By Bill Brady
Futures & Options Inc.
As a young radio guy on the East Coast, I sought out talk talent across the AM band. Guy Mainella, Paul Benzaquin and Larry Glick from WBZ in Boston. Mike Miller and Paul Sutton on WTIC in Hartford. All excellent hosts with unique and distinctive styles.
When the sun goes down, AM radio waves can be pretty tricky. Engineers refer to the phenomenon as “skip” as AM signals bounce off the ionosphere and travel incredible distances. Most nights where I was in Western Massachusetts, you could get WBZ pretty well 90 miles from its transmitter location in Hull on the Massachusetts coast.
One night, though, the skip was so strong that WBZ 1030 just wasn’t there. I tuned in what I thought was ‘BZ only to find it was KDKA 1020, booming in from Western Pennsylvania. In those days, the world was a much bigger place. Before the Internet, Pittsburgh seemed a long way from where I was; a new world hundreds of miles away.
But, there was KDKA 1020 on my transistor radio. The top-hour ID was “Someplace Special, KDKA Pittsburgh”. It really was someplace special. After work, I’d catch John Cigna’s show until midnight. Then Perry Marshall was on all night. Live and local when that really meant something.
Perry had a voice from radio central casting. Deep, gravelly, full of style and warmth. God, the ladies loved him. So did the guys. He was a charmer and could talk about anything.
Many nights, the first hour of Perry’s show was filled with callers complaining about something Cigna had said. John Cigna knew how to “light ‘em up”. Perry knew how to calm ‘em down.
When he’d get a first time caller, there would be the sound of “two bits” dropping into a can. It was his trademark.
Sometimes Perry’s general interest show would morph into a sports talk show. Perry was a big Pittsburgh Pirates fan and manager Chuck Tanner would often call in. Then the talk was all about Perry’s beloved Pirates and Willie “Pops” Stargell, Manny Sanguillen and Kent Tekulve.
The phones would be jammed all night long. I know, I tried to call a few times but all you could get was a busy signal.
As long as I live, I will never forget Thanksgiving Eve 1978. Perry was on the air and it was a six-hour lovefest with his audience. Americana in the vein of Norman Rockwell or the Hallmark Channel.
A woman called the show in the middle of the night. This is not an exact quote, but it went something like this: “Perry, I had to call. We listen to you every night. I’ve been up all night baking, but I just had to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.” Perry was family to her, and many, many others. He was a part of their lives. When she called Perry, you felt you were right there. You could imagine the old cast iron stove, the aroma and the kitchen she invited Perry into every night via her trusted friend, KDKA.
The calls never stopped coming that night from a big part of the U.S. reached by KDKA’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal. From Chicago, Steubenville, Ohio, and from all over Western PA; McKeesport, Ambridge, Aliquippa, Pittsburgh — the list was endless. People wishing Perry and his audience a Happy Thanksgiving. It was an on-air family reunion of truck drivers and third shift workers from all over.
I’ve thought of that night on Perry’s show many times over the years, and what it meant then and now to the radio business I love. Today’s radio execs should study it for what radio was — and can still be.
Perry was a genuine guy. He was a friend and companion to his listeners. He wasn’t there to solve the world’s problems or decide elections. Oftentimes the conversation was just small talk. He was the guy at the proverbial all night diner, chatting with whoever came in, making you feel at home as part of the KDKA overnight family.
I once heard that one-third of all people who listened to radio listened at some point in the 12:00 midnight to 6:00 am time period. Though not a big revenue daypart, it was once understood that the overnight period played an important role in building a 24/7 relationship with listeners. Perry Marshall’s KDKA radio program was proof positive in that era as KDKA dominated Pittsburgh radio.
Perry Marshall passed away on November 5, 2011. He had a long and successful career in Chicago at WIND-AM and at several Pittsburgh stations. His daughter is Robin Marshall, a well-known radio personality and voice-over specialist.
How big was Perry? I found a note on the Radio Discussions message board from Rick Starr, the former program director of KDKA and WBZ. It said, “Perry had the largest ratings (at least in terms of share) on KDKA back when KDKA had gigantic shares. He regularly put up 50% shares of listening in the 12:00 midnight to 1:00 am and 5:00 am to 6:00 am hours, the only hours Arbitron measured then.”
Happy Thanksgiving, Perry. Thanks for the memories.
Bill Brady is President/CEO of Futures & Options, Inc., a media investment, ownership and consulting firm based in South Florida. His background includes management positions with Clear Channel, Citadel, Comcast and the Miami Herald. He can be reached at 561-529-2598 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.