Phil Pizzi

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Even now, in semi-retirement, radio and television personality Phil Pizzi continues to earn the same respect that he has given to so many during his 43-year career. Currently heard on FM stations 98.7 The Coast and 106.3 The Shore, Phil remains a dependable presence in the lives of many in Cape May County.

Phil outside of the old Coastal Broadcasting Plaza in Wildwood. Photo by Michelle Giorla

I’m thrilled to find out more about the voice of Cape May County! Were you born here?

I’m from Berlin, New Jersey but moved here in 1977 after graduation and got my first job at WCMC in Wildwood. I‘d gone to Hofstra University and studied theater. I wanted to be an actor, but realized that the average salary of an actor at that time was $200 per year. I figured there were more radio stations than stages and went into that.

Why Wildwood?

My grandmother knew a lady whose brother was part owner of WCMC radio. She heard they were looking for DJ and told me to check it out.

What songs were you playing when you started there?

It was the end of the summer in 77; there was a hit song by The Brothers Johnson [editor’s note: Strawberry Letter 23—excellent song], and of course anything by the Bee Gees. Donna Summer was big. Lots of turntables, reel-to-reel decks—everything looked intimidating at first, but it was easy to learn. On Sunday mornings we’d broadcast live church services.

Didn’t you work in television simultaneously?

WCMC was AM, FM, and television in one studio. It was Channel TV40, but was all live TV. We had no capability to record. We had the antiques show and there was Swap & Shop with Moffie Breakell. That’s where I was introduced to TV, professionally. By 1979 I began working at the cable channel, Teleprompter. On the same day I started, I was offered a job with a Delaware radio station. But TV is what I always wanted.

For those who weren’t alive or didn’t live here back then, describe Teleprompter.

It was the local cable company that broadcasted through most of Cape May County. Back then it was all about having a clearer picture to look at. There was a show called County Camera. It was independently produced; their big claim to fame was that they had footage of the old Windsor Hotel burning down. God only knows what happened to that footage.

When I mention your name to any long-time local, it doesn’t take long for them to mention your TV show, Music Plus.

That was the show Barbara R and I did in the early 80s featuring nightclubs and their entertainment acts. We were really into that scene. There were so many big acts that came to Convention Hall in the 70s. Elton John played there just before I came to town, but then they all started heading to Atlantic City when the casinos were built. In the early 80s, we still had lots of great bands and entertainers headlining at the clubs. It was long before the internet, and people depended on us to tell them what was happening on the nightclub scene. To this day there is one thing that still blows me away: we met a girl from Philly who told us how she needed to get to the shore before 7:30 each weekend so she could watch Music Plus and know what clubs to go to. There were many people who did that.

Tell me some of the big names you had on Music Plus.

We had Joey Bishop in the studio with Mayor Muziani. Joey was performing at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon. It was mid-summer, our air-conditioning in the studio was not great and the studio lights were very hot. Joey was sitting there sweating and during the interview, asked one of the crew, “Can you throw another log on the air conditioner?” He was a great guy!

Were there any experiences with famous people that weren’t so great?

We’d gotten permission to interview Johnnie Ray when he was in town. We went to where he was performing and taped a segment of him doing his act. Afterwards, his manager came out and said if we used any of that tape, we’d be sued. That was the first time that ever happened. And by then he was already way past his prime with two hearing aids. I’ve never tried to make anyone look bad. I’ve always shown people at their best. I wanted to promote them.

Was that kindness to others extended by anyone other than you?

The cable company worked at the whim of the municipality. They gave us permission to operate our business in their community with a franchise agreement. The last thing we wanted to do was rock the boat. We presented people in their best light.

You interviewed Tiny Tim. How did you do that without giving into the obvious fact that he was such an oddity?

We took him as seriously as we could and allowed the viewer to decide. I heard he was in town in a circus act and I just had to get him. He was an oddity but I had no reason to treat him any differently. He was actually very nice.

Did you ever have an interviewee who wasn’t so nice?

John DeBella. I don’t talk badly of people, but I don’t have too many nice things to say about him. He came down for a week each summer and did his show from Atlantic City, so we went up to interview him. He was a pain in the ass. He wouldn’t answer my questions and would go off on a tangent, just being a jerk, and his guys would just stand there and yuk it up. At the time, he and Howard Stern were feuding. He said something about how he and his show were number one, or some self-promotional claim like that. I said to him, “Of course you are. That’s why we’re interviewing you and not Howard Stern.” As soon as those words came out of me, he stood up and walked off; his stooges all followed him. Barbara and I looked at each other and our camera man and couldn’t believe what happened. So of course, I, the nice guy, Phil Pizzi edited the walk-off out of the program and made it look like we had a nice interview. I often wonder if that was the right thing for me to do. Today with social media and YouTube, it would be a viral sensation and Stern would probably have had me on his show to talk about it. But that’s not who I am.

