Ken “Spider” Webb smiles as he talks about his routine.
Three nights a week, Webb drives from his home in Wheatley Heights into midtown Manhattan, careful to arrive after 11 p.m. so he can park on the street in front of SiriusXM headquarters. Then he makes himself comfortable in whatever small studio is available and records the spoken parts needed for his six-hour morning show, which airs weekdays on SiriusXM’s Soul Town, Channel 49. It’s a process that takes him about three hours in the middle of the night and one that he could easily do at home in his own studio. But he likes the process.
“I didn’t get the same kick doing it at home,” he says, with a laugh. “I gotta go out. I guess it’s the generation that I come from. I’ll be 77 on March 1, so I’m old. Let me be old.”
So much has changed in the radio business, from the late '60s when Webb started on Sunday mornings on WBAB to the late '70s and early '80s when Webb ruled the airwaves in New York and Long Island on WBLS, which pioneered the "Total Black Experience in Sound" as a radio format, and then on its R&B rival KISS-FM. Millions would listen to him in the mornings, waiting for him to announce the “Color of the Day” so they could pick out their outfits and listening for his stories about their favorite artists or his own family, including his twin sons who he talked about on the air from the day they were born.
But Webb says he was never really sure that people knew who he was. He remembers one night he was hosting a charity event with [former WNBC/4 anchor] Sue Simmons at Carnegie Hall and he learned that Jackie Kennedy was in attendance and he asked a mutual friend if he could be introduced to her. Webb waited backstage for his friend and was shocked when he saw the former first lady.
“She walks right up to me and says, ‘Hi Ken, how are you?’” Webb says, laughing. “Then she asked, ‘How’re those twins doing?’ I said, ‘How did you know I have twins?’ Then she poked me in the stomach and said, ‘You work on the radio, Ken.’ I was finished.”
Though he may not be hobnobbing with the rich and famous as much as he used to, Webb says one thing has remains constant in his life. “I love this business,” he says. “Radio is in my blood.”
And Webb remembers exactly when his love of radio began.
He was 13 years old and he and his friend Danny Robinson were snooping around the house of a new neighbor.
“Where we lived in North Amityville, it was affordable housing for black veterans in the '50s,” Webb says. “We looked in his basement and we saw a guy in front of a microphone and all sorts of crazy antennas. We decided, ‘He’s gotta be a Russian.’ At that time, 1951 or 1952, the big issue was the Rosenbergs and the McCarthy hearings… They got charged with spying and they eventually sentenced them to death and they buried them not too far from us, right out here in Pinelawn.”
They ran and found a police officer to tell him they found a spy.
“How do you know?” the officer asks them.
“We saw him down there with the microphones, tapping out the code,” Webb says.
“So what do you want me to do?” the officer asks.
“Well, we gotta go there and arrest him,” Webb says. “He’s gotta go to jail.”
The officer takes them back to the house of the neighbor, who turns out to be U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Gene Browne, a Tuskegee Airman who was awarded the Purple Heart after his P-51 was shot down over Germany during a dogfight, as he tried to protect American bombers. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war, before returning back to his native New York and settling in North Amityville.
The officer already knew Browne, but the boys didn’t know that. When Browne came to the door, the officer said, “How are you? We’re here looking for Russian spies.”
“I haven’t seen any,” Browne said.
“I think that’s him,” Robinson said.
Browne calls to his wife, “Maggie, have we seen any Russian spies today?”
“No, haven’t seen any today,” she said from the kitchen.
“No, that’s him,” Webb said. “Look at these antennas.”
That was when everything changed for Webb. “Gene took us downstairs into his radio studios and that was it for me,” he says, smiling. “He became my mentor… He gave us our novice class license[amateur radio]. I still know Morse Code in my head. He taught us how to build radios, antennas and receivers and accessories for receivers, transmitters, power supplies. I was at Copiague High School and then I went to Amityville and became the president of the Amateur Radio Club in Amityville. All the other fellas in the club had the means to buy new factory-made equipment and I wanted one. But my father could barely put food on the table. And Gene told my father, ‘Make that kid build it. Don’t let him buy anything factory-made.’ So that’s what I did. I’d go to Gene and he’d show us how to take raw parts and build transmitters.”
All that training didn’t just spark Webb’s love of radio, it gave him the experience to get a job at WBAB — selling advertising time, handling engineering tasks — and the confidence to go on the air. He was doing his show at WBAB one Sunday morning in 1971, when the DJ and WBLS Program Director Frankie Crocker heard him while driving out to The Hamptons in a Rolls-Royce that happened to be equipped with an FM radio, a rarity at the time.
