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The Man Behind the Boss

PHILADELPHIA — More than 650 mourners recently gathered at Goldstein’s Funeral Home to say goodbye to an old friend, legendary radio personality Ed Sciaky.

Sciaky, who dropped dead January 30 on a New York street corner at age 55, was more than just a disc jockey. He was as passionate about the music he played as anyone who ever sat behind a microphone, and is credited with helping launch the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, among others.

In one eulogy at the February 1 funeral, former E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg recalled that Springsteen had told him to be nice to Sciaky, because the disc jockey helped put the band on the map. Another onetime band-member, “Sopranos” star Steven Van Zandt, reportedly declared after the DJ’s death: “Ed Sciaky will never die. That is what being legendary is all about.”

Sciaky got into radio in the late 1960s, at a time when station owners discovered that rock music sounded better on FM than it did on AM. Young people were looking for an alternative sound that they didn’t get from the “commercial” AM stations.

Stations like WMMR in Philadelphia (where Sciaky started working in 1970), WNEW in New York, WMMS in Cleveland and KSAN in San Francisco broke new ground by exposing listeners to the music of the day. The disc jockeys mattered. They were required to intimately know the music they played, mainly because they were the ones who selected it.

In the 1970s, Sciaky was as influential a radio personality as there was. Springsteen was not exaggerating when he said in a statement following Sciaky’s death: “Ed Sciaky was the kind of DJ whose passion was the lifeblood for artists like myself. His support for my work brought me to an audience in Philadelphia that has remained one of my strongest to this day. Ed was the DJ as true rock ‘n’ roll fan… the very spirit of the music he loved. He will be greatly missed.”

In the early days, Sciaky was a tireless supporter of Springsteen’s work, and it’s not just legend that Bruce spent a few nights sleeping on Sciaky’s couch after his shows in Philadelphia — it’s fact.

Sciaky moved across town to WIOQ in the late 1970s, where a format was developed for young adults who weren’t too old to rock ‘n’ roll, but were no longer rebellious youths.

By 1986, radio’s evolution involved computerized playlists, which eliminated the need for creative minds like Sciaky‘s. He moved again, to Philadelphia’s classic rock station WYSP. By the mid 1990s, Sciaky was back at WMMR, and then one day in 1998 he was told that his services were no longer needed.

Sciaky was someone who refused to change with the times, which was both good and bad: good because he refused to compromise his principles about what he believed radio could be; bad because he never evolved as the medium did. For the last two years, Sciaky worked at the Philadelphia classic rock station WMGK, hosting a weekly one-hour show, “Sundays with Springsteen.”

Working with Sciaky at WIOQ in the mid-1980s, I quickly learned about one of his other passions: He was our shop steward and a true union activist. He went to bat for anyone and everyone who had problems with management — as everybody in radio does. In part, because of him, I also became a union activist, and subsequently, a shop steward. When I joined the board of the Philadelphia local of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists several years ago, I was reunited with Sciaky and his “other” passion: We’d often talk after board meetings, and he’d lament the dearth of creativity and originality in radio today.

There should always be a place in radio for someone who loved music as much as he did, and who was so skilled and at ease at interviewing rock stars. Sciaky, who is survived by his wife Judy and daughter Monica, was a true advocate for the music and for the working man.

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