Monday, March 30, 2020


(Photo: Scranton Tribune 

Word came today that Jerry Heller, the broadcast voice of WARM News on The Mighty 590 from 1969 to 2003 passed away. Heller had been in ill health for a while and it goes without saying that he as well his family and friends will be in our thoughts and prayers. 
Heller first came on the WARMland scene suddenly replacing Jack Doniger who exited the station in 1969. Doniger who was a foil for Harry West on his morning show left around the same time Harry did. Heller came on board and immediately made an impact with his straight forward reporting and on air delivery. While his predecessor was a tad bombastic with a deep voice (sometimes being echoed in the WARM format at the time) Heller brought a Midwest, articulate presence that was both aspirational and soothing to WARM listeners. High school teachers I had used Heller as an example of how to speak, how to send a message with concise verbs and nouns. 

I first met Heller in person when I was interning at various stations when I was getting my degree from King’s College in Communications and Government. To gain the degree from King’s I had to go to radio and TV stations. When I was assigned to WARM Radio for the first 3 weeks, I was ecstatic. It was winter and the weather was cold and miserable. Heller greeted me with a warm extended handshake and asked me what I thought of WARM News. I told him I loved it. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Not many kids your age like news” and I told him that I was a political news junkie since I was 10. He then asked me if I thought a Communications degree was actually needed for someone aspiring in broadcasting. I mentioned to him that this was part of my other major and was offered to me because of my interest in radio. I told him I figured two degrees were better than one! But he said, “You didn’t answer the question. Do you feel a person can succeed without a college degree in this field?” I answered “Absolutely. Look at some of the great radio people of our time. You didn’t need a degree to understand the complexities of World War II if you were a foreign correspondent like Walter Cronkite or Charles Collingswood. You didn’t need a degree to ask the who, what, when where and how questions. You didn’t need a degree if you had a great set of pipes”. I mentioned my own cousin who was at that time working in Pittsburgh radio and told him I wasn’t sure he had a degree but knew he was in a top market in the state. He nodded and said, “I’m sending you out for a week with my two best reporters, Kitch Loftus and Kevin Jordan. Talk to me on Wednesday again. 

So on a Monday and a Tuesday I went with Kitch Loftus to various news stories. One was with the late Mayor Walter Lisman’s news conference in City Hall in Wilkes-Barre. Now as an employee of that institution, I pass the downstairs anteroom where the reporters used to gather to await the pronouncements from the Mayor. Most of the stories were about the re-building of Wilkes Barre after the Flood of ’72. Wednesday Jerry was out an appointment so I went to Scranton with the late Kevin Jordan and covered things going on at Scranton City Hall. 
On Thursday morning I met up with Heller who was a little annoyed with me. “So Kitch and Kevin tell me you work at WVIA FM and are on the college radio station?” I answered, “Yes”. “Why the heck didn’t you tell me that?” I mentioned that I was there to learn and didn’t want to over step any bounds. He said, “Boundaries in broadcasting? You’re kidding me right?” 
He then reached into a cabinet near his desk and pulled out a cassette recorder. Then a pair of alligator clippers (they were used to take the bottom of the phone that you spoke into. You took the mouthpiece off and clipped them into the hooks and sent your sound in from the recorder.) putting them on the desk. He then said, “Forty Fort is having a meeting about their Airport paving at 11am and then I need someone to get sound on how people around here are coping with the winter weather and the potholes. Send it in and we’ll see if we can use it if it’s any good”. Anything else I remember asking? “No just go” he said. 

I took the recorder, jumped in my Nova and I was free labor for WARM First News First. Heller used every one of my reports and sound. He critiqued my delivery (I never personally got on the air with any of them) but he did use my sound. I understand later that he told my instructor to give me an A minus for my effort. The Chairman of the Department, Father Corcoran  asked him why it wasn’t a full blown  A. Heller responded, “He should have told me he knew something about broadcasting. I could’ve used him earlier”. 

Here’s what’s significant about this interaction. At the time Heller had what I consider to be the crown jewels of radio broadcasting in his news stable. Along with Loftus and Jordan were Ray MaGuire, Terry McNulty, Ken Curtis,Rick Herold, Bob Crawford, Andy Palumbo, Ruth Miller, Paul Degnan, Mark Thomas  and a few others I can’t remember. WARM had news 24 hours a day back then. The newscasts were expanded on the hour. Kitch Loftus told me, “You can set your watch by WARM news. If you needed to get on the road to work by 7;15, when the 7am newscast was over at 7:10, you knew you had 5 minutes left to get out pf the house and started.”. Heller was the leader of that team. WARM covered everything. But for him, everything wasn't enough. If an intern from King’s could give him more diverse sound, then he was thrilled. Heller also wanted you to get three or four different takes of the same voice over because he didn’t want to have you listen to the same sound bites every hour. 

To some not  familiar with radio of that era this might be a stretch. But I felt Heller was like a conductor  of an orchestra who every day wrote and performed a symphony of news. Plus, he made you better. Made you work better. Heller was the guy who orchestrated the news broadcasts that now sadly are only a distant memory. 

