Radio's "Diamond" Jim Nettleton

Another local radio legend has died -- Jim Nettleton, who acquired the name "Diamond" Jim during his days in Philadelphia, succumbed to lung cancer three weeks after being diagnosed.

Nettleton was a gentleman -- a great guy -- who I came to know when I was in college. By luck, I wound up at WFIL in Philadelphia before consultant Mike Joseph came in and introduced what he called "The Pop Explosion".

Joseph was an interesting guy -- secretive, thorough and he had an ear for hiring future young talent. The stable of nobodies who became somebodies included Chuck Browning, Jay Cook, Nettleton, George Michael, Dave Parks and Frank Kingston Smith on the original jock lineup.

Michael, Nettleton and Smith all went on to WABC in New York -- not bad, as if being a big dog at one of the nations most influential top 40 stations wasn't a big enough accomplishment.

I also had the good fortune of working for WFIL's competitor, WIBG -- not once, but twice. Once as program director. In other words, my station had to compete against "Diamond" Jim -- lots of luck.

Here's a guy who had many careers -- most of which were in his adopted home of Philadelphia. Oldies 98 -- WOGL, WPEN, WUSL. You know, as corny as it may sound, the city of Philadelphia once did a PR campaign about Philly being "the city that loves you back". Boy, was that true.

True of its sports stars -- when they are accepted.

True of its media personalities -- once they are convinced these personalities are real and love their adopted city.

I mention all of this as I recollect this great guy, talented jock and passionate lover of radio.

And as I do, I can just imagine many of you out there in the blogosphere saying, "wait, Jerry, the same thing is happening in my hometown". Pittsburgh, Cleveland, LA ... wherever radio people have earned the right to be adored and revered by their local audiences.

Today, the industry suffers from the opposite problem.

Radio talent is alive but consolidators are killing off local radio. You don't have to look any further than the death of another successful personality to illustrate how important personality is to local radio. And how important local radio is to the audience and the industry's well-being.

For those who think that personality means only playing less music, that would be incorrect.

Nettleton came from an era when radio had just about talked itself into oblivion. Bill Drake came along and cleaned up the formatics, but you'll note he didn't wipe out personalities. Drake made them better.

Having been there I can tell you that WFIL and eventually the giant competitor it beat, WIBG were both using Drake formatics -- "More Music".

So, that's not today's problem.

Let me quote Jim in an email to me not too long ago commenting on the sorry state of local radio:

"I'm afraid you're right - there will, one day in the not too far away future, be massive sales of tall towers for conversion to scrap metal. I can't help but wonder if a lot of it is radio's fault for having become fatally boring over the last many years".

And who made it boring?

Certainly not radio talent.

They have had to fight voice tracking (and even do it to keep their jobs). Programming "geniuses" have lately been in love with the big cumes coming in from the People Meter and they are taping their jocks mouths shut. Duh -- listeners like more music, who don't know that (as we say in Philly).

Local radio is all but gone in market after market where if you can find one live personality at a consolidated cluster, you're lucky.

"Diamond" Jim was with me on the future of radio -- the digital edition. He wrote:

"Agree re: internet. That's why I started RadioPhillyStyle nearly 2 years back. Listenership has been great - 34 countries, 90 cities in the US. Hopefully, reports that autos will soon be offering service are true - could be another FM phenomenon as in the 70s".

At the time of his death, Nettleton was helping to do a reincarnation of the "Wibbage" (WIBG) brand on a little dinky AM station in Atlantic City. Hey -- no station is dinky if it is close to our city limits.

The old saying is that you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it.

We're seeing a lot of that now as 60's era top 40 "more music" personalities take on their new gig in the sky.

But the same adage applies to the handful of powerful consolidators who own just about everything in our industry.

They don't appreciate what they acquired until they are now in the process of losing it.

It wasn't towers and transmitters.

It was a different asset.

The talent who traveled the country looking for a radio home they could adopt. This union of broadcast skills with local residence made for a loyal fan base, willing advertising support and a unique position for terrestrial radio.

I will argue that it wasn't the Internet or mobile phones or social networking that killed the radio star. Consolidators and poor managers killed the radio star.

Now that we're actually losing some of radios best, we can appreciate what we had.

Local radio is about personalities who live, work and raise their families among the people they entertain.

Jim Nettleton was one of them.

Will it take an act of God for radio to wake up and appreciate the critical importance of local talent?

Or an act of Congress to restore local radio as a prerequisite for holding a broadcast license.

Nonetheless, the next generation of Jim Nettleton's is being squandered format by format.

So as we pay respect to one of radio's Hall of Famers, let us also renew our appreciation for what successful radio really is -- local personalities.

There can be no better way to remember the life of this great "boss jock" than to rededicate our focus on that which is really important in radio.

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