Celebrating 30 Years On The Air! WRTI's Sousalarm Marches On...

Nov 7, 2019

Listeners who tune in at 7:15 AM weekday mornings with host Gregg Whiteside know what the Sousalarm is, and have made it an enduring—and endearing—feature on WRTI.

A daily march, most often by John Philip Sousa, has been part of our lives since 1989. So we’re celebrating its 30th anniversary!

What started as a wake-up call and a nod to musical tradition has become a way to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and more in the WRTI community of music lovers!

Dave Conant originated the Sousalarm in 1989.
Credit Credit: Gary Horn

It all began in 1989 when classical music station WFLN’s owner Woody Tanger directed then WFLN Morning Host Dave Conant to program a daily march, which would be sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee. “I figured, well, let’s turn it into a wake-up call,” remembers Dave. “So I picked 7:15.”

And why Sousa? “I figured Sousa was America’s Band King. He made all the great marches.”

And the name that brings a smile? (“Sousalarm” is so Dave!) He remembers ruminating “ .. an alarm clock, a march alarm, a Sousa alarm is too big, so I just made it “Sousalarm.”

Sousa even had some Philadelphia area connections. Born in Washington DC in 1854, he died in Reading in 1932. In his teens he played in the Marine Band, which he later led for 12 years. In 1892, he formed the Sousa Band, which he led for decades in tours around the world and at home, including an annual stop at Willow Grove Park outside of Philadelphia.

Members of the Allentown Band, many of whose past members played with Sousa, still wear the uniform Sousa wore when, late in life, he joined the Navy and was made a lieutenant.  Check out the WRTI Story on the Allentown Band.

The Sousalarm became one more tribute to a musician who had influenced so many!

Sousalarm listeners who sent in their requests (first by cards and letters, then by email, today by filling out an online form) would be inducted into a Sousalarm Club—a club with no dues, no meetings, just an opportunity to publicly join the fun— and, in the early days, receive a coupon for a free canister of Maxwell House coffee!

After each march, Dave would announce the Sousalarm member of the day, who would receive a certificate of membership in the Club.

In 1997, when WFLN was sold, the classical programming and hosts found a new home at WRTI, which became Philadelphia’s new classical and jazz station. And the Sousalarm came, too!

Gregg Whiteside in the WRTI studio

Now 30 years old, the Sousalarm and the Sousalarm Club is still going strong, under the leadership of Morning Host Gregg Whiteside. 

WRTI’s Susan Lewis talked with Gregg about how the Sousalarm has evolved today, and why we love it so much. Here's an edited transcript: 

Hey, so Gregg Whiteside! We're here to talk about the Sousalarm!

Oh, the Sousalarm! You know, when I first started here, it had been going on for many, many years; maybe 20 years before I got here. And it’s grown into something very, very big.

How would you describe the Sousalarm today?

Well, it's kind of an alarm for a lot of people. At 7:15 people are waking up and there is nothing like a march, I guess, to kind of rock you out of the sack. And that seems to be why a lot of people started to like it.

But it's also, I think, a celebration of the actual march itself. It is a very popular form of music, whatever you like, classical or jazz or whatever. Something about a march really seems to appeal to people.

So the idea of being in the Sousalarm Club was interesting because you didn't have to pay any dues, you didn't have to attend any meetings. You could get a nice frameable certificate and be an honorary member of the Sousalarm club.

And then we started to hear all these wonderful stories from people.

Sometimes it was a commemoration of an anniversary; perhaps a birthday, or an ancestor or parent who had passed away on that date. It was a way of remembering a parent, perhaps,  who took a child to their first concert at [Willowgrove] Park, or wherever there would be concerts where Sousa’s music would be played.

Then it all of a sudden, it became very popular for young children! Parents would use it to help get them out of bed for school and they'd listen in a car on the way to school.  If they tried to change the station, the kids would say, no, put WRTI back on! We want to hear the march!

Any good stories?

There were many touching stories, every day stories. I had one from a young gal who was training for the New York marathon. She'd get up very early, go out and run for an hour and a half  to be back in time to hear the Sousalarm at 7:15, to know that she had done the work to prepare for the marathon.

So all of a sudden the Sousalarm becomes a little two-minute segment of “This is your life.”   There are so many interesting stories that we've heard from our listeners. 

And I see it as a way of connecting with our listeners. It really does provide another one of those threads that stitch us together. And I love it. I love the way it has engaged the audience, and the way they look forward to it.

And it stamps me valid for another day and I get up and come to work the next morning to play the Sousalarm March.

He wrote 136 of them and I guess people never get tired of them.

So just to be clear about the way it works. Every weekday at 7:15, a march is played; many of them by Sousa, most probably most of them by Sousa, occasionally by others. Are they selected by listeners?

Listeners can request, [for example] “I would love to be able to hear the Washington Post March because it was the first one I heard, or I played it in high school, whatever.”

I try to honor the request, but sometimes it isn't possible. I have to choose one that fits because there are programmatic things over which I have no control.

And if people want to be in the Sousalarm Club, they must make a request online. You go to the website at wrti.org and in the right hand column there's a link. If you scroll under where the playlist is, click on [the Sousalarm box] and fill out the form. Here's the link!

And I get back to the listener with an email, and let them know when their induction day will be. I do the best to hit it right on the mark or come as close as possible, which means a lot to people because they want it for birthday celebrations and all sorts of other anniversaries. So we do our best to honor those requests.

So it's kind of become part of people's habits, and therefore they know that if they're doing a birthday request or an anniversary request or some other celebration, they're apt to surprise their loved one with their name read on the air and this march played in their honor.

Surprise is the key because so many of them want to keep it a surprise.

They know that they're listening at that time, usually with the person who's making the request, and I can imagine them bursting and wanting to say, “Oh man, you know, you've got to hear this this morning. It’s going to be your name that's mentioned, and there's going to be this little story about you!”

But apparently they really keep it a secret because I'll get follow-up emails saying "it was amazing. You should have seen the look on his face. His eyes were gonna pop out when he heard his name."

So yes, it's a part, as you say, of the fabric of their morning, the soundtrack of their morning. If I missed a Sousalarm at 7:15, my inbox would fill up with people wondering what happened!

So the original idea was just to celebrate marches and it's kind of evolved into this wonderful way of connecting with listeners.

It was kind of a clever takeoff on snooze alarm. And a lot of people still call it that. They'll say, Oh, I love the ‘snooze alarm’ march this morning. They'll actually spell it: S N double O Z E alarm. It was very clever to move from ‘snooze alarm’ to Sousalarm, and play a Sousa march. It was very, very clever idea.

So how has it changed? What is it today?

It is a monster! If you were to look at the folder with the requests that I have, I have requests into 2021! People don't want to miss anniversaries. I might get, on any given week, 15, 20, 25 requests, a lot of them by email and I have to remind people, I can't do it this way. We have to do it online because that's the way the system is set up. But it is something to keep track of.

And I don't have an assistant. I do this myself, but it is a way to connect in a much more intimate way with our listeners, so that they know that we are, in fact, as much here for them as they are here for us. And I think it really is a nice little way of keeping us all engaged.

And it sounds as if a lot of these stories have touched you.

They have, and I read as much of them as I can [on the air]. 

But I read them all myself and they do touch me very, very deeply, some of them. I do my best to try to pass that on and listeners who hear it in the morning are also very moved and very touched. And that's all part of what we're here for, isn't it?

Community. We're here together. We're not listening alone. We're listening with the whole listenership and each side of the speaker is an important one and that's how we connect.

That's great. Thank you so much, Gregg.

My pleasure, Susan. Always nice to talk to you.