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May 11, 2023

A look back at longtime Philly radio host John DeBella's rivalry with Howard Stern

The two popular on-air personalities competed for ratings in the 1980s, before things got ugly; DeBella is set to retire from WMGK in June

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John DeBella will retire from his longtime hosting gig with WMGK in June. The radio personality is known for his humor, his philanthropic events and his longtime feud with fellow radio personality Howard Stern.

John DeBella, a prominent voice in Philly radio for over four decades, has officially announced his retirement.

In an open letter shared Thursday, DeBella said that he would be stepping away from his role at 102.9 WMGK, where he hosts "The John DeBella Show" weekdays from 5:30 a.m to 9 a.m., at the end of his contract on June 30. 

"There has been a running joke that started 15 years ago when I was signing what I said was my last contract," DeBella wrote in his announcement. "I’ve signed that last contract 4 more times since then. But it’s time for that joke to end."

Over 48 years on the air, DeBella has become known for his snarky humor and hosting unique local events like the annual Turkey Drop and DeBella DeBall. But perhaps the most-discussed aspect of his lengthy career is his longtime feud with a fellow radio personality: Howard Stern.

DeBella rose to local acclaim in the 1980s as part of WMMR's "The DeBella Travesty" and "The Morning Zoo" radio shows, which featured a collection of bold personalities and offbeat humor. His persona made him a natural rival for Stern, another unconventional radio host on the rise in New York City. 

Soon after the shock jock joined New York's WXRK in 1985, "The Howard Stern Show" became nationally syndicated, premiering in Philly in 1986. At that time, DeBella was on top of the morning ratings in Philadelphia, but the two battled neck and neck for rights to the No. 1 position.

In 1990, Stern's show overtook DeBella's in Philadelphia, and he did not take the win quietly. Instead, he hosted a "funeral" in Rittenhouse Square to commemorate his burying of DeBella in the ratings. Stern used crude humor to mock everything from DeBella's appearance, calling him "Baldy," to his show's falling ratings.

Stern again hosted a celebration in Philly when DeBella and his wife Annette announced their divorce in 1992, referred to as a ″DeBaldy Divorce Party.″ Needless to say, DeBella did not enjoy the celebrations of his misfortunes.

"This is about, you know, me and my wife getting divorced, right, that's our choice, that's a personal thing, right? To celebrate that out on the street is just stupid and low class," DeBella said at the time.

After the divorce, Stern continued the hijinks. He invited Annette onto his show for a "Dial-A-Date" segment, during which she went on a date with a listener, and got jabs in about her ex-husband. Things took a serious turn when Annette died of carbon monoxide poisoning in October of 1992, found dead in her car in the garage of her Bryn Mawr home. 

On the heels of all the drama, DeBella ultimately left WMMR in 1993, briefly shifting to an afternoon radio slot at YSP from 1994 to 2001, before returning to morning radio with his show at WMGK, where he has been for the past 21 years.

While DeBella and Stern allegedly squashed their feud privately, information on Stern's apology was made public in in 2012, when Stern’s current Sirius XM program produced an installment of its “History of Howard Stern” series, inviting DeBella on to the show.

“After that was over and done with, I come home one day and there’s this message on my phone, and it’s Howard,” DeBella said. “And he says, ‘You know what, I can’t thank you enough for being part of this. I could have never done this. You are a bigger man than I could ever be and, looking back, I’m ashamed of what I’ve done. You are one of the strongest human beings I have ever encountered.'”

DeBella, who said he was retiring to spend more time with his family, will remain on the radio until his retirement on June 30.

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