THE SAD NEWS hit hard for those around Chris Stigall. Their sympathy knew no bounds.
"There were so many people who got next to me and said, " 'Good luck, good luck.' They would almost talk . . . like [I was] a terminal cancer patient," recalled Stigall, who mans the morning drive-time shift on WPHT-AM (1210).
Stigall's perfectly healthy. But concerned fans in his native Kansas City, Mo., and here, too, acted "like I was on death's door" when, late last year, he announced he was leaving talk-radio stardom in his hometown to take over the 5:30-9 a.m. slot at 'PHT on the first Monday of 2011, when Michael Smerconish moved to afternoons. "They'd say, 'Ooh boy, you're not from Philly, huh? Good luck there.' " And later, after he arrived here, " 'How you doin'? How you holdin' up?' "
Relaxing with an early-afternoon stogie at Mahogany on Walnut, a Center City cigar bar, the genial, chrome-domed 34-year-old chuckled at the memories. Exhaling a plume of milky smoke, he marveled at how off-base all the well-intentioned hand-wringing turned out to be.
"Everybody said, 'The city's so parochial; they'll never welcome you. You're not from here; you'll never understand,' " Stigall (pronounced sti-GOLL) recalled with a smile. "I have not found that to be remotely the case. As long as you're honest with Philadelphians, they're gonna be great."
The married father of three young children, who lives with them and Christine, his wife of 11 years, in Chester County, is something of an anomaly in the radio business. The norm is moving "from town to town, up and down the dial," as the theme song from the late-'70s TV comedy "WKRP in Cincinnati" puts it. As a matter of fact, Philly is the first place he's worked in radio outside his hometown.
"A radio geek" from childhood, he explained that, as a kid, he was particularly captivated by a Kansas City shock jock named Randy Miller. That came into play before his senior year of high school when he was featured on the local Fox affiliate's TV newscast in a series profiling noteworthy local young people. He had successfully competed on a national level in public speaking.
At one point in the interview, he was asked about his career goals. "I said I was a huge fan of Randy Miller's and would love to do a show like his someday," said Stigall. "And, by chance, Randy was watching that broadcast. The next morning, I was lying in bed listening to him - I remember this vividly. He said, 'Call me, call me now!'
"So I call in to the show and he said: 'Do you want to guest-host for me? I'm taking vacation on the Fourth of July. You come in . . . and you do my show.' "
The teenager didn't have to be asked twice. Joining Miller's co-host, he did the shift, reading copy, introducing records and even interviewing a then-unknown country singer named Kenny Chesney, who dropped by the studio to hype a local gig.
Miller was so impressed that Stigall spent summers through his senior year at Northwest Missouri State University working for the DJ as a writer-producer. While Stigall was still in college, Miller offered him a full-time producer's job. Stigall would have gladly left school, but his father, Steve, put the kibosh on those plans, insisting that Chris get his degree.
Stigall honored his dad's wishes, but the radio dream never faded. Unfortunately, when he graduated there were no on-air jobs in Kansas City, so he took a TV sales position at the local NBC outlet. Just before he was to start, though, Steve Stigall suffered what was believed to be a heart attack (it wasn't).
At one point, father and son had a heart-to-heart talk about Chris's future. "[He] gives me this sort of 'Win One for the Gipper' speech about, 'Don't give up on it. If you want to do radio, don't go into sales. Do what you want to do,' " remembered Stigall. "I passed on the sales job and literally, within a few weeks, I got the opportunity to do overnights [on radio]. I thank my dad . . . for encouraging me to hang tough."
The overnight radio gig led to his first morning drive-time position, on a classic-rock outlet. He did a "Morning Zoo"-style show filled with comedy bits and "zany" stunts. Stigall had achieved his professional dream while still in his 20s.
"What I wanted to be was funny," he said. "I wanted to get into music radio and be the wacky FM guy. I liked the shock-jock stuff, I liked the crazy stunts and the contests and the bits. It was always a lot of fun writing comedy."
But once again, fate intervened.
The 9/11 factor
Sept. 11, 2001, began as just another day for Stigall, as it did for most of us. But by the time he concluded his air shift, hijacked airplanes had hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Nothing would ever be the same.
"I'm on a classic-rock radio station trying to be the wacky, irreverent FM guy, and all that had to stop because you couldn't be wacky," he recalled.
"We had meetings every day to try to figure out how to be entertaining in that environment. Nobody knew if they ever could be again, or whether it would be appropriate again. And I started to have real feelings - 'I have things to say about this. I'm frustrated, I'm angry, I'm scared. I want to know how this happened, why this happened.'
"I became more curious and wanted to speak more freely and do more editorial comment, and my bosses just hated it. They said, 'Shut up and keep playing music.' And I just kept saying, 'No. I don't wanna shut up. I have things to say.' "
By early 2002, Stigall was out of a job, though he soon found work at another rock-format station in Kansas City owned by Union Broadcasting, which also operated a news-talk outlet. "The same thing happened," Stigall continued. "I kept doing political commentary. My bosses there said, 'You gotta stop talking so much.' I couldn't stop talking."
