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History of Philadelphia radio station 560 WFIL (Salem Communications)

  • WFIL was formed in early 1935 by the combintaion of two existing radio stations: WFI, which was placed on the air March 18, 1922 by department store Strawbridge and Clothier, and WLIT (formerly WDAR) of the Lit Brothers department store. Both stations shared time on the same 740 AM frequency, which was not uncommon in the crowded airwaves of the 1920s. On November 11, 1928, both stations moved to the familiar 560 frequency.

    The department stores were located across the street from each other, and each had studios in their stores and antennas on thier rooftops. WFI had an early affiliation with New York City station WEAF that was the forerunner of the NBC radio network. When the stations merged, they adopted a portion of each call to become WFIL. New studios and offices were opened in the Public Ledger building at 6th and Chestnut Streets. At this time, the station was an NBC-Blue affiliate operating at 1,000 watts. In addition, WFIL was also a member of the Mutual Broadcasting System and the regional Quaker Network.

    In 1937, New offices and studios were located on the 18th floor of the Widener Building at Broad and Chestnut Streets. A new 1 kilowatt "hi fidelity" transmitter was inagurated in southwest Philadelphia (near 63rd and Passayunk) with a 329 foot self-supported tower. In 1946, the station was sold to Triangle Publications for $1.9 million. Triangle, owned by Walter Annenberg, also owned The Philadelphia Inquirer, and later TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, among other media properties. At this point, the NBC Blue network had become ABC, of which the station was an affiliate.

    In 1947, WFIL raised its power to 5000 watts and installed new broadcasting equipment in the more spacious (and cheaper) land acquired in Whitemarsh Township, PA. Around this same time, the AM studios in the Widener building were upgraded and FM and TV facilities, still in their infancy, were added as well.

    In 1952, WFIL moved to new studio quarters in the WFIL-TV building at 46th and Market Street, the first building in the country specifically designed for television broadcasting. A new 11,300 sq ft addition to the building, which had been opened in 1948, allowed all broadcast activities to be consolidated in one place. At this location, the TV show "Bandstand" (later renamed "American Bandstand") began with host Bob Horn and shortly thereafter with Dick Clark, who had been a staff announcer for WFIL. At this time, WFIL was known as "The Philadelphia Inquirer Station" with a "middle of the road" format.

    According to Roger Clipp, General Manager of the WFIL stations from 1956 - 1968: As personnel, equipment and programs burgeoned, the "new" building (vintage 1947) at 46th & Market became hopelessly inadequate and after several years of searching for the right location, Triangle in 1962 began building its new Triangle Broadcast Center at 4100 City Line Avenue, Philadelphia, which it occupied January 12, 1964. This very handsome and efficient edifice now houses the WFIL stations and all the management personnel for the Triangle Radio and Television Division.

    WFIL BOss Jocks

    A major programming change to top 40 music occurred on September 18, 1966, known as "the pop explosion." It was described in promotional material as "a bright, exciting sound of truly modern radio; the sound of popular music; young, personable air personalities; a station that immediately attracted the attention of literally thousands." Popular air personalities at this time, known as "Boss Jocks" included Jay Cook, Jim Nettleton, George Michael, Dave Parks, Frank Smith, and Chuck Browning. WFIL personalities in the later years of the top 40 era included Dr. Don Rose, Jim O'Brien, Dick Heatherton, and Banana Joe Montione.

    WFIL logo

    In 1971, Triangle sold WFIL to LIN Broadcasting for $11.5 million (WFIL-FM was sold to Richer Communications and became WIOQ) As FM radio gained popularity in the late 1970s, music formats on AM suffered a severe loss in ratings, and WFIL was no exception. In 1977, an adult contemporary format debuted, and in 1979, the format was switched to a middle of the road format. In 1980, the studios were moved to 440 Domino Lane and shared space with sister station WUSL-FM.

    From 1981 to 1983, WFIL programmed a country format, and then an oldies format called "Famous 56" in an attempt to cash in on the station's glory days of the mid 1960s, but to no avail. In 1987, LIN sold the station to WEAZ-FM radio for $4.5 million and the studios were moved into the same location as new sister station Easy 101 at 10 Presidential Boulevard. The new owners immediately ended all live programming on WFIL and started playing an oldies format delivered by the Transtar satellite service. A massive modernization program was undertaken at the transmitter site, eventually resulting in a new transmitter and towers. The unpopular Kahn AM Stereo system that the station installed in 1983 was replaced by the slightly less unpopular C-QUAM system.

