Written by: Frank Iacono
Marilyn Russell, a Philadelphia native with nearly 20 years of broadcast experience, has been lucky enough to form incredible relationships with female members of the media, public relations, music industry, the arts, as well as professional businesswomen from all walks of life. Marilyn, formerly of 103.9 WDRE, Y100, and 102.9 WMGK, currently hosts the “Marilyn In The Morning” radio program on 95.7 BEN-FM that airs weekdays from 5 am to 9 am in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Marilyn is well-known and respected for the enormous amounts of charity work she performs in the local community. She is quick to point out that her favorite charity is quite literally near and dear to her heart – The American Heart Association – because she has a heart murmur. She also does a lot of volunteer work for the Women’s Resource Center. For more than 30 years, the Women’s Resource Center has supported women, strengthened families, and built communities through information and referrals, counseling, legal, and education services.
Equally, Marilyn has been honored for hosting the ever-popular thirty-minute public affairs program that profiles and celebrates women in the business and community world alike throughout the Greater Philadelphia area Sunday mornings at 7:30 am on 95.7 BEN-FM called “Woman of the Week”.
In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marilyn Russell and asking her a few questions about her role models growing up, her broadcasting career, her Y100 show with Preston Elliott and Steve Morrison, her 95.7 BEN-FM Morning Show, and her work with “Woman of the Week”.
The Creative Spotlight: Who are your role models and describe for us how they have inspired you both personally and professionally?
Marilyn Russell: My Dad was a big influence on me as he seemed to have the best of both worlds…working man by day to provide for his family, but jazz musician by night. He always made time for his creative outlet as a jazz trumpeter (several instruments actually) and voracious reader. He turned me on to some classics both musical and literary – Mingus, Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie (I’m sure that’s why we lived on Gillespie Street for years) Blakey, Monk along with Twain, Tolkien, Bradbury and Harlan Ellison just to name a few.
TCS: What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize “this is it”?
MR: I certainly took the long way around trying to figure out what I wanted to do professionally, but radio, lucky enough found me. I started in Advertising which led to a voice-over career, which got me hired in radio. Literally a radio station landed 10 minutes from my neighborhood, so I went over to see if they had an job openings and took the first thing they offered, answering phones and voicing public service announcements for 103.9 WDRE in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and if they has asked me to mop up the bathrooms at the end of the day, I would’ve gladly done it. I knew the minute I walked into the station, I’d luckily landed exactly where I belonged.
TCS: Can you share with us your radio broadcasting career?
MR: My radio broadcasting career started at WDRE in ’93 as a receptionist and public service announcer…moved on-air pretty quickly as host of the Local Music Show celebrating the Philly Music Scene (‘94-‘95) then became Assistant Music Director and hosted the Sunday Night new music show. Eventually I earned the title of Music Director reporting directly to the Program Director (PD). That’s when record labels still thrived and PD’s got to make their own decisions (as opposed to be consulted on a regular basis as they are now), so it was a really great time to be in the biz. And, of course, alternative had been launched in ’92 so artists in that genre were thriving.
I connected the dots for the Sonic Sessions at DRE as well, as the recording studio was the sponsor of my local music show and made perfect sense to launch the sessions with them in ‘96. When DRE was sold, the Sessions went to Y100 and so did I, along with PD Jim McGuinn, Host Preston Eliot and Host Bret Hamilton.
I joined Y100 as Promotion Director and worked in that capacity for a year. Luckily another station in the market was interested in hiring me on-air so I accepted that offer, but the force of Y100 and Jim McGuinn was too strong to stay…so back I went to Y100 in 1998, hosting morning with Preston Eliot and Steve Morrison, The Preston, Marilyn & Steve show. I stayed with Y100 until 2003, and then jumped to Greater Media Broadcasting where I’ve been ever since.
The 95.7 BEN FM morning show position opened in 2007 and that’s where I remain. Prior to that I did a shift for 102.9 WMGK, our classic rock station. Funny enough I’m right down the hall now from P&S as we work for the same company, they landed here in 2005. How blessed and lucky am I? Also since 2008, I created and host a Sunday morning show called “Woman of the Week” that throws about 75% of support to non-profits both locally and nationally.
TCS: For those not familiar with your radio show, please describe for us how exciting it must be hosting the 95.7 BEN FM Morning Show every weekday from 5am – 9am?
