found out that DeBella’s marriage was on the rocks, he came back and staged a “divorce party” on Independence Mall near where WMMR had moved. “Howard played very dirty with John,” says Pierre Robert. “I remember a flatbed truck pulling up in front of the station loaded with drunk guys yelling, ‘I fucked your wife! I fucked your wife!’ Howard hammered and chiseled at John and then finally beat him.”
Even in victory Stern didn’t let up. DeBella speculates that the feud got ugly and personal because it took Stern so long to unseat him. “Howard would go into a new market and within a year he would be No. 1,” says DeBella. “Howard came to Philadelphia. A year. Two years. Three years. It took him three and a half years to take me out. I have been told that [Stern Show parent company] Infinity told him he could not syndicate his show to non-Infinity stations until he was No. 1 in all the Infinity markets. If that’s true, I cost him millions of dollars.”
Capitalizing on DeBella’s crumbling marriage, Stern paid DeBella’s wife $5,000 to appear on his show and badmouth her husband. She even went on a faux date with Captain Janks, a North Wales shipping clerk and a devout Stern fan who made it his personal mission to torment DeBella at public appearances and then phone into Stern the next day detailing the verbal harassment he had unleashed on the Zookeeper.
And then in the wee hours of Oct. 17, 1992, after a night of drinking with her live-in boyfriend, Annette passed out behind the wheel of her car after pulling into the garage at the DeBella mansion in Bryn Mawr. With the garage door shut and the car engine running, Annette died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Police ruled it a suicide.
“I think she thought she was getting the last laugh,” DeBella says. “I think if Howard knew how sick Annette was, he would never have gone there. And being on the show played into it. She was trying to hurt me any way she could.
“I buried my wife, a woman I loved very much despite all the bullshit. I buried the dream. And then moved on, with the help of a great therapist.”
A Philadelphia magazine story that appeared shortly after Annette’s death contended that the DeBella marriage ended when Annette found an unsent love letter written by DeBella and addressed to Lisa Sabol, then the wife of NFL Films honcho Steve Sabol. The Sabols–who were in the midst of divorce proceedings around this time–and the DeBellas had socialized often.
“Lisa was somebody who was helping me get my act together,” DeBella says. “Stern was throwing divorce parties. I needed somewhere to go. Somehow that evolved in the media into an affair. Thank God she was around or I would have, as I like to say, sucked on the lead lolli. As far as a romantic relationship, not before 1994–and Annette died in 1992.”
Today Lisa Sabol, now a Main Line real estate maven, and John DeBella are married.
In the fall of 1992 WMMR came up with plan to put DeBella back on top–a bold new format they dubbed “sports rock” that would pair him with sports commentator Howard Eskin. “They called me in and said, ‘John, we want to show you something. We have done some research and the men who go to sporting events are aged 18 to 35. The men who listen to music are aged 18 to 35. They are the same men.’ I said, ‘No, they may be the same age, but they are not the same people.’ I have a lot of respect for Howard Eskin, but Eskin knows as much about rock music as I know about sports.”
Within a month DeBella fell from No. 2 to No. 15. By the spring of 1993 sports rock was gone and DeBella was moved to afternoons with a steep pay cut. By September he’d had enough.
“I had seen them dismantle the Zoo and destroy this thing I had built, the Annette thing, the Stern thing. I had made a lot of money and I figured out that I really didn’t have to work anymore,” he says. He signed off from his farewell show on Sept. 30 with the words, “Goodnight Philadelphia. Don’t take any shit from anyone.”
One thing DeBella wants to clarify is that, contrary to popular belief, he never started a landscaping business. A gardening devotee, DeBella had spent a couple weeks on vacation in England learning about English gardens, and when his buddy told him about a client who needed help on his, DeBella offered his advice.
“I said you can pay me a consulting fee, but I don’t want to be out there digging holes,” says DeBella. “I mentioned something about it before I went off the air, and somehow that became me on a lawnmower cutting grass.”
Within a year WYSP offered him nearly half a million dollars to do afternoons. DeBella agreed, but first wanted to put the Stern rivalry to rest. So he went on the Stern show.
“I was nervous and scared,” says DeBella. “They jokingly waved me down with a metal detector wand because I found out later he was really afraid I was going to come in there and try and kill him. I get in there and he has these beautiful blue eyes, very comforting.”
Stern had arranged for many of the former Morning Zoo staff to come in and trash DeBella. Strangely enough, Stern stood up for DeBella every time. “Everybody was against me except Howard. I guess he thought if he could put this to bed it would make him look good.”
WYSP kept him muzzled. “‘Shut up and play the music’ was what they were looking for,” says DeBella of his afternoon show. Relations between him and WYSP management chafed for years before he was let go on June 6 of last year. He says he felt numb for the next nine months. He speculates now that the station wanted to free up money to bring in the “Opie and Anthony Show,” which, coincidentally, started the day after he was let go.
It’s getting late. The Four Seasons lunch crowd has been replaced by the dinner crowd. DeBella excuses himself to go to the men’s room. When he comes back he says, “As I was walking back from the bathroom, I was thinking I must sound like such a pitiful soul. I don’t know if I’m stupid or naive, or maybe I’m still just that hippie that thinks everyone is good.”
DeBella’s now easing his way back into mornings on WMGK, which has increasingly come to resemble the WMMR of old with the likes of Ed Sciaky and Michael Tearson back behind the microphone and a steady diet of roach clip classics on the playlist.
He’s doing the radio equivalent of what restaurants call a “soft opening,” treading lightly and carrying a big feather. Although he is in the market for a sidekick, he doesn’t want to recreate the Morning Zoo. He’s laying off the “zacky and wany,” but he still plays Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” a Zoo staple.
And even though he is once again going up against Stern, he’s pretty sure his old rival has bigger balls to break. He would like to get back to No. 1–“What am I gonna do, shoot for No. 8?” — but he has his work cut out for him. Mornings on WMGK now rank 11th out of 34 stations.
DeBella’s gotten reams of welcome-back email from loyal longtime listeners, the prevailing sentiments of which can be summed up in the one that reads “Thank God.”
On his third day back on the air he did something that would not have even raised an eyebrow back in the wack-a-doo days of the mid-’80s, but in the airless, freeze-dried climate of 21st-century radio, where everything is micro-managed and market-tested down to the nanosecond, it was actually pretty radical. He played Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” and it made him feel so good, he played it again.
“It was the first time I grabbed the show and said, ‘It’s mine,'” says DeBella, who is getting emotional again just thinking about it. “I was supposed to go into a break. I grab the mic, and I’m saying how great this song sounds and how much I love it and how you should be driving with the windows down and the stereo up. Does it take a genius to play a record twice? No. But if I can make three minutes of your life easier to take, then I did my job. We’re all in this together.” And then he starts welling up again.
Jonathan Valania previously wrote a cover profile of WMMR’s Pierre Robert.