Legendary WRTI-FM Jazz Music DJ and Musicologist Bob Perkins Retires at End of Black Music Month

PICTURE ABOVE: The legendary “BP with the GM” (Photo courtesy of WRTI-FM)

By Thera Martin

After 58 years of working in radio, Bob Perkins of Philadelphia will lay down his microphone by the end of this month. June is observed nationally as Black Music Month, and so it seems fitting that someone who has worked in radio for nearly six decades — the last 20-plus years playing jazz music — ends his career in June.

“The radio sank into me like a sponge that’s put in water,” Perkins said. “I guess I couldn’t help but love radio, because since I was a kid, radio was really part of my day — every day — growing up in South Philadelphia.”

Looking back on his broadcasting career, Perkins said he had a dual passion – one for anchoring the news, the other for playing jazz greats on the radio.

Black Music Month is synonymous with heritage, he said.

“Music has always been for us African Americans something we can hold on to no matter what, from Africa to anywhere in the Diaspora, around the world, wherever our people live. , music has been that supporting force in good times and bad,” he said. “Music got us through some really tough times.”

Perkins credits his father with being the one who gave him a love of radio.

“I never knew exactly how my father came to love radio so much, but he was an avid radio listener,” Perkins recalled. “Radio started, I think, in 1920 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My father had to listen to the radio from the very beginning. I was told long before I was born that people came to our house when my father had the first crystal radio in the neighborhood. You had to wear headphones to hear the stations you were lucky enough to hear and that would play. It was in the mid-1920s.

“My dad was kind of a genius at running his radio,” Perkins continued. “My mom would let me watch over the weekends and sometimes we would take stations in other states. We used to listen to WGN sometimes in Chicago – it was about 650 miles away. We were listening to WAR in Detroit, which is 800 kilometers away. He had his own antennae that he had drilled into his tabletop radio model. It could pick up stations that no one else I knew could pick up. We were listening to the great John Facenda from Philadelphia and other great broadcasters from other cities. The radio was drilled into my head.

Bob Perkins at home in the WRTI-FM studios. (Photo courtesy of WRTI-FM)

Her father’s illness is what really led radio to become a major part of the Perkins household. Perkins recalled that his father, when he was around 40, had arthritis so bad he could barely walk.

“His salvation was the radio,” Perkins said. “My dad loved having the radio on. We listened to the sunrise radio, all night and until the next morning.

Jazz also captivated Perkins at a young age.

“I lived in the same neighborhood as South Philadelphia’s famous Heath Brothers growing up,” he said. “It was a big family of jazz artists. I think it was thanks to them that my love of jazz music solidified.

It took Perkins a little while to break into radio. He was the youngest child and when his mother fell ill he felt responsible to stay and care for her.

“I couldn’t let Mum Perkins chase the radio,” he said. “But the idea stuck in the back of my mind.”

“To work in radio, I was told I had to go work in the boonies (the boondocks) and fix the mistakes,” Perkins continued. “If I was lucky enough to get a radio gig in the boonies with no experience, I’d be lucky, I was told. It was always in the back of my mind, like a latent dream, that maybe one day I would get into radio.

Eventually, Perkins moved to Detroit at the suggestion of his older brothers who were already living there, having left Philadelphia after World War II, he said.

“They were doing pretty well raising their families,” Perkins said. “Detroit was wide open. At the time, I was selling insurance in North Philadelphia, door-to-door. I had also served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958. Once Mom transitioned, I decided to go, so I packed my bags and left for Detroit. I got a job with a black-owned insurance company, Great Lakes Mutual, in Detroit. I had an insurance license and they said, ‘You’re going to start in a week.’ I walked through the door and was very happy. I [then] looked up and saw a sign that said WGPR-FM. I asked myself: ‘could I be hired for two jobs in one day?’

“I went upstairs to the building where the radio station was and met the general manager,” Perkins continued. “It was a small station. The radio station was owned by the Detroit Black Masons. The general manager told me that one of his advertisers would be leaving in a few days and that I could try his job. I told the general manager about the job offer I had just received from the insurance company, and he replied, “Take the job that comes first.”

