Jack Murphy’s Law
Breaking the rules is the former radio personality’s rule of success
By Billy Eye
“Radio is theater of the mind; television is theater of the mindless.”
— Steve Allen
I recently relished an opportunity to catch up with Jack Murphy, whose highly rated radio program Murphy in the Morning aired over 107.5 WKZL for two decades.
Before landing in Greensboro in 1992, Murphy had been bouncing around the dial with gigs on Q106 in San Diego, Y94 in Dallas, and Z100 in New York. All larger markets than ours but, “I had children and decided I wanted to settle down somewhere,” Murphy tells me. “When you’re going into a new market and you’re dead last or in the bottom tier of the radio stations, which I often was, I was considered a turnaround specialist until I got to Greensboro.”
Early on at WKZL, Murphy hired a tall, skinny kid named Chris Kelly who was attending Appalachian State. “I always tried to surround myself with the most talented people I could find,” Murphy says. “I talked to him for just a few minutes and realized very quickly he was a lot smarter and brighter than I was. More creative.” He also promoted a young lady named Terri Knight who was an underused newsreader. “The three of us made pretty good team. I think we went to No. 1 the very first [ratings] book we had.”
Murphy faced some stiff competition from broadcasters he admired. “He was kind of on the tail end of his career but Jack Armstrong was one of the greatest Top 40 jocks that ever lived,” he says. “Big Paul and Aunt Eloise were, I thought, a monster show; we battled them all the time for ratings.”
There’s a huge difference between being a deejay and a morning personality as Murphy explains: “I always felt like the more personal life you can share, the more you revealed, the more successful you could be as long as it was interesting or funny. A lot of people are very reluctant to do that.”
Most radio personalities abide by the rule never to talk about your competition on the air. “I always did the opposite,” Murphy says. “I would find out everything I could about my competition, particularly things they didn’t want you to know, and talk about that on the air. Really try to get inside their head and get them off their game. That worked on some people, some people it didn’t.”
Radio was a cutthroat business, maybe still is. “We approached radio and ratings almost like war,” Murphy notes. “The higher the ratings were, the more you got paid. We were really ruthless about it. We would do anything to destroy another station or another show, a lot of that I’m not particularly proud of but a lot of it worked,” he confesses. “If you could make the competition look bad and gain an advantage for your station, we certainly were not above doing it.”
Murphy recalls a prank that was pulled on his operation. “Somebody somehow got into our phone system and changed the outgoing message to a different set of call letters, saying nasty things about our on air personalities.”
I was associated with the show for a few years as Murphy in the Morning’s webmaster beginning in 1995; that’s when Murphy became the second radio personality to hear his voice over the internet. A Chicago morning guy beat us to it by a week. Keep in mind this was before Google, YouTube, Facebook, or even Myspace.
One thing that impressed me about Jack Murphy was his eye for talent and his ability to recognize future trends. “At first we had a fax machine as a way for listeners to communicate with us,” Murphy recalls. “Looking back it’s hard to believe we did that. We were real early with an email address as well.”
Murphy’s influence over Greensboro’s rise and shine continues to this day. Chris Kelly left his program in 1999 to team with Chris Demm for Rock 92’s 2 Guys Named Chris show. Murphy is an admirer. “Chris Demm and Chris Kelly have an awesome show that’s consistently funny.”
Jared Pike and Katie O’Brien Tesh currently host WKZL’s Jared and Katie in the Morning. Both got their start working alongside Jack Murphy. In 2005, “Katie was working in the promotions department setting up tents for remotes, basically. I brought her onto the morning show.” A couple of years later, Jared joined the team. “I think Jared was trying to sell condominiums for Portrait Homes and was working over at GTCC on the radio station there.”
Does he miss those days? “At first I really did,” Murphy admits. “Now I can honestly say no. In all those years, I don’t think I ever slept more that five hours a night. It didn’t take long to get used to sleeping eight or nine hours a night and not getting up at 3:30 in the morning.”
There is one aspect of the job he misses, the philanthropic side. Through his Murphy’s Kids charity, “We were able to raise a lot of money,” Murphy points out. “I think we raised well over a million dollars.” Cash is used for college scholarships, providing Christmas for disadvantaged families and dispatching sick children to Disney World.
Murphy left Triad radio behind in 2012 and, after brief stints in Roanoke and San Diego, walked away from broadcast radio altogether.
“I miss the people of Greensboro, friends I used to play golf with,” Murphy says. “I go back and visit people. Chris Kelly came to my daughter’s wedding; we keep in touch.” Today he resides outside Charlotte to be near his son and daughter and their families.
In a prescient move, Murphy started a voiceover business about 20 years ago, “It did really well and it’s how I make my living now.” His baritone vocals can be heard on station IDs and voice breaks over dozens of radio and TV stations around the country in addition to being the voice of Optima Tax Relief nationwide and Ralph Lauren Polo Blue worldwide. “I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I get to work from home; my dogs are laying here in the studio with me right now. All those people that depended on your ratings every book, I didn’t realize how much stress that put on me. Now, if I want to take a day off, I take a day off. ”
There’s a story about my time with Murphy’s program that I love to tell. At an event in 1998, WKZL’s station manager approached me to say, “Billy, we’ve been talking to our marketing people in Raleigh and they told us the internet is not going to happen. It’s just a passing fad.”
I promised myself to remind him of that one day.
Maybe I just did.
I had an exceedingly brief career as a radio jock in 1987 on WBIG, a country music station. Believe it or not, the station manager who came up with those call letters had no idea there had been a WBIG previously in Greensboro from 1926–1986. Aside from a great morning guy the station was a mess, we weren’t allowed to play the No. 1 song at the time because their research indicated it was a turn-off. “BIG 102” went off the air in 1988 with ratings less than a third of competitor WTQR; that’s when WBIG’s call letters were changed to WJMH, better known as “102 Jamz.” OH
Billy Eye is O.G. — Original Greensboro.