TV and radio personalities pass in and out of this town like it was a revolving door, and there's usually another microphone for them to grab somewhere and a replacement not far behind. But in a contract dispute, WHUR, Howard University Radio, has just fired Jerry Phillips, who made a high-profile mark in Washington's black community, and who is finding no profusion of fists rapping on his door.
Coming down from the clouds is always tough for broadcast personalities when they lose the prestigious Washington audience. The successful ones often have melded their professional lives with their personal lives, hosting and emceeing countless community events in their spare hours. Losing the job, therefore, means losing a large part of their identity.
The black personality has, in a sense, an even greater fall. Demands on blacks in television and radio are great. If they are successful, they become genuine symbols and role models, even heroes and heroines in their community. More than jobs, for many blacks, positions as television anchors and radio hosts become status symbols, leadership roles and sources of personal pride.
Jerry Phillips is taking his medicine with a stiff upper lip. In one breath he says, "If you want to know how a person feels when he's busted . . . you pick up the pieces and you move on. I have no regrets at being fired . . . if I have any bad feelings, it is not getting to my audience." In the next breath, he says, "Coming out of WHUR was a depressing thing for me . . . . The biggest personal adjustment was when it snowed. I felt like a person trying to reach people so they could get to work because that's what I did for six years . . . I feel sad because my audience can't get to me. In fact I feel so sad that I feel like calling the station and saying, give my number over the air so my audience can keep in touch with me."
Jerry Phillips' voice went into thousands of Washington bedrooms every morning. His style was folksy, even corny, but his humanity shone through. His was one of the few voices listened to and enjoyed by the people in the street.
People in many walks of life relied on his "Morning Sound" as their primary source of morning news about community events. He knew intimately the Washington, D.C. that does not serve as the nation's capital -- the city, the people and the neighborhoods that exist beyond the monuments. School kids were a big part of his audience; mothers have been known to call and lovingly correct him when he mispronounced a word.
Some of his fans organized to protest his absence from the air, but did not succeed in affecting Howard's decision. Station manager Robert Taylor laid the blame for his dismissal on a contract dispute between Phillips and WHUR and said the matter was closed. Taylor has been quoted as saying the station wants an emphasis on national and international events and what they mean for the local community.
Phillips is blunt about his predicament: "I was busted, I was fired." He says it means the university is slighting the local community. But during an hour-long interview, he was less certain about what comes next. Even well-known television anchors probably could not capitalize on the popularity and success they've had in Washington if they were fired, and might have to leave the area. It's particularly tough for Phillips since the number of black-oriented stations or those likely to take to his homey appeal are limited. He has part-time work with WOOK starting in January and is talking with WDCU and WOL.
"You have to fall back on those kinds of things," he says. "I have no intention of leaving Washington even if I have to get out of media to inform people and bring some positive thought to people and be a public servant. As a black person, being fired in this city doing what we were doing, there is no place that I can really go . . . but they have only made me fight more for good human spirit . . . . I just don't know where the vehicle will come from."
Unlike higher-paid television anchors, Phillips made $33,000 -- a salary that left little for salting away. Becoming mortal again has saddened Jerry Phillips, but not flattened him. But I know one thing -- a cheerful, corny, caring voice has been stilled, and that's too bad.