“When BLS was looking for its first morning man, he called me up and said, ‘Come in, I’ve got work for you,’” Webb recalls. “I had just bought the house and I had the children. Frankie thought, ‘Well, nobody listens to FM radio in the morning anyway. So let him be there. He can read. And at least I know he’ll be there every morning because he’s got a family and a house.’ I challenged him on that. I said, ‘I’m going to make people listen to me.’”
And that’s exactly what Webb did.
“I was technically able and very comfortable in the studio,” he says. “But when it came to being a morning man on the air, I only had the people who had come before me and take things from them. But I realized I could make my own presentation. I tried a number of things — black history, this, that and the other.”
Over the years, Webb built a cast of characters for his show, which came to resemble the multi-host, “morning zoo” formats that are still popular today. There were subway reports and updates from Kennedy Airport, along with weather and sports and traffic. There were regular features like “Color of the Day” — an idea inspired by WABC DJ Harry Harrison that Webb tucked away from when he was young. “I lived on Long Island — New York radio? I could never even dream,” he says. “But I thought if I ever got the chance, I would do that.”
The thought came back to him when WBLS was sharing a building on Second Avenue with Monsanto, which made textiles among many other things then.
“They gave me a swatch board and it had 60 or 70 different colors,” Webb says. “So I stood this up in my studio and would call out colors like ‘Gaslight gray.’ It started working. One day I called purple, and I was walking across town after work, and there I saw a black brother walking down the street in his platform shoes and his jheri curl with a purple hat with a purple feather, wearing a darker purple shirt, and a purple suit and he was walking around looking like Sly Stone. I had to sit down on a fire hydrant and laugh.”
Webb liked that “Color of the Day” brought people together. “They felt like they were in the club,” he says. “They were included.”
He was surprised that there was another side to that, though. “I went to a school in Brooklyn and a woman on the staff said, ‘Ken, you should stop calling out the colors. We have girls here in school who do not come to school because they don’t have the color of the day,’” Webb recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I backed off. What would you do if you heard that? It took the feet out from underneath me. I sent a gift back to the school — some cloth and needles and things so they could sew. I got girls. I raised them. I know how they feel.”
Even at the height of his popularity, Webb related everything back to his family — his wife, Theresa, and their seven kids back in Wheatley Heights. And that resonated with his listeners.
“He was a superhero,” says Paul Porter, author of “Blackout: My 40 Years in the Music Business” and program director at The Wire 98.5 FM in Orlando. “Ken was really important to me.”
Porter said that when he was growing up in Jamaica, Queens, it was Webb’s show that taught him the power of radio.
“When I listened to him, my father had been gone 10 years,” says Porter, who became an exec at BET. “He brought back the feeling of family for me. Ken was Thanksgiving dinner every day of the week. He was ‘The Cosby Show’ before that even existed.”
Webb says plenty of radio executives tried to persuade him not to mention his family on the air and to avoid talking about his life on Long Island. “They said, ‘Ken you shouldn’t really talk about your personal life on the air,’” Webb says. “That’s how it was in the '60s. A DJ wouldn’t say he was married. The black DJs on WWRL, they were The Temptations of Radio. You wouldn’t talk about your wives and children… To me, it was natural because it’s the way I grew up. I grew up in a Bible-reading family. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to make up my own way.’ It was a family-oriented show. You could listen with your kids. I had my kids on tracks playing, saying ‘Listen to my Daddy.’ In the '70s, when everything was upside down, I think it was refreshing to hear that, so we did it.”
Porter says that knowing about Webb’s life made his bond with listeners even deeper. “He used to talk about Amityville so much that I felt like I had been there even before I went,” Porter says. “I thought it was cool. I knew his family members’ names. I knew about his twins.”
The day Webb announced the birth of his twins, Keith and Kevin, in 1974 will always stand out for him. Sure, they were a surprise, since these were pre-sonogram days and the X-rays had only shown one mass since one twin was on top of the other. But it was also the one day where Webb went on the air a little drunk.
After the twins were born and they and his wife were asleep, around 2:30 a.m., Webb called his father to let him know what happened. “The doctor says, ‘You can go home and come back later,’ so I go went to my father’s house,” he says, adding that they celebrated with a bit of Chivas Regal. “Then it dawned on me that I still had to go to work.”
He called Crocker and told him about the twins and that he needed the day off.
“Who had the baby?” Crocker asked him.
“My wife had the baby,” Webb said. “What do you mean?”
“Well you didn’t have it,” Crocker told him. “You’re going to work. I’m not coming in. You are.”
“So I came in and to be honest with you, I was a little tipsy,” Webb says, laughing, adding that he realized during a conversation with the subway reporter that they didn’t have names yet. “I said, ‘I don’t even know what to call them. Lefty or Righty? Horse and Carriage? This and That?’ It was obvious that I was twisted.”
