He was the consummate radio announcer with a voice as soothing as Philadelphia’s legendary news anchorman, John Facenda. His fan base covered the world and included Woody Allen, Gloria Vanderbilt and Joanne Woodward. For years he was the voice of London’s Royal Opera, the KIROV Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and Opera from St. Petersburg, Russia. His classical music broadcasts covered 25 years at WQXR-FM, the radio station of The New York Times. His 5:30 to 10 AM show, ‘Bright and Early With Gregg Whiteside,’ garnered a larger audience than either Howard Stern or Don Imus.
Gregg Whiteside was a living legend but his New York days ended when
The New York Times fell from grace. The New York Post described it this way in an August 2003 front page headline:
Times Radio Fires Station’s Voice Over Off-Air Remark.
WQXR-FM told The Post that Whiteside was fired for “inappropriate comments which he admitted making.”
Fighting off scores of press and listener inquiries for more information, WQXR stayed mum, leaving everyone to guess what Whiteside may or may not have said. The secrecy surrounding the termination suggested that Whiteside’s “offense” was largely subjective, its “terribleness” open to interpretation. Had the announcer murdered two people in Times Square the offense would have been billboard news. “They’ve destroyed an innocent man. I gave my life to that place. This wasn’t a job for me – it was a way of life,” Whiteside told The Post.
The Times’ firing of Whiteside may have been one of the Cancel Culture’s earliest attacks on an individual. It triggered a storm of protest with listeners condemning The Times for making political correctness more important than talent and loyalty. Whiteside’s firing inspired petition drives and street protests outside the newspaper’s headquarters on West 43rd Street; some outraged listeners even took to scrawling protest graffiti on the sidewalk in front of the building. Throughout the protests, The Times maintained its silence.
Whiteside told The Post: “I believed I was having a private and confidential conversation with Sam Hall, who’s even more like my brother than my own brother . . . and that conversation might have leaked out into the newsroom…. I was speaking privately to a dear friend and it was not something that was on the air. I am in a state of utter depression and I’m devastated by this….To be fired with no severance? Are you kidding me?”
In 2012, Gregg Whiteside found his way to Temple University’s mostly jazz radio station, WRTI, where he hosted the classical music slot from 6 to 10 AM. At WRTI he became “the Alex Trebek of radio,” as one listener noted, where his smooth voice guided and consoled listeners through personal and national tragedies like 9/11 as well as the early days of the COVID pandemic. Whiteside was as solid an institution as WHYY’s Terry Gross or Marty Moss-Coane, especially because his classical music time slot was all Philadelphia had to offer after the collapse of WFLN when it came to The Great Composers. It was a small miracle in itself that WRTI was even able to find a niche for the one brand of music that transcends time and space.
There’s no question that Whiteside’s Philadelphia WRTI classical music audience was enormous . Once news of Whiteside’s “retirement” broke, the WRTI Facebook page exploded with perplexed and outraged listener comments: Why had Whiteside left so suddenly? Why no on-air verbal good-byes? After all, wouldn’t somebody of Whiteside’s caliber want to talk on-air about his retirement rather than issue a written statement after the fact? Most of the Whiteside fans who commented on WRTI Facebook book were not buying the station’s official explanation that Whiteside felt that he had to retire—immediately. That was tantamount to believing that Whiteside had received a revelation from heaven that he needed to get off the air before the next sunrise.
WRTI general manager William Johnson did the politic thing when he wrote that Whiteside’s “service and leadership in making our mornings and Sunday afternoons some of the best in radio [and] have earned him this retirement and our thanks.” One cannot help but think, however, that verbiage like this comes close to sounding like something you get when you mix Orwell’s 1984 with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: the marriage of doublethink and doubletalk in order to hide another reality. After issuing the station’s formal announcement, Johnson then went mum, just like The New York Times did in 2003.
A further exploration of WRTI’s Facebook page regarding Whiteside reveals some interesting posts stating that just before the announcer’s “retirement,” an employee complaint (regarding Whiteside) was being investigated.
“More puzzling, though, than the precipitous departure of a pillar of the radio community without warning or explanation is the way the station handled it,” writes Meg Ryan of The Broad Street Review, “There was no party, no end-of-year planning. No press release about Whiteside’s departure, by either the station or Temple University, WRTI’s parent organization…”
Ryan reported that the news that WRTI had cut ties with Whiteside came to the station’s staff in the form of an internal email from Johnson on Monday, January 18. That memo read: “Effective immediately, Gregg Whiteside no longer works for WRTI or Temple University.” Ryan then added that Johnson’s email came after an employee complaint was being investigated.
There’s nothing joyous sounding in the statement, “Effective immediately…” Rather, it sounds like what a swinging samurai sword might say if it could be made to talk.
What to make of all this?
One Philadelphia Whiteside fan wrote me of her shock at learning about his departure:
“A few days back, I had started getting a bad feeling about GW's whereabouts since he had already taken his holiday vacation around Christmas time, and eventually returned for the New Year, and while I had started oversleeping as soon as the cold weather came around, I didn't hear him at the end of his shift. Erudite about classical music yet able to make it accessible in his authoritative baritone voice, Whiteside was a master at pronouncing those andantes and arpeggios, yet also informed about pro sports scores which he might share with his listeners in between a rousing morning Sousa march.”
Whiteside, she said, was down-to-earth yet cultured in a way that made you proud to be a Philadelphian.