(By Art Vuolo) This is not a story about a run-of-the-mill DJ. It’s a look at an extraordinary personality in an era when many feel entertainment on the radio has been obliterated by too much research, too many programmers who like to micro-manage everything, and too many managers who let the complaints of a few dictate how their station sounds. For the most part, that doesn’t happen at SiriusXM satellite radio, but no form of “the wireless” seems to be immune to the vagaries of the industry.
We are talking about Phlash Phelps, host of America’s longest (at six hours) morning show, five days a week on the popular Sixties on 6 Oldies channel. Before landing at the satcaster in 2000, nearly a year before its November 12, 2001 launch, he hopscotched through 17 radio jobs from Charleston, South Carolina to Havre, Montana — one of those stops was at Isle 95 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
This was primarily because his bosses didn’t understand his unique style of radio. When
expert programmers Dave Logan and Lee Abrams were searching for talent to staff their many music channels at XM — mainly a zany, out-of-control DJ similar to those of the 1960s — they received a video of Phelps at WKMZ in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When they saw him, they turned to each other and, in tandem, said, “Oh, my god!” They hadn’t thought anyone like that still existed. He was hired immediately. Phlash’s following has multiplied many times over the 18 years he’s been at the company.
When XM was folded into its onetime competitor, Sirius, in February of 2007, there was a massive trimming of the staff, affecting primarily XM employees based in Washington, DC, Phelps, along with high-energy jock Terry “Motor Mouth” Young, were the only ’60s format survivors. Young exited in 2013, but today, in 2019, the channel is graced with several marquee names like Pat St. John, Shotgun Tom Kelly, and Dave Hoeffel, all of whom do their shows from convenient home studios. Add to this roster of name brands NYC radio legend Cousin Brucie.
Mr. Phelps’ job, which he has chosen to accept, has him commuting 90 minutes each way, each day, due to the high cost of living in or near the District of Columbia. What drives him, other than his car (his last one showed nearly 500,000 miles on the odometer), is his love of travel, which has made him a human road map of the United States. His encyclopedic geographic knowledge of the country makes him relatable to the nationwide
audience he serves. Listeners feel he’s not just a voice on the radio, but a friend with whom they can identify.
His fan club, the Phan Clan, has over 2,500 members, and many notable names — some of whom are no longer with us — took the oath to join, including Donald Trump, Frankie Valli, Leslie Gore, and Dick Clark. It’s all a testament to his popularity. At a time when most radio personalities are being urged to “shut up and play the hits,” Phlash’s listeners tune in primarily for him and his plethora of interesting facts and stories.
We hear a lot about the lost art of storytelling. As most of Talk radio has morphed into non-stop political analysis, it’s refreshing to hear pop culture topics from talents like Big Jay Sorensen, Joey Reynolds, Scott Shannon, and stations like Orlando’s WTKS (Real Radio 104.1) and WKXW (NJ 101.5).
If the concept, on satellite radio, was to make the decade channels sound like the era they represent, the musical spectrum should cover at least a 10-year span, and personalities should be just that: personalities.
At a time when many who are still truly passionate about radio have nowhere else to turn, it’s nice to know that at least SiriusXM is trying to provide music that is no longer available on our favorite terrestrial stations. The bravery of longtime consultant John Sebastian has to be admired as he goes after the misrepresented baby boomer generation with a daring new concept: to reach a demographic who still love radio, have money, and are being completely ignored.
Baltimore native Phlash Phelps can recite the alphabet backwards in 2.5 seconds, had visited every state by the time he was 29, and on his 50th birthday launched a tour of all 50 states! However, most importantly, he appeals to an affluent segment of radio listeners. The hope of his many “phans” is that he is able to provide his unique and entertaining style
of broadcasting for many years to come.
Art Vuolo, Jr., widely known in the industry as “Radio’s Best Friend,” has written radio columns for various newspapers, circulated over 100 million Radio Guides nationally, and maintains the largest archive of radio personalities on video in America.