    By 1989, most listeners interested in oldies had migrated to WOGL FM, the winner in the four-way oldies race. At this point, the owners of WFIL commissioned a feasibility study which determined that putting any more resources into the oldies format would be a waste of money. So, on May 11, 1989, WFIL quietly dumped the syndicated oldies format and began simulcasting soft adult contemporary sister station EZ 101. This was likely the low point in the storied station's history. By July, the calls were changed from WFIL to WEAZ.

    Wish 560 logo

    Since there was virtually no reason for anyone to listen to an inferior AM simulcast of an FM station, ratings were all but non-existent. A sale of the station to Salem Communications for $6.5 million was announced in 1990 but subsequently fell through. After limping along almost invisible for two years, WEAZ constructed a tiny automated studio and launched easy listening "WISH 560" on August 15, 1991. The name "Wish" was a play on the old WWSH calls from a popular Philadelphia easy listening station in the 1970s.

    Alan Boris, author of this site, worked in the engineering department of WEAZ and WEAZ-FM and recalls the following:

    The Wish 560 studios were carved out of some existing space in the office and were not much larger than a walk-in closet. However, it was very neatly and efficiently designed. A lot of custom work by the engineer at the time, Russ Mundshenk. There was room for maybe two people in the announce booth, with much space taken up by some enormous floor standing open reel recorders used for Sunday morning public affairs programming. The announcer would look through a glass window at the equipment racks in the other half of the Wish "closet." These racks contained four 50 disc CD changers, with two copies of every CD loaded in alternate changers so there could be seques between any song. The whole system was run by a fairly advanced PC for the time, with a nice touch screen visual interface. Commercials were stored as digital audio files, which was pretty sophisticated for 1992.

    The only live announcer I ever remember seeing in the booth was the great Gary Brooks who did the morning show. He would have to use the touch screen system in maual mode, and I remember that the touch screen could sometimes be a bit sensitive, resulting in some on-air abnormalities. The rest of the day was entirely automated. The FM jock, often the only person in the building after hours, would occasionally be called in to reset the automation computer or tend to some other problem.

    I was aware of the heritage of 560 AM and was happy to find some old desks in the corner of an office that were the only remaining property that had been passed down from previous owners. I peeled off some faded WFIL stickers from the 1970s and saved them!

    When WEAZ-FM became WBEB-FM (B101) in May 1993, WEAZ changed calls to WBEB. Wish 560 hung on for two years, but the audience size never met expectations, so when Salem Communications made an offer, WBEB was sold for $4 million in October, 1993. Salem already owned 990 AM WZZD, former arch rival of WFIL then known as WIBG. (wibbage) Ironically, both stations are now housed together in the WZZD studios at 117 Ridge Pike in Lafayette Hills. After the sale of WBEB, the calls were changed to WPHY and a religious "time-brokered" format was adopted. In 1994, talk programming was added, and the heratige calls of WFIL were reinstated at 560 AM.


    Roger W. Clipp, "The History of WFIL", Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, Used by permission.
    Jan Lowry, "WFIL Profile", Broadcast Pro-File

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  • Discuss 560 WFIL Philadelphia

    Comments? Corrections? Worked there? Please let us know!

    1. Posted at 6:23 PM on 6/8/2010 by Nick Reynolds:
    Famous 56 newsman during the late 60's

    2. Posted at 12:10 PM on 12/12/2016 by Larry O'Leary:
    I never lived in the Phila area but somehow how have an album (in great condition) created for WFIL. It says WFIL (56 dots the I). Most music is from middlish 60's. Album cover is kinda cool with 3 red double decker buses, 2 red muscle cars a van and a pick up truck and a bunch of girls in striped shorts waving! I have no emotional connection so if there is some historical value I will gladly send on. Let me know.

    3. Posted at 7:37 AM on 3/21/2017 by Alfred Bunzl:
    For anyone interested, here is a studio quality recording of WFIL sent to me late 1972: https://www.mixcloud.com/alfred-bunzl/wfil-philadelphia-pa-jim-obrien-tom-dooley-19711972-am560/

    4. Posted at 11:47 AM on 3/27/2017 by Sms:
    Some of my best years were working at wail 1987 - 1989 and that the oh so temperamental touch screen.

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