Hosts at WDEL and 105.9 want to spark conversations, not fights—and maybe sell some products and services
Let’s talk about talk radio—not the incendiary and politicizing kind, but the Delaware kind.
“We talk about things that affect your life in meaningful ways,” says Rick Jensen, whose show on WDEL (101.7 FM and 1150 AM) in New Castle County has earned him a spot in multiple years on Talkers magazine’s “Heavy Hundred” list of America’s 100 most influential talk-show hosts.
Ditto agenda-setting talk-show host Dan Gaffney, of Delaware 105.9 (WXDE) in Sussex. “On my show, we specialize in news and issues that affect our listeners’ lives and passions,” he says.
Jensen’s show helps spread civic discourse to disparate communities, says Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. “We’re trying to be well-rounded in our marketing,” he says, noting after appearances that he often hears, “Oh, I heard you on Jensen today.”
Gaffney, who calls himself a “traditional conservative,” measures success by the bottom line. “On a very basic level, I sell products and services. Did anyone go to Nicola? Did anyone buy a car from Atlantic?” he says, citing two advertisers. “I’m here to sell soap powder.”
But the future of Delaware talk radio—enlightening conversations among regular folks, community leaders and largely conservative hosts—may be up in the air, after the recent announcement of the $18.5 million sale of Delmarva Broadcasting, which runs a full slate of local talk shows on WDEL and 105.9, to Forever Media.
Going into the deal, Delmarva has nine stations. Forever Media has 51 stations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. Forever lists talk in the format of seven Pennsylvania stations: one in Altoona, two in Johnstown, three in Northwest Pennsylvania and one in State College.
The deal needs Federal Communications Commission approval, which is expected this month, says Chris Carl, WDEL’s director of news and programming. Are new formats being mulled for WDEL and 105.9? Forever and Delmarva executives did not return requests for comment.
The current formats are popular. Nielsen ratings, which eventually translate into revenue, place WDEL-AM seventh and WDEL-FM eighth among 13 stations ranked in the Wilmington market and 105.9 13th among 33 stations ranked in the Salisbury-Ocean City, Maryland, market. Wilmington stations also compete with 35 stations ranked by Nielsen in the Philadelphia market, where WIP (94.1 FM, simulcasting on 610 AM) is No. 1 and The Fanatic (WPEN, 97.5 FM) is No. 16 with their mix of sports and talk.
Sports and talk are popular around the country. Of the baker’s dozen of metro areas with teams in all four major leagues, sports and talk radio are almost always ranked in the top 10, and sometimes No. 1.
In Philadelphia, WIP and The Fan build their listenership with strong personalities like Angelo Cataldi on WIP and Mike Missanelli, who is now on The Fanatic after working for WIP, and increase their reach with CBS and ESPN affiliations. They’re fighting for—and luring—“the same young, male audience,” according to one ad agency.
Nationally, “almost all of the highest-earning voices on America’s airways sound the same,” Forbes wrote in 2015. And that sound is conservative. That’s also largely true for Delaware, with the notable exception of Al Mascitti, who had a WDEL show from 2005 to 2016. No one has stepped into the liberal void left by Mascitti.
Joe Pyne, The Inventor
Talk radio in Delaware began with the legendary Joe Pyne, a Chester, Pennsylvania, native whom the Smithsonian credits for inventing call-in radio in 1949. He brought his abrasive format to Wilmington’s WILM a year later.
Pyne loved to invite people to “go gargle with razor blades.” He presaged a new generation of in-your-face hosts—mostly conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh—who “were a sea change” in the 1980s, says Allan Loudell, a WDEL senior correspondent celebrating his 50th year in radio. “They’ve gotten a bad name for being bombastic conservatives,” he says. “There are bombastic liberals, but fewer of them.”
Loudell was program manager at WILM when it was sold in 2004, and the buyer fired the local staff and went with syndicated content. WDEL, which converted to news-talk in the 1990s, “redoubled” the format, and Loudell joined WDEL in 2005.
Last November Loudell began “Del-AWARE,” 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on WDEL. “We’re experimenting,” he says of the show’s format, which mixes “news of and for Delaware” with live and recorded interviews. “I don’t know of another station in America that’s doing a show like this,” he says.
Carl says Loudell’s show caters to people’s “desire in this era of fake news for information that they can trust, with fact-based reporting,” which often comes from Loudell’s far-flung contacts in the national media.
While weekday hosts, with their distinct personalities and wide-ranging subject matter, garner most of the attention when it comes to Delaware talk radio, the talk format is 24/7 on WDEL and 105.9. “Saturday HotSpot,” 9 a.m. to noon with Frank Gerace on WDEL, includes call-in ads and advice from car expert Ross Wellwood, veterinarian Jim Berg and, in-season, horticulturalist Kathy Palmer. On Saturdays, 105.9 has a local gardening show, and Maryland financial adviser Michael Andersen has a show 6-7 a.m. Saturdays and 9:30-10:30 a.m. Sundays on 105.9. On Sundays both have shows named for local houses of worship.
