Hy Lit, Radio Star

Legendary Philadelphia radio personality Hy Lit died Saturday at 73. He had come down with Parkinson’s disease ten years ago but cause of death was complications from knee surgery.

What follows is an appreciation of this larger than life radio star but it is also an understanding of why today’s radio is on the decline and what needs to be done to turn it around.

I’m not saying return to the past. I never say that. I know too well from my experience working with the next generation. But Hy Lit had what the iPod generation still wants in an ironic sort of way.

I first met Hy Lit when I was a teenager barely legal and barely able to drive. He worked for my favorite station growing up – WIBG – known then as “Wibbage” Radio 99. I guess I was always too ambitious for my own skin. I wanted to be in radio. I called him and asked if I could visit him at the station. His answer. Yes.

When I graduated from Temple University I had the good fortune of getting a job at WIBG and being on the same staff with Lit and Joe Niagara, the other radio legend who died a few years ago. Later, I returned as program director.

I remember Hy Lit was every bit the gentleman. A handsome man, the women fell all over him and he was touted as the most handsome dj in the world. Imagine that, my radio friends! He was also connected to the fabric of the city – it’s r&b and soul roots. And when progressive rock came along, he wound up in the middle of that as well.

Hy never met a hot clock he liked. Never really could hit the post in the talk up to the records. Hated the Drake format. He was a personality not a dj like many of the aspiring young djs of my generation. He was famous for his memorable phrases.

“You know Hy, he don’t lie (except now and then between six and ten)”. Personalities in all markets had radio stars like this. Hy Lit was Philly's.

“Choice not chance, go to a Hy Lit dance”. That’s a phrase I found myself using with my USC students recently who must have wondered what the hell I was saying. Choose the best.

Hy made a fortune doing record hops – some nights commuting between two high school gyms (often Catholic High Schools) the way I now commute between Phoenix and LA – except he got rich making his trips. “One dollar for Hyski, one dollar for the Monsignor” as we used to joke.

Hy had his ups and downs. A lot of them. On top. Out of luck. Personal tragedies. An unfortunate lawsuit against CBS' WOGL where he was a fixture for many years. He worked for numerous Philly stations and the CBS PD Scott Walker seemed to coach the best work out of Lit in his later years.

Yes, I was there the day Hyski met Paul Drew at WIBG. Oh my God! You knew that wasn’t going to last. The old school meets the control freak. Lit disappeared again. It was a mercy killing because I worked for Paul Drew and I love him to this day but Hy couldn't do it. He couldn't take the bat phone calls between records and the strict format of the Big 99.

Here’s what I thought immediately after I learned of Lit’s death from my dear friend Joe Benson (listen up, consolidators):

1. He was the first man I ever met who had an entourage. Not like Vincent Chase on HBO’s show “Entourage”. Hy’s entourage included people who loved and served him (and he them). Loretta, the larger than life Italian woman who traveled with him to the studio to make sure he had homemade veal scaloppine. (And all of us ate well). His record hop posse. And unlike today, no one got hurt. No one was shot.

2. Hy loved record people. I have seen too many radio types not like their brethren – we all have a kinship whether we like to admit it or not. He hung with promoters, helped them, loved being around them. Period. We could use a little more of loving the business we're in these days -- and that business, by the way, is still radio and records.

3. Lit loved the artists and knew everyone who was anybody. Proof? When the Beatles made their first U.S. tour they stayed at Hy’s house because they couldn’t find a hotel that would provide them the security they needed. The Beatles and Hyski – what a night that must have been. Today, the stars travel in their circles. The label’s “suits” travel in theirs. And never the twain shall meet. It struck me upon learning of Hy’s death that the radio industry was the record industry for better or worse (and we had plenty of both). Label execs: keep this in mind when you turn on your radio brothers and sisters and try to win a performance tax.

4. Hy Lit loved his audience and they loved him. It was genuine. He knew them. They knew him. Today radio is so sanitized that radio people often forget that their audience consists of real people. It's okay to talk to them and know their names -- as Hy Lit did.

5. The djs of Hy Lit’s day had knowledge of the music they played and an intimacy with the artists that made them credible. It’s the single most important thing the next generation tells me that they miss on radio. And it’s the single most important thing that distinguishes a radio from an iPod. We forget. Today I am reminded.

So, Hy Lit goes to that big “record hop in the sky” as Joe Benson says. He joins legendary ABC/Paramount promotion man Matty “Humdinger” Singer who is no doubt still working Jim Croce and Steely Dan records in heaven --- perhaps he toned down his language up there (perhaps not).

I’m not ready for rock ‘n roll heaven yet (hear me, Lord!) but when that day comes I hope that the consolidators don't get there first and do a merger of heaven with hell to cut expenses. That’s one deal that won’t be accretive to “shareholders”.

I hope guys like Hy Lit, Joe Niagara and your favorite radio “stars” from other eras and other markets are there glad-handing, entertaining and loving everyone.

Isn’t that why they call it heaven?

We could have a little more of heaven on earth if consolidators would let their PDs do radio right.

Again, I am not a proponent for returning to the past. Just a fan of learning from it. A few of my readers protest that I am not realistic when it comes to consolidation. That it’s here to stay and deal with it! Okay, let’s say I accept it.

But if the consolidators ever have a hope of their radio investments meaning as much to the audience as it did in the past, take listen to this advice from my lips to their ears:

1. Love the music and the people who make it (and vice versa to the people who play it). We’re one. We’re brethren. We have the same interests.

2. Hire knowledgeable jocks who know the music and know the artists not blathering gnomes who are unlistenable.

3. Proceed with voice tracking at your own peril. You’ll never be as good as an iPod for pure hit music and you’ll never be as good as personality radio by cutting digital voice tracks on the cheap.

Radio is show business.

Notice the word show comes first. And just as in real life, the business follows.

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