“The general manager called me a few days later and offered me the job,” he said. “I went down to the same building and said to the insurance company, ‘I’m here to quit a job I never started.’ As I walked out the door of the insurance company, the man who had offered me a job as an insurance salesman said, “Do you know what they’re going to pay you up there? You can earn 20 times more working here. But I said, ‘I want the radio job.’ It was my radio debut in November 1964.”

Bob Perkins with jazz great McCoy Tyner at the Gershman Y in 2002. (Photo courtesy WRTI-FM)

Perkins remained at this first station for about a year and a half when another opportunity presented itself. He went to work at another black-owned radio station in Detroit, just down the street from WGPR-FM.

“Some of the executives at this station listened to me on WGPR and they liked what they heard,” he said. “They offered me a job and I accepted. I was there for about a year and a half, but I was hungry for radio news, so I needed to move on. I looked around and found a station that wanted a reporter. I walked in and knocked on the door and they said, “We listened to you on WJLB, and we liked your work there, but you don’t know the news.” We’ll put you in there with the news guy and you’ll learn.

“At three different stations, I learned something about radio,” Perkins said. “Once I got some current affairs training, I started swapping stories with the WDAS news team in Philadelphia. In turn, the WDAS journalists reported by radio, in Detroit, what was happening in the city of Philadelphia.

“The management team at WDAS really liked my work and one day they asked me the question, ‘Do you want to go home and work at radio in Philadelphia?’ I said yes,” he said. In September 1969, I started working at WDAS as a journalist. They were very nice at WDAS, and they also allowed me to work in the clear. moon at WHYY-FM. I did a good music program there for twenty years. Every Saturday I was there.

“At the same time, I started writing for the Philadelphia New Observer newspaper owned by Hugo Warren. I wrote for Hugo Warren for 20 years. I had WDAS and WHYY, doing all of those things simultaneously for about 10 years I became the news and editorial director after Jim Clash died at WDAS,” Perkins said. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how to write editorials.’ Baron Taylor said [to me], ‘You take the job and if you mess up, we’ll find someone else.’ I did that for 13 years pretty well.

“In 1988, big changes took place at WDAS, and I was among the first of the old group of employees to be laid off,” he continued. “Believe it or not, I then landed at Power 99. I always felt like they hired me because they wanted to come back to WDAS. I stayed there for about two years, but it really wasn’t a good choice. They had hired me for all the wrong reasons in the first place. It petered out, but I was still at WHYY playing jazz music and loving it. I then made a move to WRTI, which is Temple University’s radio station, as a volunteer DJ playing jazz music. Eventually, they changed their format to jazz and classical music. I got paid, and I’ve been there ever since. It was 25 years ago. »

At the end of this Black Music Month, Bob Perkins will retire at the ripe old age of 88. And what is he talking about doing after that?

“I have to find something else to do,” he said. “I met a lot of good people, a lot of artists, musicians and politicians along the way. I know that I have been very blessed. I think I have some wisdom to impart.

Perkins talked about the evolution of radio.

“Radio has changed dramatically over the years, [particularly] with all the new technologies,” he said. “It seems like our attention spans are so divided in this new age of technology. It’s almost like we’re trying to do too much. The electronics and technology are magnificent. You can touch a button and get any answer to any question you have. But on the other side of the coin, technology can be very dangerous.

“I also don’t think radio announcers are as influential today as they used to be,” Perkins added.

“Remember, I came as a war baby. News was almost like a religion back then. You trusted the reporter you were listening to. We had great advertisers back then. The world didn’t didn’t go that fast. Everything goes so fast these days. I guess with fast food, everything came fast – fast cars, fast thoughts, fast relationships. The world is a lot different than it used to be. was. “

A stroke survivor from three years ago, Perkins is still kicking and spinning, playing some of the best jazz music you’ve ever wanted to hear on WRTI-FM. His show will end on June 30, but he says that won’t be the last his fans hear from him.

Until then, Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m., you can keep listening to his radio show on WRTI, “Jazz with Bob Perkins.”

Ada J. Kenney