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 Friday, Jan. 10, of pneumonia at Chester County Hospital in West Chester.
As an on-air personality and program director in the 1960s through the 1990s, he was a standout in Philadelphia radio history, said disc jockey Michael Tearson, his protégé. “He was certainly one of the top few, as 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 out as a DJ in 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. It 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 rein in what they played. Ratings soared.
“You couldn’t walk into a store in Philly without hearing WMMR on,” said his wife, Ellen Stevens. “The music was just phenomenal.”
“What Jerry did there cannot happen in radio again," said Tearson, who was hired as music director in 1970. “He gave those he put on the air freedom to create, an open challenge to be great.”
Among Mr. Stevens’ hires were the late Ed Sciaky, and Mimi Chen, who is still on the air in Los Angeles.
“He was the guy who hired me into Philly radio at WMMR, thereby giving me the big break into major market radio,” Chen posted online. “Jerry was a maverick, advocating being free-form, being the first on new music and pro-jock by letting us go wild on the air.”
Jonathan Takiff, an early hire at WMMR, said: “Jerry was a true genius at radio programming, talent spotting, and a classy air personality himself. With his liberated policies at WMMR, Jerry made Philadelphia one of the leading markets for breaking and making new talent.”
In 1976, Mr. Stevens created the “Fascinating Rhythm” disco format for WCAU-FM, which became very popular. In 1977, he rejoined WMMR.
In 1985, WPEN-AM hired Mr. Stevens as the overnight DJ and for a daytime show on Saturday called “Something Special." It played old-school radio music from performers such as Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole.
“It was known as a nostalgia show,” his wife said. “He took those and ran with them, and it really picked up the audience ratings.”
“He quickly made it the hippest show on the air as the ‘Night Train’ with the 3 a.m. 'Club Car’ for nightly features,” Tearson said. “His work energized the station to becoming the highest rated of its kind in the country.”
After the death of legendary morning DJ Ken Garland, Mr. Stevens took over the morning drive show for six years ending in 1998. He developed a Wednesday feature called “Jerry’s Kitchen." The station printed up his recipes on WPEN paper and mailed them out to listeners on request.
He retired in 1998. “Jerry was really an amazing influencer, sparking Philadelphians’ love, and knowledge, and support, of 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 not on the air, Mr. Stevens watched TV programs and read about World War II. He golfed and cooked. He had a dry, quick wit. ”He kept me laughing for 35 years,” she said.
Besides his wife, he is survived by stepdaughters Debi Gordon and Dr. Jill Epstein; a grandchild; two nieces; a nephew; and a sister. A brother died earlier.
A noon visitation Saturday, Jan. 18, will be followed by a 1 p.m. life celebration at the Longwood Funeral Home of Matthew Genereux, 913 E. Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square. Burial is private.