Listeners far and wide hawk wares on Salisbury 'swap and sell' radio show

January 26, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SALISBURY -- What has leather motorcycle saddlebags, a once-used wedding gown and a white-haired gentleman in a cardigan sweater who answers phones for a living?

On the Lower Eastern Shore, the only possible answer is "Party Line," a call-in radio show hosted by Bill Phillips during which a conglomeration of odds and ends -- mostly odds -- are offered for sale or swap each weekday morning to listeners in the surrounding six counties of Maryland and Delaware.

The originator and only host in the program's 30-year span is Bill Phillips, the 77-year-old former owner of WICO, a country music AM and FM station here that broadcasts the hour-long feature.

Mr. Phillips, a longtime employee with B. F. Goodrich, retired and moved to Salisbury, where he started a radio station in 1961. He initiated the "Party Line" program as a means of building a listening audience and boosting ad revenues.

Although Mr. Phillips thought "Party Line" might sustain public interest for six months at most, the show grew in popularity. And when Mr. Phillips sold WICO in 1981, he was asked to stay on as the show's host.

By his latest count, Mr. Phillips has answered the "Party Line" phones about 702,000 times. About 90 callers get on the air each morning and Mr. Phillips says there's never been dead time in the show's 30 years.

"The lines are never not busy," he says. "Since the day we started, the lines have been jammed." WICO is not the only station to offer what amounts to an on-air flea market. Others set aside time for listeners to call and, for free, hawk mostly second-hand goods.

But the additional element of Mr. Phillips' homey chat is what WICO program director Dave Parks says makes the program the most popular on the Lower Shore.

Mr. Phillips asks listeners their opinions about political races and occasionally puts the word out on the air that a family lost its belongings in a fire and needs contributions.

One caller pleaded for listeners to be on the watch for her husband's dentures, which fell out of his mouth while he was swimming at the beach. Mr. Phillips says the woman called back several days later to report that, indeed, a listener had found them and the false teeth were returned to where they came from. Admitting that he was surprised the low-key show occupied the prestigious 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. morning drive-time slot when he arrived at the station eight years ago, Mr. Parks says he became a "Party Line" believer when he found out just how popular the program had become.

"It's like putting on your favorite robe in the morning," he says. Mr. Parks says he believes that with Mr. Phillips as host, "Party Line" is one of the longest-running buy-and-sell shows in the country.

Everything from outboards to kitchen sinks are offered for sale or swap on the show. Mr. Phillips keeps the show moving at an easy pace, only now and then reminding callers of the few rules he keeps. Callers are limited to announcing three items and can get on the program no more than twice a week.

Car and truck sellers must ask no more than $350 per vehicle because, according to Mr. Phillips, the station does not want to take business away from local used car dealers.

The program earns the station money by running pre-recorded ads every few minutes and by allowing some business owners to call in and plug their firms.

Snow Hill resident Diana Remann says she has had good luck selling her pet cockatiels through "Party Line." Mrs. Remann, who also raises chickens, says she received eight phone calls in 30 minutes after she offered one of the Australian parrots on the show recently.

"I love the show," she says. "I get up in the morning and listen to it first thing. If the [radio] dial's changed, my husband gets his fingers broken."

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