Segments Turn into Podcasts
The conversations can resonate after the live shows end. Segments are turned into podcasts and highlighted on social media. “The pace is mind-boggling,” Carl says. Plus, both stations are streamed.
The stations air some of the same national weekend shows: “Red Eye Radio,” with Gary McNamara and Eric Harley, is historically for truckers; “The Money Pit,” with Tom Kraeutler and Leslie Segrete; “Into Tomorrow,” with Dave Graveline on personal tech; Cigar Dave, on the “alpha male good life”; and “Talk Radio Countdown Show,” with Doug Stephan on “what America is talking about.”
Dave Ramsey (“common sense life and money tips”) runs 7-10 weeknights on WDEL and 8-10 weeknights on 105.9. WDEL also airs several more national personal finance shows on Saturdays: Clark Howard (“practical ways to save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off,” noon-3 p.m.), the Motley Fool (“leading insight and analysis about stocks,” 3-4 p.m.) and Jill Schlesinger (“economy, markets, investing and anything else with a dollar sign,” 8-10 p.m.).
National talk-show hosts sometimes set America’s agenda —witness Ann Coulter’s reported impact on President Donald Trump over the government shutdown and border wall – but “here in Delaware, ‘live and local’ is much more popular,” Jensen says. “We can post challenging questions to government leaders. Syndicated shows don’t have that [reach] and don’t care.”
Although Jensen says, “what I have provided is merely a platform,” he easily recalls examples of where his callers and his show have generated change, such as campaigns to establish a home for veterans and get rid of “stupid” high school diplomas (his term for a three-tier system).
Admittedly, those examples are from a dozen years ago, but he continues taking on issues today, including a recent three-hour show on the opioid crisis, with Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall Long. “I study policy with our listeners,” says Jensen, whose show runs noon to 3 p.m. weekdays on WDEL. “I live on the libertarian side of the Republican Party,” he says. “With that in mind, I get along with Democrats.”
“Talk radio is the most personal of all mass communication media,” says Jensen, who for more than 10 years has done “Thirsty Thursday,” a weekly show focused on craft brewing. “Behind the mic, you have to be yourself. You can’t fake it. If you do, the listeners will figure it out and not care.”
WDEL and 105.9 “have two different philosophies on spoken-word radio,” Carl says. “We always approach it from a journalistic angle. We judge it more on the conversation. ’XDE measures success on the volume of calls.” For several years, Delmarva simulcast shows hosted by Loudell (“let’s bring the state together with a meeting of minds,” Carl says), Jensen and Susan Monday, but moved away from that after deciding that upstate and downstate interests differ.
Monday, who started her career doing news for WDEL and has been hosting a show at 105.9 since 2012, judges success by her “personal enthusiasm, how I relate to the topic and the quality of the calls.”
“Talk can be very polarizing and vitriolic,” she says. “My aim is for it not to be. I am a registered independent and like to hear from all sides. When done right, without somebody trying to ram down their opinions, it is a great forum to hear others.”
Monday, whose show runs 9 a.m.-noon, has heard her callers. For example, the anti-gun host says working in Sussex has let her understand why people “will fight to the death for their right to own guns.”
Not all hosts are so accommodating. When radio stations around the country want to hire hosts, they advertise for people of particular political persuasions, Monday says, adding, “I find that offensive.”
Gaffney is called “the market’s most recognized and influential radio personality” in his 105.9 profile. He’s been doing his show, 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays, for seven years, when the station went from country music to talk. “I don’t see myself as a teacher and lecturer. I try to engage them eye to eye,” he says.
Like Jensen, Gaffney can recall where he’s made a difference, such as rallying opposition to a statewide property tax. But success calls for featuring the “topics that will press the most buttons,” Gaffney says.
Ed Tyll, a 40-year veteran of talk radio who in 2018 began a 105.9 show (noon-3 p.m. weekdays), is ready to press those buttons. When asked where he lands on the political spectrum, he says “troublemaker.”
“What makes these shows work is the beautiful authenticity, when a listener is fired up,” says Tyll. That energy can be about local issues, but it can also be what people are talking about around the proverbial water cooler. For example, Tyll followed this year’s Oscar awards with a segment on movies that meant the most to listeners.
“The possibilities are endless, once you resonate with your audience,” says Carl, adding that his personal favorite is for “general talk about life.”
Rob Sussman, of 105.9, may exemplify the future of talk radio, due to his age (27) and his choice of topics (one recent show volleyed among transgender Olympic athletes, robot employees, a possible ban of foam containers and Waze’s mapping sobriety checkpoints). “It’s cultural, not political,” he says.
Sussman says he’s “very much on the political right” but claims he’s not trying to change minds. “We’d like to make it a conversation, not just a monologue.”
It’s also a conversation among neighbors. “The concept of expertise is flawed,” he says, referring to the talking heads that overpopulate national media as sources. “There’s value in taking calls from normal people.”
Sussman, whose show runs 3-6 p.m. weekdays, wants to play around with the talk radio form. “We’re reinventing the medium,” he says. “I don’t know what it will be until we get there.”