William "Bill" Phillips, who was host of "Party Line," a popular on-air flea market on WICO Radio in Salisbury for 33 years, died Monday of cancer at his home in the Eastern Shore city. He was 80.
Mr. Phillips, who originated the show that was popular on the Delmarva Peninsula, retired Nov. 2.
In a letter to his audience read by the station owner, William Prettyman, he said, "The early morning call has become increasingly difficult to respond to and I am more comfortable at home listening than participating."
Joe Edwards, WICO program director, said, "There were times when he could barely walk, but he made it in here to do the show. He loved it. It started out as a business proposition and wound up being his life. It's a black day here in Salisbury."
The hourlong morning drive-time show was one of the country's longest-running buy-and-sell broadcasts. It offered listeners folksy chit-chat and the opportunity to swap or buy items from used automobiles to baseball bats.
The show opened with its signature jingle which featured a ringing phone, saxophones and singers:
Is this the party line?
Yes, it's your party line and it's time for all the gossip on your party line.
What's goin' on, tell us who, when and how?
Well, just listen in to your party line now.
WICO Radio brings you the latest on your party line.
Once, a caller asked listeners to be on the lookout for her husband's dentures, which had fallen out of his mouth while he was swimming at a beach. A listener found the dentures and returned them.
On the show, callers were limited to announcing three items at a time, and they couldn't be on the show more than twice a week.
"The magic was in his longevity," said former WICO program director Dave Parks, now with WSRY in Salisbury. "He was one of the last local superstars in radio. One of a dying breed. He was known all over the Eastern Shore. He was like a Hollywood star here. He endured because of his personality. He really was Mr. Radio."
Mr. Phillips began his career as sales manager for WICO, an AM and FM station, in 1961 after he retired as a regional manager for a tire store chain and eventually was promoted to station manager. He started "Party Line" to build both an audience for the country music station and advertising. He gave the show six months.
When the station was sold in 1981, the new owners asked him to stay on as host of the show, which allowed 90 callers to get on the air each morning. Mr. Phillips told an interviewer in 1992 that he had taken 702,000 phone calls on the show and that there was "never any dead time in the show's 30 years."
"His death leaves two big shoes to fill," said his son, William H. Phillips of Laurinburg, N.C. "He was honest and could find humor in almost anything. He loved the Eastern Shore and its people. Even though he was a radio personality, he was very private in his personal life. He wasn't a joiner but what he did to help people, he did privately. He didn't want to be in the forefront. Outside of his radio show, he liked being with his family and working in his yard."
Born in Pittsburgh, the elder Mr. Phillips moved to Delmar, Del., as a child. He attended schools there and the University of Delaware, leaving to go to work.
A memorial service was to be held at 2 p.m. today at Asbury United Methodist Church, Camden Avenue Extended, Salisbury.
He is also survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Charlotte Lowe; two brothers, Lynn Phillips Jr. of Jupiter, Fla., and Charles L. Phillips of Delmar; a granddaughter; and three great-grandchildren.
Memorial donations may be made to the Wicomico County Humane Society, 1140 Marine Road, Salisbury 21801; or Coastal Hospice, P.O. Box 1733, Salisbury 21802.