WALK and WPSW
WPEN was formed on April 19, 1929 as the consolidation of two stations: WALK and WPSW. WALK was licensed at Bethayres, PA in 1927 to Albert A. Walker. WPSW was licensed in 1926 to the Pennsylvania School of Wireless Telegraphy. The William Penn Broadcasting Company purchased WALK and WPSW which shared the 1500 kHz frequency, and combined the stations under the new calls WPEN.
In the 1930s, the station's programming included musical clock programs, children's shows, organ music, and live orchestras. On October 27, 1933, the station changed its frequency from 1500 to 920 kHz, and then to the familiar 950 in 1941. Without access to a major network's news and entertainment programming, WPEN devoted many program hours to foreign languages. The station was owned by watchmaker Arde Bulova from 1939 - 1944.
The station was sold to the Philadelphia Bulletin company, publishers of the evening paper, for $620,000 on December 30, 1944. Programming consisted of music shows including "Sunrise Symphony" hosted by Ed Hurst. Studios were located at 1528 Walnut Street, with a new 5,000 watt transmitter located at 72nd and Race Street. In 1946, a new program called "The 950 Club" started airing afternoons from 1 to 6 hosted by Ed Hurst and Joe Grady.
In 1947, the Bulletin sold WPEN AM/FM for $800,000 and purchased WCAU AM/FM/TV in order to get innolved with the new field of television. New owners were the Sun Ray Drug Company owned by the three Sylk brothers. In 1950, the station moved to the Art Deco Philco Building at 2212 Walnut Street. The new facility housed five studios and a 250 seat auditorium used by "The 950 Club." (There was also a Sun Ray drug store on the first floor) With strong local personalities presenting the latest music in live broadcasts, WPEN dominated the ratings while remaining a mostly non-rock station. As the 1960s approached, and rock music exploded on stations like WIBG and later WFIL, ratings for WPEN began a slow decline.
A popular WPEN personality in the late 1950s was Al Raymond, known as "Pancho the Man in the Black Sombrero" who hosted the "Mambo Dance Party" from 1954-1957. In the mid 1960s, Frank Ford hosted an interview style show in a small restaurant called the William Penn Room set up on the first floor of the station. Anyone could walk in off the street and see stars such as Frank Zappa, Jerry Lewis, and Phyllis Diller.
In 1969, Martin Field bought the WPEN stations from the Sylks with an ambitious plan to challenge MOR powerhouse WIP. An extensive promotional campaign was launched, and some WIP personnel were lured to WPEN. A two page "confessional" style advertsiement for WPEN in a 1969 issue of Philadelphia Magazine read in part:
"The power and the gory [sic] of radio station WPEN is well known to most Philadelphians. It always had a great dial position and a strong signal. It once was king of Philadelphia Radio. But like Jack, it tumbled down hill and broke its crown. And its impact on this market diminished..."
"Martin Field knew enough to know enough that he didn't know enough about running a radio station. So he brought in people who did. Two of the best people in the business: Harvey Glassock and Alan Holten..."
"It's a matter of believing. WPEN believes in itself again. You'll see."
Listener response was poor and the attempt proved unsuccessful. The station was put up for sale, but there were no interested buyers. As a result, the station remained under the radar for years, even turning off the transmitter at midnight during some periods to save money. One small highlight occurred in 1972 when the WPEN studios at 2212 Walnut street were featured in the Jack Nicholson movie King of Marvin Gardens.
Greater Media Radio acquired WPEN AM/FM in 1975 for $4.3 million and promptly took the station off the air on January 6 for much needed technical upgrades. According to General Manager Larry Wexler, "56 days and $250,000 later," the station returned to the air as "Oldies 95PEN" with an inauguration ceremony featuring then Mayor Frank Rizzo who introduced the first song, "Those Oldies But Goodies" by Little Caesar and the Romans. Jocks at this time included Mike St. John, Loren Owens, Paul Cassidy, and Bobby "Dashboard" Dark. Most of the songs in the new format were rock hits through 1963, but eventually, some newer songs were added until the playlist resembled more of an adult contemporary mix by the late 1970s. In 1978, WPEN studios (along with sister station WMGK) moved to #1 Bala Cynwyd Plaza (now known as 1 Bala Plaza) in Bala Cynwyd, PA.
Adult Standards era
On Labor Day weekend in 1979, WPEN began a gradual changeover to an adult standards format under the direction of programmers Julian Breen and Dean Tyler. The station was known as 950 WPEN "The Station of the Stars" featuring standards from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with some soft pop hits from the 1960s and 1970s mixed in. (Think Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Neil Diamond...) The oldies airstaff remained, and over the years many local radio legends passed through, such as Ken Garland, Bill Webber, Dick Clayton, Bill Wright, Sr, Tom Moran, Kim Martin, Joe Grady and Ed Hurst. New versions of the 950 Club and Steel Pier Show were produced. For many years in the 1980s and early 1990s, WPEN was the top rated station of its type anywhere, and one of the last successful Philadelphia music stations on AM. In 1989, WPEN began broadcasting in AM stereo using the Motorola C-QUAM system.
In the late 1990s WPEN began airing paid infomercials on the weekend. Since the older demographic of the station was becoming increasingly difficult to sell, revenue from such informercials was necessary for continued profitability. Around 2001, more 1950s and 1960s rock music was added to the playlist, although the focus remained on standards. WPEN was the flagship Phillies station for the 2002 through 2004 seasons, but returned to the more powerful signal of WPHT to satisfy listeners in the far suburbs who had difficulty receiving the weaker WPEN signal. AM Stereo was discontinued in early 2004 when WPEN began broadcasting IBOC digital radio.
From August 1987 until October 1992, Ken Garland was the morning show host on WPEN. Also joining him was his wife and WPEN News Director Elaine Soncini. Garland Announced on the air that he was suffering from Lukemia on October 12, 1992. He died that December and was replaced on the air by Jerry Stevens. Elaine Soncini took on an expanded role in the new show. In 1998, former station manager Dean Tyler took over the hosting duties, still shared with Soncini. Dean Tyler and Elaine Soncini surprised listeners on November 20, 2000 with their announcement that they were both retiring from radio effective December 1. Andy Kortman eventually took over the morning spot.
Return to Oldies
On August 30, 2004, WPEN dropped the Adult Standards format in favor of golden oldies under the name "Oldies 950" with the first song being "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & The Comets. Jocks in this new format included Charlie Bennett in the morning, Jim Nettleton and Christy Springfield from WOGL, Kim Martin, and Jerry Blavat from noon to one. Initially the focus was on pre-1964 oldies, but by the end of 2004, more late 1960s songs and Philadelphia-based soul hits were added.
In August 2005, WPEN announced that they would be switching to a sports talk format, which became effective on October 3, 2005. In 2007, the station started calling itself "Sports Radio 950" and in 2008 was renamed "950 ESPN Philadelphia."
Sale to Family Radio
Greater Media sold WPEN to Family Radio, which had previously owned 106.9 FM until 2012. On December 21, 2012, after 83 years, the WPEN calls disappeared from the Philadelphia AM band when 950 returned to the air as religious station WKDN. In February 2013, WKDN turned off their IBOC digital audio.
WPEN website, retrieved 2/12/2005
Jan Lowry, "WPEN Profile", Broadcast Pro-File
Alan Boris, "Good Morning Rittenhouse! A Short Story of Broadcasting From The Square", Rittenhouse Sq. Revue, Aug, 2007