The radio business is not for those to whom planting roots is important. It’s pretty much the norm for on-air personalities to have called multiple towns and cities home.
And then there’s Marilyn Russell.
Russell, who since early 2017 has held down the 5:30-9 a.m. shift on oldies outlet WOGL-FM (98.1), has certainly moved up and down the dial. But the Mayfair native, a twice-divorced mother of a 26-year-old son, has defied industry convention by never working anywhere but her hometown.
A Lincoln High School alum who studied journalism at LaSalle University, Russell started — pretty much by accident — in 1993 at the fondly remembered alt-rock outlet WDRE-FM (now the hip-hop outpost Boom 103.9). She went on to another defunct station, Y-100 (now soulful WRNB-FM, 100.3), where she sidekicked for current morning-drive titans Preston Elliot and Steve Morrison of WMMR-FM (93.3) and subsequently to WXPN-FM (88.5), WMGK-FM (103.9), and BEN-FM (95.7) before landing at OGL. This year marks her 25th anniversary on the local airwaves.
How did you get into radio?
I went to work at an ad agency because I wanted to be a copywriter. But [executives there] constantly said to me, ‘Why aren’t you doing voiceover work?’ I said, ‘Tell me more.’ That singlehandedly changed the track of my career. I went back to school for acting and voiceover — this was 1988 — and I started getting work as a voiceover talent. I did an enormous amount of work for Comcast, who was just coming into the market.
In 1993, a little radio station landed in my neighborhood in Jenkintown. It was WDRE. I went over and said, ‘Do you need anyone to do anything? And they said, ‘Yeah, we need somebody to answer phones in the afternoon, and we need somebody to do [public service announcements].’ That was it. The minute I got there and started working, it felt like that’s where I was supposed to be. My first morning show was in the summer of 1993.
Who did you listen to growing up?
Hy Lit, Harvey Holiday. I used to record Ed Sciaky’s Sunday Night Alternative show on WYSP. And I used to tape Michael Tearson’s Guerilla Theater [on WMMR in the early 1980s].
Did you ever consider leaving town for a gig?
I’ve never had an offer. I did interview in New York once. I thought it would be an incredible experience that would either kill me or make me stronger. But if anyone is reading this in Hawaii or San Diego, I am more than available [laughs].
What’s the best part of being on the radio?
Having a voice and being able to share great stories of positive things happening in our world. We’re surrounded by a lot of negative craziness right now, and I think what helps me is knowing if somebody’s having a bad day, I can maybe put a smile on their face. We’re going to jam together to the music that’s cranked up.
But for me, it’s about the community. I’ve gotten to meet leaders of nonprofits that I never would have known, that have filled my heart with great energy.
You do a lot of celebrity interviews. Favorites?
I got to sit in a room with Liam Neeson, and that wasn’t too shabby. He looked fantastic, smelled even better, and has that beautiful accent, and was really funny. Russell Crowe for me was a big deal because everybody said, ‘He’s so difficult, you’re never going to get him to come around.’ And he was difficult, but I did get him to cheer up. I’m very, very proud of that.
Has your on-air style changed through the years?
No, because I never went to broadcasting school, so I was never that ‘W-OHHHH–G-L!’ girl. I was always just a person who was lucky enough to talk on the radio for work.
What would your “Plan B” have been?
It would be voiceovers and publicity, too. If I wasn’t on air, I’d be on the back end [of radio], doing programming or promotion. I would just avoid sales because they make you dress up. That would be the hard part for me. I always had an aversion to pantyhose; working in a bank was not going to be for me.
Just as print media has been roiled by the digital revolution, so, to a significant degree, has so-called terrestrial radio — after all, thanks to iTunes, Spotify, etc. everyone can now be his or her own personal DJ. Are you optimistic about the future of terrestrial music radio?
I do feel terrestrial radio is very healthy. I do an enormous amount of endorsements, so I know our [advertisers] are reaching their audience. But do you have to add in a social-media component? Yes. So that’s 1.4 million listeners plus a bazillion online people that are also connected to me. I think that’s a win-win.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to the Marilyn Russell on the day she walked into WDRE?
Prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare. It’s so much healthier to know what you’re going to say. Be ready. And say something that’s worth hearing, not just mindless chatter. That’s what I would tell her, because Marilyn Russell was so bad in the beginning.
But in 25 years, I guess I improved.