MR: The 95.7 BEN FM Morning Show is a music-intensive show, so comparatively pretty easy. What’s important here is getting in and out, not super-long talk breaks. We always focus on local news, because we care about what our listeners care about. We also feel that there’s plenty of talk in the market, so if you’d rather hear lots of music we can provide that. Every hour consistently, there’s a sweet giveaway…in 6:00 a.m. hour, it might be passes to Temple Football, or an exhibition at the Franklin Institute…7:00 a.m. hour, maybe gift card or concert tix, 8:00 a.m. hour, we’re in-line with the big station promotion, i.e. this week we’re qualifying listeners to win a trip to Universal Orlando Florida, a trip a day and just text to win…we keep is simple and moving full-speed ahead.
Works for me, because I’m a little ADD…I like to be moving quickly, and love love love social media, so typically I’m doing a lot of things at once. I’m sure it sounds like that many mornings…lack of focus 🙂
TCS: Tell us about the morning show that you co-hosted with Preston Elliott on Y100 here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called Preston & Marilyn?
MR: Everything I learned I learned from Preston and Steve. I was awful until I met and learned from Preston, the most natural radio host I’ve ever seen, EVER! When he came to WDRE back in 95, we became fast-friends and I followed him back to the little basement studio in Abington. He looked around, undaunted by the fact that literally one of the microphones was held up by a DRE sticker and took hold of the reigns…the guy is a natural and I sat back and watched and learned. It still took me years to remember “watch what the hell you say, because people are actually listening” but thanks to Preston I learned effective use of a microphone. And of course, from Steve, one of the funniest guys I know, I learned to add humor, it’s a critical component to success in any field!
My decision to leave the show was a difficult one, one I regretted immediately upon doing so. But I was getting remarried and incorporating a new man into a young man’s (my son) life…it was important to have that transition go as smoothly as possible and I simply had to make the time to get it right! I was burnt out and needed a break…I missed so many of my son’s games, milestones, etc…in a post 9/11 world, I realized what mattered more was family…and that he would more than likely be my only child. When I remarried I tried to make another one, but it didn’t happen (lots of fun trying though)…so I went back to work full time in 2007.
A decision I’ve not regretted ever! Radio is way more work than people realize, but I thrive on that…and love what I do. I never take for granted that I’m of a small percentage of people who actually get paid to do what they love…it’s a gift (alright maybe every now and again, a curse too).
TCS: During your illustrious career, which spans more than two decades, what would you say is your favorite interview that you’ve conducted and why?
MR: Illustrious, maybe too strong a word, but I’m proud of a few career highlights. I did get to interview Hillary Clinton for my “Woman of the Week” show and that was incredibly special.
I have several favorites for different reasons…musically, my favorite would have to be David Bowie, because, well, he’s David f-in Bowie, genius but he was so extraordinarily nice, called me by name and was so gracious with his time I was blown away. Beck was also a favorite because he was basically my first real national artist interview. We sat in his tour bus, outside of one of my favorite venues, the Troc circa ’93 or 4? talking into my little radio-shack mic attached to a tape recorder…oh simpler times with simpler technology. He was young, hip, smart and cool. I remain a life-long fan of his!
Actors and Actresses have been great…Bradley Cooper totally down to earth guy, but my favorite would have to be and remain Russell Crowe. Mostly because it took me 2 years to actually make it happen and I never gave up (yes, I’m from Philly, we don’t ever give up), but because he was really really tough. That challenged me to stay strong and figure out a way to get him to open up a little. He is NOT a fan of the media so it was a real challenge, but one that I learned so much from that it really helped me professionally. Preparing is key, as it being able to bob and weave with every dynamic…you never know which way it’s gonna go and you have to be ready to stay with it, good and bad!
TCS: Tell us about how excited you were to be honored for your weekly “Woman of the Week” feature?
MR: “Woman of the Week” means the world to me. It’s like my second child and I’ve watched it grow from a little blog in 2003…to a full-blown radio show celebrating 6 years of success on-air. In the 5th year milestone last year, I worked hard to have a wonderful speaker and with the help of 6 ABC secured the lovely and talented Katie Couric…it was a proud moment for me.
I showcase and celebrate women here, not because men don’t rock, they totally do and I love them, but because women at the end of the day are always giving from the heart…when the kids don’t feel well, it’s Mom who loses the sleep tending to their needs and then trying to focus the next day with work colleagues…it’s a huge challenge to juggle it all and stay on-point. Life of course is about making sacrifices and anyone that tells you “you can have it all” has I’m convinced never showed up at work the next day with their shirt inside out and maybe even a little stain from last night’s kid vomit on it.
TCS: What’s the biggest on-air blunder you’ve made during your broadcasting career?
MR: OMG, there’s so many of those I’m saving it for the book. It’s live and it’s scary…and I’d like to point out, harder than it seems. The greats like Preston make it seem easy, but it’s work.
