Jerry Stevens, 85, of Chadds Ford, a Philadelphia-area broadcasting legend who helped create the sounds of four iconic radio stations over a long career, died on Friday, January 10 of a pneumonia at Chester County Hospital in West Chester.
As an on-air personality and program director from the 1960s through the 1990s, he was a star in Philadelphia radio history, said disc jockey Michael Tearson, his protege. “He was definitely one of the best because he impacted four different radio formats,” Tearson said.
Mr. Stevens, who changed his name from Jerome Salvato to Jerry Stevens to make it more radio-friendly, started as a DJ at Gaum while serving in the Air Force in the mid-1950s.
After working as a DJ in smaller markets, he broke into Philadelphia radio on WIBG, or Wibbage 99, the area’s original rock and roll station. He introduced local teenagers to the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Motown.
In 1968, he was hired as program director of WMMR-FM. He recruited young DJs and gave them free reign in what they were playing. The ratings skyrocketed.
“You couldn’t walk into a store in Philadelphia and not hear WMMR,” said his wife, Ellen Stevens. “The music was just phenomenal.”
“What Jerry did there can’t be done on the radio again,” said Tearson, who was hired as musical director in 1970. “He gave those he put on the air the freedom to create, an open challenge to be awesome.”
Among Mr Stevens’ recruits were the late Ed Sciaky and Mimi Chen, who is still on the air in Los Angeles.
“He was the one who hired me in Philly radio at WMMR, giving me a big break into major market radio,” Chen said online. “Jerry was a maverick, advocating free form, being first on new music and pro-jocking in letting us go wild on the airwaves.”
Jonathan Takiff, one of the first hires at WMMR, said, “Jerry was a true genius at radio programming, talent scouting and a slick aerial personality himself. With his politics liberated at WMMR, Jerry made Philadelphia one of the top markets for breaking into and creating new talent.
In 1976, Mr. Stevens created the “Fascinating Rhythm” disco format for WCAU-FM, which became very popular. In 1977 he joined WMMR.
In 1985, WPEN-AM hired Mr. Stevens as a nighttime DJ and for a Saturday daytime show called “Something Special”. He played old-school radio music from artists such as Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole.
“It was known as a nostalgia show,” his wife said. “He took them and ran with them, and it really boosted the ratings.”
“He quickly made it the hottest show on the air as ‘Night Train’ with the 3 a.m. ‘Club Car’ for nighttime features,” Tearson said. “His work has energized the station to become the highest rated of its kind in the country.”
After the death of legendary morning DJ Ken Garland, Mr Stevens took over the morning show for six years ending in 1998. He developed a Wednesday feature called “Jerry’s Kitchen”. The station printed its recipes on WPEN paper and mailed them. to listeners on request.
He retired in 1998. “Jerry was truly an incredible influencer, sparking love, knowledge and support in Philadelphians for new and emerging music,” Takiff said.
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Stevens went to Catholic school there. He married Diane Tucker. Their son, Robert, died earlier. The couple divorced. She survives.
He married Ellen Stevens in 1989. They lived in Center City before moving to Chadds Ford.
When he was off the air, Mr. Stevens watched television programs and read articles about the Second World War. He played golf and cooked. He had a dry, sharp mind. “He made me laugh for 35 years,” she said.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his stepdaughters Debi Gordon and Dr. Jill Epstein; a grandchild; two nieces; a nephew; and a sister. A brother died earlier.
A visitation at noon on Saturday, January 18 will be followed by a celebration of life at 1 p.m. at the Longwood Funeral Home of Matthew Genereux, 913 E. Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square. The burial is private.
Donations can be sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital via https://www.stjude.org.