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Interviews

Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening

By Published: November 25, 2009


Doing Time in Detroit

AAJ: So, then, what prompted you to move to Detroit in your youth?

BP: After the war, the guys came back to the States, and it was hard to find jobs, so my two brothers and their families moved to Detroit to work in the automotive industry. Detroit was a wide open city in those days. There was zero unemployment, and if you didn't have a job, it was because you didn't want a job. Blue-collar workers were living next to doctors and lawyers and high level professionals, because the auto plants were booming, and people were making money hand-over-fist. So I said, "Boy, this for me!" I was in insurance at the time, and in September of 1964, I went there to live, and I got a job at an insurance company. Now, fortuitously, the firm was located in a big mansion, and the insurance company was on the first floor and a radio station on the second. When I was getting ready to go home that day, I looked up and I saw a sign that said, WGPR-FM, and I said, "Boy, I always wanted to get into radio." I was about 28 years old.

AAJ: So you weren't looking for a radio job, you just got hit with it?

BP: I went to radio school in Philadelphia, but I didn't have any experience. The Philly stations told me to go out into the hinterlands and gain some experience first. So I just dropped it until I saw this radio station sign saying "second floor." I went up there, and the guy said, "I don't want you to go on the air, but I would need you to sit at this console and turn the knobs to bring in all the remotes—they had mobile units in the area. So that was my starting gig—to bring in the remote locations at the assigned times. As fate would have it, I went downstairs and quit a job I never started, to start one upstairs! And the insurance guy said, "Do you realize you can make ten times more money with me than up there?" And I said, "But that's what I really want to do." So that was my start in radio.

AAJ: It's a good lesson for young people—to follow your dream.

BP: It was a dream come true. It didn't matter how much they paid me, as long as I could get involved in radio. I was with my first wife at the time, and she got a good job at the J.L. Hudson department store in Detroit, but I still had to get a job at the Ford Motor plant in order to continue to work in radio at the same time.

AAJ: That's similar to when trombonist J.J. Johnson worked at Boeing doing blueprints when the music business slacked off in the 1950s. So did you get to go on the air in Detroit?

BP: Yes. It was a small station owned by an African-American, a member of the Masons. The station had about 1000 watts. One day, a recording machine broke, and the guy told me to read the material live instead. The manager was impressed and said, "Hey, I didn't know you could speak that well. From now on, you can do more of that." Soon, I got a show playing records, and the rest is history.

AAJ: Was Motown an active force in Detroit at that time?

Motown

BP: Yeah, they were hot. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and so on. And, I could get an interview with the musicians most any time I wanted to. They had a club there called The Twenty Grand, and I did interviews there to put on the air. Later on, when these guys hit it big, it was impossible to get interviews with them!

AAJ: It's interesting that you were doing interviews way back then, because that's one of the special features of your current show in Philly, half a century later! You have a special knack for it, so you bring a lot of color into the music that way. It sounds like you were having a ball in Detroit, so why did you come back to Philadelphia?

BP: It was a great time then, with Motown and all that. And at that time, the DJ could format the music the way he wanted to, so I could play some B.B. King and then some John Coltrane

John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, and then some Motown. It was eclectic. I could do what I wanted. Then, a couple of years later, the Beatles and all the music from the U.K. became popular, the stations started formatting and choosing the music, and they put DJs like myself in a straitjacket.

AAJ: We still hear stories like that, but more in the recording business—where the executives tend to over-control what the musicians do. But on another level, did you have any contact with the jazz scene in Detroit? At that time, Detroit was a jazz beehive.

BP: Yes. I was at that station for about a year-and-a-half. Around the corner, there was another station, also owned by African-Americans, and from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., they played jazz on their FM channel. They heard me on the air and invited me to work for them as their FM Program Director. I'd gather news during the day and do jazz on one of the night shifts. I liked to play jazz, they had a voluminous jazz library, so I came on board—by day, doing news and by night, broadcasting and programming jazz. And I did that for about a year and a half. I became very popular because I had kept up on jazz on my own when my brother went into the service, so I was very good with programming, and everyone liked it.



But I wanted to be more eclectic as a news director, so I took a pay cut to work at another station and worked as a news assistant. Soon, however, I made a connection with radio station WDAS in Philadelphia, and for a while we exchanged information about the two cities. After a time, they invited me to work for them. They gave me a raise and paid my travel expenses, so that's how I got back to Philly in September, 1969. That began a 19-year stay at WDAS as a newsman, and then I went on to become news director. They were one of the few African-American stations to have an editorial director as well, and when the latter became ill, they gave me a dual position as news and editorial director.

AAJ: It sounds as if, in principle, you could have become another Walter Cronkite. But, apparently you stayed away from television.



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