Wally Phillips, Radio, and Community


Steve Lambert, an editor for The Sun, takes a few moments to reflect on the recent passing of radio legend Wally Phillips and on the sense of community interaction that radio provides:

[…] in his day, Phillips hosted the most popular drive-time radio show on the planet, reaching 1.5 million listeners each morning from his studio in Chicago.

With a wickedly quick wit that belied a disarmingly soft delivery, Phillips embodied the power of radio during the ’60s and ’70s.

Before tape decks, CD players and iPods, radio was it – the soundtrack for a generation of lives on the go, or soon to be there.

I heard Kennedy was shot … on the radio.

I first heard the Beatles … on the radio.

I listened to Ernie Banks’ 500th home run … on the radio.

Lambert goes on to talk about the feeling of being one of a community of listeners that one received when listening to programs like Phillips’ citing the power of the on-air personality to create that feeling. The power of the cult of personality is well know both the industry insiders ad to radio listeners. The characters who provide extreme political commentary, the shock jocks, the old school DJs like Wolfman Jack and more have always mobilized the audience to greater attentiveness and greater interaction.

Lambert delineates the difference between the merely shocking and the inspiring nicely:

When we allowed those familiar voices into our homes, we became part of a community of listeners. The same is true, I suppose, of today’s shouters and shock jocks, but a Rush Limbaugh or a Howard Stern isn’t going to bring together a town and people from all walks of life the way Wally Phillips did when he helped create WGN Radio’s Neediest Kids Fund. Blacks, whites, Democrats, Republicans – they’ve contributed more than $35 million over the years for disadvantaged children in the Chicago area.

Even when it simply entertained us, radio gave us a sense of place.

He acknowledges the rise of many factors that have changed the audio landscape, ranging from national syndication to podcasts. In doing so, he notes that there is a distinct difference in feel when you “know you’re the only one listening,” as on an iPod. The sense of being part of an audience or community rather than simply listening by yourself is one of those indefinable aspects of radio that I feel will eventually ensure its continuity no matter what changes to the delivery mechanism may occur.

Photo courtesy of Sir Mildred Pierce, used according to its Creative Commons license


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