But rather than can him, Stigall's new bosses suggested he try talk radio. That put Stigall on the road to talk-radio stardom. Appearing on a weak-signaled station he described as a "pea shooter," he found his voice and grew an audience. In 2006, he was hired to do mornings on KCMO, one of Kansas City's broadcasting powerhouses.
Right on, and on
There was never any question where Stigall would stake out his philosophical turf. But, he suggested, his allegiance then, as it is now, was more with conservative thought than it was with the Republican Party.
"I always liked the idea of being a Republican," he said. "My family was, but I didn't really know what that meant and never really thought a lot about it. I knew more about it as a caricature of Alex P. Keaton [Michael J. Fox's character] on 'Family Ties.' I always thought that was sort of funny and sort of interesting, but I didn't really know why, or think about it."
While Stigall's on-air style is not nearly as abrasive, dogmatic or vitriolic as those of right-wing-radio standard-bearers such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, there is no questioning his conservative bona fides. He shares the right's distrust and undisguised contempt for President Obama and what conservatives like to call the president's "liberal agenda."
Stigall is also in step with the right's social positions. He is a staunch pro-lifer, which has led him to question where some of his fellow GOPers stand.
"Honestly, I can't say anymore I'm as confidently a Republican as I am confidently a conservative," he offered. "I spend a lot of time on my show talking about what it means to be a principled person whatever your beliefs may be, versus strictly Republican. I think there are a lot of Republicans that don't identify with me and my personal beliefs at all."
He finds this especially true in the liberal-leaning Delaware Valley. "I learned when I got out here that being a social conservative is not always welcome," he lamented.
"That's not to say there's not a great contingency of social conservatives here, but I'd always heard . . . the Northeast Republicans were often fiscal, but most often not social, conservatives. And now I've been to a few cocktail parties, been to a few dinners with some Northeastern Republicans, established people who folks know in this region, who will tell you they're embarrassed by social conservatives.
"They don't like talking about abortion; they don't think it has any place. It's not that it's something I beat my fists about, but I still believe in [opposing] it. And I think there's room for [that position]. And that's the thing. There are a lot of Republicans right now [for whom] you can be conservative, but only to a line. And then you become embarrassing."
'Necessary gift of gab'
Stigall's staunch conservatism and humorous, cordial style worked in Kansas City, where he established himself as the market's leading talk host. One fan posted this about Stigall:
"It took me some time to warm up to Chris, but he grows on you. He has the necessary gift of gab to make listeners feel comfortable; his selection of topics adds important variety to the normal political grist; and he has a moral base from which to venture out into the political arena which gives him ethical gravitas - something sadly lacking in the mainstream press and intelligentsia [sic]."
Last year, WPHT management decided to dump syndicated hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity in favor of a more locally focused talk format. Nighttime talker Dom Giordano replaced Beck from 9 a.m. to noon, and Smerconish took Hannity's time slot. That left the crucial morning-drive post vacant.
According to the man who brought him to town, Stigall quickly separated himself from the pack of potential hires. Marc Rayfield is senior vice president and market manager for this region's five CBS-owned radio stations (WPHT, WIP-AM, KYW-AM, WYSP-FM and WOGL-FM) and oversees WPHT's operations. He wrote in an email:
"We determined that of the interesting local choices, none were willing to commit the time necessary to be successful. The best talk show hosts do not simply crack the [mic] for three hours and be No. 1. They invest an equal amount of time in show prep.
"As [we] began our due diligence for hosts outside the market, all roads led to Kansas City. Many programmers we spoke to said that there was this guy named Stigall who was intelligent, entertaining, hardworking and adaptable."
'PHT brass listened to him online and took note of his fill-in work for Lou Dobbs on radio broadcasts on loudobbs.com. Then they called Stigall's agent.
"He was the best of at least two dozen we listened to from around the U.S. Chris has exceeded our expectations and has been warmly received by the city," Rayfield wrote. He noted that in the spring Arbitron ratings, his first in his new post, Stigall was up 20 percent in the all-important age 25-54 demographic over Smerconish's numbers when he had that slot.
The jury may still be out on what Philadelphia ultimately thinks of Chris Stigall, but he has already made up his mind about Philadelphia.
"The thing I found quickly was that this city is so unfairly cast as rough, inhospitable, uninhabitable, dirty, mean, surly . . . and we're seeing it play out with this 'flash mob' business," he complained. "It's a shame. It's a tragedy that Philadelphia is painted nationally as some sort of Third World country sometimes. It's absolutely unfair. If ever there was something I hope I could help make a dent in while I'm here - and I hope that's for a very long time - it's that.
"One of first things management at 'PHT said to me was, 'If you choose to be, you can be here for a very long time and be happy.' I have every reason to believe that's so."