Anyone else give you a hard time in an interview?

Weird Al Yankovich never gave me a straight answer when I interviewed him but at least he was funny. So Barbara and I just played along with it. His tour was called the Bad Hair Tour and Barbara came with scissors and a curling iron. Weird Al loved it.

Teleprompter was the first cable provider you worked for. What were the other companies that followed?

There were so many different companies after Teleprompter. There was Group W and then it became TKR. There were so many tapes of local shows and years of commercials that were archived and Comcast came in and got rid of all of it.

Why?

Good question. It’s all gone. There is a lot of stuff that people have recorded on VHS that is still out there. Someone at the Historical Museum suggested that I apply for a grant to get everything put onto a more accessible format.

All that archived local history is now gone?

Yeah, most of it. When we each left, we took things that were important to us. I took some things but could not take it all. We had a whole room full of tapes from over 20 years that today can fit onto my smart phone. But many things left behind were interviews with local politicians who are no longer alive and commercials of businesses that are no longer here. But even with whatever is left, it would be a huge and time-consuming undertaking to track down and put it all together.

You eventually did pursue your love of theater here in Cape May.

Adriana Warner was running the Sandpiper Players, a community theater group in the 80s. We used to put on shows on the stage at City Hall. We also acted in the Franklin Street School. I then started doing shows with MAC for Sherlock Holmes Weekend. I spent so much time doing community theater, which is tough because you don’t get paid for it and people don’t take it as seriously as they should. I thought that if I spent that much time doing theater, I’d want to get paid for it. East Lynne was the first professional theater I worked with around 2000 with the play, New York Idea.

Tell me about your recent work, including Channel 6 Action News.

I’m a freelance cameraman. Right now they use me for the Thanksgiving parade. I was doing about four gigs a year with them. My biggest gig was the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. When Pope Francis came to Philadelphia, I was part of that crew as well. The work I was doing was the feed for the world—from CNN to Telemundo. The Pope was there along the Main Line in a chapel addressing some priests, and I was one of only five cameras allowed in the chapel. I had to go through security clearance with the Secret Service. There were National Guard and State Police at every intersection. That was an incredible experience, and I’m not even Catholic. The Pope, to me, is just another guy, but there was something about his presence that was very moving. He’s very special.

What is missing in local news coverage nowadays?

Television coverage. There are hardly any full-time people covering Cape May County. Staff has been cut in print media as well. Channel 40 News is gone, as well as its South Jersey News replacement. On 98.7 The Coast and 106.3 The Shore, we still cover local news and sports, but most other South Jersey stations seem to focus on Atlantic County. Many people get their news from the internet, but so many websites have a bias that may not give all the pertinent information.

How has that shift in the industry affected those who want to pursue media careers?

It has affected it quite a bit. Aspiring artists and journalists have less opportunity today to learn and develop their skills outside the classroom. For instance, one of my former interns just won an Oscar for a documentary that he filmed. I also hired Paul Russo from North Wildwood to work on video and editing for my Jersey Cape Fishing shows. He is now is a Visual Effects Lead Coordinator for Game of Thrones on HBO. Not to mention the entire market of TV news anchors who practiced their craft with us on local cable in the 80s. That proven training ground for media no longer exists.

What positive changes have you seen in this field since you started in 1977?

Drones, for one thing. Also, smart phones and iPhones that can record sound and video far better than the equipment I used when starting out in cable television, which proudly boasted a clearer picture! And there is a good side to the internet; social media followers can get information instantly, but it can’t always be trusted until it’s verified by a reliable source like we used to do in the old days.

Is there a trait you’ve developed in your career that you want to be known for?

I want to be remembered for my integrity. When I was a Boy Scout, I memorized an oath that begins with the words, “A scout is trustworthy.” I never want to lose my listeners’ trust or have anyone question my truthfulness. I could have exposed John DeBella when he treated me the way he did, but I didn’t. I had permission once to video record the Beach Boys when they performed here at the shore; I was allowed to record their first two songs. I could have videoed the entire show and sold it. There are people who do things like that all the time, but I didn’t. I play by the rules. ■