Through the years after he and others were let go at WARM, I’d run into him and he’d be cordial. But we never talked much about WARM News.  It wasn't because he wasn't proud of what he did, but because I think we both had the realization that all that could be said about those glory WARM News days was that it could never be replicated. That was  due to money, budgets and the way broadcasting had evolved. Jerry and I never wanted to go down that road. But let me say this, if there ever was a local broadcast Hall of Esme, Jerry Heller would be in my top 5 for admission. 

Jerry, I hope where you’re at now, the news is plentiful and the sound is just as melodious and even tempered as your delivery. 
Rest in peace sir!


Unknown said...

Nice tribute David.

Anonymous said...

David, on behalf of my family, thank you for this tribute. It sounds like you got more than an "earful" from him more than once- I know the feeling lol!When it came to the news, he only knew how to do it one way and reading your take on his level of attention to detail, im not surprised. I knew most of the reporters that you mentioned and always, even as a small boy,had the feeling he was well respected by his peers and audience.
What most of WARMland probably doesnt know is that he was an even better father and husband. Up at zero dark thirty every day, i dont recall him ever missing a day of work, missing a little league game, missing a high school swim meet- he just led by example and he was my first hero.
what i find particularly noteworthy in your piece is how you finished with talking about budget, the "biz" of the news and how it evolved from the historic greats-names like murrow, huntley, brinkley, cronkite, paley just to name a few. Dad was cut from the same cloth starting at U of Missouri world renown journalism school. Unfortunately, he had no head for business and quite frankly didnt care. when it came to delivering hard news, he felt you cant put a price tag on something as important as broadcasting the news the right way. Sadly, he became very discouraged when he realized that stockholders and "bottom line" was taking over.
to say that im beyond touched and moved by the outpouring of love and wonderful comments(not the least of which is your piece here) is an extreme understatement.
i dont think ive ever seen the word "legend" used more for a man that wasnt named mickey mantle or stan musial.
thank you David and keep posting about the mighty 590!!

Jeff Heller

John Hancock said...

Nice job David....

Anonymous said...

I'm a little (though not that much) younger than most folks here and was a student and then a co-worker of Jerry's in the late 80's and 90's. While WARM is all sports / all satellite these days, both Frankie and I were each able to do a little tribute to Jerry earlier this week on sister station Magic 93 --- and I posted this to my Facebook page.

As a kid in the 70's, when you heard a siren or an ambulance, people in the neighborhood would say "put WARM on". Seriously, no joke! TV News aired twice a day, but no one had the pulse of NEPA down more than WARM News - all around the clock. By the time I arrived in 1989, WARM was no longer the number one music station, but still far and away the top radio source for news. It was clearly the blueprint for WNEP-TV's news expansion in the 70's. When I moved over from WILK to WARM as a college senior in 1989, I didn't think I was ready or at the station's level. There was a maturity, a level at WARM unmatched down the dial. The epitome of WARM's professionalism was News Director Jerry Heller.

When one of WARM's afternoon talents went on maternity leave, there was an opening for night news. I was a DJ (who did some sports and traffic reporting) but really had no interest in news. Still, I really had enjoyed Jerry's newswriting class in college and when he asked me to cover for a few months, I did. Working in news was exhausting. You had to write two newscasts an hour, deal with breaking stories, reporters phoning in stories and making police calls. Despite all this busy work, there were no computers. You were expected to write (or at least re-write) the local stories and attaching wire copy was frowned upon. Thankfully, I also had typing in high school, but even then it was usually a race. At just four hours a day, I was fried. The newsroom had four electric typewriters, scanners blaring everywhere and (a rarity in radio stations at the time) A TV – which usually didn’t have half the stories we were covering all day.

Jerry would arrive at 5am and write a five minute cast for 5:30 and then many more all morning and into the afternoon. I don’t know how he did it. The man was a machine. He also ran the department (about seven full-time) usually worked six days a week and taught a college newswriting course. In all my years of radio, I know of no one who worked that fast, that hard, that steady. Plus, his delivery was unbeatable. This was the man whose voice I remembered reading my school cancellations growing up. Now, we were having conversations over the control board during commercials on the Harry West Show.

By the early to mid-1990’s, corporate tinkered too much with WARM. There was music, then no music, then show tunes. The news department continued to shine, but some employees who moved on to bigger markets and national networks were not replaced. There was talk of a partnership with one of the area TV stations to cover some of the new holes in news. This was too much for Jerry. This was his baby and he was visibly (and rightfully) upset. At this point I had already been exclusive to Magic for a few years, so while I wasn’t seeing the toll on a daily basis, I couldn’t blame Jerry for taking a post at public TV, though it clearly hurt.

Anonymous said...

One Saturday morning, while wasting a little time between estate sales about ten years ago, I stopped and got a bagel in Kingston. A man walked in the door for a couple of coffees to go. The owner knew him too, “Good Morning Jerry!” He was older and moving slowly. I had to go over and say hello. At first, I was a little nervous if and how he’d respond. He remembered me and in just a few seconds smiled and brightened up. We had a nice chat about family, some co-workers who had passed and how radio had changed so much. Even though it was a relatively brief chat, it made my weekend and I told all my co-workers about it.

I’ve been blessed to have worked with many of the legends of WARM. They were terrific talents with very varied personalities. None was more unsung than the great Jerry Heller. My condolences to his family and friends.

Stan Phillips

Anonymous said...

Both posts above are mine. (Too many characters for one. LOL). Stan