‘We are unapologetically Black’: Philly radio station looks to its legacy as it celebrates 70 years on air

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune.)

By Jamyra Perry

PHILADELPHIA — From Big Band to Usher, WDAS-FM has been there for the Philadelphia community for 70 years.

Current WDAS-FM midday personality Patty Jackson said the station has been unique since it was bought by candy manufacturer Max Leon in 1950.

“Really, there’s nothing like it. This station is all about the community and we are unapologetically Black. We don’t try to be anything else but what we are,” Jackson said.

Jackson, who joined the station’s morning show in 1987, credits consistency for the station’s longevity.

“People just know what they’re going to get. That’s what keeps us. People know exactly what they are going to get when they listen to WDAS,” Jackson said.

Wynne Alexander’s grandfather Max Leon was the original owner of WDAS and her father Bob Klein managed the station in its early years. The station has been a part of her life since she was born.

“I grew up there, basically and eventually, one of the greatest opportunities of my lifetime was to be able to work in the WDAS newsroom,” Alexander said.

She attributes the station’s longevity to the station’s knack for getting involved in the community they served.

“I think that the profound role WDAS has played in music history and the crucial role they played in civil rights history, starting in the 1950s combined, entered people’s hearts and intellect. When you come into people’s hearts and minds that way, you are never forgotten. And this radio station proves that,” Alexander said.

The former WDAS newswoman, who once interviewed Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali, now runs WDAShistory.org, a website devoted to the history of civil rights and broadcast.

Alexander said the station’s talent was partially responsible for cementing WDAS’ place in history.

“Given the social responsibility to fight for justice, you had to have very talented people to do that. Given the huge mark that we made on the music industry, you had to have talented people to shoulder that kind of responsibility. Talent certainly played into it,” she said.

Through the years, the talent that worked at the station was almost, if not as great as the musical talent that came through the doors. Names like Georgie Woods, Ed Bradley, Harvey Holiday and Joe “Butterball” Tamburro are part of Philadelphia radio history.

The station’s early management, Bob Klein and Max Leon had the vision to get the station involved in the civil rights movement.

“In 1951, when the determination was made, those were some very crucial years and dangerous years to make such a decision. The idea of taking a White station and turning into a Black cultural institution was revolutionary,” Alexander said.

Over the years, WDAS continued to evolve and find new and revolutionary ways to give back to Philadelphia’s Black community.

In the late 1970s, E. Steven Collins and Tamburro came up with the idea for Unity Day, which would expand and remain one of the station’s flagship events until around 2007.

Unity Day, an annual event that drew thousands to the Franklin Parkway, was an example of how WDAS acted as a community leader.

Former production manager and on-air talent for WDAS Jerry Wells remembers Unity Day being a celebration of families.

“Unity Day was very positive. It was just a great family day. We had entertainment for the whole family. It was designed to be something that the station did to give back to our listeners for their support,” he said. “It became like a reunion every year. To me, the highlight of the event was mingling with the people who listened to the radio station. I always enjoyed that the most, just hanging out with the people who supported us year in and year out.”

Jackson said that sense of family was felt by the station’s staff through the years and is part of its legacy.

“When we all get together now it’s unfortunately when somebody has died. But the WDAS staff is like your family. Eight times out of 10, they have been there for the birth of your children and the loss of your parents. They are with you throughout your life for the highs and the lows,” Jackson said.

She says she doesn’t know what the next few years hold for the station but she hopes they build on the sense of community that the station has always valued.

“I hope that whatever happens in the future, they will keep the integrity of the radio station,” Jackson said. “You just pray that there are people who love the station as much as you do and they’ve realized the legacy that is WDAS.”

Jamyra Perry is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.