Where to begin – one time I thought a story from the Onion was real as read it on-air as such. I screwed up a Star Wars character name on-air once…you never want to piss off fans of Star Wars (and I am one by the way), but they take it very seriously. And then there was that one time I dropped the “F” bomb back in 1998 on Y100…that was f****** awesome!
TCS: Can you describe for us the most interesting promotional contest that you’ve been apart and what made it so exciting?
MR: Oh wow, there have been so many great ones. It was pretty cool taking BEN listeners down to Florida to watch Russell Crowe’s Rugby Team play Jacksonville Axemen. They got to sit in his VIP suite and meet him and a few of his superstar friends that were there…Dennis Rodman 🙂 RZA, etc.
But, have to say when I was at DRE, staff and listeners played Soccer with Robert Smith of the Cure, that was surreal, and taking listeners to NYC for the VH1’s taping of REM for me was insanely special…they’re one of my all-time favorite bands. I could give you a page of special here, again, I’m blessed to be in this business, the places I’ve gotten to see and the people I’ve gotten to meet have all been special in one way or another.
TCS: If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say is your favorite/most challenging aspects about your job?
MR: The one thing I find most challenging about my job…simple – not screwing it up…STAYING IN THE MOMENT…I have A.D.D. and am constantly distracted…typically I’m tweeting, checking messages etc. all the time, so remembering to prioritize is critical…and what’s goes out over the air is priority one!
TCS: What is your favorite music genre and name a few of your favorite bands within that format?
MR: Favorite musical genre – I definitely still love whatever is considered “alternative” these days…but I like ALL music. My Dad provided me with a love of jazz and classical, rock hit me like a brick when I found it…Led Zeppelin moves me still to this day…Nirvana from the 90’s as well. I played Grand Master Flash, right alongside the Clash, Sisters of Mercy, Depeche in College so again, still love all of it.
The only genre I can’t fully embrace, country…although old country is awesome, along with alt country or Americana. I’m too young to have seen the Byrds live back in the day, but I did get to see Roger McGuinn front Wilco one time in New York and that was a religious experience!
TCS: What is the last actual physical album or CD that you’ve purchased? And, what was your favorite track off of it?
MR: The last CD I purchased is Hozier’s “From Eden” and “Take Me To Church” remains my favorite song – powerful stuff.
TCS: What was the last memorable concert event that you’ve attended and what made it so unforgettable?
MR: Last memorable concert I’ve seen? Unfortunately my morning hours don’t permit seeing a lot of live shows these days, however, on Saturday nights I can stay awake a little later, thankfully…some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen have come thru on the weekends. Bands I will and have lost sleep for by going out to see them on a weekend include Ryan Adams, TV on the Radio, and I think I’m about to see a very special show tomorrow night at the Troc as Hozier is in town.
So many shows have surprised and affected me in such positive ways over the years…Top 5 most memorable…Beck (every time I’ve seen him), Radiohead first show at Troc circa 1993-4…I can’t remember what year), Peter Gabriel, every time I’ve ever seen him, Sufjan Stevens, and Prince, which was 10-years ago, but I still talk about how amazing that show was!
TCS: Describe for us how you’ve embraced Social Media to promote your morning show, your career, your public appearances, and yourself?
MR: The perfect tools for anyone with short attention spans and I’ve got one of those.
I don’t remember life before Twitter and can’t imagine it without Twitter…Instagram, Blogs, etc. I use it all and try not to be annoying about it. Twitter is my favorite because that’s about my capacity…140 characters, get it, get out, nobody gets hurt!
I’ve successfully made my point in 4 characters and consider that an achievement…SHIT can be a very powerful word 🙂
Stay connected with Marilyn Russell in the following ways:
TCS: If you had to describe your career in three words what would they be?
MR: Real. Repeat. Compete.
TCS: If you weren’t a radio personality, what would you most like to do?
MR: If I weren’t’ a radio personality, I’d be running a non-profit…giving back to the community is everything!
TCS: Do you have any advice for those thinking about pursuing a career in broadcasting?
Broadcasting is changing every day…terrestrial radio will be here, but will look and feel very different in 5 years or so. Next generation has so many opportunities with the new mediums, learn them and use them. If I was just starting out now, I would have a podcast immediately, and do video documentation daily…I’ve already given a speech that I culled entirely from tweets. I would say don’t try to learn it as it is now, but look for the next trend and own it, like Facebook did 10-years ago.
Whatever you choose, make a commitment to it…and go big or go home.
About Frank Iacono
Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.
Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.