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A salute to Bob Perkins as he signs off from weeknights on WRTI

Bob Perkins in 2022
Joseph V. Labolito
Bob Perkins at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection's 2022 Juneteenth celebration at Temple University.

Mr. Bob Perkins, WRTI’s own “BP with the GM," is retiring from full-time broadcasting after 25 years at the station and 57 on the air. BP's last WRTI weeknight shift is on Thursday, June 30th from 6 to 9 PM.

One of the most familiar voices on Philadelphia’s airwaves, BP is also an elder statesman of the city’s jazz community, cherished by listeners and musicians alike.

He grew up in South Philadelphia and fell in love with radio as a child. His father built homemade antennas that could pick up broadcasts from hundreds of miles away and the two would sit and listen together.

“I went to a radio school through my father. I listened to all the magnificent voices that they had during the second world war: Edward R. Murrow and all those,” Bob said in an interview in 2020. “I was a war baby. And I listened to these magnificent voices not knowing that one day I would be doing what they were doing. I leaned on them when I got into radio until I got my own sea legs and could navigate on my own.”

BP broke into radio in Detroit on WGPR/WCHB/WCHD in 1964. In 1969, WDAS offered him a news and editorial position and asked if he might be interested in moving back to Philadelphia. He said yes—and he’s been here ever since.

Saxophonist Larry McKenna has been listening to him for 40 years. “He goes way back and he studied by listening to some of the great commentators and broadcasters over the years,” he said. “Bob has always taken that part of his life very seriously and gives credit where credit is due. I’ve always admired him for that.”

After working as a jazz host on WHYY for nearly a decade, Bob joined WRTI in 1997. “I think what separates him from some of the other programming is that Bob is tried and true,” said vocalist Denise King. “He is a part of that time when jazz was juke joints and Friday night fish fries. And he knows the history of the music so well. His show appeals to me in that way. It gives you a feeling of a time gone by, a past era where jazz was the music of the day.”

For younger listeners who might not be as familiar with jazz and are exploring the genre, BP’s’ show is an introductory primer: Jazz 101.

“A lot of people, at least in my experience as an artist, associate this music with their grandparents' music or their parents' music. They don't think that it's accessible to younger people. And it is. I think in some way, Bob is able to bridge that gap,” King said. “He makes it interesting and inclusive for everybody.”

BP means a great deal to listeners of all ages. Joe Block’s parents were fans of WRTI and the pianist grew up listening to BP, becoming a fan himself. “He has a very comforting presence on the air. Not only with his actual speaking voice, but also with the music he selects,” Block said.

King agrees. Particularly for older listeners, “he gives them the comfort of something familiar,” and makes them “remember that this music that he's playing was the soundtrack to a lot of their lives.” The music Perkins plays can summon Proustian recollections of a first kiss, a dance at the Savoy Ballroom or a joyful reunion after a long absence. “What Bob does, it makes people feel like you’re coming home,” she said.

BP talks about Charlie Parker back in 2020 with WRTI's Susan Lewis:

His presence is felt throughout the city. “I don’t think that there's anybody in Philadelphia who's a true jazz fan who doesn't know who he is,” McKenna said. “Anybody who wants to hear jazz on the radio, you have to tune to WRTI and there’s Bob Perkins.” He also champions local musicians and music. “I think he’s been very good to all the local jazz musicians who have recorded music,” McKenna said. “A lot of us who live here, we don't have any other outlets and are not really known outside of this city, so we don't get airplay unless we go through WRTI.”

Bob is a proud Philadelphian, but he doesn’t just play local music out of loyalty. “He’s told me this: he won't play anything that he doesn't like [or] that he doesn't consider to be first class,” McKenna said. “It's kind of an honor when you are played on his program.”

For Lovett Hines, Artistic Director and Founder of the Music Education Program of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts, BP represents a sense of history. “He’s one of the last purveyors of our actual history. What makes history so important is it has to be true. It has to be accurate. And the only way you can make it accurate is you have to be there,” he said. “What makes Bob so incredibly important to our music history and the history of Philadelphia is: he was there. His stories are not secondhand.”

Mr. Perkins is stepping away from his shows on weekday evenings, but WRTI listeners will still be able to join him for Sunday Jazz Brunch, from 9 AM to 1 PM.

Pianist Orrin Evans believes BP is vital to Philadelphia’s jazz scene. “We all need that role model, that patriarch to keep it going. Things change,” he said, “but there's always someone that's going to keep us on the right track.”

“We're not a fatherless community. We have a father right now and that's Bob Perkins.”

Listen to BP's last weeknight shift on Thursday, June 30th from 6 to 9 PM.

Edirin is a writer and critic, and director of marketing at Temple University’s University College. A longtime WRTI listener, she is delighted to be a substitute classical music host.