To thousands of Washingtonians, Jerry Phillips was the unofficial morning guru, the "priest of the airways," who woke them up for six years with his folksy dialogue, daily horoscopes, sing-alongs and gabby exchanges with callers.
They tuned in faithfully each weekday from 6 to 10 a.m. to hear his "Morning Sound" on WHUR radio. It was one of the most popular shows on the station, with a respectable eighth-place rank among 40 local competitors in that time slot, according to Arbitron Ratings Corp., the Nielsen of radio.
The program remained popular despite Phillips' rough-edged and often haphazard broadcast style. Phillips was known for his mispronunciations, bumbled introductions and occasional inaccuracies.
But although "Morning Sound" is still on the air, Phillips' voice, one of the better known ones in the city, has not been heard on the show since Oct. 22. He was fired last week, effective Dec. 8. Notification came in a letter from station manager Robert Taylor that ended a month-long contract dispute between Phillips and WHUR.
The dozens of plaques and citations Phillips has collected over the years for community service and the response to station promotional activities identified with his name attest to his personal popularity. Dismayed at his firing, some of his fans have organized to protest his absence from the air.
A Washington native and one-time seminary student, Phillips, 42, said he "wanted to be a priest or a broadcaster when I was a kid." He built a radio studio in his bedroom when he was 14.
"I felt if I had been an ordained priest I could serve the love of people," he said. Although he found his Jesuit studies too "rough," he considers himself "a goodwill ambassador now, and that's what a priest is. Through the radio, I have touched base with hearts."
His disagreement with WHUR apparently centered around station manager Taylor's proposal to reduce Phillips' role in the show, although Taylor said he suggested "no drastic changes" in the program. Phillips, who had been producing "Morning Sound," would not accept Taylor's proposal to get another producer. He said he agreed with Taylor's idea of adding a co-host, but rejected Taylor's candidate for the job, Tom Pope, who was the "Morning Sound" news announcer and has been host of the show since Phillips went off the air.
Taylor would not give details of WHUR's unhappiness with Phillips' performance, saying only that "there were areas of dissatisfaction with Jerry." He said the station wanted "more substantive input from a news person . . . a person with an understanding of national and international events and what they mean for the local community. Jerry is very good with local events."
Phillips said he prefers to take his cues from people instead of news organizations. "I don't need to go to the wire service to find out what should be the story of the day. I don't need AP and UPI. I listen to my people," he said.
Phillips describes himself as "old-fashioned" and much of his radio commentary as "corny." Every Friday at 7:15 a.m. he played Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," and had callers sing the words: "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's gonna be okay." The song has become his anthem.
His best known promotion is probably the monthly "Breakfast Club." For five years listeners and local politicians met over grits and eggs at the Howard Inn to discuss issues of the day live on WHUR.
"He has always been the person in the media you had complete access to," said Darrell Saabs, a Phillips defender, who runs the Mayor's Youth Leadership Institute and has worked with Phillips on community activities.
"This is what the community thinks of 'Morning Sound,' " Phillips said, pointing to about 60 awards and citations for those activities that line the walls in his den to rebut those who criticize his performance.
"He has never . . . claimed to be a polished radio announcer. He is not a good copy reader. He's an ad-lib man," said Phil Watson, a radio consultant who designed WHUR 11 years ago and hired both Phillips and Taylor. Watson, who is now an executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said he once fired Phillips because of his "looseness on air," but he added that the show "certainly has evolved for the better."
Watson said he does not know the details of Phillips' dispute with WHUR, but he surmised that "Jerry has had a lot of leverage in the past (at WHUR). He could put public service announcements on at his discretion. If he does anything badly, it's not closely scrutinizing public service announcements and information."
"He has pulled people from all corners of the city together," said another supporter and friend, Father Raymond B. Kemp, secretary for parish affairs of the Archdiocese of Washington, who was Phillips' pastor at the former St. Augustine Catholic Church and gave him the nickname "priest of the airways."
Cathy Liggins Hughes, co-owner of WOL radio station and former station manager of WHUR who designed the concept of "Morning Sound," said it has not developed the way she intended. She said the program has not changed enough.
"I've been gone from WHUR for four or five years and the 'Morning Sound' is basically the same way I left it," she said. She added, however, that getting rid of Phillips instead of adding researchers and other support to the show is "like throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
"I don't think anyone really cares that his show isn't slick," said Diane Johnson, a broadcaster for the U.S. Information Agency. "It's the folksiness, the warmth, that makes it seem alive. It's like talking to friends. He has a rapport with the community."
Johnson is among fans who, two months ago, organized a group called "The Community Is Listening," a coalition of about 50 local organizations interested in "forcing media to be responsible to the community."
Meanwhile, the radio announcer is still receiving accolades. On Nov. 13, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice presented him with a community service award.
Yes, Phillips is popular, Taylor said. ". . . In this business, people tend to focus on a personality. They feel if that personality goes that everything goes with that personality. We (WHUR) have no intention of changing. But it's easier for people to identify with a person instead of an institution."
Taylor said none of the "community-oriented segments" will be removed from "Morning Sound."
Phillips said he is talking to other Washington radio stations, seeking to broadcast a program like "Morning Sound" elsewhere on the dial. "What we're fighting is the bourgeoisie of D.C.," Phillips said in summing up his trouble with the station. "The same thing that Marion Barry fought. Both of us have walked with the people in the street, and people have tried to destroy us both."