The connection that Webb forged with his listeners became contagious. In 1981, his WBLS morning show became the No. 1 show in New York, though what followed was even more impressive.
Because of his success, other stations were interested in wooing him away. “BLS had caught wind that I was looking around,” Webb recalls. “But they said, ‘He’s not going to leave here. He’s loyal.’ I had a cold conversation with a young general manager on loyalty.”
“Can you pay me loyalty?” Webb asked him. “I’m sure you’re here for a salary. Sometimes people don’t want to leave, but they leave because it’s good for their family. You can get me to stay by giving me more money. I can’t pay Sunrise Federal Savings & Loan out there in Suffolk County their $866 a month with loyalty.”
And soon, Webb was on his way to rival WRKS, KISS-FM. “I became The Ping-Pong Jock,” he says, laughing. “I went from Kiss to BLS, whoever would pay me the best money.”
DJs switching stations wasn’t unusual, but it generally came with a cost, as some listeners never make the switch. But Webb was different.
“He was at BLS for so long, he was part of people’s lives,” Porter says. “When he moved (to KISS) people went with him. I don’t think it could happen today with the way radio is. But he had 10 years of equity built up.”
When Webb’s show at KISS became No. 1, that station thought he wouldn’t risk moving again. Well, they were wrong too. BLS won him back and soon there was an ad campaign of “Where’s Ken Webb? Well, he’s back home.”
“It’s a different time,” Porter says. “I wish I could do what Ken Webb did. It was just so thoughtful. He had a lot of great ideas.”
Webb is quick to point out that he still has plenty of ideas that he uses on his Soul Town show .
“I decided that every day I’m going to announce three or four DJs who were on the air in New York City — Frankie Crocker, Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram,” he says, adding that he may bring back “Color of the Day” occasionally.
There is one topic, though, that Webb stays away from on the radio. “I don’t get into politics at all,” he says. “I’m too vicious at it. I had an altercation once about it. It really touched my bones… My father said, ‘Why don’t you get out of the radio station when it comes to politics?’ My father told me to get out and get a basketball team going — The WBLS Sure Shots. We were on-air people and off-air sales people and former college athletes. We raised money. We went into the prisons. We played everywhere. We played games against other radio stations. Kiss and BLS got together and we packed out Madison Square Garden twice. Through that, I became the self-proclaimed community relations director. I can’t deal with politics …. You wouldn’t want to know me if I get going.”
Webb says he still enjoys playing the R&B songs of his early days in radio. “That music is memories,” he says. “The best way I describe it is it reminds you of your first kiss to that special person. It reminds you of that second kiss. It reminds you of your first husband or wife. It may remind you of your next ex.”
When he assembles his show, he does everything he can to spark those memories. “We’re playing music of the '60s and early '70s,” he says. “Well, I know what WABC sounded like. In fact, I want to see if I could put the same echo sound that ABC had. It complements the music that we’re playing and that segment of time … Sometimes I’ll play a song that I forgot. That is the fun.”
And for Webb, being on the radio is still fun — as much fun as it was when he first discovered ham radio more than six decades ago.
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THE JAZZ AGE
Though Ken “Spider” Webb will always treasure R&B classics like Barbara Lewis’ “Hello, Stranger” and The Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer,” he has also always loved jazz.
“My mother and father were musical people,” he says. “They didn’t play, but they liked to listen to music. My mother and I would listen to music and see if we could distinguish the various instruments. Can you separate the violin in this piece here? Or the bass in this piece here? You start that and you begin to appreciate it.”
But Webb’s love of jazz went beyond that. “Jazz, in the days when I grew to appreciate it, you dressed well,” he says. “You had to walk around with your wingtip cordovan shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. You had to be about something. You had to be somebody. You had to be going to school. You had to have a nice car. You couldn’t be like a hood or the girls wouldn’t want to talk to you. You couldn’t get to first base on a bunt.”
It was that love of jazz that made Webb start his own company in 1985 to bring the music around the world with his show “Jazz from the City,” which he still occasionally records and archives on his website, kenwebb.com. “I started a global syndication company from studio in Wheatley Heights,” he says, “At one time, we had 136 stations in United States, Japan, the Philippines.”
“And I don’t want to say it too loud,” he jokes. “But I sold my jazz to the Russians.”
Webb is still involved in the jazz world, as part of the Berks Jazz Fest in Pennsylvania and various festivals around the world, especially in Japan.
“I can’t remember what made me do it,” he says, “other than just going to the jazz clubs and thinking, ‘This should be on the radio.’” — GLENN GAMBOA